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7 Things couples experiencing infertility want you to know

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When someone shares with you that they're having trouble conceiving, it can be difficult to know how to respond. Here are some tips.

Many couples share a dream together of having a children. But for couples who experience infertility, realizing that dream can be a challenging, seemingly impossible journey. Unfortunately, an experience with infertility isn’t rare. You may know someone struggling with infertility. According to the CDC, six percent of women living in the United States who are between ages 15 to 44 cannot become pregnant.

When you add in another 12 percent of women living in the US between the ages of 15 and 44 who experience difficulty in getting pregnant and carrying a pregnancy to term, you end up with almost one in five women who experience infertility in the US alone.

When someone shares with you that they’re having trouble conceiving, it can be difficult to know how to respond. If you don’t experience it, it’s hard to know what to say. Those who struggle with infertility desire support and understanding. Here are seven things women (and couples!) want you to know …

1. Nothing hurts more than hearing “Just relax, it’ll happen”

When couples experiencing infertility go home for the holidays, spend an evening with co-workers, or catch up with good friends, the question of when they’ll have kids can come up in conversation. If there’s one thing that all couples experiencing infertility have heard, it’s “Just relax and it’ll happen,” or “Stop thinking about having kids so much.” The advice is followed by stories of couples someone knows who “forgot” about having kids and were announcing their pregnancy soon after. But telling couples to “just relax” is the worst way to respond to someone experiencing infertility.

Also, it’s not true that stress alone is the reason a person can’t conceive. Research on stress and infertility turns out to be pretty inconsistent. “The problem, though, is that stress alone is unlikely to be a sole cause of infertility; if you have a condition that affects your ability to get pregnant or maintain a pregnancy, no amount of de-stressing will cure it,” writes Olivia Campbell on The Cut. Instead of repeating the “just relax” statement the next time a couple opens up about their experience with infertility, take time to listen to their story.

2.  Empathy goes a long way

We can learn a lot about empathy from the book of Job. Job endured the loss of his livestock, his servants, his house, and his children. He’s covered in boils from the “soles of his feet to the crown of his head.” His wife has told him to “Curse God and die.” Then, Job’s three friends hear about his misfortune and leave their homes and come to visit Job.

How do they comfort him? They cry with him, sit down beside him, and tear their clothes. Then they sit with him, on the ground, for seven days and seven nights. Not a single word was spoken for a week because they “saw how great was his suffering.”

How can you show empathy to those experiencing infertility? Well, it helps to know what empathy is in the first place. In I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Brene Brown shares nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman’s four attributes of empathy:

  • To be able to see the world through another person’s perspective. This involves seeing a situation through someone else’s eyes, or at least appreciating their situation as a true circumstance they’re going through.
  • To be nonjudgmental, and avoid downplaying another person’s emotions as silly or dumb. Empathetic people are able to recognize the importance of someone’s experience. They don’t discount that experience as a way to protect themselves from the real pain someone else is going through.
  • To understand another person’s feelings. This begins by having a healthy understanding of our own feelings. We have to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand someone else’s. Again, this requires putting your own “stuff” aside to focus on your loved one.
  • To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings. Rather than saying, “At least you …” or “It could be worse …” try, “I’ve been there, and that really hurts,” or (using an example Brene mentions) “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”

Knowing how to come alongside someone, sit with them, and mourn with them is a beautiful gift. Maybe you don’t know what an experience with infertility is like — but you can listen, and that’s incredibly helpful and important.

3. Suggestions that are uninvited do more harm than good

When a couple opens up about their experience with infertility, some are eager to offer advice and stories about treatments. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful that your friend’s second cousin was able to get pregnant thanks to a new treatment or a visit with a particular kind of health practitioner. But most couples who experience infertility are aware that they have options, and may have had their fair share of doctors appointments.

Most advice that people offer is meant to be helpful. Usually, it’s someone saying something (anything!) that will help in a tense, painful situation. But unless you’re specifically asked for advice concerning a medical issue, it’s best not to offer it. Instead, simply ask a couple how you can best help.

4. Infertility is emotionally and physically exhausting

Research has shown that the toll that infertility takes on a woman’s emotions is similar to the experience of cancer. But to make the experience with infertility even tougher, the stress is often cyclical. Women’s hormones fluctuate throughout her cycle. In my own infertility journey, my doctor prescribed Progesterone. The hormones often make me feel dizzy, drained, hungry, and a host of other side effects.

But couples experiencing infertility also face the emotional exhaustion that comes with negative pregnancy tests. Some couples go through fertility treatments for years, and some women and couples experience permanent infertility. The journey of one month of trying to conceive is full of ups and downs. Infertile women may be full of hope at the beginning of the cycle. But the second half of the cycle brings an emotionally draining waiting game. Each month is a struggle of getting our hopes up, only to watch our hopes crushed with (another) negative pregnancy test.

5. Infertility is incredibly isolating

As women, we get invited to baby showers and women-only events. But for women experiencing infertility, those events can be incredibly isolating. It can feel like you’re the only one in the room who isn’t pregnant or juggling little people.

I’ve been at events where I’ve felt so alone because I didn’t have any stories about how I’ve lost sleep because my baby has kept me up through the night. I can’t compare baby food options, and I’ve never been through the labor and delivery process. But that doesn’t mean that couples experiencing infertility don’t want children — it means we’re working on abiding in God’s timing.

6. Assumptions are dangerous

One of the most harmful things in conversations about the subject of family planning is when people make assumptions. Some assume we don’t have littles in our arms right now because we don’t want them. Some assume that we’re selfish — after all, we’re a young Catholic couple, why aren’t we pregnant at this point? There’s often more to the story of a childless couple that meets the eye.

In her book The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, Simcha Fisher writes, “Sometimes things really are black and white. Sometimes people really are doing something wrong, and it’s our obligation within specific circumstances, to practice Christian fraternal correction … but often there’s more to the story. When we are moved to give advice, even if it’s solicited, let’s remember that the human heart is a strange and tangled jungle of motivations and desires. We keep things hidden even from ourselves, and only God knows who is guilty and who is wounded.”

Instead of assuming that the young, childless couple sitting in front of you at church is childless by choice, practice prudence and generosity in conversation.

7. Adoption is beautiful, but it’s a unique calling

When someone mentions that they experience infertility, the subject of adoption is usually brought up, as though it’s the answer to infertility. Adoption is a very beautiful way to build a family — but it is its own calling and not an option available to everyone. The process has its own process and challenges.

Adoption doesn’t cure infertility. Even if an infertile couple adopts, it doesn’t necessarily mend the wound of not being able to conceive biological children. Most couples experiencing infertility are aware that adoption is an option for building their family and they need to discern that option amongst themselves and God.

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