Talking about infertility to someone who’s infertile is one of the most landmine-filled landscapes in the conversational world. The more I’ve healed in my own journey with infertility, the more open I am about it. And let me tell you, there are few things that make people more uncomfortable than telling them that you can’t have children! Most of the time, they just don’t know what to say, and their expressions alternate between pity and embarrassment. When they finally manage to respond, it’s not typically the most encouraging words that come out of their mouths.
So I thought I’d provide a few categories of responses to avoid and explain why they’re not helpful, followed by a few phrases that are supportive, and that can make infertile women in your life feel seen and feel loved. All of the unhelpful statements have been said to me or to infertile friends of mine, usually by well-meaning people. Nevertheless, each of these 7 statements is, to various extents, discouraging or hurtful.
#1 As soon as you stop trying to have kids, it’ll happen. I’ve been told this more times than I can count. Trust me, we stopped trying to have kids LONG ago. Not only does “relaxing” and “not trying” have absolutely NOTHING to do with fertility, but this statement is a form of false hope, and, depending on the circumstances, it can feel extremely cruel. God doesn’t promise children to anyone; there are no guarantees that any plan or lack thereof will lead to children. Don’t hold up false promises; instead, encourage the infertile women in your life to cling to real promises, like God’s unfailing love and eternal presence.
#2 Well, at least there are a lot of people out there who have it worse than you. This might be the worst of all of them. I cannot think of any circumstance under which this would be a beneficial thing to say. Dwelling on the fact that other people are in worse pain than I am does nothing to lessen my pain. In fact, if meditating on the pain of others makes me feel better, there’s something wrong with me.
#3 I know how you feel: it took my husband and me 8 months to have kids. If you currently have a biological child, you do not understand how I feel (even if you struggled to conceive). That’s okay. You don’t have to understand; I certainly don’t understand the heartache and struggles that come with being a mother! You can express true, heartfelt sympathy without knowing what someone is experiencing. Also, please be aware that medically speaking, you are not infertile until you’ve tried to conceive for a year. Don’t go to infertile friends after you’ve been trying to conceive for 4 months and tell them you’re struggling with infertility.
#4 Have you tried _____________? Infertile women usually go to a variety of doctors, and many of us are undergoing complicated treatments that you’ve probably never heard of. We use Google. We explore all our options. For every one remedy you share, we could easily rattle off a dozen. This kind of advice falls again under the category of “false hope.” If you had a friend who struggled to conceive and then drank kombucha tea for three weeks and got pregnant, that’s awesome for her. But please do not provide suggestions unless you are specifically asked.
#5 Why don’t you adopt? Sometimes this question has been merely inquisitive; other times it has been blatantly accusatory. Adoption can be beautiful, but it is a special calling. I don’t think that it should be the default setting for every infertile couple (although I’m so happy that it is the calling for many). Adoption brings huge blessings, but it also brings its share of potential for deep suffering. I could tell many stories of friends whose lives have been emotionally and financially shattered by failed adoptions. I think that infertile couples should consider adoption, but they should also consider the possibility that God has a particular calling in mind that might be difficult or impossible for them to do with children.
#6 I’ve been praying for you to have a child. This is a very well-meaning prayer, and it’s fine to pray this; just don’t tell us. We’re already feeling a ton of pressure to conceive from our families and ourselves. The thought of us not providing you with the answer to your prayer is another kind of pressure. See below for suggestions regarding what you SHOULD say you’re praying for.
#7 You know, kids are a big pain anyway. At least you don’t have to deal with dirty diapers and no sleep. This can feel belittling to someone going through the grieving process. Please know that even without a death, we are still dealing with real loss. For most people, the dream of becoming a parent builds up over many years, and it doesn’t disappear in a day. We live through anger, fear, and denial. We grieve without funerals. We miss people we’ve never met. You’d never say to someone who’d lost a mother, “Well, at least you don’t have to deal with all that nagging anymore!”
If you’ve said any of these things, please don’t feel badly. I’m sure that I’ve said terribly inappropriate and insensitive things to people whose situations I didn’t understand. Also, don’t feel like you should avoid the topic altogether. While some women need space, many women need to talk through their infertility, and most Christians are frustratingly silent on the subject. Here is a list of beneficial things to say.
#1 I’m so sorry. Just express genuine sympathy for a difficult situation.
#2 That must be so difficult for you and your husband. You don’t have to understand; just acknowledging the presence of pain that is real and that goes deep is a balm to an open wound.
#3 I’ve been praying for you to experience God’s peace. This is a beautiful thing to pray. My circumstances may never change, but God can give me His peace and His joy in the midst of life’s hardships. Peace is not the absence of trouble.
#4 How can I pray for you? Different women are at different stages of the grieving process. Listening to them and asking them for specific ways to pray goes a long way toward making them feel heard and loved.
#5 Thank you for being open about this very difficult, personal issue. We often feel like no one cares, no one wants to listen to us. Being warmly receptive when an infertile woman opens up to you about her grief is a beautiful way to show the love of Christ.
#7 Thank you for the ways in which you are a spiritual mother (volunteer work, vocation, nieces/nephews, etc.). While this is no replacement for being a biological mother, it’s wonderful to acknowledge the ways that childless women “mother” the children in their lives. I help raise about 120 teenagers a year. I work in children’s church. I babysit my niece and nephew so that their parents can have time alone. There are many opportunities that God has given me for coming alongside the moms in my life and helping them wherever I can. It’s nice to know that these efforts are noticed and appreciated.
Above all, continually point the women in your life (single, married, mothers, childless, widows) to the truth of the gospel and the unfailing love of their Savior. If your mind is centered on Christ and you speak His truth in love, it’s hard to go wrong.