The holidays are a time for families to come together and rejoice with one another.
But some couples don’t have that luxury. They struggle each passing year with the thoughts of a family that could have been, or a family they want but don't have. Sometimes these couples are infertile and can’t have kids, no matter how badly they would like to.
According to research from the University of Iowa, infertile people, especially women, want one thing more than anything else when they can’t have kids — support.
Infertility is so common among Americans — about one-in-six women are infertile, according to Reuters, and about one-third of infertility cases are because of the male partner alone, according to WebMD — but they often find themselves feeling isolated and without help.
“Infertility is a more prevalent issue than people realize. It affects one in six couples, and in almost all cases, women want more support than they are getting,” said Keli Steuber, assistant professor at the University of Iowa, who co-authored the research paper.
Support comes in many forms, like simple gestures from partners, “help with household chores,” or advice, University of Iowa researchers found. Like anything, though, there is good and bad advice. And with infertility, those giving advice walk a fine line between accepting and honoring people’s emotions and trying to be helpful.
First instinct may be giving your opinion and telling someone a story that sort of relates to their circumstances. But before you do that, take a look at these eight things you shouldn’t say to someone who is struggling with infertility.
People often give their friends, colleagues or family members the advice to “just relax” when they’re struggling to have kids. But according to the Seleni Institute in an article for The Huffington Post, that may be very bad advice for a number of reasons.
Telling someone to relax doesn’t mean much when women only have a 20 percent chance of getting pregnant and stress has little to no influence on infertility, the Seleni Institute reported.
And the phrase “just relax” makes the person with infertility problems feel like the victim, according to Bonnie Cochran, a psychotherapist who works with infertility patients, according to The Huffington Post.
“Saying 'just relax' shows that you're not really listening, that you're not validating what this person is going through,” Cochran said to HuffPost.
'There’s always adoption'
For many parents, adoption can be a solution to being infertile. In fact, Americans are adopting kids both stateside and abroad in bunches. But this isn’t something infertile parents want to hear, according to The Telegraph’s Tracy Buchanan, an author on infertility.
For some, adoption creates similar issues as infertility, Buchanan wrote. There’s no guarantee you’ll have a child since it takes a lot of work and determination to go through the adoption process — which can be taxing for someone who’s already worried they can’t have kids on their own, Buchanan wrote.
Staying silent on potential options may be the best idea, at least until the infertile person is ready to try raising a family again.
“If you feel like your friend’s running out of options but they don’t seem keen to talk about it, then don’t,” Buchanan wrote. “Sometimes, I got so caught up in my infertility that I craved normal conversation and something to make me feel like my old self.”
'You’re not meant to be a parent'
According to Barbara Collura, the president of the National infertility Association, telling someone they aren’t meant to be a parent — whether it's because of the cruel hands of fate or God — isn’t going to help infertile parents who feel like their bodies betrayed them.
It’s one of the many problems, Collura wrote, that make infertile parents feel alone and weak.
“Infertility is a medical condition, not a punishment from God or Mother Nature,” Collura wrote.
'I never had that problem'
It’s good news for a family expecting a child. But that’s not something you should necessarily share with someone you know who’s infertile. According to The Huffington Post’s Devan McGuinness, telling someone you never struggled with infertility or that your pregnancy came easily makes a joke of the situation, and infertility is no laughing matter.
“If you have a friend or family member struggling with infertility, the best thing you can do is listen and don't pry for information,” she wrote for HuffPost. “Don't try to fix things (unless they ask for your opinion) and realize it's not something to joke about because the feelings are quite real — even if you don't quite understand.”
'You’re lucky you don’t have kids!'
According to the National Infertility Association, people sometimes tell those with infertility that they wouldn’t miss parenting if they were parents, since it’s an incredibly stressful undertaking. That kind of comment hurts the dreams and desires infertile parents have of starting a family, which is sometimes all they have left.
“Like every other couple, we have our fantasies — my child will sleep through the night, would never have a tantrum in public, and will always eat his vegetables. Let us have our fantasies,” the National Infertility Association said. “Those fantasies are some of the few parent-to-be perks that we have — let us have them. You can give us your knowing looks when we discover the truth later.”
'You waited too long'
According to WebMD, age has an impact on infertility among both men and women. Chances of procreation decrease every year for parents. For men, that can sometimes be 11 percent per year, WebMD reported. So some infertility problems arise when people put off marriage and having a family until their careers are set.
I wrote in October about how couples have put off having families at younger ages because women specifically want to wait until their male partners are more financially successful. And some companies like Apple and Facebook, as I also explained last month, offer women the option of freezing their eggs so they can focus on their careers now and their families later — freeing them of potential infertility problems down the road, according to infertility expert Rachel Gurevich.
Telling someone they waited too long makes the assumption that they wouldn't have had similar problems getting pregnant when they were younger, and it also puts fault on the person for what could be a medical issue they had no control over.
'I know how you feel; I lost a dog once'
According to Camille Preston, a psychology expert who’s given TedX speeches on infertility, people will try to relate with those who are infertile by telling them a story about a loosely related event, like losing a pet. Since dogs are a man’s best friend and have many human-like features, friends think a heartbreaking story of losing their dog will put them on the same level as someone who is infertile.
But that’s never the case, Preston wrote. The two are vastly different.
“Yes, please, acknowledge my pain and my struggle, but please do not try to commiserate with a story about how badly you want a dog,” Preston wrote. “Don't equate the struggle of an infertile couple to anything else. Just accept it for what it is.”
Ignoring someone’s infertility altogether is also a problem, according to Relevant Magazine’s Tamlyn Dennekamp. Parents struggling with infertility mostly want someone to talk to and confide in. Setting their problems aside and keeping quiet when talking about infertility can do more harm than good for those parents.
“While saying the wrong thing can be hurtful, ignoring the topic altogether can be worse. If someone has trusted you enough to tell you about their infertility journey, don’t pretend it is not happening,” Dennehamp wrote.
So what should you do?
As the University of Iowa research suggested, women and infertile parents are looking for someone to support them. That can be as simple as a spouse saying “I love you” or finding a new way to connect with your loved one. Listening and asking quesitions is a key part of it, too.
Research suggests that by listening and supporting the one you know with infertility, you’ll help them more than anything you say could.
“If you can find effective, supportive ways to communicate with each other, you’re better equipped to handle stressors down the road,” said Steuber, the author of the study.