What Not to Say to a Family Dealing with Infertility

It’s that time of year again, friends. Birds are singing, bees are buzzing, flowers are blooming.  Baby lambs bleat in the fields, baby chicks peep in the henhouse, baby horses stumble around on wobbly legs and try to stand. You know what it’s time for? Well, if you are especially unfortunate, it is the season for nosey busybodies to begin asking when you plan on becoming pregnant. I suppose it has to do with all of the new life around (especially if you live near the country). Seeing babies can make a person lose their mind for a minute. Baby lambs especially make my brains turn squishy and stupid. So maybe that’s it. That’s why you’re going to start hearing insensitive people say stupid things. It’s not on purpose. It’s the springtime-brain-squish stupidity. Or not. Maybe people just can’t leave well enough alone. “Mother’s Day is right around the corner!”   They smile as if you didn’t know. As if it didn’t crush you when you saw the first Mother’s Day card display a month ago, knowing once again that because of your struggles with infertility, you won’t be receiving one. 

Maybe this isn’t you.  Maybe you have children, are child-free, or just aren’t interested in other people’s reproduction.  Regardless, I think we need a review on what not to say to a family facing infertility. In fact, this could just be a primer on what not to say to…anyone really.  I would like to say I’m no longer shocked by what people are willing to say to others they aren’t close friends with. That would be a lie. I have been shocked speechless several times, and it is usually people who should know better but choose to press on anyway. If you know someone like that (maybe your mother-in-law?), maybe you can just print this out and discreetly tuck it into her purse when she isn’t looking. It couldn’t hurt. 

Why it’s bad: You don’t know if they have been trying or for how long. Two years or 20, a couple might very much want children but find themselves unable to conceive. Maybe they’ve had false pregnancies or miscarriages they didn’t tell many people about and you bringing it up makes them hurt. Be it biological or relational, their reasons are absolutely no one’s business unless they want to share it. It also can bring a sense of shame. Maybe one of them longs for parenthood, and the other is reluctant. You don’t know unless you are close friends, so be careful. 

Why it’s bad: Do I really have to spell this out? The number of times I heard it pre-children tells me yes. I’m simply gobsmacked. For only the reason of potential fertility, a couple is supposed to go through mounds of training,  paperwork, and waiting to adopt? How is this a thing people can say with a straight face? Adoption, for adoption’s sake, is a big deal. Doing it to have the remote possibility of getting pregnant is selfish, misguided, and could lead to a complicated relationship with a living, breathing child you only brought home so you could have a “real” kid. (Please read “real” with all of the scathing sarcasm you can muster. Unless it is an actual fake child versus an actual child, don’t refer to kids as real or not real. The term is biological.) 

Why it’s bad: Before we ended up adopting, I would have given all of my disposable income and sleep, and whatever else if it meant I got to be a mom. I know you’re trying to take away the sting, but to a couple struggling with infertility, those things don’t matter. They want a kid. Not a vacation. Not a child-free wild life. They may be spending tens of thousands of dollars for the chance to get pregnant. Pointing out all the ways that it’s great to be child-free isn’t as helpful as you think it might be. 

Why it’s bad: You know what isn’t great? Hearing how your precious miracle accidentally landed in your lap and is now not “all that great.” They are not stupid. Everyone knows kids take work. A couple dealing with infertility wants a chance to put in the work. Don’t devalue parenthood to people who want it more than anything else. We know you’re trying to take the sting out of the problem, but all it really does is make people feel worse. 

Why it’s bad: Yes. Yes, they tried having sex upside down/on a pillow, tracking fertility cycles, seeing a specialist, doing yoga, praying, etc., etc. Their sex positions are frankly none of your business. Unless you are a fertility doctor or can recommend a good one, don’t ask this. I started to get fed up and would say, “ Wait, wait. You need to have *whispers* sex?! To get pregnant? No one told me.” I am not a crude person by most accounts, but I can get crude if the need arises. I’ve also said, “Hey, that sounds like a good suggestion. Husband, let’s go try it out in the closet over there.”  Either people laugh or go away, so I call it a win either way. 

Why it’s bad: That doesn’t, believe it or not, help people relax. Most likely whomever you’re suggesting that to has been trying to be relaxed about it. No one starts off as a neurotic, cycle-tracking, sex-timing psycho. So no, just relaxing won’t make it happen. Nor will “funny” anecdotes about how you yourself weren’t even trying to get pregnant with your last two kids, but “oops,” you relaxed too much on vacation. Do you realize how painful it is to hear that someone can accidentally get pregnant when someone else has been trying for 4 years with no success? 

