Motherhood

How to Help a Friend Facing Infertility

How to Help a Friend Facing Infertility

While my husband and I were in the throes of our infertility treatment, my world grew very small…

I didn’t mention our struggles to many friends, unable to even begin to explain the complicated world of in-vitro fertilization, why it was our only hope for having a baby, and all that it actually entails: the endless shots, early morning doctor appointments, and all the ways in which it could or couldn’t work. I learned to shut down casual, “When are you going to have a baby?” inquiries with a simple: “We’re hopeful but it’s proving hard for us.”

The truth is, I did not want to talk about it with the majority of people in my life. The uncertainty was overwhelming, the toll (physical, emotional, financial) too great. But the five rounds of IVF we did over the course of three years made infertility the dominant, all-consuming force in my life. I felt like I was living in a parallel universe, where my outward daily routine remained unchanged — I rode the subway, sat at my desk, went grocery shopping — while on the inside I secretly obsessed over egg counts and embryo quality.

Because talking about it casually was so difficult, I treasured the handful of confidantes who were willing to really go there with me. They were there to console me through my tears and absorb my rage-filled rants. One friend in particular, who had conceived naturally with no problems, was particularly receptive, and I am forever grateful.

Around 10% of women in the U.S. between the ages of 15 to 44 have difficulty getting or staying pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Maybe you are one of these six million women (raises hand!) — and maybe one of these women is your friend.

As I have opened up more, talking about our journey publicly both in my writing and through my Instagram account, I have heard from so many women who want to be a good friend to someone coping with infertility. This warms my heart, that someone is tuned in enough to the sensitivities here to look for better ways to be supportive.

I put the question to my smart, strong Instagram family: What do people dealing with infertility want from their friends, and what do they want to avoid? Here is a compilation of the tips these women shared:

Things to try:

— Let your friend know you are there, and open the door for discussion without pressure or pity. It’s as easy as saying (or, better yet, texting, which doesn’t require a response): “I’m here if you want to talk.”

— Check in on a semi-regular basis and re-up that offer. A simple: “How are you? I’m thinking of you” could open the door again and gently remind her that you are there to listen, about infertility or anything else.

— If she chooses to talk to you about it, the best thing you can do is LISTEN! Most women just want to be heard, to vent about the unfairness or pain of it all. Many women appreciate commiseration, such as “I’m so sorry” or “This totally sucks.” A few words go a long way.

— Ask questions that are open-ended and general: “How are you feeling today?” or “How can I help?” Those allow her to answer however she feels like it.

— Mirror the tone of the discussion, following her lead. If she’s angry, or sad, or hurting, let her be any of those things. If she gets super technical, ask her to explain; if she just wants to cry, let her cry. And try not to be turned off by the intensity of her response. Infertility is wildly rage-inducing for many, and the hormone shots certainly don’t help. Let her vent in a judgment-free zone.

— Remember any dates she shares with you. If she tells you her egg retrieval is on Tuesday, text her on Tuesday! Avoid asking directly how it went — let her decide to share any results — rather, it’s best to just let her know you are thinking of her.

— Understand that all of this can change. She may be willing to talk one week and not the next. Be patient and know that it’s not personal. Let her set the pace.

— Offer up some fun distractions to take her mind off it. See a movie or go out to dinner or get a manicure. Talk about work drama. Watch the Bachelor! Anything to change the subject for a hot second.

— Think of little ways to treat her. Don’t ask, just do it! A funny or thoughtful card. Flowers. Cookies. A Starbucks gift card. (The one exception to the asking bit: Alcohol and exercise are often no-no’s during fertility treatment, so check with her before offering up those.)

Things to avoid:

— Giving advice, medically or otherwise, especially if she doesn’t ask you for it; what she needs from you most is emotional support.

— Sharing stories of other women you have known who have had success with IVF or another fertility treatment. Every person/couple is highly individual; one’s success or failure does not predict another’s.

— Saying that you understand. While very well intended, it is impossible to understand what someone else is going through, even if you’ve been through infertility yourself.

— Telling someone to “Just relax!” Saying things like “It’ll happen when you least expect it!” or “Just take a vacation!” can be unintentionally very hurtful. Being something of a type-A person myself, hearing that cut to my core. It makes infertility a personal failing or something controllable, when it’s actually a medical condition. As one person told me, “Infertility causes stress; stress doesn’t cause infertility.” (The same goes for saying, “What’s meant to be will be” — that’s a very hard one to hear.)

