In 2008 Katie and I decided we wanted to have children. Five and a half years later, we still don’t have them.
We don’t speak very much about our fertility problems publicly, but it’s certainly not a topic we’re shy about. The occasions we do share in public about our month-to-month heartbreak is when we feel our story can be of help to others. Our experiences have taught us lessons, and we understand our journey isn’t entirely unique. If sharing these trials with someone else can positively impact others who are in a similar position, we choose to share.
One of the reasons we’re not more open about our problems is because most people simply don’t know how to react to them. Over the years, Katie and I have heard many things from many people who were just trying to be helpful or encouraging, but because they couldn’t actually relate to our situation, they struggled to find the right words.
There are certain things we hear from people over and over again when they find out we are having trouble getting pregnant. Though we understand that these things are said out of love, most of them are actually very difficult to take in. We wish we could call attention to the sharp pang we feel when we hear those words, but sharing them in the moment is certainly not the right time.
After giving it a lot of thought, I decided to share some advice we’ve collected over the years about how to talk to those who are struggling with infertility. We’re sharing these things not to condemn or make anyone feel bad; we simply want to educate. It is our prayer that you can use this information to gain some insight into the hearts of the childless and help you have the most positive conversations that you can with them.
#1 – Don’t say, “It’s all in God’s timing.”
This is probably the number one thing we hear from people, which makes it one of the more difficult. As Christians, we most certainly believe that everything happens according to God’s timing. However, we also believe that everything happens according to His will, and knowing that there is nothing in the Bible which promises that every couple will have children makes this piece of advice a struggle to hear.
People often like to follow up the “It’s all in God’s timing” thought with a reminder of how long Abraham and Sarah had to wait before they had Isaac. Unfortunately, for us anyway, Abraham and Sarah isn’t a pick-me-up because Abraham and Sarah were promised a child by God. Brandon and Katie were not. Our faith has walked a long and lonely road on this journey through infertility, wrestling with the fact that it is quite possibly not God’s plan for us to have children. “It’s all in God’s timing” is really just a reminder that it might not be on His schedule at all.
#2 – Don’t say, “Big things happen when I pray.”
We hear this one more often than I would have ever expected. These are the Christians who have seen God answer their prayers in amazing ways, and so they are very confident in their prayer life. Obviously, this is a good thing. However, a big part of the infertility journey is struggling with wondering why God doesn’t listen to our prayers. The I-believe-help-my-unbelief prayer of Mark 9:24 couldn’t describe it better.
Though the confidence of “Big things happen when I pray” is supposed to be an encouragement, it actually just reinforces the doubts we have deep inside. When someone says, “God answers my prayers” what we hear is, “He doesn’t answer yours.” If the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective, maybe God’s punishing me for something. Even though we know in our minds it doesn’t work this way, our hearts beg to differ. Month after month we beg God for a baby, and month after month there isn’t one.
Over the years, we’ve had people guarantee we would be pregnant within a certain time period because they were the ones praying about it. We’ve had someone take our order for a boy or a girl because that’s how attentively God listens to their prayers. We’ve had people tell us that because we’ve now prayed in a new and specific way God will answer our prayers.
Thankfully, prayer isn’t math, and the Bible is full of requests which God denied. Oddly enough, it’s understanding this idea which gives us some sort of strange comfort. If God could say no to His own son’s request to not be murdered on the cross, surely I can learn to hear no as well.
#3 – Don’t say, “It’ll happen.”
Those who choose not to take the religious route and simply share their good feelings are even more perplexing. Contrary to popular belief, making babies isn’t inevitable. It’s not like losing baby teeth or going through puberty or dying or paying taxes. Some people will add, “I’ve got a good feeling about it” which is also a very confusing line of logic. One nonreligious woman told me recently, “I’ve got a good feeling about it, and when I have a good feeling about something, big things happen.”
“It’ll happen” feels like one of the most empty forms of encouragement because the only question going through our minds is, “Says who?”
#4 – Don’t Give Unsolicited Advice or Testimonies
Everybody knows somebody who tried to get pregnant for years and years and finally made it happen after they made one simple change. At the beginning, advice like this from credible sources was appreciated. It seemed obvious that something wasn’t right, so we were willing to try anything. Speaking from our experience, however, the longer a couple has been trying to conceive the less they want to hear more advice.
This one is particularly hard for some people to understand because they think, Surely they’d want to try everything to make it happen, right? The thing is, in our hearts, we have tried everything — the teas, the diets, the supplements, the schedules, the positions…the list goes on and on. We do still seek advice, but we really try to limit our sources of information. The endless stories about what others did to finally conceive are tiring and, more often than not, discouraging.
I’d also like to include here that ever-quoted piece of advice, “It won’t happen until you stop trying.” Maybe that’s true, but the advice just isn’t helpful. And while we’re on the subject, don’t think about the color red.
#5 – Don’t Confuse The Fear Of Infertility With Infertility Itself
I remember an interesting moment that happened after Katie and I had been trying for several years. We were visiting with a newlywed couple who was feeling discouraged and wanted to talk to us because we knew how it felt to go through the troubles of infertility. When I talked with the husband, he shared with eyes full of despair how they had been trying to get pregnant for a grand total of eight months.
Just to make this clear, it’s considered perfectly normal if it takes a couple a full year to get pregnant. Questions of infertility are usually only addressed after this mile marker, and it’s not uncommon for it to naturally take longer than that anyway. If you haven’t been trying for more than a year and you haven’t been to the doctor to actually diagnose the problem, don’t get ahead of yourself. Not only are you worrying yourself unnecessarily, it’s really hard for us to talk about it with you with a straight face and without a broken heart. Most of the time we look at these couples and think, “They’ll be pregnant soon,” and most of the time they are. The couple trying for eight months got pregnant very soon after that conversation, and they’re getting ready to have their second in January.
