How To Help A Friend With Fertility Issues

If you're entering your late 20s/ early 30s, now is the time when friends may start to make decisions about having babies. And, unfortunately, chances are high that some of them may desperately want children but find fertility issues standing in the way — issues ranging from infertility to worries about inherited illnesses to concerns about being able to carry a pregnancy to term. There's no way around it: this is rough. And it requires special diplomacy as a friend to help them through it.

Your first impulse is likely going to be to try to fix everything. (At least, that's mine.) But this is not something you can fix easily. The most valuable thing you can do for friends in this position is just listen, and be grateful that they're sharing the pain and frustration of their position. But there are other things you can do, mostly centered around helping your friends feel validated and letting them dictate how they want to be treated. Women who are having trouble conceiving can feel like freaks or bad-luck creatures on top of their own deep personal distress, so you've got to give them autonomy, love and acceptance.

Here are seven things to do to help friends who are having fertility issues. Not included on the list below, but absolutely essential: many, many hugs.

1. Let Them Dictate The Conversation

If they want to talk about it, talk about it. If they don't, don't. This is a surprisingly simple rule, but it can often be deeply difficult to follow if you're curious about how things are going, or want to check that they're all right. They may simply never want to discuss their uterus with anybody ever again, in which case you shouldn't be offended; it's likely not personal. It's also not a soap opera for your benefit, so don't demand updates as if it's your due.

The rule of thumb: ask, ask, ask. Ask if they'd like for you to text to check on them during their next doctor's appointment. Ask if they want to tell you about it. Ask if they just want a glass of wine and a cry. Let them tell you what they want, and then do it. Give weight and validity to their choices about how they want to be supported right now.

2. Only Offer Advice If They Ask For It

People trying to have babies are flooded with advice. They're drowning in it. It comes at them from every angle, and if they're struggling, it becomes seriously difficult and infuriating to navigate, because they're likely trying everything under the sun, and the suggestion that they "may not have considered" this one magical panacea will probably feel insulting and degrading. If they ask you for suggestions about something specific, do your research and offer what you can. If they don't, have faith that they are exploring their options intelligently, and keep mum about the amazing regime your cousin's girlfriend's best friend did to get herself pregnant with twins after four years of trying (or whatever).

3. Listen And Don't Judge

You may think that a fifth round of IVF is a waste of time, or that acupuncture is mumbo-jumbo, or that they need to lose weight to have more of a chance of conceiving, or that they're not exploring enough natural options. Keep your trap shut. Your particular opinions about fertility and pregnancy are your own, and centered on your personal needs and ideas. They may not apply to your friend, and she doesn't need judgement about how hard she's trying or what she's doing. Listen to everything she's telling you and reiterate that you're there for her and that you care; beyond that, unless you're asked for a judgement call, stay silent and neutral.

4. Don't Be Mindlessly Optimistic At Them

"It'll happen eventually!" "You've got plenty of time!" "I have faith it'll all work out!" Yeah, being horribly upbeat and chirpy at your friend may not be the best approach; it may not happen, things may not go well, and she does not need to feel like a failure or less of a woman in the face of pro-mother rhetoric. Much as you may want to be optimistic, mediate the urge, because it may make her feel as if you are not taking her situation seriously, are smoothing over her real issues, or are unprepared to deal with the prospect that she may not have kids in the end. Whatever happens, you'll still love and support her; that's the key message to send.

5. Avoid Prying Into Medical Details

Now is not the time to ask whose "fault" it is or to pry into the further intimate details of their fertility issues; keep your medical curiosity to a minimum, even if it's part of your profession. The key with any medical issue is to let the patient dictate their level of comfort in revealing their situation, and that applies to fertility and pregnancy as much as anything else. There may be elements to the story she doesn't wish to divulge, and frankly, feeling the obligation to discuss it will likely be painful. The edict "do no harm" isn't just the Hippocratic oath; it works very well as a mantra for friends of people struggling to conceive, too.

6. Be Sensitive To Their Distress

This is the time to be acutely aware of references to motherhood, babies, pregnancy and other things that may spark off a hit of pain and regret in them. Moderate your conversation accordingly. As much as you may want to send them a photo of the amazing baby you met at a cafe, talk about another friend who's just had triplets, discuss Mother's Day plans, or even mention the babies of a celebrity you both love, it's time to be sensitive and negotiate things carefully.

Even if you desperately want to talk about a baby-related thing with them, be diplomatic; ask them if they feel like discussing something to do with children that day, and if they say no, obey.

7. Only Discuss Their Issues With Others If They've Sanctioned It

The private medical issues of individuals are their own business. You've been privileged to be part of the struggle of your friend's intimate attempts to be pregnant, but that privilege does not extend to giving everybody else updates on what's going on, unless they specifically ask you to be the point of contact for other people. (This can actually be a good tactic: depending on your situation, you could offer to deflect interest and be the go-between with other good friends, so that people stop asking them about it.)

Keep checking their privacy levels. Ask if it's OK to, say, share basic details of what's happening with your partner every time a new piece of information comes up; don't just assume that it's always going to be all right. This includes telling their story to other people in the same position — it may help both parties to feel a bond, but you should also check before you start sharing their narrative to comfort others.

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