If you’ve recently passed the wave of engagements and weddings among friends, you may soon notice the chatter quickly turns to another topic: babies. Pretty soon, it can feel like everyone you know is starting a family—or trying to. And with that, chances are you have at least one friend experiencing infertility, even if they’re keeping it to themselves.
According to the National Institutes of Health, about 9% of men and 11% of women of reproductive age in the US have experienced fertility problems. And if a friend discloses that they’re going through this, either alone or with a partner, your instinct is probably to reach out and offer your support, right? But figuring out the right thing to say or do isn’t exactly easy, especially if you’ve never been in their shoes.
Infertility comes with its own special kind of visceral pain and grief, which is why it’s so important for people to have a support network throughout their journey. At the same time, the difficulty of the situation is also what makes having the right words so challenging. “It’s such a sensitive topic because it’s really an unexpected pain,” Allison Ramsey, MS, LMHC, a psychotherapist specializing in fertility, grief, and perinatal loss, and the owner of nature-focused support group Bloom Where You Are Planted, tells SELF. “We’ve all been taught that getting pregnant is so easy, so when it doesn’t work, it just destroys every core of our sense of being.”
And that can be especially difficult when someone’s friends and family all seem to be getting pregnant. “Everybody around you is successfully doing this thing that you can’t make happen, and it feels like a knife wound, like getting stabbed. It’s pretty visceral,” Lucille Keenan, PsyD, a psychologist and fertility counselor in North Carolina, tells SELF. “Oftentimes, people have been able to achieve so many things in life by pushing through, by doing more, but then there’s this thing you can’t make happen.”
Just being with that person, through the good news and bad news, can be very helpful as they navigate this, Dr. Keenan says. Here, experts share the best things to do and say (and what not to say) to best support a friend who is experiencing infertility.
1. Let them know you’re there to listen.
“The best thing to say is ‘I’m here if you want to talk,’ and then just be there to listen to them,” Kim Crone, PhD, a psychologist at The Center for Advanced Reproductive Services in Connecticut, tells SELF. “This gives them space during this very distressing experience to talk about it without judgment and without opinions.” If you’re not sure what to really say, you can start with something like: “What’s this been like for you? This must be really hard.” This leaves things open ended so that they can talk and share in the way they want to, Dr. Crone says.
Keenan says that texts are a great way to let someone know you’re thinking of them and are wondering how they are doing, because it opens the door for conversation in a low-pressure way. Adding something along the lines of “No need to reply if you are not up for it,” can help make it clear that they are in control. Just letting them know you’re there to support them and talk if they ever want to can go a long way, she says.
2. Encourage them to set boundaries.
If you want to keep checking in regularly but are unsure if they’d like that, just ask, Ramsey says. Something like, “Do you feel like telling me where you are in the process? If not, that’s totally okay and I will stop asking.” This can help you strike the right balance between managing your own desire to be there for them and their tolerance for discussing this difficult journey, Keenan says. It can also help them identify what they’re feeling and what they need from their support network, since they may be grappling with that as well.