It can be hard to know what to say to someone going through in vitro fertilization (IVF). You love them and want to support them, I know. But sometimes, our well-intentioned remarks end up doing more damage than good, and before we know it, we’ve said yet one more unwanted or insensitive comment to a person who is already struggling a lot.
We never know what people are going through, and as someone who went through IVF, I experienced my fair share of insensitive comments. These comments were never coming from a bad place, but I wish they would have been avoided.
Here are five things not to say to people going through IVF (and what to say instead):
1. “Don’t stress; I’m sure IVF will work.”
Never in the history of comments like “don’t stress” have they made someone…not stress. While IVF does have positive success rates, very often, it can take quite a few cycles to conceive, and telling someone not to stress can be insensitive.
IVF requires self-administering medications, a strict schedule and a considerable monetary investment. It’s unrealistic to encourage someone not to worry about something so substantial.
Try this instead: “I know IVF can be stressful. Do you want to talk about it with me?”
2. “You can always just adopt.”
This is something I heard a lot when we were going through treatment. I know the motivation of those saying it was to give me comfort that there were other paths if IVF didn’t work. But it ended up making it seem like all paths to parenthood were easy and could be interchanged without emotional or logistical consideration. Additionally, it diminishes the experience of parents who choose to adopt—adoption isn’t a backup plan. It is a monumental and intentional decision that very often has nothing to do with IVF.
Try this instead: Most often, I just wanted a friendly ear acknowledging what I was going through and compassion that the unknown outcome of my family must be hard. Although there are multiple ways of creating a family, acknowledging the person’s emotions and listening to them should take place before offering other options.
3. “My friend’s cousin’s sister stopped trying to get pregnant and got pregnant right away. I’m sure you will too!”
Comparison is the thief of joy, even when it is well-intentioned. At the time that I started IVF, I had already struggled through three miscarriages, and I deeply distrusted my body to do anything “right.” I was not in a mental state to hear about other’s “successes.” Mostly I just wanted people to ask me how I was and be given a chance to talk about this huge new experience that was occupying so much of my life at the moment.
Try this instead: “I’ve heard IVF is complicated. Can you tell me a little about the process?”
4. “Enjoy the parentless life while you can!” or “You can take my kids!”
It might seem like a casual joke, but when someone aspires for children, minimizing their desire to be parents might make them feel uncomfortable. I always loved hearing about my friends’ children (challenges and all!), even when we were in the throes of infertility.
Try this instead: If you want to share about your family, do it in a straightforward way without trying to belittle your experience for the benefit of those struggling.
5. “When are you going to have a baby, already?”
Please don’t ask questions about people’s family planning in a group setting, or at all. Many people choose to keep fertility treatment a secret, so you won’t necessarily know if someone is going through IVF or not, and that’s okay. Deciding to grow your family, no matter the path, is a deeply personal decision and many people are not comfortable talking about it until they are well along a particular path.
Try this instead: Why not ask about other parts of their life? “How’s your business/career going?” “Have you taken on any new hobbies or routines during the pandemic?” “Read/listened to/watched anything interesting?” (This is my favorite question in general because I am always on the lookout for new murder mystery podcasts, romance novel recommendations and subtitled Netflix cult favorites.)
I kept our fertility struggles a secret from most people in our life, so I wouldn’t have felt comfortable talking about it in a large gathering of extended family members. But that didn’t mean I didn’t want to talk about it all. For me, these kinds of conversations were best suited in a one-on-one setting with family and friends that I had more intimate relationships with, and I always appreciated them checking in on me and offering an ear.
I hope that these tips help you navigate conversations that might come up during the holidays. As a rule of thumb, if you aren’t sure what to say, it’s okay not to say anything at all. Sometimes the best support is just being there.