What not to say...
From The Infertility Companion for Catholics: Spiritual and Practical Support for Couples by Angelique Ruhi-López and Carmen Santarmaría, published by Ave Maria Press (2012) Excerpts from Chapter 11 Reprinted here with permission.
Well-meaning people often don’t know what to say to couples living with infertility. People have the best intentions, but we all know where those can lead! Here are some of my “favorite” things not to say to infertile couples:
“Just relax – you’re too stressed.”
People don’t become less stressed by being told to be less stressed. Most times, infertility is caused by an underlying medical issue, not stress. Plus, that implies no one who is stressed conceives, which simply isn’t true.
“Give up, leave it in God’s hands.”
The implication here is that one is not detached enough, which is like saying it is somehow the couple’s fault because they are not abandoned to God’s will. We never know the interior of someone’s heart and cannot assume they are not allowing God to be in control.
“I completely understand how you feel.”
Whether or not you have experienced infertility, everyone’s feelings and experiences are different. With empathy, perhaps we have an inkling of what they’re going through but not exactly. “I can see how you might feel that way” is a better alternative.
“Just adopt; there are plenty of kids who need homes.”
Yes, adoption is a good option, but coming to terms with this and grieving about never having biological children takes time. Also, not everyone is able to adopt, due to financial reasons or age, for example. As a friend or relative, you may present adoption as an alternative to consider but not as a solution to infertility. If God is calling a couple to adopt, he will guide them to it in time.
“I was able to conceive by drinking pineapple juice.” (or other similar old wives’ tales)
We are bombarded by quick fixes to fertility issues. It’s already hard not to be tempted to try every solution under the sun. Saying what worked for you merely adds stress to the couple trying to conceive.
“I got pregnant when I wasn’t even trying.”
This kind of comment can be hurtful and implies that not trying is the solution. With the gift of Natural Family Planning, it is often hard for couples not to try given how we know our most fertile times each month.
“Why are you trying some unknown Catholic treatment when so-and-so got pregnant easily using in vitro fertilization (IVF)?”
It is hard enough to face many secular doctors who question our desire to remain true to Church teachings; we don’t need our family and friends questioning us, too. Instead, ask questions about the treatments, not out of mere curiosity, but to be more informed on the myriad options available to Catholics. You never know when you can pass along the information to someone else.
Ignoring the problem or denying it exists isn’t being a good friend. Simply because the couple isn’t talking about it doesn’t mean you don’t need to address it. People should always be given the option to talk about their infertility journey; if they chose not to, then respect that and remind them you are there for them. You may follow up with them at a future point when they feel more ready to talk about it. But by all means, don’t pretend it doesn’t exist; this is like ignoring the elephant in the room. This only serves to minimize it. And if you don’t know what to say to your infertile friend at any given point, simple express, “I don’t know what to say right now but count on my prayers.” At least it’s understand that you care and you’re trying.
Speak and Act with Love
For those who know and love infertile couples, but don’t’ feel that you have to say much; just being present and listening is enough because there really isn’t much to say. What could Mary and John possibly say to Jesus while at the foot of the cross? Don’t undervalue the power of empathy. Sometimes, there just isn’t much we can say, and nothing we can do can remove this cross. But just being there, enabling our family members or friends to vent and feel understood, can be a huge help.
There are so many emotions associated with infertility: so many hopes and so much anxiety, so many doubts and uncertainties. Caregivers and people helping those experiencing this cross should be sensitive to this and consider this before speaking. It’s not about walking on eggshells around them but rather about measuring our words carefully in the light of compassion.
When we don’t think before speaking and don’t word things carefully, we may come off as insensitive, which in turn denotes a certain indifference to the situation. Because infertility is a different type of suffering than a physical pain or perhaps the death of a loved one, people can unintentionally minimize the extent of the suffering by way of an insensitive or dismissive comment.
