Everyone occasionally suffers seizures of Open Mouth Insert Foot Disease. It can be embarrassing and awkward. Most times the only one truly injured is the one chewing sneakers.
Sometimes, however, people swallow a whole pair of shoes in a single breath, completely oblivious to the harm they’ve just done. They’ll say things they truly believe are helpful never knowing that their well-meaning verbal balms contain salt. Instead of soothing they sting. They fester and ache and often incite anger.
Infertility is one of these social minefields.
Before we became parents, we battled infertility for four years. During that time I felt rejected, forsaken, without purpose or future. Every month broadcast my failure. I felt utterly alone. People wanted to help. They tried to help. Most encounters, however, left me feeling worse and even more alone. I hated the platitudes and the “easy fixes” everyone freely gave.
I know I was irrational and hormonal. My friends and family (not to mention my husband) didn’t have simple jobs navigating my volatile emotional state. It’s not easy loving someone through something so difficult.
Having been on the inside, I want to offer some suggestions for those of you who haven’t. I’d like to share with you what those currently in the journey can’t.
There is nothing you can say that will help.
We know you want to help, but please understand that offering “quick fixes” doesn’t help. Bringing God into the conversation usually makes things worse, too. When faith and criticism mix, the attack is not only against someone’s actions or character, but also their soul. Cliches can be true, but more often than not, they’re empty and cryptic. They walk away hurt and you wonder why your reasonable suggestions are not met with the gratitude they deserve.
Let me help you help them.
Here are some specific examples of what NOT to say and why.
Such and such worked for So-and-so … If you just … These sentences can go many ways. If you just relax. If you just keep praying. If you just eat the right foods and employ the “right” positions and “right” vitamins and … People who struggle with infertility usually know what to do. They converse with experts much more often than one might think. They read. They research. Offering them quick-fix suggestions that will solve all their problems, unfortunately, comes off as arrogant and insulting. True: Success stories are nice, but being bombarded with them is not.
Why are you so stressed? Tests, procedures, medications, more tests, more procedures, decision after decision, dealing with insurance agencies and expenses all while trying to seek God’s will and “just stay relaxed” … It’s not easy. Please don’t expect your friends to handle all this like it’s normal and no big deal. It’s a big deal.
God knows what He’s doing. God’s sovereignty strikes like a double-edged sword. It’s true that God is sovereign, and it is important to trust Him, but reminders of His Sovereignty can also translate to punishment or unworthiness. To suggest that your friend doesn’t have children because God’s answer is “No” or “Not now” is hurtful. It suggests that God, in His divine wisdom, deliberately chose to withhold children from them. Yes, God is in control, but sometimes circumstances have very little to do with God’s orchestration. (Think of Job. God didn’t do those things to him; He allowed them, but it wasn’t a malicious act against Job by God.) Sometimes people just have to walk through the valley, trusting that God is with them and will help them make it through — not that He ordained these events specifically for them.
Oh, I wish I had all your free time … You should be glad you don’t have my kids. Typically this type of statement stems from a desire to make the infertile couple feel better about their situation. You want to show them the positive side of some really awful circumstances. But it reeks of pity. Not only that, it flaunts what infertile couples desperately want, but can’t have and what you have, but don’t appreciate.
You are so brave! Someone said this to me on Mothers’ Day during the “greeting time” at church. I was holding up just fine until she embraced me with this gushing, tear-stained encouragement. It sounds encouraging, doesn’t it? It may be, but it shouldn’t be proclaimed in front of 140 people on an already emotion-packed Sunday. Sometimes the wall keeping us in tact is brittle. Statements like this should be reserved for private (preferably one-on-one) gatherings. Even then, don’t say it unless you’re prepared to handle the quick disintegration of an emotional dam.
I have no idea what you’re going through … I know exactly how you feel. Understanding is another double-edged sword. Wield it wisely. On one hand, we want you to try to understand; we don’t want to be isolated. On the other hand, whatever you may have experienced, if it’s not the same thing, it’s not the same.
During my journey, a friend consistently lamented our shared plight. She wasn’t infertile; in fact, she has been able to plan, nearly to the exact date, her children’s conceptions and births. But she wanted to start their family before her husband was ready, before they were financially stable. To her, our impediments to pregnancy were equal: we both wanted children, but had to wait. To me, they were entirely different situations: she and her husband still controlled their choices and situation while my husband and I didn’t and couldn’t.
To say you have no idea what your friend is enduring suggests that you can’t possibly imagine what it is like to deeply long for something you can’t have. To say you know exactly how they feel — when you don’t — depreciates their situation and feelings. It’s a sticky predicament, one I cannot untangle.
What CAN you do?
The little things you can do will vary by couple, but these three big things prove consistently helpful across the board.
Listen. You don’t have to know the right things to say. Just being willing to listen goes a long way. Don’t force them to dump, but when they need to, have a ready ear. Some yummy food and a box of tissues won’t hurt either.
Be available. Most couples go through ups and downs of communication. Some days they’ll want to talk about everything else. Others they’ll be restless talking of anything but. They may shut you down one week and beg for your shoulder the next. You don’t have to pry. Just let them know you’re there. They may not want to share their burdens immediately, but when they’re ready, you can help them carry the load.
Pray. You can’t fix their situation or heal their hurts, but God can. Don’t shower them with verses, platitudes or cliches, but do continue to pray for them. Our God can do all things. The Bible is filled with women whose wombs were miraculously opened! The same God who answered the prayers of Hannah, Sarai, Ruth and Elizabeth is the same God we serve now.
TALK TO ME: Do you have experience with infertility? What would you add? What actions have you received that were more supportive during such times?