Whether it is a bad break up, job loss, or a death, we often don't know what to say to someone who is experiencing emotional pain. We want to fix it for them, or we don't know what to say.
The same is true for people like me, who are trying to conceive (TTC).
I’ve heard a lot of ‘advice’ from people trying to help, but honestly, unless you’re going through the TTC journey, you can’t understand what the person is experiencing.
I thought I might be alone in the well-meaning but sometimes thoughtless and even judgemental "advice" I’m given, but it turns out the ladies in my TTC online support group have had the same experiences.
Here are some of the "pearls of wisdom" we’ve heard, and why they don’t help.
1. "Just relax"
Yes, you are right, we should relax. In fact, for our mental health we need to, and in a perfect world, we would.
But first off, understanding your menstrual cycle can actually be difficult (at least that’s how I found it). Add to the mix known fertility problems (or diminishing fertility due to age), and the ability to "just relax" decreases exponentially.
So you do your homework and take responsibility for your fertility, you see the doctor, you have the blood tests, you take the vitamins, you learn to chart, you get fit and healthy, everything you can to better the odds and … nothing happens.
This is something you’ve considered carefully and have worked towards and sacrificed for, and despite doing everything right, it isn't happening.
For the past six years, every decision we have made, every sacrifice, every painful decision and scrap of hard work – the move from our families and home country to New Zealand, the financial stability, losing weight, getting healthy, all of it – has been done in love for our yet-to-be-conceived offspring. And it’s just not happening.
So no. Not thinking about it, not worrying about it and not being sad and frustrated with every failed month is not possible for us.
The TTC journey isn't just about the baby; it brings up a lot of other stuff too. So "just relax" doesn't help.
2. "My cousin's-friend's-sister's-sister-in-law had five rounds of IVF/adopted/stood on her head after sex/went on a romantic holiday to Italy and got pregnant"
That is wonderful news, but for the woman with low ovarian reserve, blocked fallopian tubes, a partner with a low sperm count, or many other issues, no amount of adoption or holidays or post-coital gymnastics is going to result in a pregnancy. Each person is different and what worked for one may not work for another.
3. "It's God's will"
Firstly, as a person who believes, I pray really hard about this situation, and I grapple with these things, on my own. Trying to rationalise fertility or the lack thereof in this context doesn’t help, at all. Each person is on their own journey and has their own belief system.
How others can help
Fertility counsellor Fiona McDonald has worked in women's health for 20 years, and currently counsels couples at two fertility clinics. She says these are standard lines many couples hear, and that the difficult feelings they bring up are normal.
“The best thing friends and family can do is not to try and fix the problem, give advice, or try to relate it to someone else they know,” she says. “It can be incredibly insensitive and hurtful.”
She gives the following advice to family and friends of those trying to fall pregnant.
Fiona says that friends and family should be guided by the person for what they may need. "If you’re not sure what to do, or say, then ask them what they need and what you can do to help to support them. Respect that they may not always want to talk about it. Sometimes just a hug or a note letting them know you’re there if they feel they would like to talk is enough."
Don't feel like you have to give advice or be the expert
"I think people have this urge that they want to fix something or say something reassuring that would make it all better. People have to resist the urge to give advice, or to try to fix it. Just be there for them and listen," she says.
If you want to understand what the couple is going through, or how the treatment works, ask if there’s anything you could read to help your understanding, Fiona advises.
Think of how it might feel for the couple
Many social activities and family get togethers are baby/child centred. "Think about how it might be for that person or couple. Still invite them to get togethers, but understand if they don't always say yes, or if they stay for a short time. If the couple is going through treatment, try to organise more adult-focussed outings as well, so it’s not all focussed on children and babies."
How to help yourself
Know that you are not alone
"It’s important to know that you’re not alone, irrational, or going crazy," says Fiona. Try joining an online group, like the ones on Essential Baby, to talk to people who know how you’re feeling.
Be kind to yourself
"Remember it’s not your fault, and it’s not your partner's fault either. Show yourself the same compassion you would show someone else in the same situation. I find there’s often a lot of self-blame and it is so important for people to remember it is not their fault," Fiona says.
Communicate with your partner
It can be hard, but Fiona says it’s important you continue to communicate with your partner. You might have very different perspectives, but talking about it can help you both cope.
Keep a balance
"As much as possible, try and keep a balance with other things in your life. There are times when you’re going through treatment, when you can't help it and the balance goes out the window, but try as much as you can to keep a balance," Fiona advises.
"Have a good think about things that work for you to help you unwind and deal with stress. These don't have to be expensive; it could be going for a walk, watching a movie, writing a journal. Or it could be a yoga class. Have a think about what would work for you and try factor in time for those things."
If you're trying to conceive, join the Essential baby forum to talk to others who know what you're going through.
- Fairfax NZ