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According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 10-15% of American couples are infertile, meaning they have not conceived after one year of regular, unprotected sex. This means that, more likely than not, you’ll probably have a friend or a relative or a neighbor who has suffered from or is struggling through an infertility journey. For a lot of us, myself included, knowing what to say or how to act with a friend who is going through such a tough time can be tricky, especially if you’ve never experienced it.
Infertility hit close to home for me when my sister and her husband tried for years and years to get pregnant with no luck. Quickly, infertility became a very real condition in our family and we have all had to learn how to come face-to-face with it. For my sister, she had to learn how to walk through it. For me, I had to learn how to walk beside her. It’s not an easy journey for anyone involved, but here are a few tips to help you be the most supportive friend you can be to a woman struggling with infertility.
1. Ask them what they need from you–then give it.
Some days your friend will want to talk about her journey. Some days she’ll want to talk about anything but her struggles. Other days she’ll want to be left alone completely. These are all completely normal reactions to the emotional roller coaster she’s going through. As her friend, your main job is to just be there for her in whatever way she needs you in that moment. Verbally asking her, “What do you need from me today?” and then following through on her needs will be one of the most supportive things you can do for her.
2. Make an effort to learn more about infertility.
There are a lot of reasons that a couple may struggle with infertility. But there also may be no reason. Unexplained infertility accounts for about 20% of cases. This is a particularly difficult pill to swallow for couples because, not only is there no explanation for their infertility, it also makes it harder for doctors to attempt to address the issue. Learning about infertility, the different causes for it, and the treatments that are available to your friend will help you to be a better listener and have a more intelligent conversation with her. She will appreciate that you can do more than nod mindlessly while she pours her heart out to you.
3. Don’t complain about your pregnancy.
This one makes me cringe because I am guilty of it. When I found out I was pregnant with my second child, my sister was in the midst of her infertility struggle. Despite my best efforts to keep my frustrations about my pregnancy to myself (it was a very hard pregnancy filled with debilitating pain), too many times I caught myself venting to my mom and my sister, who had always been my sounding board in the past. But because of my sister’s struggle with infertility, my complaining about a condition she would give her right arm to experience was like a punch in the gut for her. I’m not saying you don’t have a right to vent your frustrations about pregnancy–it is a very hard thing to go through for some women–just find someone else to vent to and make sure you watch your tone in front of your friend who would give anything to be pregnant.
4. Don’t bring up adoption (right away).
While adoption might be a viable solution to some couples who suffer with infertility, it may not be a solution for all of them. Further, bringing up adoption to a woman who is not ready to give up on the idea of having her own biological children is pretty insensitive. For the sake of your friend’s feelings, don’t bring up adoption unless and until she mentions the subject. While it may be the solution she has been searching for, it is vitally important to her journey that she come to that conclusion herself, when she’s ready.
5. Support their decisions about treatments (or lack thereof).
There are a great many ways doctors treat infertility these days. The options presented to couples struggling with infertility may be overwhelming at times. Your friend will probably need to talk to you about the options so that she can better understand them, herself. She may also make decisions about treatments that you may not agree with or don’t fully understand. She may tell you that they’ve chosen not to pursue treatments at all and just trust God or nature to make it happen when it’s time. Whatever the case may be, your job is to simply support whatever treatments (or non-treatments) she decides to pursue, and nothing more. Don’t criticize or tell her why you think it’s a good/bad/dangerous/strange/risky/etc. idea. This is her journey, her decision, her body. Whatever treatment she opts for, make sure she knows you’ll be there to support her in it.
6. Don’t offer unsolicited advice.
Advice is the job of doctors. No matter how much research you’ve done or how smart you are, you are not her doctor. Even if you are a doctor, your friend is not coming to you for medical advice. In you, your friend is looking for a shoulder to cry on, a friend to hold her hand, a fellow woman to sympathize with her pain, a third party to bounce ideas off of. If she doesn’t specifically ask you for advice, just don’t give it. And if she does ask for your advice, give it very carefully and full of grace and gentleness.
7. Just listen.
Sometimes, this is the single best thing you can offer a friend in pain. Just be there to listen and acknowledge the struggle she’s going through. Give her the space and time and grace to just unpack all of her emotions. She is holding a lot of emotional weight right now and sometimes all she wants to do is just set it down for a while. While she knows you can’t pick it up for her, or take it away from her, she will appreciate having a safe place where she can be real and vulnerable and just let it all out for a moment. Being that safe place for her is a powerful way to support a friend struggling through an infertility journey.
For women going through infertility, the journey can be a taxing process. While there is light at the end of the tunnel for most couples struggling, that light is often so hard to see when they’re in the thick of it. Being as supportive as you can during this time will give your friend a little more strength when she may have none left. Don’t underestimate your ability to help by simply being there.