It’s more common than you might think. One in eight couples have trouble getting pregnant or sustaining pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The International Committee for Monitoring Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ICMART) defines infertility as, “a disease characterized by the failure to establish a clinical pregnancy after 12 months of regular, unprotected sexual intercourse or due to an impairment of a person’s capacity to reproduce either as an individual or with his/her partner.”
National Infertility Awareness Week (April 22-28), started in 1989 to raise awareness about infertility and to encourage the public to understand their reproductive health better.
“Anyone can be challenged to have a family. No matter what race, religion, sexuality or economic status you are, infertility doesn’t discriminate. Because you’ll never know how badly you want something until you are told that it may not be possible.” –The National Fertility Foundation
So how do we help those experiencing infertility? How do we walk alongside each other? To help you get started, here are some general do’s and don’ts of supporting someone experiencing infertility.
Research shows that the psychological stress women experience with infertility is similar to coping with cancer, HIV, chronic pain, and other illnesses. Studies also show that men experiencing infertility, can have mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and physical aches and pains from emotional distress, sexual dysfunction, and reduced self-esteem.
Meaning: infertility is difficult on us mentally, emotionally and physically.
Sometimes, we are afraid to ask someone with fertility issues how they are doing because we don’t know how to respond, or we don’t know how they will react. There is no perfect reaction. All you can do is support someone going through infertility the best way you can, with love and empathy.
Just listen and ask the woman or man, friend or spouse, cousin or sister, if they feel comfortable talking with you about their infertility. They may say no, and that is completely okay. We must respect how they feel.
The most important emotion to convey is empathy. Let them know you’re here for them. If you are, or were, struggling with infertility, how would you want people to talk to you?
“Infertility is this huge emotional roller coaster. If you want in your heart more than anything to have a baby, it’s the hardest thing you will ever go through physically, emotionally, and financially.” –Cindy Margolis, American actress and model
This is probably the most important point. Don’t assume you know how another person is feeling about their fertility. Also, don’t assume it’s only women who are suffering from infertility.
Infertility doesn’t just affect women, it affects men too.
The American Society of Reproductive Health states that one-third of infertility is attributed to the female partner, one-third is attributed to the male partner, and one-third is caused by a combination of problems in both partners or unexplained.
Millions of men and women around the world are affected by infertility. How each of us handles loss, grief, disease, happiness, other situations/emotions, is different. Allow others to process their emotions in a way that’s best for them. (Unless, of course, this leads to self-harm or harmful behavior towards others.)
Be careful when speaking with someone who is experiencing infertility. Don’t project your assumptions of how they must be feeling. The reality is we do not know how they feel unless they tell us. Check out our next “DO” to learn how you can become an active listener.
DO: BE A GOOD LISTENER
If the person you know struggling with infertility is comfortable talking about it with you and chooses to confide in you, make sure you’re a good listener.
I know, listening sounds like a basic skill. But, contrary to popular belief, there is such a thing as being a bad listener. Being a good listener means being an active listener.
MindTools defines active listening as “making a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, the complete message being communicated.”
Basically, you need to intentionally show you are listening. Here are a couple quick tips:
1. Mind your body language
You can tell when someone is disinterested or not listening to you by their body language (ex: checking their phone, not making eye contact, etc.). Show you are listening by sitting straight up, legs uncrossed, arms uncrossed, with nothing in front of you. This consciously and subconsciously shows others that you are open to what they are saying.
2. Talk (a little)
I know what you’re thinking: doesn’t listening mean no talking? Yes and no.
Most of listening means not talking, but active listening sometimes includes talking (sparingly) to clarify or understand. To clarify, use reflection statements like, “It sounds like you are overwhelmed because you said…” To understand, make sure you ask open-ended questions that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no.” Example: “how did you feel when you met with the doctor?” Not “did that make you feel sad?”
DON’T: GIVE UNSOLICITED ADVICE
Most of us don’t intentionally give advice to harm or hurt another person. More than likely, our desire to give advice comes from good intentions—wanting to help and support someone.
However, when you’re suffering from the stress and sadness that infertility can bring, advice can feel patronizing or condescending. You cannot fix someone’s infertility, but you can support and love them.
“Never tell a person to relax and let it happen, or that it will happen when they stop trying — like when your friend’s cousin’s niece’s wife’s aunt’s boss tried to get pregnant for a year. It doesn’t work that way, and it just implies that it is somehow their fault they are infertile because they are stressing too much. The best thing you can say is, ‘I’m sorry you are going through this.’” –Trina Alex, writer for Huffington Post
If the person dealing with infertility is comfortable with you or has asked you directly for help, gently guide them to support groups and online resources. However, this should only happen with love.
DO: RAISE AWARENESS OF INFERTILITY
Whether it’s you, your sister, brother, your coworker, or your friend, infertility is a sensitive topic to talk about 50 million couples around the world are suffering with infertility right now.
Start the conversation today by asking and actively listening, not assuming or giving unsolicited advice. Raise awareness of infertility by sharing this article and checking out local events.
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