According to the National Infertility Association, 1 in 8 couples struggle to get pregnant or sustain pregnancy, with 7.4 million women having received infertility services at some point in their lifetime. Whether you're aware of it or not, there's a strong possibility that someone you know and love may be quietly suffering through infertility.
So what do we say to support those friends?
While everyone's experience is unique and there may never be a one-size-fits-all "right" thing to say, there are a few guiding principles to always remember: lead with kindness, mind your business, and check any toxic positivity or pity at the door.
When it feels like everyone around us is joyfully announcing pregnancies, showing off bumps and photos of new babies, experiencing infertility can be a lonely and isolating experience. Reaching out with a simple show of support or solidarity can be hugely helpful and uplifting.
If you're unsure what to say when a friend is dealing with infertility, here are a few places to start.
"How are you doing?"
Keep it simple with a basic check-in that lets your friend know you're thinking of them, while allowing them to direct the topic of conversation. If a new test result is heavy on their mind, it gives them the opportunity to bring it up. If they're drained and would rather stick with surface-level small talk, the door is open for that, too. Let them set the tone and follow their lead without pointed, prying follow-up questions. Basically, learn to read the room.
"I'm here for you if you ever want to talk."
It may seem obvious to you, but make sure your friend knows that you are a safe and sympathetic sounding board whenever they need one. The experience of infertility treatments can be all-consuming, and no one wants to feel like they're burdening others by talking about it. Giving your friend permission to bring their emotions and updates to the table, while meeting them with patience and compassion along the way, can make an enormous difference in their mental state.
"That really sucks. I'm so sorry."
When struggling to get pregnant, there's one response that many women receive time and time again: "You just need to relax. Stop worrying about it and it will happen naturally."
Not only does that place the blame of infertility squarely on the woman's shoulders, as if she's doing something wrong, but it can often increase anxiety and frustration, lead women and couples to question their intuition, and discourage them from seeking beneficial medical assistance. It's a slippery slope from there into toxic positivity, urging them to just look on the bright side and continue holding out hope until everything inevitably works out.
While hope is something beautiful, necessary and certainly worth holding on to, we must also hold space for the heartache and pain that comes with the territory of infertility. We must hold space for the uncertainty ahead.
Welcome all the feelings along their journey without making it about yourself. Empathise without detracting from their pain or trying to compare it to an experience of your own. Allow their experience to stand on its own, while you stand by their side through it. And if they need to throw a quick pity party throughout the process, go ahead and order the cake.
"I'm so proud of you."
If your friend has chosen to seek challenging or invasive medical treatments like in vitro fertilization to get pregnant, it may feel tempting to talk about their reality as your own nightmare. Don't.
Instead of, "OMG, how horrible. I can't imagine going through that," try cheering them on by commending their bravery and hard work. Try saying, "You are taking on an enormous challenge to build your family, and you're doing it with such strength and poise. You are an inspiration." Let them know that you see their strength and perseverance.
"Please do what you need to protect your heart."
If you find yourself expecting while a friend is dealing with infertility, please don't feel guilty. You are entitled to every bit of joy you feel about being pregnant or welcoming a new baby!
Your friend? They may be feeling a messy combination of intense happiness for you and intense jealousy. Remember to give them grace and do your best to be mindful of their journey while still celebrating your own.
When making an announcement, don't keep them in the dark for fear of hurting their feelings. Exclusion can sting even more than the news. Instead, find a way to clue them in privately before going public or sharing with a large group. For example: "Hey, I know you're going through a rough time struggling with infertility. We are going to be announcing our pregnancy, but I wanted to let you know ahead of time so that you have time to process your emotions."
After that, check your own expectations at the door. Feel free to invite them to your baby shower, sip and see, or any other celebrations, but make sure to give them an easy out and assure them that you love them no matter what. For instance: "If you don't feel comfortable coming to a baby shower, please don't feel obligated. I would absolutely love to have you there, but if you need to skip it or leave early, I completely understand. Please do whatever you need to protect yourself."
Finally, let's STOP asking each other about family planning.
Though usually well intentioned, asking someone when they're going to have a baby is never a good idea, full stop.
It's time to throw that question right out the window along with political preferences, religious beliefs and finances. Unless someone is sharing that information on their own accord, it's none. of. your. business.
When in doubt, just follow their lead.
Talking about infertility can feel uncomfortable, but even the most basic check-ins can be a wonderful opportunity to connect. Don't let fear of saying the wrong thing keep you from being a good friend. In the end, just listening is one of the most powerful gifts you can give.
A version of this post originally appeared on June 4, 2021. It has been updated.