Supporting Loved Ones Through Infertility
Infertility can be an extremely isolating period of grief for families. 1 in 6 Australians will experience fertility issues.
With these numbers, it is likely that you know someone who has been affected by infertility and loss. If you are close to someone suffering through infertility or pregnancy loss, it is important to understand what infertility is and how it affects your loved ones. My amazing Psychology student Brianna Donnelly has prepared this great piece on how you can best support someone you care about who is experiencing infertility.
The Medical Side of Infertility
To understand how to support your loved one, it is important to understand the medical side of what they are experiencing.
What is infertility?
Infertility is defined as the inability to conceive after one year of regular intercourse, which becomes six months after the age of 35.
What causes infertility?
Infertility can be either female factor (40%), male factor (40%), or idiopathic (unknown; 20%). Access Australia indicate that the most common causes for infertility include, but are not limited to:
How is infertility treated?
Treatments for infertility are determined based on its cause. The most common treatments include fertility drugs, In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF), Intra Uterine Insemination (IUI) and related treatments. Other couples will opt for natural treatments including herbs, meditation and acupuncture.
The Emotional Side of Infertility
There are a few common feelings infertile individuals will experience that you, as their loved one, ought to be aware of and understand.
Infertility is not just medical. There is a deep, emotional impact of infertility that often requires counselling and extensive support. The loss of fertility means losing the dream of a family and can cause an emotional impact akin to that of losing a close loved one. Infertility is also commonly accompanied with pregnancies that resulted in miscarriage.
You may find that your friend begins skipping social gatherings or events involving families or children, which is particularly common if you have a young family or are pregnant. Times such as Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and birthday parties can be extremely difficult as it serves as a reminder of the potential family they have lost.
People battling infertility may suffer in silence even around close family and friends. This is commonly to avoid close people saying the wrong things or putting them on the spot, even if they are well-intentioned. Infertility is a sensitive and vulnerable topic, and many individuals prefer to keep it private.
As mentioned, people struggling with infertility may avoid people or be secretive about their battle out of fear their close ones will say the wrong thing. Here are some examples of what you should not say or do to your loved ones.
Avoiding your loved one. You may avoid your loved one especially if you are pregnant or have children out of fear of triggering them. Avoidance can make someone struggling with infertility feel even more isolated.
Offering unsolicited advice. Advice that comes from a place of inexperience can be conveyed as insensitivity. Giving this kind of advice does more to minimise our own discomfort rather than alleviate their suffering.
Putting a positive spin on it. Comments instilled with false optimism can invalidate your loved one’s pain and does not erase their trauma. A big example of this is an anecdote about a family member who managed to fall pregnant, how maybe this is meant to be, or that it will happen eventually.
“At least you know you can get pregnant”. Saying this phrase to someone who has miscarried is extremely painful and reminds them of their loss and potential future of loss.
“There’s always adoption”. This is harmful for a few reasons. Your friend may want their own biological family or to carry their own child, which is valid in its own right. Alternatively, this is another form of misinformed advice, as adoption is not as easy in Australia as you may think. There were only 310 adoptions in Australia between 2018 and 2019, which was a 64% decline from 1994.
“At least you already have a child”. Secondary infertility is the occurrence of infertility after successfully having a child already. Having a child does not buffer against infertility-related stress. Individuals and couples often have a dream or plan for what they want their family to look like, and it is completely valid for them to be upset when this does not come to fruition.
What can I do or say instead?
Understand they may need space. Infertility is an isolating experience, however sometimes space is exactly what your love one might need. Social gatherings involving families and children are difficult, which is an important thing to consider. The best way to go about this is by still inviting them and ensuring they feel welcome but show your sensitivity by letting them know there is no pressure for them to come. Ultimately, let your loved one know you are there when they are ready for your support.
Listen. This one might sound obvious, but when your loved one wants your help, it is important to listen. This means not imposing your own advice onto them, and instead letting your friend guide the discussion. This also involves understanding the unique experience of infertility or fertility treatment your friend is having. Let them tell you the highs, the lows and everything in between. Doing this will allow you to gain a deeper appreciation for their journey and understand what you can do to support them best. Additionally, understand they may not solely want to talk about their infertility. Allow them to signal to you what they need, and you might be able to distract them where they wish.
Be sensitive. This primarily involves being sensitive with the questions and language you are using. Asking your friend if they have gotten pregnant or had any luck with their situation will add extra pressure and make them feel as though they are letting everyone down. It is also necessary to be sensitive about how they may receive your own exciting news, such as falling pregnant yourself. Letting your loved one know before they found out through someone else allows them to have a private discussion in a safe space. Validate their conflicting feelings and understand that their envy, anger and sadness is natural, and recognise they may need space to process it. This means you ought to avoid complaining about things such as pregnancy symptoms and talking about the new connections you may be establishing with other new parents.
Offer support. Support can be practical, too. Practical help can involve helping your loved one cope with the demands of daily life and treatment. You can offer to cook meals, do a grocery shop, or offer to let select people know about treatment progress to avoid any difficult conversations. For couples experiencing secondary infertility, you may offer to watch their other children or help with homework to alleviate their stress. If they are attempting to start exercising to improve their fitness for treatment, you could also offer to train with them to boost their motivation and let them feel like you are in it together. If your loved one is going through fertility treatment, it may mean a lot to them if you offer to attend any difficult appointments with them, particularly if their partner cannot go.
Suggest professional help. Grief and depression are normal experiences for an infertile individual to experience. If these feelings become disabling over a long period of time and begins to interfere with their daily functioning, you should suggest that they seek professional counselling.
Remember: your loved one is blessed to have someone in their life actively seeking ways to help them. Forgive yourself if you have may any of the common pitfalls people tend to fall into and know that your love and support will help them tremendously during their infertility or treatment.
Below are some resources you may wish to familiarise yourself with or discuss with your loved one. Chances are they are already familiar with at least one of these but knowing where they can get support outside of you is also very important.
- Australia’s National Infertility Network: Access Australia
Access Australia is a great resource for information, support and referrals regarding fertility issues.
- Fertility Society of Australia (FSA)
The FSA provides information about infertility issues, including the latest research on fertility treatments.
- Jean Hailes for Women’s Health
Jean Hailes for Women’s Health is a national not-for-profit organisation aimed at improving women’s health across Australia across all ages. There is a section on their website dedicated to fertility and pregnancy.
- Sands: Miscarriage, Stillbirth & Newborn Death Support
Sands is a volunteer-based organisation providing individualised care from one bereaved parent to another, giving them support and hope for the future, following the death of a baby.
- Your Fertility
Your Fertility offers facts about fertility for men, women, trans and gender diverse people in light of unique circumstances. This includes knowledge about how to reduce your risk factors and access to personal stories.
For further information on how to support your loved one, visit the following websites:
Access Australia: For friends & family
ART: How family and friends can help
Circle & Bloom: What Can You Say (or Do) When Someone You Know is Struggling with Infertility?
How to support a loved one going through infertility
Life Hacker: How to Support Someone You Love Through Infertility
Psychology Today: Supporting a Friend Through Fertility
Sands: Grief information for friends and family