GUIDELINES FOR FRIENDS AND RELATIVES OF PEOPLE WITH INFERTILITY
When someone you care about opens up to you and tells you that they have problems conceiving a child, they are likely to be distressed and extremely sensitive to comments made by others. You may also be embarrassed and now know what to say without making them feel worse, or you may not appreciate the implications of this problem to the couple concerned and what effect it will have on them. A caring attitude can make all the difference to infertile couples and how they are able to deal with their problem, yet it is hard for people who have not been in the same situation to understand what they are experiencing and to predict what is the right or wrong things to say.
Unfortunately, even the most well meaning comments can be quite hurtful or cause misunderstandings. This article was compiled by a group of people experiencing fertility problems in order to communicate their needs to those who wish to help.
In general, couples prefer it if friends and relatives show an interest in their problems and ask how their investigations/treatment/adoption is going and how they are feeling. It is preferable that you ask ( or ask if it is OK to ask) than say nothing because you are afraid of upsetting them. This may give the impression that you don’t care.
ACCEPTANCE AND ADVICE
It is very important you accept that the couple really do have a fertility problem if they tell you so. They may already have been trying for a baby for many months or years, so dismissing their problems by saying that it’s only a matter of time, for example, does not help. There is probably a genuine medical reason, even if it hasn’t been discovered yet. Advice not to think about it, not to try too hard, not to get stressed, or advice about how their lifestyle may be causing the problem may make them feel that you ‘think its their fault’, which it is not. Please leave the advice to the medics.
REASSURANCE AND ENCOURAGEMENT
There is little reassurance you can give to an infertile couple about whether they will eventually have a baby or not. Once they have been trying for a baby for two years or more, the chances of a natural pregnancy each month are very low. Insisting that they will succeed because someone you know did after several years is like telling someone they WILL have a big win on the lottery. It would be very nice, but you have no way of knowing for certain). A couple may want to explore alternatives such as adoption to achieve the family they long for so much.
Fertility treatment offers hope for many couples. However, success rates per treatment are not brilliant and they need several attempts before they may achieve pregnancy. Sadly, there are some couples who will never succeed to have their own child, no matter what treatment they receive. No one can predict the outcome of each treatment cycle or who will succeed eventually. Going for fertility treatment is not like going for a job interview; a positive attitude does not improve ones’ chances of success, so advocating ‘positive thinking’ is not necessarily helpful. Please try to understand that the couple may want to be more realistic about the chances of success, as this helps them prepare for a negative outcome.
SYMPATHY AND SUPPORT
Sympathy is appropriate in infertility. Infertility is like a bereavement, although there is nothing to focus the grief upon. Infertile couples are painfully aware of what they have lost when they see other couples with their families or when fertility treatment fails. The grieving process is long and drawn out because the couple cannot start to come to terms with their loss until they are satisfied they have tried all the options they are prepared to undergo, or can afford.
Infertility will be one of the worst things in life the couple will ever experience, and trying to cheer them up by telling them that things could be worse or how lucky they are not to have the responsibility of a family, for example, may make them think you regard their problem as trivial. As a rule, do not say anything to an infertile couple that you wouldn’t say to someone who has lost a child. Offering a sympathetic listening ear will probably be the most supportive thing to do. Perhaps offering to attend a clinic open evening will help you to understand what the treatment is all about, how much the couple has to go through during a treatment cycle, and show that you do care about what they are experiencing.
OTHER PEOPLE’S PREGNANCIES
It is impossible to ‘protect’ an infertile couple from other people’s pregnancies, as having babies is a fundamental part of life for most families. Most infertile couples would prefer to know about a new pregnancy as soon as possible. They want to be happy for the couple but need time to get used to the idea. Some appreciate it if a friend tells them they are planning a pregnancy too. Surprise pregnancy announcements in public can be upsetting for the couple and it would be kinder to let them know beforehand.
Generally, you can make things easier for the infertile couple by keeping them informed but not labouring the subject of pregnancies and babies. Leave it to them to ask for more details if they want to know.
OTHER PEOPLE’S FAMILIES
Some infertile couples wish to get involved with other people’s children as much as possible, especially when they are beginning to think that they may never have children themselves. Other couples find contact with children and pregnant women a painful reminder of their inability to have a baby. Therefore, it is hard to know how to treat them. Please do not assume that they will not want to join in and get involved with families, but then do not condemn them if they appear reluctant to socialise in large groups – they may prefer to meet one individual family at a time, when they are not in a minority.
Infertility is often regarded as a failure by the couples concerned and it erodes their self-esteem. They may not wish to admit their problem or may only want close friends and family to know. Others prefer it if everyone knows so that they don’t put their foot in it. Please respect the couple’s wishes in this respect.
The infertile couple is unlikely to see the funny side if you refer to their problem as a joke or use derogatory terms for infertile men and women. Unfortunately, this does happen sometimes. The couple may make a joke about their problem at some time when they are ready to do so, but don’t initiate the joking yourself.
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