Infertility can be an incredibly difficult thing to experience. And it can be just as hard seeing someone you care about going through it, especially knowing you can’t fix it.
While infertility can impact people of all genders, it can be especially challenging for people with uteruses, largely due to societal pressure and expectations. For those who want to have children, experiencing infertility can be a stressful, frustrating, and devastating time, filled with grief, guilt and anger.
But having the right support can be life-changing – and sometimes, just being there with empathy, kindness and care can mean the world to someone experiencing infertility.
What does infertility mean?
Clinically, “infertility” refers to a person who is not pregnant after 12 months of regular unprotected sex. Infertility can include experiences like miscarriage, stillbirth, and being unable to impregnate or become pregnant. According to IVF Australia, one in six couples of reproductive age in Australia experience infertility.
There are many factors that can contribute to infertility. For people with a uterus, this can include conditions like endometriosis, adenomyosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), as well as hormonal disorders, fibroids, damaged or blocked fallopian tubes, thick cervical mucus, pelvic inflammatory disease, and sexually transmitted diseases. For others, it might include things like low sperm count, poor sperm movement, shape or production, blocked tubes or evacuation failure, sperm DNA fragmentation, as well as genetic diseases.
Treating infertility can be a really stressful time – financially, emotionally and physically. It might mean things like frequent medical appointments, blood tests and ultrasounds. It might also include ovulation cycle tracking, ultrasounds, medication, IVF, artificial insemination, ovulation induction and fertility surgery – all of which can be challenging, on top of dealing with the emotional aspects of infertility.
What are some things I can do to support someone experiencing infertility?
While you can’t change whether someone is experiencing infertility, there are a lot of things you can do to support someone going through it.
When someone is struggling, household tasks are often the first to fall behind. It can be hard to do everyday chores when you feel like your world is falling apart, and this can lead to additional stress and anguish.
Practical things you might be able to do to support someone going through a tough time could include cooking and dropping off meals, helping with laundry, general household cleaning, getting groceries, supporting with everyday errands, or looking after pets or other children they might have.
It’s important to ask what someone might need help with first, but it’s equally important to remember a lot of people might find it difficult to accept help, even if they need it. Assure them your offers are genuine, that you see their struggles, and that you want to do whatever you can to ease the burden for them.
Doing things that show you care can also be really appreciated – even small things, like sending a text to let them know you’re thinking about them can make a huge impact. Sending cards with heartfelt messages can also help, as well as things like flowers and other small gifts to brighten someone’s day.
But you don’t need to spend money to be there for someone. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to just be there, with no expectations. Some people might want to talk about it, some people might not. It’s always best to ask the person what they need, but often when we’re experiencing grief and depression, we don’t know what we need.
Make sure you keep inviting your friend to things, even if they don’t accept – and if external socialisation is too much, you can always offer to do something small and simple, like go to their house and watch a movie. Even going for a walk can have huge benefits for someone’s mental health.
What to say to someone experiencing infertility
When someone you care about is struggling, it can be difficult to find the right words to comfort them and let them know you care, and experiencing infertility is no different. Being such a complex issue with a lot of complex emotions, you may feel a lot of pressure to say the right thing.
To support someone experiencing infertility, you might say things like:
- “I’m here for you”
- “I am thinking of you and sending you love”
- “Is there anything you need help with?”
- “What can I do to support you?”
- “It’s okay to feel however you feel. Your emotions are valid”
- “Sometimes, bad things happen, and we can’t control them – but you don’t have to go through it alone”
- “I’m sorry this is happening, but I love you, and we will get through this together.”
For a lot of people, it’s also important that their loss is acknowledged. Maybe they may want to hold a funeral or commemoration ceremony. Maybe they might want to acknowledge important dates, like a due date. Remember the dates that are important to your friend, so you can be there to support them.
But everyone is different. Sometimes, even if you say the right thing, someone can still have an emotional reaction, especially if their infertility experiences are raw. Take the time to research what your friend has gone through and read about the lived experience of others who’ve gone through similar things, so you can understand it better. There are also a lot of organisations, like Miscarriage Australia, that have some great additional resources.
Even if you don’t understand what they’re going through, it’s important they know you’re there for them. Don’t keep your distance just because you feel awkward with their emotions and grief. And remember, grief can be a complex thing. Recovery is a journey, and for many people with infertility, the grief never goes away.
What not to say to someone experiencing infertility
Even if you have good intentions, your words of support might still be hurtful to someone experiencing infertility. The best way to avoid additionally hurting someone experiencing infertility is to understand their experience – and recognise some common sayings and reactions that can be harmful.
For example, many people going through infertility – or any kind of grief or challenge – don’t want pity or sympathy. It doesn’t help, and may only worsen how they feel. Instead, empathy is vital – put yourself in their shoes and imagine what it would be like for them. And if empathy is something you struggle with, check out our resource on how to be more empathetic.
Some common things people say to those experiencing infertility that can be incredibly hurtful include:
- “At least you can try again”
- “At least you have other kids/a partner/a pet”
- “At least you can focus on your career now”
- “Just think positive”
- “Oh, you’re lucky you don’t have kids – think of all that extra time and money you have”
- “Well, you can babysit for us!”
- “At least you know you can get pregnant”
- “It wasn’t a real baby yet”
- “At least it happened early”
- “It will happen for you some day, just keep trying. You don’t know true love until you’ve had a baby”
- “You’re overreacting”
- “Have you tried yoga?”
Toxic positivity is a theme that’s constant throughout the above list – and it’s incredibly harmful. It invalidates valid emotions, and it’s simply not achievable. You can’t expect someone to be positive or suppress their true feelings when they’re going through something challenging.
It’s also not helpful to highlight the ‘benefits’ of their infertility or try to find ways to invalidate their experiences by saying “at least”. Unsolicited advice can also be harmful and typically, people going through any medical challenge will have tried everything they can.
Be mindful of topics and events that might be hard for someone experiencing infertility
Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can be especially difficult for people trying to have a baby, so it’s important to be mindful about these dates, as well as dates specific to your friend’s experiences.
Days related to kids can also be difficult, including pregnancy announcements, baby showers and birthdays. Some people experiencing infertility might want to avoid these things, as they can be a painful reminder, while others might love to be involved.
If you have kids or are pregnant, you don’t need to hide it from a friend experiencing infertility – but consider ways to approach it with sensitivity.
Think about events you could arrange that aren’t child-centred. And if you have news or want to invite them to something child-related, maybe you could send them a text, to allow them to process their emotions in private. But don’t hide things from them, because that exclusion can make their experiences even more painful.
Encourage them to seek support – or seek it yourself
Infertility can have a huge impact on a person’s mental health and sense of self, which is why it’s important to talk about hard experiences and process them, rather than bottling them up. While a lot of people struggle with admitting they need help, professional advice can be a huge benefit and it can save lives.
Encourage your friend to seek support. If they won’t talk to a loved one, it might be a good idea to get them to visit their doctor to organise seeing a psychologist or counsellor. There are also support groups, which they can attend either online and in-person.
But it’s also important to notice the impact someone else’s struggles have on you – and it’s okay to admit you’re not okay, too. It can be a good idea to seek help for yourself to process your own emotions, so you can be there for someone else.