— Asking if she is considering adoption. Adoption is a wonderful thing! Maybe she is considering it, maybe not. But offering it up as a solution to a problem is not necessarily what most women want to hear. It’s not a seed you need to plant; chances are it is something she has considered or is considering.

— Encouraging her to be hopeful or say, “I know this will happen for you!” It’s meant so well, I know, but nobody knows what will happen. Best to let her tell you what she is feeling, which is often the opposite, in the form of anger, despair, and frustration. For those same reasons, avoid saying anything that begins with “At least.” (i.e. You’re doing IVF? “At least your health insurance plan covers it.”)

— Bringing infertility up in a public setting or during a group outing. It puts her on the spot, likely when she least wants to talk about it or is trying to escape for a bit. It’s better to find a moment in private.

— Avoiding the topic altogether. It can be uncomfortable to ask about it, but it’s better to let her know you are thinking of her than ignore it entirely. Trust me, I would bet it is on her mind constantly!

— This is a hard one, but don’t get offended if you are not the person she turns to. Retreating can be a form of self preservation. “It can be so difficult to open up to someone who hasn’t gone through it,” one woman told me. Respect her and give her space, with no hard feelings whenever she next re-emerges.

Tips for women who are pregnant or already parents:

— Share pregnancy news via text or email, not in person or over the phone. This gives your friend a chance to process it in private first, collect herself and respond as she would want to in the best of circumstances. This kind of news can be very hard to process, and a little space and time always helps. I never wanted to be the wet blanket on my friends’ good news, but it was impossible for me to hide my personal anguish when face-to-face or even on a call. The benefit of a text let me get it together enough to add a few emojis and an exclamation point. (If possible, give a head’s up before posting on social media; finding out publicly is the worst.)

— Try not to talk too much about how you conceived (or gave birth), unless your friend asks you. It doesn’t matter if it was naturally or with help, a pregnancy of any kind can be difficult to hear about for someone dealing with infertility.

— Don’t hide your pregnancy or family, but don’t make her your go-to person to vent about your nausea or complain about your kids’ sleeping schedules. Find another friend for those worries!

— Understand that your friend might not want to come to your baby shower or your kid’s birthday party. Invite her, but make it clear that there are no hard feelings whatsoever if she doesn’t want to come. Her decision is nothing personal. It’s about self preservation!

***

If you are struggling with infertility, my advice is to let yourself feel it. There is no way around the complicated, intense feelings. In my experience, fighting it only made it worse. Acknowledge it, and be gentle on yourself. Do whatever you need to do to make it through this time, even if that means shutting out the rest of the world. Know that your friends will be waiting for you on the other side.

Are you struggling with infertility? What tips do you have for how to be a good friend to someone dealing with infertility? Sending everyone lots of love. As always, we would love your input.

If you’re in NYC, Elizabeth and Joanna will be in conversation tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Made by We space, at 902 Broadway. Tickets sold out in 20 minutes (!) but, if you’re attending, we’re very excited to see you there, and we’re going to try to tape it.

P.S. One couple’s funny, heartfelt story about IVF and another friend’s struggle with infertility.

(Photo by Jacqui Miller.)

  1. Alicia says...

    I am just now seeing this post, very thankful I have as this is one of the best infertility posts I’ve seen. I have felt and experienced most of the scenarios mentioned and they are all so true. Sometimes it’s hard to put into words just how much infertility can change you. But it truly does.

    My husband and I are currently in the struggle of our almost 3 year infertility journey/battle/story? (I never know what I should actually label it). I always knew I wanted to be a mom and somewhere in the back of my mind, I have no idea why, I had a small feeling it wasn’t going be easy. But I also don’t think I could’ve predicted it would take this long either. We have lost 3 babies within the first year and a half, had 5 failed IUIs and are now in the looming thoughts of, “when should we start seriously looking at IVF”?

    Navigating this as newlyweds (we pretty much started trying soon after the wedding) has not been easy. I do hope one day we are able to look back and be one of the ones who get to say, “look how far we’ve come, we’d do it all over again because it was all worth it to get you”.

    Much love to everyone out there.

