Infertility Etiquette 101

Some gentle suggestions for how you can help

You mean well, and we know you do. But unless you have lived through the haunting heartbreak and emotional fragility of infertility, it can be hard to know what to say to your friend or family member who is working so hard to grow her family. As someone who has been there, I offer this humble guide to getting it right.

Be careful about sharing other people's stories. Please don't enthusiastically tell your friend, family member, or co-worker about someone who got pregnant naturally after years of trying or treatment. Hope is a good thing, but not when it can be interpreted as yet another performance metric. These stories can often backfire and further distress the loved one who is steeped in their own infertility mystery. They will likely walk away thinking: Good for her. It's got nothing to do with my situation.

Steer clear of offering medical advice or how-to tips (unless you're a trained reproductive endocrinologist). Odds are very high that the couple involved has done their homework (and then some).

Be a good and compassionate listener. It's not easy for anyone to discuss malfunctioning sex organs. Follow your loved one's lead. If you don't understand something, ask gently for clarification.

Try out these good responses to bad news:

•   "I'm sorry, this must be really difficult. Do you want to talk about it?"

•   "You're probably sick of explaining this stuff to people. What is a good resource where I can learn more?"

•   "This must be a very confusing and emotional time for you. How can I help?"

•   "You don't need any more stress or obligations in your life right now, so take as much time as you need. We'll be here for you when you're ready."

•   "Even though I can't fully understand how you feel, what's the best way to support you?"

Know that there's nothing lightweight about fertility treatments. With each step in the infertility workup, there are increasingly complicated medical protocols ranging from uncomfortable, invasive tests to a cocktail of medications that have unpleasant, sometimes dangerous side effects. Often multiple surgeries and outpatient procedures are required in advance of the next phase of treatment.

Understand that there is no shortcut for reconciling infertility. The heartbreak that accompanies each setback and loss is cumulative. While most people focus on the physical aspects of infertility, it's the gaping emotional wounds that take the longest time to heal – and sometimes they reopen when we least expect it.

Each of us comes to terms with infertility in our own way. With the warm support and understanding of the people around us, we will – one day – find a measure of peace and rediscover joy again. Thank you for your support.