Saying things like “You really should move one” or “The moment I let go, I got pregnant,” for example, can be hurtful and insensitive. Because I’ve been there and experienced hurtful comments firsthand, I make extra efforts to phrase things in a sensitive way when speaking to couples going through infertility. This requires thinking before speaking, which is extremely important for supporting infertile couples.
Despite my best efforts to be as sensitive as possible, I may inadvertently phrase things in an insensitive way. The key is to apologize and make a better effort next time. Just because the comment or question was not well phrased or well received does not mean you should never inquire again.
Special care should be given when announcing pregnancies to infertile friends or family members. Sometimes an in-person announcement of a pregnancy may not be received in the best way. As discussed in chapter 6, other peoples’ pregnancies are indeed a source of joy but also often a reminder of what is not transpiring and is so sought after for the infertile couple. Though it may seem impersonal or contrary to what one might expect, e-mail might be the best option to announce a pregnancy rather than a verbal announcement. E-mails affords recipients of the good news the opportunity to react in their own way and, once they are done processing and praying about it, respond in a more appropriate, joyful way than what might have been their initial reaction in person. Other may have other preferences, though, so if you anticipate a pregnancy announcement soon and you want to be sensitive to your infertile friends, perhaps ask them if they have a preference as how to be told.
Similarly, when extending invitations to baptisms or baby showers, a mailed invitation or e-mail would also be most appropriate. It can be difficult to continuously attend showers and baptisms (as is apt to happen in the twenty- to forty-something range), and if a couple chooses not to attend a particular baby shower or baptism, please know it is not personal. We don’t know what particularly difficult moment along the infertility journey they may be experiencing at the moment.
Life changes in many respects when families have children, and it is important to not leave out the infertile couple, particularly when everyone around them seems to have children but them. Though families with children tend to have events that center around the children (birthday parties, etc.), be sure to take some time every so often to get a babysitter and go out to dinner or play board games with your friends experiencing infertility.
Also, be careful what you discuss in the presence of infertile couples. It’s a given that people in this age bracket often talk about pregnancy, children, and parenting. But talking about this all night at a dinner party in the presence of someone struggling with infertility could be difficult and uncomfortable. Also, be wary of complaining about the challenges of parenting around couples trying to conceive. As Laura Flaherty, founder of Hannah’s Heart Catholic Infertility Support Group, says, “It would be kind of like complaining about how tired you are after a night of dancing to a friend in a wheelchair.”
The contemporary Christian group Jars of Clay has a song called “O Come and Mourn with Me Awhile,” and the lyrics are appropriate in that they contain the message that infertile couples would like their supporters to know. Please come and mourn with us – mourn our infertility awhile, just sit with us and listen, let us feel what we feel. “O come together,” the song says, and it’s a reminder that suffering can actually bring people closer together. When we speak, we should speak with love, as with Jesus’ “seven words of love.” And as the song says, “victory remains with love,” so in loving us during this time, we will be victorious over the sorrow.
Dear John Paul II, servant of God, who are already in heaven, this is a novena for your intercession that _____________ becomes pregnant and delivers a healthy baby who will glorify and praise God.
For people, certain things are impossible to attain and sometimes people are unable to understand God’s will, but we deeply believe in your intercession, John Paul II. You always defended children, especially the unborn ones and you loved them above all. Please look at __________ who is asking for children. Look at the tears in her eyes, begging to become a mother.
St. Anne, you gave birth at a late age to our Queen of heaven and earth, the Most Holy Mary. That is what God wanted. With God nothing is impossible. We believe that God, Creator of heaven and earth will look kindly upon ____________ and give her the blessing, through Mary, the Virgin Mother of God and John Paul II, of becoming a mother of her biological and adopted children who she will love and thank God for.
Dear John Paul II, please help our prayers to be answered and that ___________’s womb will be filled with the beating heart of a tiny baby. We already give you thanks and sincerely believe in your intercession.
Dear John Paul II, your beloved mother also asked God for you to be born. Please remember our prayers.
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