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How to validate the pain, encourage them to be their own “expert” and why admitting you don’t know what to say may be the best gift you can give.
- Validate the pain. We all know how bad it feels when we share something painful with someone and they act dismissively – quickly telling you about something they have lived through that was much worse, or alternately, telling you it is no big deal. Not being able to conceive is akin to a major loss – similar to the death of a loved one, or the loss of a relationship. For the time that it is experienced, it is the loss of a dream, an imagined lifetime relationship, a role, and an identity. Unlike the other losses mentioned, it does not exist at one finite time. Instead, the loss is re-experienced every month at the time of menstruation. Instead of trying to tell a woman “Relax, it’ll happen”, acknowledge their feelings by saying something like “That must be really hard for you – I’m sorry. Do you want to talk about it?” And if they do, ask open-ended questions like “How is that affecting you” to avoid making assumptions or judgments.
- Avoid giving advice. Infertility can be caused by a great many things – there are both male and female factors, sometimes a combination of the two, and sometimes the cause is totally unknown. Female-factor fertility issues account for about 40% of infertility cases and within that 40% the issues leading to fertility challenges are numerous – ovulatory failure, endometriosis, infection, fibroids, and many more. What this means is that no two women are exactly the same and thus no two approaches to addressing infertility will be the same. If you know someone who got pregnant after vitex or trying acupuncture, it doesn’t mean it will work for the next woman. Be sensitive and avoid telling a woman what she should be doing.
- Encourage them to “Be their own expert.” All too often when women have trouble conceiving they end up swept into a medical system that is very dismissive of women’s deep intuitive knowledge. I frequently find that my clients have a sense of where the problem lies. Encourage your friend, loved one or colleague who is struggling with fertility to tap into his or her own gut instinct. Ask if they have a hunch what the problem is. If they have difficulty knowing the answer, encourage them to seek out resources or professionals who will assist them in relaxing and tapping into that inner wisdom.
- Facilitate the right kind of support. One of the things most women who are struggling to conceive feel is a sense of loneliness and isolation. Reproductive function is a very private topic for the majority of women and as such it is easy to end up feeling alienated from friends, colleagues and family members. The stress of isolation can lead to depression, relationship strain, and further health issues. Thus it is paramount that women struggling to conceive receive support. It is important that the support come in the form of good friends who will say the right things (as above) and/or from professionals who are experienced at validating the challenges while also focusing on solutions and hope. While forums and online infertility support groups can be helpful, they can also increase stress and contribute to a feeling of helplessness. For this reason, thoughtful, professionally mediated support – whether group or private, is preferable.
- Give Permission. One of the most difficult things for women to do when they are struggling to conceive is to be around other women who are pregnant or have young children. If you know someone who is struggling to conceive, try to be sensitive when sharing news, and give permission to your friend (better yet, encourage them to give themselves permission) to skip baby showers and other similar events that might be triggering or painful. As discussed in point one, feeling unable to create the family you desire is a huge loss and these types of events just serve to underscore what is being missed. While it will be impossible to avoid pregnant and new mothers entirely, it is possible to reduce the number and intensity of events that will be most painful.
Supporting those who are suffering is often difficult, especially when we can’t relate to the problem. I hope the tips above have provided some useful strategies for supporting someone in your life who you know to be struggling with conceiving. One of the final tips I would like to add is that it is okay to say you feel awkward or don’t know how to support them. In fact, in all likelihood, modeling that kind of openness and vulnerability will assist her in doing the same, which may be the greatest gift you can give.
Kim & Amy Sedgwick love to discuss sex, periods, and all the other things we’re not supposed to talk about. The co-founders of Red Tent Sisters and ecosex.ca, they’ve been featured in every major Canadian news outlet and have become a trusted resource for women seeking natural (effective!) birth control, a more joyful sex life, and an empowered journey to motherhood.