  2. Brownebaby 8 says...

    I stumbled across this page and I’m so glad I did.
    After 7 years of trying for a baby and 3 miscarriages I felt compelled to comment.
    This was the hardest journey my husband and I had ever been through in our lives and I have to say I was shocked at how inconsiderate and non supportive some of the closest women ( mothers) could be.
    I just want to say that you are all the bravest most courageous women ever who are going through or have been on this journey. Unless you have been through it no one knows what it’s like to fight EVERYDAY when you have no fight left in you. When you’re scared lonely and desperate and nothing takes the pain away. The shame you feel even though you know it’s not your fault. And I also want to reassure you all that there IS light at the end of the tunnel.
    As I am writing this I am 35 weeks pregnant and still in awe of this miracle.
    I will NEVER forget what my husband and I went through and I will always have the biggest admiration for women that have been through this. It will never leave me.
    I just wanted to say to all of you going through this I SEE YOU. And I stand beside all of you. And from the bottom of my heart I wish you all the best and I pray that your dreams come true x

  3. Really appreciate this article. The ‘relax & it will happen’ and ‘why don’t you just adopt’ remarks remain the hardest for me. Turns out any way you slice it, babies are hard to come by!

    Thank you very much for writing this piece.

  4. Julie says...

    My husband and I have been TTC for three years now, we both just turned 39. It’s so hard. I’ve been to the fertility doctor, had the HSG, ultrasounds, semen testing and we’ve basically been diagnosed with unexplained infertility. The problem I’ve been facing is that despite wanting a child, I don’t want to go through the IUIs and IVF treatments. I just don’t. And I feel left out of the infertility “community” if you will because I’m not putting my body through all of the injections and hormones and treatments. It’s still not out of the question, but I’m afraid of it. And I feel like I’m in such limbo. There’s no reason behind not getting pregnant, and I’m not sure if I’m willing to take the emotional, physical, and financial extra steps. It’s really hard.

    Also, never ever be that person who says “You need to stop stressing out!” I’m not stressed, I’m SAD and none of that make me more fertile.

    • SC says...

      This is similar to the situation my husband and I find ourselves in, so we will join you in what feels like the periphery of the infertility community. We’ve done all the testing and nothing appears ‘wrong’. We are in our first month of three trying Clomid, the lowest cost of entry financially, physically and emotionally to trying to conceive beyond traditional means.

      After that, we would have to visit a specialist and explore IUI and IVF, which we’ve already decided isn’t for us due to a variety of personal reasons. Unfortunately, some outsiders might view our reluctance to pursue those options as an indicator that we aren’t truly serious about wanting children, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.

      All that to say: I FEEL YOU, GIRL! Sending lots of good vibes your way.

    • Julie says...

      Oh, it’s so good to not be alone in that! All of my infertile girlfriends did IVF (and got pregnant). I think Clomid will be our next step as well, I just have to get the courage to call the doctor back to discuss our options. ALL the luck and strength to you!

  5. M2 says...

    Question—

    A close friend of mine who lives far away has been trying to get pregnant but has been struggling with infertility. My husband (they were friends before she and I were) saw her on a business trip and she told him she may be pregnant. She hasn’t told me this, but my husband relayed the message.

    On this mother’s day I would like to wish her a happy mother’s day let her know I am thinking of her but is this out of line? I also want to mention my husband and I have a toddler and I know it was difficult for her because when we lived close to one another she wouldn’t see us with our child. When she and I talk I don’t mention my child unless she brings it up but I don’t want to be inappropriate or seem like I am wanting a happy mother’s day in return, I don’t. I know how wonderful she is with children and how she will be an amazing mother. I don’t know what the right steps are this weekend because I don’t want to be ignoring her but I want to be a good friend. Any ideas? Thanks

    • R says...

      Obviously a little late on this, but rather than wishing her a happy mother’s day, I would suggest just letting her know you’re thinking of her on that day. The infertility journey is filled with uncertainty, and saying happy mother’s day before the baby has come to term, could add to her anxiety or stress.

  6. Amy says...

    This comment is a bit late. However, in light of Mother’s Day quickly approaching this Sunday (in the US), I thought it might be helpful for those struggling with supporting someone going through infertility. During my five year journey, I had a dear friend who provided me with her listening ear whenever the journey felt impossible. Without fail, every year of my infertility journey I received either a Mother’s Day card or Mother’s Day text from her, letting me know she was thinking of me and she was here for me. I cried every time. I felt so SEEN. So HEARD. On a day where I struggled to even celebrate my own mother, her gesture made it that much more bearable. I was not alone. I was not forgotten.

  7. Jennifer says...

    This is incredibly relevant and helpful. Thank you. And my hat is off to all of the brave women who contributed!

  8. Theo says...

    I had an anembryonic pregnancy last year, discovered at 7 weeks and had to make the very difficult decision to terminate the pregnancy at 11 weeks when it was clear there was no baby in the sac. When I told my friend (who is a physician) I was going through a miscarriage, she second guessed my decision, asked all sorts of medical questions indicating that she did not think my doctor got it right and perhaps I made the wrong decision. It was already so difficult for me and I couldn’t believe what I was listening to. She’s still a friend but the hurt is still raw for now and I’m keeping my distance from her at this point.

