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How to support women struggling with infertility

Updated on October 15, 2015
Carola Finch profile image

Carola writes extensively on health, social issues, mental illness, disabilities, and other topics. She is a breast cancer survivor.

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A 2014 study by the University of Iowa revealed that many infertile women do not feel that they are receiving the kind of support they need from family and friends. Researchers interviewed 300 women who were dealing with infertility nationwide. The participants said they wanted more support of all kinds such as advice, help with household chores, and simple acts of emotional assurance such as a spouse saying “I love you.”

Infertility is defined as an inability to conceive after six to 12 months of trying. Support is important because without it, women can become less able to cope with stress or sink into depression.

The good news is that experts say there are easy ways that we family members, relatives, or friends can be more helpful.

Infertility affects approximately one in six to eight couples, so it is much more prevalent that people think. I struggled with infertility for about five years myself. I have known the constant disappointment of negative test results. My emotions were extremely up and down as drugs tried to force my reluctant ovaries to produce eggs. Intimacy in my marriage sometimes revolved around when there was a chance to get pregnant. My stress levels went through the roof at certain times of the month.

It was hard for the people in my life to know what to do to help me, bless them. Here are some tips for those of us who want to help a woman who is struggling with infertility.

Things not to say to a woman who is trying to conceive

  • Everything happens for a reason.” As if the poor woman does not feel bad enough, she is being denied motherhood for some cosmic purpose. Really?
  • “I know someone who was trying and then got pregnant just like that.” This reinforces the sting of “what is wrong with me?”
  • “Try to relax. Go on a vacation and it will happen.” There is nothing relaxing about the infertility treatment process.
  • “Have you tried…” The blanks usually are made up of useless, hurtful and unwanted advice. The chances are pretty good that the woman and her husband have already considered other options.
  • “It’s no big deal. Kids are a hassle.” She will feel like her problem is being minimized.
  • “When is the next baby coming?” Secondary infertility, that is, the inability to conceive after having a child is a very real problem that can be painful for women.
  • “Want kids? Take mine.” The woman wants to be a mother, not a babysitter.
  • “I just have to look at my husband and I get pregnant.” The woman does not need to be reminded that she has failed to conceive.
  • “Why don’t you just adopt? You will probably become pregnant afterwards.” Adoption is a tough process that has its own challenges.

Tell them we care and keep open lines of communication

We can verbally express how much we care and assure the infertile woman that we are ready to listen if they need to talk. We can show her that we are invested by educating ourselves about the process she are going through and the options that she is considering. Questions about how she is doing also show that we care.

Be supportive

We can assure the infertile woman that we will support her and her husband’s decisions no matter what they are. It is normal for her to question her own judgment, so she will need a strong support system to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

Some parts of the infertility challenge can be frightening, and she will need our support all the way. A hug is another way to reassure the woman that we are there for her no matter what. When the infertile couple decides to stop treatments, we need to realize the agony and pain that this decision has caused them and respect their decision.

Expect mixed messages

Infertility and the treatments made my emotions go haywire. Sometimes I would want to hold and hug my friend’s baby, and then at other times, the very sight of her and her family made me want to run in the other direction.

My friends and family learned to be sensitive to my needs at the time and not be offended if I needed space.

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Keep advice to a minimum

Many infertile women say that they get overwhelmed when they get too much advice from people. Well-meaning mothers, female relatives, and women who have children are the main culprits. Parents tend to consider themselves to be experts on having kids, but they may not be well-informed enough to be of help.

Experts recommend that family members and friends limit advice-giving and finding other ways to be supportive, such as cooking a meal or helping the woman if she says needs to connect with a support group.

Let her grieve

Every month, a couple’s hopes are dashed and they will mourn for their lost hopes and dreams. Instead of grieving over a death and healing over time, their grief is stirred up afresh every time they do not conceive. Women are especially hard hit.

Society has traditionally blamed women for not fulfilling their roles as bearers of children, even if the husband is the problem.

I remember how I ached and longed for a sweet baby of my own only to face bitter disappointment every month. Hearing a pregnant woman complaining could be incredibly painful.

Loved ones and friends need to allow a grieving woman to deal with her emotions in her own way. We should never minimize the pain that she is feeling.

Encourage her to seek support

There are a number of organizations such as Resolve and the American Fertility Association that provide couples seeking to be parents with support and resources.

The question of adoption

At one point in my infertility journey, I looked into adoption. I soon realized I could be waiting years and years for a baby. Adoption is risky. I know of a lady who paid the expenses of a pregnant woman, only to have the baby die on the delivery table.

A few years later, she and her husband adopted internationally, an expensive process out of the reach of many. I knew that I would have to let go of my hope for a baby of my own and deal with a whole new set of issues if I pursued adoption. Fortunately for me, I did eventually conceive and had a beautiful baby girl.

