What not to say when talking about infertility
As the Christmas and New Year period approaches, many people are planning gatherings of family and friends. The months ahead are some of the most carefree times in the year. For couples experiencing infertility however, these events can be more difficult.
Women and couples who are trying to conceive have to navigate a series of predictable questions. “So when are you going to have babies?” “When do I get some grandchildren?” and “Why aren’t you drinking, are you pregnant?”. The couple may have been trying for years and maybe desperately want children but not want to speak about it. There are also predictable scenarios. The “super fertile” sister with a large tribe of kids who is full of advice “you should try eating kale”. The pregnant cousin who loudly complains about how hard pregnancy is. Spending time around babies and pregnant women can be confronting and can be even more difficult after experiences such as miscarriage. In addition, they will usually be subjected to well-meaning advice such as “just relax it will happen”.
In my job as a fertility specialist, I frequently speak with people about the advice they receive about their fertility:
- “Just relax and it will happen”
- “Just get really drunk”
- “You are too stressed”
- “Stop thinking about it”
- “Take a holiday and you will get pregnant”
Many people who are treated for infertility have complex problems with the production of eggs or sperm. A number of these people were born with these issues. A good way to understand this is to think about someone born with kidney or lung that does not function normally. These complex issues are not going to be cured by relaxing or taking a holiday. I tell my patients that if relaxing was the solution, then I would be managing a day spa. A fertility clinic such as the one I work with requires a highly advanced embryology laboratory to overcome the challenges of some forms of medical infertility. Keep in mind that there are many causes of medical infertility and there is no single simple solution to all of these problems.
The relationship between stress and fertility has been studied in many scientific studies. There is insufficient evidence to demonstrate that stress independently causes infertility. When someone says “just relax”, it can create feelings of guilt, that the woman is to blame for the fertility issue. This common and well-meaning piece of advice can be a source of distress and added pressure.
Couples dealing with infertility should not lose hope. Even after long periods of trying to conceive, many couples are able to conceive naturally. There are ways to support and assist natural fertility. Medical infertility can make it harder to conceive but not impossible.
So next time you are spending time with someone who is experiencing infertility, avoid the temptation to offer advice. The truth is, they have probably read and tried everything already. Let them know that you care, offer a hug – sometimes it helps just to listen.
Have a great summer.