  9. Jb says...

    We reached a point where we decided finally out opportunity had passed even though we tried for 5 years or so. I cried every day during and after that critical decision point. The thing I found hardest was noone ever initiating a conversation with me about it. My wonderful mother listened to me cry and grieve. But no friends or sisters ever said a word. I found that strange and lonely. I feel like some acknowledgement is better than silence which makes you feel forgotten.

  10. PP says...

    In the middle of my IVF process, someone who knew what I was going through commented “I don’t mean to offend, but I think IVF is against natural selection”. She was one of the very few people who knew.

    • T says...

      So is medicine. She’s right and also insensitive and if the inference is you shouldn’t do it then she can get effed.

  11. Ellen says...

    I really, really loved this. Would love one on “how to talk to your friend who is adopting”. I have dealt with both infertility and adoption and in both circumstances people unknowingly say hurtful things. They don’t mean to! So something like this article would be helpful for that too :)

  12. Elizabeth says...

    I suffered repeat miscarriages before being diagnosed after the third with a chromosomal translocation like the writers husband. For me this meant having a miscarriage or a child who wouldn’t lice beyond one was a real likelihood.

    After 4 years of PGD IVF my son was born and not long after at nearly 40 Years of age fell pregnant by surprise with my beautiful girl. I know how blessed I am and this might not have been my path.

    My advice is to never say to anyone going through a miscarriage ‘it’s so common isn’t it?’ Not for that person. They have lost their baby and just because you never knew it, it was their baby in their body and they knew it.

    Secondly never say ‘at least you can get pregnant’ – that’s not a consolation for the baby they have lost.

    Remember the person might still be feeling pregnant as the hormones remain in their body for a long time, she may be grieving and it may have been traumatic and gruesome.

    I’m sorry for anyone going through infertility right now I recognise how hard it is. I hope whatever path the universe has for you, whether it be motherhood or not, that you find peace with that.

  13. This is a beautiful post, much needed one to hear.
    My husband and I have been on the infertility journey for a long time now. I think my best advice would be to know that questions such as “how is adoption going”, or “how is the kid thing going?” are not just “how are you?” type of questions that many people think it is. These words are heavy- loaded with a lot of emotions. I say wait. Wait for that friend to invite YOU IN. They will share their story when they are ready. Many times as friends who care so much for our friend going through infertility think they wants to talk about it ALL THE TIME, but this is far from the truth. Be patient… feel the energy they are giving off and just be open. Sometimes the biggest gift is not talking about it at all.

  14. Annalise Wagstaff says...

    Thank you! I want to print this out and give it to people!

  15. Etsy says...

    I had an early miscarriage this year (pregnant from Ivf, going through secondary infertility) and what really broke me was that my mother tried to blame me for the miscarriage and we have stopped speaking to each other since. It’s been 4 months but I can’t get over the pain and hurt she has caused and reach out to try and mend our relationship. Sometimes family can hurt you much deeper than ignorant comments from friends

    • Jam says...

      I had the same thing happen to me. I even took my mom to a follow up apt with my OBGYN and asked my doctor if there was anything I could do to prevent this. The Doctor said “absolutely no”. But my mom would still purse her lips and make it known she thought it was my fault :(
      It was very hurtful.
      Sending you hugs!

    • Louise says...

      Guys, that’s truly terrible. So sorry for your losses

  16. Ashley says...

    When going through my first struggle (of 2) with infertility, I was fortunate to have a close friend who had also struggled with infertility, but had ultimately had a successful pregnancy, and she gave me the best advice: to remain optimistic, because some day, some how, we would have a kid in our lives, and that families come together in all sorts of ways – to be open minded and optimistic about how it all might work out for our family. It was such valuable advice since optimism is critical when going through IVF. But it probably would not have been well received from someone who hadn’t been there, done that.

    While my fertility struggles are now over, I live with reminders of them all the time, for example when people ask about our twins: “do twins run in your family?” Hey people: most twins these days are a result of fertility treatments! So your question about it running in the family is actually a bit insensitive, though I know you don’t mean to be so. That question dredges up the infertility struggles for me – even though it all eventually worked out for us. To be fair to some of those questioners, our twins are identical (from a single embryo) and not fraternal (from two separate embryos) but embryo splitting is more common with IVF than with natural pregnancies, and that is probably the explanation for why we have twins. When I get the “run in the family” question (it happens ALL the time), I keep the response to a simple “no” instead of explaining the reason for why we do have twins and try to avoid the flood of IVF-related emotions. After 2 years now, I still dread responding to the question, even though I’ve nailed the simple response. The struggle with infertility has a long-term impact on those who go through it.

