Words Matter: Effective Communication Principles for People Dealing with Infertility

Infertility is not for the faint of heart. In addition to coping with monthly cycles of hope, disappointment and hope renewed, you have to deal with any number of other challenges. For many, a big challenge comes in figuring out if, when and how to talk with others about the infertility experience. After countless conversations with those at all stages of infertility, adoption, donor conception and surrogacy, I’ve landed with some guiding principles.

First, it is important to see yourself as a manager of information and to remember that it’s your information. As a manager, you’ll need to stay a step ahead of your “public.” What might people ask you? What do you want them to know? When are you being secretive, as opposed to simply maintaining privacy? What is too much information and what is not enough? And most important, what communications will preserve the dignity of your family and respect your future child’s story? Which leads me to the second principle…

Communication in infertility is sometimes like the Goldilocks story. There are people who err on the side of not offering enough, some who provide too much and those who get it “just right.” In order to get what feels just right for you, it helps to decide what you want someone to know. The someones in your life include distant acquaintances, colleagues, casual friends and neighbors, plus an inner circle - those with whom you have close, intimate bonds.

The first group is easy. Acquaintances probably know little about you and there’s no reason for them to know more. If they ask if you have children, you might simply say, “Not yet, we’re hoping someday,” then change the subject.

The second group can pose more challenges. They may innocently ask if you are planning to have children, or you might sense that they are quietly wondering. For this group, you may want to say something along the lines of, “Yes, we very much hope to have a baby and are working hard on it,” then change the subject.

With both groups, you graciously but firmly convey the message - this is private.

It’s your inner circle you’ll want to approach with your most skilled communication. These are the people who love and care deeply about and with whom you want to share. They’re the ones you want to tell what you’re going through. So, how much information is “just right” for them?

Consider letting those closest to you know the essentials of your situation, but not the details. For example, you want your sister or your best friend to know you are going through IVF but do you want her to know the schedule of your cycle? Do you want her phoning to see how many eggs were retrieved or fertilized, the day of your transfer?

Most importantly, do you want some privacy around your pregnancy test? The answer to each of these questions will vary among those in your inner circle and from cycle to cycle. You may want someone in on all during a first IVF attempt, but if it disappoints, seek more privacy the second time around.

The guiding principle should be you, staying one step ahead, and figuring out what you wish others to know, so they can offer support and understanding.

There is another dimension to communication when it comes to adoption, surrogacy or donor conception. In addition to maintaining a comfortable privacy level, you may also wish to pay attention to messaging.

If you are moving on to an alternate path to parenthood, you may feel vulnerable. It’s important you not communicate that vulnerability, because the risk is others may mirror it.

A guiding principle is to speak from confidence, or postpone the conversation until you can. For example, “We have great news, we’ve decided to adopt,” conveys a very different message than, “We’re getting discouraged with IVF and are thinking of adopting.” It’s hard to imagine someone undermining the “great news” announcement, but easy to think of upsetting responses to the second.

Infertility so often feels like an “out of control” experience. Those who become skilled managers of their information, feel more connected to those they care about, and are often rewarded by having found a measure of control.

Ellen S. Glazer LICSW is a social worker and author of the book, “The Long Awaited Stork: A Guide to Parenting After Infertility.”

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