Help! What Do I Do When Somebody I Care About is Experiencing Infertility?

Having a friend or family member experiencing infertility can be tough on your relationship. It may even seem you can never say or do the right thing and they may be either irritable, sensitive, or isolating of themselves much of the time. While those of you fortunate in not experiencing infertility may never fully understand what your infertile loved ones may be going through, there are a few things that are important to know, a few things you can do to help, and lots of understanding and caring you can try to provide.

  • Understand - Know that individuals experiencing infertility are stressed (and there is no conclusive evidence that this is the cause of their infertility), often feel ashamed, sad, hopeless, angry, out of control, and fearful they will never have children. While they may care about you, your pregnancy, and your children, they may not be able to support you at this time as they often find it difficult to be around pregnant women and young children. They are often ashamed of these feelings, yet they are very common and understandable. However, this may make family holidays and birth/children's events quite difficult. Try to understand their pain and know if you are sensitive, they will re-join you some day.
  • Validate - While you may often feel powerless to help your friend/family member or to take away their pain, there are things they need from you that will help. They need you to listen, validate their struggle and empathize if you can, don't tell them what to do, be supportive and sensitive, be informed, and be patient with them. If people have shared their infertility struggle with you, this is very personal and private information and means that they trust you. So, do not share it with others unless they give you permission.
  • Support - Ask if there is anything you can do to help such as going to appointments with them or cooking a meal. If your abundant fertility means you aren't the best person to help them, don't be offended. Play down your identity as a parent or pregnant person, as well as your children for now. Be sensitive in announcing a pregnancy or inviting them to baby-centered events such as baptisms, brits, or kids' birthdays. Don't spring news of a pregnancy on them in a group. Consider calling them in advance of a planned event, explain that you do not want to exclude them as they are important to you, and you want them to do what is most comfortable for them - that you will completely understand whatever they need to do - and mean it.
  • Empathize - You may feel helpless or awkward in the face of your loved one's infertility, not knowing how to help or what to say, and fearing whatever you do may upset them. This discomfort can result in either withdrawing from them or blurting out some well-intentioned but simplistic advice such as, just…relax, adopt, have a drink, take a vacation, maybe this means you are not meant to have a child, or that everything will work out. It may be better to empathize, not saying, "I know just what you're feeling" (because you probably don't), but, by saying something more like, "I bet all this uncertainty makes this really hard." Simply telling them you love/care about them and that you are sorry because you know how much they want children is far better. Ask them if they want to talk about it, and make yourself available. Ask if you can call and check on how they are, or if they prefer to contact you when they wish, and respect their privacy if they don't want you to contact them.
  • Ask - Every infertile person is different in their comfort in sharing and their needs of you. Don't assume, ask. Realize their needs may change from day to day as they are in the process of decision-making or undergoing treatment. And, be patient, as infertility can take a long time to resolve. Yet know, also, if you have treated them with kindness, compassion, understanding, and sensitivity, you will remain an important person in their life and they will rejoin you in your close relationship some day.

Joann Paley Galst, Ph.D., is Co-director of Support Services and Chair of the Mental Health Advisory Council for Path2Parenthood. She is a psychologist in New York City specializing in reproductive health issues including infertility and pregnancy loss and a past chair of the Mental Health Professional Group of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. She is also a co-author of a professional text published by American Psychological Association Books entitled, Ethical Dilemmas in Fertility Counseling.