Confusing the fear of infertility with actually being infertile reminds me of another time I was talking with a 17-year-old who was so depressed because he was sure he would never get married. He of course is married now.
Don’t be in a hurry to join the infertility club.
#6 – Don’t Try To Relate If You Already Have Kids
When a mother of a child (or several children, for that matter) tells us they can relate because they so badly want another child, we can feel those words deep in our stomachs.
I share this one cautiously because I don’t want to imply that we don’t want to hear about your struggles as well. From what we understand, the pain of infertility after you have already successfully conceived is a terribly hurtful and confusing time. As your friends, it’s not that we don’t want you to share these struggles with us, it’s just that the presentation is so important if you want us to hear you correctly. It hurts when someone tries to artificially relate in an effort to give us some comfort. It can come off quite cold, and all we hear is “Oh you can’t have kids? I know how you feel because we can’t have two.”
However, when friends are sharing their own personal struggles and are asking us for our advice or wanting to learn about what things we’ve tried, we are identifying our common ground without pretending we’re going through the same thing. We can be there for each other. I think an established relationship is a prerequisite for this kind of sharing to happen positively.
# 7 – Don’t Say, “We didn’t know how to tell you.”
It’s hard to explain to people how we can be both happy and sad at the news of someone else’s pregnancy, but it’s true. It’s seems impossible to convince our friends that it’s actually more hurtful knowing they wanted to keep the news from us rather than tell us. They’re not sure how we’ll take it, they say. We end up having to reassure them that we are truly excited, and that a baby is good news. It’s a speech we’ve given many times now.
Imagine your friend wins the lottery. You’re happy for them, but just a little sad at the same time because it didn’t happen to you. Now imagine that friend after friend after friend is winning the lottery. Are you still happy for them? Of course you are. It’s just that every win is also a reminder that you yourself haven’t won. It’s happy and sad at the same time, but you’d certainly rather know when awesome things happen to your friends than to stay in the dark.
Please don’t keep your pregnancies a secret from your infertile friends. Just know that the initial look on our face isn’t because we’re not happy for you, it’s because we’re sad for us.
#8 – Don’t Be Shocked When We Share Details
We don’t mind if you ask us about what we’re doing to try and overcome our infertility issues, but just prepare yourself for honest answers. Through this journey many areas of our private lives have been so exposed and invaded that talking about it is the easy part. We almost don’t recognize the personal questions anymore. In fact, sharing about these things is often very good for us. It can be a good release. However, we know that many people (especially men) aren’t used to talking about ovulation and body temperatures and semen samples and the unexpected emotional toll that go along with timed intercourse and pregnancy tests, and how unbelievable cold the beauty of reproduction becomes in a doctor’s office.
Not long ago I was talking with someone about our infertility and apparently shared a little bit more about our experiences than he was expecting. He apologized for bringing it all up, whereas I was glad he did. I sensed that maybe he wasn’t ready for all that information and emotion I just laid on him.
We’re not shy about our problems. If you’re curious, just ask. If we’re not in the mood to talk about it, we’ll kindly say as much. But if you ask, be ready to listen.
#9 – Do Express Your Feelings
What can people do to comfort their friends who can’t get pregnant? To borrow from some other very good advice: We don’t know want you to fix it, we just need you to listen. Express your feelings, share your sorrow. Tell us you’re praying for us. Ask questions. We’re not looking for artificial empathy, just genuine sympathy.
My favorite friends to hear from are those who have gone through similar struggles, but it’s not for the reason you might think. It’s not because they know how we feel, it’s because they know what to say. Infertile and previously infertile couples know how to talk to us. As I reflect on the list above, I realize that those who have known the heartbreak of infertility follow these guidelines instinctively. They simply know that “I’m so sorry” means so much more than “Do you want to know what finally worked for us?”
Just a few days ago I got an email from a friend who also struggled with infertility for many years, but who is now the proud of father of three wonderful children. If you want to know how to share your love with those who can’t get pregnant, read what he wrote carefully. He wrote,
I am sorry you and Katie are struggling with getting pregnant. I know what you are going through but I don’t know how you feel. I have been thinking about that saying, “I know how you feel.” People have similar struggles and successes, but we do not all react the same or feel the same. We tend to assume that everyone feels the same way we do. I can tell you to hang in there, or it will get better or, maybe this is not what God wants. Doesn’t do much good. I can tell you that we have a God who cares and a High Priest who understands (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Everything he wrote was everything I needed to hear and was nothing I didn’t.
I want to emphasize that the things I’ve shared aren’t going to be true across the board for every couple struggling to get pregnant. However, I do believe that what I’ve laid out here are good guidelines that will truly help as you learn to develop the skill of talking with those who can’t do what God created humans to do.
I know some might be quick to come to the defense of those I’ve referred to, reminding me they only meant well and that maybe we’re over thinking all of this. As I said in the beginning and will say again here, we know people mean well. We know that everything people say comes from a desire to help and to comfort. The reason for this article, however, comes from my sincerest desire to help others know how to help better. Patting a wound and saying, “Everything’s going to be okay” might be true, but it certainly doesn’t feel good.
I pray that this information will be helpful to you as you interact with friends struggling to get pregnant. I ask that you be patient and gracious with us as we continue to navigate these emotional waters, and forgive us when we might overreact to seemingly innocent statements or are having a bad couple of days because we’ve found out that, once again, we’re not pregnant.
Thank you so much for allowing me the time to share our hearts with you today.