    • Rachel says...

      Only fraternal twins can “run in the family”. Identical twins are more common with IVF, but there is no genetic correlation. I wish people were more informed… Infertility is a rough and isolating road. This article was well written and I cannot tell you how much I wish people were aware of the hurt their well intention-ed words can cause.

  17. Jessica says...

    Having walked through the road of infertility, I would like to remind people it doesn’t just cure itself after having one baby. I had to walk the road each time. Sure, I knew what I was facing after the first time, but hearing someone say “you already have a child, you should just be thankful.” really hurt.

    • Gabi says...

      Oh my God, thank you so much for saying this…I am going through this right now and the pain is exactly the same.

  18. Megan says...

    As someone who struggled for 5 LONG years with infertility, I have two brief additions to this helpful article:

    1. A wonderful, simple thing to say: “I’m sorry you’re going through this and I hope it works out for you. I always thought you would make a wonderful mother.” My cousin said this to me, and I nearly cried out of gratitude. Even though I know in my brain that infertility is a medical problem, I felt like I was to blame through maybe some fault in my character? Something I did? I thought maybe this was the universe’s way of telling me I wasn’t good enough to be a parent and that thought was devastating. And believe me, these feelings of self-blame are compounded by all the people who tell you that you have to accept what wasn’t meant to be rather than going through fertility treatments, or that IVF is for people God doesn’t want to be mothers… Yeah, people can be really casually cruel around infertility. So, telling someone struggling with infertility that she’d make a wonderful mother is kind of an antidote to all that horribleness.

    2. A follow up on the ‘Have you considered adoption?’ question. The answer, for any couple struggling with infertility is OF COURSE. OF COURSE they’ve thought of it! Whether or not it’s right for them is another question. And adoption is SO MUCH HARDER than anyone who asked me that question had any idea of. For starters, it’s VERY expensive– much more expensive than IVF in many states. We simply could not afford to adopt, but we could afford IVF (even though our insurance didn’t cover it at the time). When I discovered this, it was an enormous blow. I needed to be a mother, but I didn’t need to bear my own child, had no burning desire to experience pregnancy, and I have no genetic snobbery. In other words, I would have loved to adopt– but it was/is not possible for us financially.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      these are great points, megan. thank you so much. and i LOVE what your cousin said.

    • Ella says...

      I feel teary just reading your cousins comment. What a BEAUTIFUL thing to say. Amidst the struggle of infertility is the grief of missing out on mother/parenthood – that it’s something you’ve been robbed of, or didn’t deserve. I think it’s why the comments about how ‘hard’ pregnancy or parenting can be from people who have not struggled – it’s what you actually LONG for!!
      I’ll join your cousin in using this for friends who are struggling, and in reminding myself too.

    • Louisa says...

      I think this speaks to the importance of “know your audience,” because I found people telling me what a great mom I’d be incredibly painful and a reminder that babies aren’t doled out based on how loved they would be, or on any kind of merit or logic whatsoever.

      And as someone who grappled for a long time with the implications of using donor eggs, dismissing the heartache that accompanies severing that tie as “genetic snobbery” is also wildly hurtful.

  19. This is such a wonderful and helpful article. I know that women on every side of the infertility experience will benefit from it. Thank you so much to Elizabeth for sharing!

  20. June says...

    I think this is great advice for being a friend to someone going through any type of grief and anguish. Thank you!

  21. Laura says...

    I so appreciate this article and the lengthy comment section.
    I think anyone that does not have first-hand experience with infertility doesn’t know that at some moments (too many) during the journey…your brain, your sense of self, your essence…feels foreign. That it can be so overwhelming with a pregnancy announcement that you feel like you’re gasping for air. It’s so visceral. Then later, you feel your own discomfort for internally struggling to put your feelings aside in that moment to feel and express true celebration for a dear friend or sibling. It’s all messed up and desperately sad.
    I personally found comfort attending RESOLVE support groups. Highly recommend. And special friends like you…RB.

  22. Kristie says...

    Thank you for this sadly timely advice, as I read this and then met my friend for coffee, only to hear she may miscarriage her pregnancy at any point- I am so sad, but used all your advice to be there for her (hopefully) in a listening supportive way. Xx