What not to say to a friend going through fertility treatment

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Couples going through fertility treatments are understandably facing a lot of stress. Not only are the doctors’ appointments and treatments a lot to take on, they can also have an impact on the couple’s relationship.

And it’s especially difficult when trying for the first child. Grief is also a big part of infertility. Whether it stems from a miscarriage or a failed fertility procedure, grief often involves stages such as denial, anger and depression.

So the last thing anyone undergoing treatments like in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) or intrauterine insemination (IUI) wants is more stress.

Unfortunately, infertility is an alien concept to many so it’s hard to know how to react to someone telling you about it. While some comments are due to ignorance or the inability to empathise with infertility-related issues, sometimes they may come across as downright insensitive. 

Here are 10 things to avoid saying to your friend or family member going through fertility treatments, according to women who have been through or are going through it.

Faux pas 1: “Just don’t stress and you’ll get pregnant.”

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It goes without saying that someone who is seeing a specialist to try to get pregnant has more than “stress” to worry about. There are numerous reasons why it’s hard for women to get pregnant, so belittling it down to them needing to relax is insulting, no matter how well-meaning you are.

A variation of this comment: “Don’t worry, it’ll happen as soon as you stop trying.”

Faux pas 2: “You can have my kids, they’re a pain.”

This is always followed with a laugh, to show they’re joking (really!) and trying to keep things light-hearted. The thing is, this is a serious issue, so it’s not a time for jokes. And definitely not wisecracks about children.

We know it’s not always rosy being parents, but rubbing it in that you’re a parent and your friend isn’t (and maybe won’t be) is insensitive. Also, when you’re trying to conceive, the idea of having sleepless nights and a baby crying non-stop, for example, are things you absolutely dream of.

Faux pas 3: “Why don't you just adopt?”

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An overwhelming majority (if not all) of couples going through fertility treatments have thought about adoption. After all, it’s a logical leap if you’re told you might not be able to have children of your own. And while some couples go down the adoption route, many do not choose this path for various reasons.

It’s not as easy a process as it seems in Hollywood movies, so adoption isn’t a “quick fix” as some people may think. There’s a huge financial and emotional cost to adoption that not everyone wants to take on.

Also, some couples genuinely want to have their own biological children. It might sound selfish but it’s the truth.

Faux pas 4: “Why don't you [insert superstition of choice]?”

Sharing your fertility struggles with friends will inevitably unearth those who are superstitious or believe in old wives’ tales. Or they’ll recommend a food or drink that’s guaranteed to lead to pregnancy. If your friend is seeing a doctor, it’s best they get their advice from medical experts.

“A friend told me I should get my husband to carry someone’s baby as that will make him more fertile and get me pregnant. I had known her for over a decade and never realised she believed in such things. I didn’t have the heart to tell her this certainly isn’t the way our fertility issues will be solved,” said Anna*.

Faux pas 5: “I know exactly what you're going through, we've been trying too!”

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This is an excellent thing to say if you are going through fertility treatments too. However, it often isn’t the case. For example, someone could be trying to get pregnant for just three months and think they understand how their friend who has been trying through years of treatments feels.

Or they could be experiencing secondary infertility, where they’re having issues conceiving after already having a child. While they’re all legit difficult situations, they’re not the same as, say, a friend striving to have her first child, so don’t equate them.

“When I shared with my friend that we were going to start IVF treatments after over a year of trying, she told me she understood what I was going through as she and her husband had been trying for months with no success too. The only problem was, they were trying for their fourth child, while we had no children. How she couldn’t see we were not in the same boat baffled and hurt me,” said Sonia*.

Faux pas 6: “[Insert name of celebrity] had a baby through IVF too, I'm sure you'll be fine!”

If it isn’t a celebrity, it’s someone’s dentist’s niece’s best friend – or some other tenuous connection. While it’s true that IVF offers hope for couples struggling to conceive, it’s not a guaranteed solution.

Firstly, it’s expensive so your friend would probably have some limitations, compared to the celebrity you named. And not every fertility issue can be solved with treatments.

Plus, the chances of success are low. In Singapore, the success rates for Assisted Reproduction Technology (ART) – such as IVF – are 26.6per cent for women below 30, 24.6per cent for women from 30 to 34, 17.1per cent for women from 35 to 39, and 6.7per cent for women 40 and above. You might be saying it to keep your friend’s hopes up, but note that it isn’t a sure-win treatment.

Faux pas 7: “Wow that sounds scary, please don't tell me the details!”

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Yes it is scary but your friend is sharing it with you for a reason. Your job is to listen, not to be freaked out by medical terms or say things like “that sounds gross”. After all, they’re the one actually going through it, while you’re basically just listening to words.

“I had a friend who would cover her ears when I mentioned words like ‘ovary’ or ‘cyst’ – she was so squeamish. A year later, she got married and planned to have a child immediately as she was in her mid-30s. She then told me not to share my infertility stories with her anymore, as if my condition was contagious,” said Joy*.

Faux pas 8: “At least it's not life-threatening.”

Yes, there are worse things in the world than dealing with infertility, such as having a terminal illness. But saying this to your friend totally ignores the context. When a couple is going through fertility treatments, it is their whole world, shuffling from one doctor’s appointment to another and tracking one hormone injection to the next. To them, it’s probably the biggest problem they’ve ever faced so don’t make their issue seem insignificant.

Faux pas 9: “So whose fault is it?”

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Neither party is ever at “fault” for their infertility. It’s not right to blame anyone for being infertile.

Whether it’s the woman or the man (or both) who has fertility issues is none of your business, unless your friend voluntarily shares the information with you. Don’t worsen the situation by making her feel as if she did something wrong to put her in this position.

Faux pas 10: “Everything happens for a reason.”

Unless your friend is the type who constantly spouts inspirational quotes and your conversation is veering in this direction, this is the worst possible thing you could say to someone dealing with infertility.

It’s kicking them when they’re down, suggesting there’s a higher reason they’re unable to do something that comes easily to millions of women. Don’t make them feel worse than they already do.

A variation of this comment is: “Maybe it’s just not meant to be.”

So what can you do for friends undergoing fertility treatments?

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Show up

The main thing is to be there for your friend. She might want to share intimate details about the treatments or she might just want to vent about the unfairness of it all. Let her lead the conversation without prying.

Do your research

If she’s comfortable sharing, research the treatments she’s going through so you can engage better with her.

Offer help

Ask your friend if there is anything you can do to make her situation better. She might want someone to accompany her for appointments or to meet for coffee after they’re over. Just let her know you’re there for her.

ALSO READ: How to boost your fertility when you're in your 30s

Support her decisions

Don’t be judgmental if your friend wants to try experimental or non-conventional (eg. using donor sperm or egg) treatments.

You should also support her if she wants to continue with treatment and when she decides to stop (if it comes to that). Trust your friend and her husband to make the best decisions for their situation.

Reach out

Give her a hug and let her cry sometimes if she needs to. Just don’t be awkward around her.

*Names have been changed

This article was first published in Her World Online.