Why it’s bad: Are you God’s mouthpiece all of a sudden? Have you suddenly been given divine insight into that person’s fertility issues? The weight of their past/present/and future decisions? No? Then do not pretend to be dispensing wisdom. Likely the couple is already second and third guessing if they will be good parents at all should they get pregnant. They are afraid that God has said no to their dream of parenting, and it takes their breath away. You, most likely, don’t know what their feelings toward God even are and assuming that they a) care about God’s opinion and b) aren’t already pissed off that He’s said no or they’ve, heaven forbid, gotten pregnant and miscarried. Your words have weight. If you are a person who the couple struggling with infertility relies on and knows well, it might be your place to speak into their life. Otherwise, just don’t. 

Why it’s bad: Are you a doctor? Why are we whispering sperm count in the church lobby? I’m not saying that there isn’t a time and place for that sort of questioning, but really, the chances are good they’ve checked that out already. Couples become intimate with numbers of sperm, reproduction cycles, etc., when they are struggling with infertility and trying to get pregnant. Again, unless you are an actual fertility doctor whose counsel they are seeking, back off with this nonsense. Especially if you’re, say, a mother-in-law and you’re talking about your son. I do not, under any circumstances, want to hear about how my husband’s dad struggled with sperm count. I want no awareness that the two of you ever had sex. I know it had to have happened a few times, but I don’t want to think about it. Eww. 

Why it’s bad: If someone is going through fertility treatments, they know the risks. They would probably feel overjoyed to have multiples. You making them feel small or like they should be ungrateful isn’t being a good friend. Yes, from the outside, the idea of having twins, triplets, etc., does sound overwhelming. You know what else is overwhelming? People pointing out how overwhelmed you’ll be if your thousands of dollars procedures are successful. 

Why it’s bad: Yes. Yes, they have. Maybe it’s too expensive. Maybe she has an underlying medical condition. Maybe his sperm count is too low and needs to come up. Maybe her cervix is tilted—so many maybes. Many couples facing infertility have weighed the pros and cons of every procedure and process that might result in them getting to hold a living, happy, healthy baby in their arms. This is not a casual conversation question. This is not an in-the-church-lobby-saying-hi kind of question. I am flabbergasted by the number of times I’ve personally fielded this question in the most inappropriate places. Furthermore, I don’t want to hear about your second cousin Jenny’s failed IVF experience. No. Just No. 

Why it’s bad: Yes, she’s your best friend, but have you seen her eyes when she is trying to support you during your pregnancy woes? Each time you gripe about the baby having hiccups waking you up, your indigestion, the weird gift your grandmother gave at the baby shower, and how little the baby sleeps, you’re stabbing her a little. It’s death by 1,000 paper cuts. She knows you don’t mean it. She loves you. Love her back by remembering your friend is struggling with the very things you are complaining about. 

I could go on and on about the insensitive, impersonal, uncaring things people have said to me over the past years. I’m still struggling with infertility, but I do have five precious kids that make my days fuller than I could have imagined. I’ll never have a biological child. I still struggle to be happy when a friend shares they are pregnant. I know it’s selfish, but there it is. Especially with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day right around the corner, there is a chance your friends struggling with infertility are having a hard time. Try to be sensitive. I know it’s hard, and sometimes it feels like you are walking on eggshells. For myself, I know I was being ridiculous whenever I cried in the bathroom over moms getting recognized on Mother’s Day. I know it was unfair to cry in the car on the way home from baby showers for dear friends. Even knowing it was unfair and selfish and sad to bemoan my situation, sometimes I could not help it. I wanted to be a mom, and it felt like the entire universe was conspiring to a) remind me I was not a mom and b) that I may never be a mom.  It sounds stupid now, as I stare around the room at the mounds of kid stuff, that I was ever afraid to be childless all of the rest of my days. It feels strange to remember days when I couldn’t serve in the nursery at church without feeling depressed several days later. I love babies. I cannot get enough of baby giggles and snuggles. But there it is. I was so envious of what I wanted so badly but did not have; it took all the joy away from doing anything with kids. 

Even if it feels a bit like you are walking on eggshells, try to be considerate of your friends struggling with infertility. If you have been through infertility and have great resources and recommendations, then please share them if they ask. Otherwise, you are running the risk of, if not hurting, then at least exasperating someone you care about.

Do you feel there is a hole in your heart that can only be filled by a child? We’ve helped complete 32,000+ adoptions. We would love to help you through your adoption journey. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98.