Advice for spouses or partners

Many women who struggle with infertility say that their chief source of emotional support is their husbands, but their mates do not always help. Many men do not feel comfortable talking about infertility issues, leaving women feeling that their spouses are not meeting their emotional needs. Infertility can put tremendous strain on a marriage.

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Intimacy has to be scheduled to a woman’s fertile times instead of being spontaneous, putting stress on the relationship.

When women need to undergo infertility treatments, husbands can be supportive by:

  • Encouraging communication
  • Accompanying their wives to appointments
  • Acting as an advocate for their spouses
  • Helping them look at other treatment options and alternatives to pregnancy.

Couples who go through the infertility experience together often are able to have a stronger marital foundation.

© 2014 Carola Finch

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    Robert E Smith 2 years ago from Rochester, New York

    So glad the Lord blessed you with a child. There is nothing like a small face looking up at you and needing you. Makes you wonder that if it wasn't you to see to them, who would it be. I wish I could explain the bond that happens in adoption and the feeling that God manipulated all to make that possible. I am so happy that you finally got to be so blessed with your own.

  • Carola Finch profile image
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    Carola Finch 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thanks for sharing, no body. I am glad that adoption worked for you. Unfortunately, the high costs ruled that out as an option for me. I knew this heartbreak for five years before God blessed me with a daughter.

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    Robert E Smith 2 years ago from Rochester, New York

    Early in my first marriage, I learned that it would be nearly impossible for me to cause a pregnancy. It was not impossible, but "nearly" impossible. So I remember the horrible cycle of taking temperatures, finding a convenient way of getting a semen sample, keeping it warm, going to the doctor and waiting for the doctor to insert it into a hopefully receptive "oven." Invariably, we would both hear some young woman at the office or worse, an older woman talking about aborting this "thing in me" "AGAIN."

    It was torturous for me and I know it was even worse for her. We tried 4 years with this monthly routine of heartbreak. Twice there was something called a "blighted ovum" that looked like pregnancy but there was not enough genetic material to make a baby. So those times were even worse to go through because, technically, it was a pregnancy. Finally, we took the adoption route with private adoption agency. We got a beautiful 4 day old newborn boy. The fees were huge but totally worth it. We did the same thing again for my daughter a year later (who was a month old when she was placed in our arms). I can't say enough good about adoption. Those children feel like your own in a way I really can't explain. Very good article Carola. Voted up.

  • Nicole Pellegrini profile image

    Nicole Pellegrini 3 years ago from New Jersey, USA

    Excellent information and a lovely introduction to a difficult subject. I have been there and we have ended up on the childfree path as treatment or adoption just wasn't in the cards for us when it didn't happen naturally. It is so difficult sometimes getting friends and loved ones to understand why the "advice" they toss out sometimes is just hurtful, not helpful. Even when it sometimes comes from people who went through these struggles themselves but then ended up with their "miracle baby". Not all of us are so fortunate.

  • Carola Finch profile image
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    Carola Finch 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thanks for sharing your story MPG Narritives, and everyone for their comments. I agree that the infertility experience is one that a lot of people do not understand.

  • MPG Narratives profile image

    Marie Giunta 3 years ago from Sydney, Australia

    This is a very understanding article on infertility Carola Finch...as only a couple who has been through it can relate. We had all the well-meaning comments for 9 years but we are a lucky couple, we have two children (19 year old boy and 16 year old girl) who came along when I had just about given up. The stress of infertility had taken its toll on me to a point where for years I didn't want to leave our apartment, I just didn't want to discuss it anymore or see anymore pitiful looks. Thankfully that's all in the past now. My best advice to any couple who is going through infertility is to talk about it with people you trust, we kept it to ourselves for 2 years and it was that stress that caused me to shun everyone at the time (including my husband). It is not healthy to not talk about infertility.

  • Carola Finch profile image
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    Carola Finch 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thanks for your comments. I also spent a lot of time on Clomid.

  • Karen O Arey profile image

    Karen O. Arey 3 years ago from Ithaca, NY

    Very well written, Carola. My husband and I went through several years of infertility over 30 years ago, and I still remember how difficult it was. After a miscarriage, we adopted our daughter from Korea- she is 32 now. Eventually (with the help of Clomid) I did give birth to our son, who is 28 now. An organization called "Resolve" was very helpful- it was great to talk with someone who actually knew what we were going through.

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    Janis Leslie Evans 3 years ago from Washington, DC

    Excellent piece, Carola Finch. You have touched on every aspect of how difficult it is for women dealing with infertitlity. Lack of support and understanding are key. Your list of "things not to say" are on point and express the sentiments felt by women who struggle with insensitive comments that are hurtful even if they were meant to help. Great job, voted up and useful.