One of the things that has truly been on my heart during our journey through infertility is educating people about infertility.
Many of you have asked me my opinion on what you should or shouldn't say to someone struggling with this. I am speaking more to women. While this is a couple's issue, this is something that usually affects women much more than men.
So here is my short and sweet guide. If you follow these rules, you won't go wrong!
A couple will eventually resolve the infertility problem in one of three ways
#1 They will eventually conceive a baby.
#2 They will stop the infertility treatments and choose to live without children.
#3 They will find an alternative way to parent, such as by adopting a child or becoming a foster parent.
It is important that you understand that each of these three "routes" offers excitement, pain, and heartbreak in their own way. I have friends who have chosen or been forced down each of these different paths. It is important that you don't press them down any of these roads. #1 is racked with worry and fears after the amount of time and money invested. #2 and #3 are very difficult choices and usually not the first option.
Here are some things you should NOT say to them while you are struggling. Now if you have said any of these to someone, don't feel bad. One of my dear friends was struggling with infertility before I was diagnosed. Looking back, I said every one of these things to her. I have apologized, but she understands that I meant well. I understand that people mean well. However, the more educated you are, the better.
Don't tell them to relax. This is called the "R" word in infertile circles. This is very rarely the problem for infertile people. While stress can be a problem, it is often not the issue for people who publicize their infertility journey. Stress is usually an issue that is quickly rectified.
Don't minimize the problem or say there are worse things that can happen. Don't say this really isn't a big deal or shouldn't bother them that much. Of course there are worse things that can happen. Any life-changing event could be worse, but it doesn't change how much it hurts.
Don't say they aren't meant to be parents. Well meaning Christians often say this trying to imply God's will is sovereign. Faith and God's presence is a huge issue for infertile women -- let them deal with this on their own or with a Christian counselor.
Don't ask why they aren't trying IVF. IVF is very expensive with a lot of ethical considerations. It isn't an "easy" decision.
Don't play doctor. Don't give medical advice unless you really know what you are talking about.
Don't be crude. This should be obvious. Making jokes about "Do you need a lesson?" is just mean.
Be tender when making a pregnancy announcement. The general rule here is to not make your announcement in a public place with your infertile friend in attendance. Instead send them a card or an email and allow them to digest it privately first. Or sometimes you can tell the husband and ask them to let the wife know. Remember that they are happy for you but they are jealous for their own frustrations.
Don't complain about your pregnancy or your children. Obviously there are things to complain about but it is a wise move to find someone else to confide in with these problems.
Don't push adoption (yet). The general rule is to not bring this up unless they bring it up first. This is a very wonderful and tender topic and when they are ready, they will share. Why do most people not adopt and have genetic children? Because biological children is the primary choice for most people. Your friend is no different in this desire.
Don't start any story with ... "I know someone..." or "I had a friend who..." These stories often feature the exception, not the rule. The biggest culprits: "I know who a friend who went on a vacation and then had a baby", and "I know who friend who got pregnant right after they adopted." These cause chills down an infertile women's spine.
Let them know that you care. Cards or caring acts are appreciated.
Remember them on Mother's Day. Church is very painful on Mother's Day when you are infertile. John and I don't go. We plan a fun day away from all the mother's with flowers. You can simply send a nice card that you are remembering them on that day like you would the anniversary of a loss. My friend Deanna had her kids (my godkids) send special "God-Mom" cards on Mother's Day one year. This was a wonderful thought.
Don't tell them that if they adopt, they will probably become pregnant. The fact is that less than 1% of couples conceive after adoption.
Support their decision to stop treatments. Again, a personal decision. Encourage them in whatever direction they choose. If they want advice, they'll ask.
Don't say "I hope this works for you because being a parent is the best thing ever." I have heard this on more than one occasion -- shocking? Yes. Painful? Yes. I know they meant well but it is hard to hear.
If your friend (or an acquaintance) brings up their infertility to you, they are wanting to talk to to you about it. From that point on, the conversation is probably welcome. Start off by saying, "If you don't want to talk about it, it's okay, but how is everything going?" Most of the time, once a couple decides to share, a woman wants to talk about it.
Okay, so that's a lot of things NOT to do. But what should you do
Pray for them.
Remember their "calendar" and send an email or card on a big day.
Put them in touch with other women "in their situation". (Ask them if they want to be contacted or do the contacting.)
Attend Support Group meetings with them.
Invite them to all events but give them the option to "opt" out of events that might be painful (baby showers, baptisms, etc.)
Invite them to special child-free events whenever possible.
Give them poems or even books that you think might be helpful -- try to have another infertile friend give a "stamp" of approval on the book. (I have a great list!)
Offer to go to appointments with them if their husband is unavailable. (Thanks Lesley!)
Recognize that not being able to have a child is the loss of a dream. It is the same as a single person who wants to get married not finding "the one" or an athlete having a career-ending injury. It's a loss of sorts. They will move through stages of grief including a time when they question their faith. However, they will cycle through this with love and prayer.
Read books that will help you understand the infertile woman's heart. I strongly recommend Water from the Rock to understand the grief process infertile women go through.