It can be hard to know what to say to someone who is experiencing infertility. Angela Lawson, PhD, and Susan Klock, PhD, psychologists with Northwestern Medicine Fertility and Reproductive Medicine, share tips on how to respectfully navigate the topic.
“Patients describe how upsetting it is then when someone asks them questions related to their fertility,” says Dr. Klock. “This is particularly true when the questions come from a co-worker with whom they do not routinely share personal information.”
Here are a few tips to consider on how to handle the topic of reproduction in a conversation.
Don’t assume everyone wants or can have children
It is common to ask someone who is engaged, married or aging if they plan to have children or plan to have more children. On the surface, this question seems harmless, except to the approximately 12 percent of women and men who experience infertility.
“In addition to being a highly personal question to ask, it also fails to take into account that this other person may have just had a miscarriage, may be experiencing infertility, or may have already learned they cannot have genetic children,” explains Dr. Lawson.
Don’t suggest stress plays a role with infertility
People who do share their experiences of infertility and loss with family, friends or co-workers are often looking for support during emotionally difficult times.
Well-meaning individuals who make comments like, ‘Maybe you’re too stressed,’ may intend to be encouraging, but their comments blame the person for being unable to conceive. Show support by practicing active listening and asking how you can support the person.
It’s not always easy to get pregnant
“Unfortunately, as a society we have been misled to believe that it is easy to get pregnant and that we have ultimate control over our fertility,” says Dr. Klock. “In reality, starting in her 20s, a woman’s chances of conceiving each month is around 25 percent, and chances of conception are based largely on the age of a woman’s eggs. Stress has not been reliably found to cause infertility or miscarriage.”
Avoid asking intrusive questions about reproduction
Family-building plans are often not a secret but are typically a private matter. For example, asking someone with twins if they underwent in vitro fertilization (IVF) requires the parent to say whether they had sex to conceive their children or if they engaged in fertility treatment. Similar concerns arise when we ask unmarried pregnant women if they used donor sperm; older women if they used donor eggs; and same-sex couples whose sperm, eggs or bodies were involved in conception.
“If someone you know brings up their fertility as a topic of conversation, or if they have previously shared with you that they are struggling with infertility or have a history of miscarriage, ask them how they are coping, and if there is anything you can do to support them on their path to parenthood,” says Dr. Lawson. “Sometimes the most helpful thing you can do is listen if they want to share their story.”