National Infertility Week is coming to a close, which is a good time to remember that 7.3 million women in the United States are infertile. Reproductive endocrinologists note that while 7% of white women report difficulty conceiving, the rate of infertility among black women is significantly higher at 11.5%. They cite many possible reasons for this — uterine fibroids, STIs, excess weight, and endometriosis — but are still without definitive answers as to why so many women of any ethnic background are unable to have children. If the problem is so common, why aren’t we more open about it? Why is infertility so hard to talk about for both those who are experiencing it and those who would like to offer support?
I have a close friend who tried for years to conceive, and the process almost tore apart her marriage and relationships with those around her. As soon as she got married, people started asking “so, when are you going to pop out some babies?” Months and then years passed, and some relatives even acted impatient at the absence of a little one.
Little did they know, she was trying, but nothing was happening. None of the methods that doctors recommended worked, acupuncture and changes in diet were no help, and fertility treatments ranged from costly to out-of-the-question financially. Eventually she accepted that her family of two might be complete as it was, and stopped trying. She was heartbroken, but never open with most people about what was really going on because their responses usually broke her heart a little more.
As a friend trying to be supportive, I often fumbled for the right thing to say and put my foot in my mouth a few times. I learned that what seemed like consolation was often insulting. Our knee-jerk reactions to infertility problems often mirror those that we give after someone experiences a death, for example, “this must be God’s plan,” or “everything happens (or doesn’t happen) for a reason.” That stings, because the failure to get pregnant can feel like a death, and makes the person feel like they are for some reason doomed and helpless while other people are free to have children that they may not even want — all as part of “God’s plan.”
My friend was also tired of people immediately responding with a nervous combination of “well, my aunt went through the same thing and stop trying and *poof* she was pregnant!” and “maybe you should try this other thing you haven’t tried,” and “whatever you do don’t take drugs/have a test tube baby/use an egg donor,” and “you should just adopt.” Every infertile woman is trying every available option that makes sense for her already. Your ideas, although just trying to help, are usually not new to her. Even the subtle implication that an infertile friend has not considered all of her options stings even more.
I’m thankful that my friend had the patience to set me and a few of her closest friends straight, but it’s a shame that the selfish ones who only saw their advice being rejected or could only see their personal need to greet a new baby fell by the wayside in her life.