National Infertility Awareness Week: Try A Little Tenderness

Photo courtesy of Moyan Brenn

This week is National Infertility Awareness week. My sister, Stacy, has been dealing with infertility for over a decade, and I have several friends who have also lived with this struggle. Knowing this, I felt compelled to address the topic–at the same time I was more than a little intimidated. How could I write about infertility without having experienced it, and not sound like an idiot? Ultimately I decided to ask those who have experienced infertility personally to share with me the things they want the rest of us to know and understand.

So, what should we NOT ask or say to someone who has fertility problems?

  • When your children frustrate you, don’t tell us “You can have one of mine” or “I’ve got a couple you can have”. You have no idea how offensive it is to hear you glibly offering to give up one of your children when we have fought tooth and nail to have a child of our own. You may be kidding, but it really isn’t funny.
  • Please don’t give us advice. We’ve already researched all of the treatments out there. For various personal, ethical, religious, or biological reasons, we may not be able to try that great new thing you found on the internet. We also don’t need your attempts to encourage us by telling us about that friend who tried everything and when she and her husband finally quit trying, they suddenly got pregnant. We’ve all heard that story, but it hasn’t happened to us, so it doesn’t make us feel any better.
  • Don’t try to make us feel better by complaining about your kids. Oh, they drive you nuts with all the noise they make? Be glad you have never known the pain of a home that is quiet all the time with no little ones to run around and squeal with laughter. Oh, they are bankrupting you with all of their toys and activities? Be glad you’ve never cried the entire month of December because every commercial reminds you of the kids you will never have and the presents you will never buy. Then realize that some of us have spent over $100,000 just for the opportunity to have children, to no avail. Oh, I’m so lucky I am still thin and never had to deal with stretch marks, weight gain, etc. that come with having kids? We would gladly trade gym time for an hour watching our children play soccer or even taking them to the doctor. We aren’t trying to be mean; it’s just that you really don’t think sometimes when you say these things.
  • Don’t complain to us about your morning sickness and exhaustion when you’re pregnant. We would gladly take morning sickness over the pain of years of invasive testing, sometimes having to give ourselves daily injections in an attempt to get pregnant. You have every right to vent–just not to us.
  • Don’t tell me that if I haven’t had kids, it must be God’s will, or that there’s a reason for everything. It is not about God’s will, it is a physical/medical condition. It might make you feel better to say that, but it doesn’t help me.

Photo courtesy of "procristination"

  • Don’t reject something I say with, “How would you know, you’re not a mom” or “You wouldn’t understand–you haven’t had kids”. That’s just cruel and you have no idea how long the sting of those remarks can last.
  • Realize that just because you have kids, it doesn’t mean everyone else does. You’d be surprised how many times people come up to us who haven’t seen us in years and, in the process of sharing about their kids, ask us how many kids we have or how old our kids are. Then we have to have that awkward conversation in the middle of a shopping mall or class reunion. On a similar note, if you know a couple who doesn’t have kids, don’t keep asking them when they’re going to start a family. Many of them have been trying to have a child and can’t–besides, you’re basically implying that a couple isn’t a family unless they have children.

Photo courtesy of Maegan Tintari

  • Don’t make fun of us if we have allowed our pets to fill the void left by infertility. If we want to get our dog’s picture taken with Santa or dress our cats up for Halloween, don’t judge. Sometimes our pets are the only family we have. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, we don’t mind fun little stories about your kids but we enjoy endless tales of your child’s latest adventures as much as you enjoy hearing go on about our pets. We won’t if you won’t, ok? J
  • Don’t be upset if we don’t go to every baby shower, beg to hold your baby, or gather around the office when you bring in a new set of baby pictures. Again, we are happy for you, but sometimes it’s still painful for us. Even if it’s been years since we gave up trying to have children, the pain lingers.

There are other things we also want you to know. Have you ever thought about the fact that most fertility clinics are run by OB/GYNs? This means that infertile women have to share the waiting room with expectant mothers and new moms with their babies. Waiting to hear that our fifth attempt has failed while being surrounded by others who are eagerly anticipating their new babies, or already enjoying them just rubs salt in the wound. Also please remember that we think long-term. It’s not just about the first steps, first day of kindergarten, dance recitals, baseball games, etc. that we will miss. Some of us honestly fear winding up alone in a nursing home when we are older, with no children to come and visit or to care for us.

Photo courtesy of Susan von Struensee

This is not exactly a feel-good story about how women struggling with infertility are blazing new trails and discovering new passions that have nothing to do with raising children. It’s not about those cool new advances in technology that could help infertile women conceive. There’s no mention of the latest yoga/meditation/massage technique that will help women create a ‘safe space’ for a baby to enter their bodies. There are plenty of pieces like that already out there to read. This is just one story to remind the rest of us that behind the smiles of many women, there may be a deep sadness. Don’t try to fix it, don’t try to minimize it, and don’t try to ignore it. Just try a little tenderness. As Rev. John Watson said, in a quote often attributed to Plato: Be compassionate, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.