by Sarah Kogod on March 18, 2015
My husband and I tried for more than two years to get pregnant with our son. The second year was full of difficult fertility tests and treatments. Invasive exams and blood draws designed to reveal possible causes of infertility, each having to be done on specific days of my cycle. Some were quite painful. The result was “unexplained infertility,” which accounts for up to 20 percent of infertility diagnoses and was little consolation at a time when I needed answers.
My doctor put me on a fertility plan that involved a process called intrauterine insemination. Each month meant a minimum of three blood tests, sometimes multiple tests in one day that had to be scheduled on a day’s notice. I took pills in the first half of my cycle that caused mood swings. My own hormones in the second half of the month sent me swinging the other way. For the first three months I had to give myself a shot in the stomach to trigger ovulation, and when that didn’t work I graduated to shots in the stomach on consecutive days of the month. In one particular cycle I had 10 transvaginal ultrasounds and 10 blood tests in three weeks, and had to inject myself in the stomach 12 days in a row.
I also suffered two miscarriages, a common occurrence for women going through treatments. The doctors give you a pregnancy test on day 28, before most women would even know they’re pregnant. They check your levels every other day, and if the levels don’t rise they know you’ll miscarry. What some women experience as just a late period women going through fertility treatments experience as a miscarriage. And the days between finding out you’ll miscarry and actually miscarrying are some weird purgatory. You’re still technically pregnant, but any minute now you won’t be anymore.
While all of this was happening, I had to function like a normal, productive human being. The first time the doctor told me I was going to miscarry, I was getting ready to interview an athlete. I hung up the phone, went on with my interview, and dealt with the loss when I had a free moment in my schedule.
If it were as simple as “relax,” fertility specialists would be yoga instructors and massage therapists
Work required me to entertain readers. Friendships needed nurturing. Dogs needed walking. My marriage, while still strong, took on a different dynamic because home was the only place where I had the freedom to let the pressure of the treatments get to me.
The process is emotionally draining and stressful. There are many times when it’s downright heartbreaking, and our well-intentioned friends and family wanted to say just the right thing to encourage us.
According to the CDC, 11 percent of women report having fertility issues, so it’s likely you will know someone going through the process. Unfortunately, it’s one of those situations in which there are far more wrong things to say than right things. Here are nine things you probably shouldn’t to say to someone having fertility issues.
1) “Just relax. It’ll happen when you least expect it.”
This applies to anyone trying to get pregnant, but especially to couples going through fertility treatments. If it were as simple as “relax,” then fertility specialists would all be yoga instructors and massage therapists.
When you’re spending thousands of dollars on a scientific process designed to help you get pregnant, you expect to get pregnant. Every month.
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I’d start each cycle saying to myself, “Maybe this is the month.” I’d visit with the nurse, who would smile and say, “I think this is the month.” And then halfway through the cycle I’d be inseminated by a doctor who would pat my knee while I was still awkwardly in stirrups and say, “I know this is the month.” I’d overdose on hope and start to believe that yes, this was the month.
Because everything is based on specific cycle days and medicine is used to make sure ovulation happens exactly when it should, I’d take a blood test on the predicted last day of my cycle every month to see if I was pregnant. The next treatment starts three days into the next cycle, so a negative test meant waiting to get my period while my husband and I decided whether we were willing to spend another couple of thousand dollars for 28 more days of hope.
So “relax” is rarely an option, and there will never be a moment when you least expect it.
2) “Don’t worry. It’ll all be worth it in the end.”
There is a very real possibility that you can spend all the money, go through the battery of tests, ride the roller coaster of hormone treatments for months — sometimes years — and it will all fail and you’ll still end up childless. In 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, less than a third of all assisted reproductive technology cycles resulted in a live birth. Everyone going through the fertility process knows having a baby isn’t guaranteed, and a little voice in the back of my head reminded me of that every time we wrote a check for the next treatment. So yes, we worried that it might not “all be worth it in the end.”
3) “Hey, if it doesn’t work out, at least you get to sleep late/travel/have disposable income.”
Would you trade your kids for those things? I’m guessing you wouldn’t.
When my husband and I decided to begin the fertility process, we asked ourselves what would happen if it didn’t work. Yes, the answer was, “We’ll get to sleep late and travel and have disposable income.” But it was something we said to remind ourselves we would still have a good life together, and we found ourselves repeating that mantra with each failed treatment.
But none of those things were more attractive to us than having our own children. Those were plan B.
4) “You can have one of my kids.”
I love your children. But they’re YOUR children. And saying this just reminds me you have children to spare. And I had none. No children.
5) “Maybe it wasn’t meant to be.”
This goes along with “Things happen for a reason” and “The universe always has a plan” and “Trust that God knows what he’s doing.” Maybe there’s no reason, and fuck the universe, and what if God got busy and forgot to give me kids?
“Maybe it wasn’t meant to be” means letting the universe, or God, or whatever higher being you may believe in decide your fate for you. It means giving up any power you feel you have, throwing yourself at the mercy of the court and forfeiting all control over your own destiny, which is the exact opposite of the very expensive scientific fertility process you’ve invested in.
Passive acceptance that “things always turn out like they’re supposed to” isn’t comforting. It’s terrifying.
6) “You can always adopt.”
This one is tricky. Adoption is a wonderful option for many people. But it’s not the right option for everyone, for many valid and personal reasons.
For us it was the cost, combined with the wait (up to a year, sometimes longer). We were also worried about bonding with a child who wasn’t “ours” and dealing with an uncertain medical history.
Maybe this will sound silly, but when you’re trying naturally, without fertility treatments or going through an adoption agency, you tend not to really think about the actual having of the kid too much. The idea of having a child is exciting and fun.
When you’re trying to get pregnant — fertility treatments or not — you get really good at math
But when you’ve spent a mortgage payment every month on an exhausting medical process and then have to think about spending even more money on adoption, it changes the way you look at the result. I started to ask myself questions, some of which made me feel like a terrible person. Do I really want to go through the adoption process? What if no one wants to give us a baby? What if we spend all that money on adoption and we get a child with more problems than we can handle?
Yes, it’s arrogant, and in hindsight I know some of those were irrational thoughts. But that’s where I was at the time, so for us, the fertility treatments were our last chance.
7) “You’re young. You have plenty of time.”
I was 34, and people said this to me all the time. But the fact is we had been trying for more than two years, and I was one year away from the magic age of 35, when your uterus supposedly turns to dust.
When you’re trying to get pregnant — fertility treatments or not — you get really good at math. “If I get pregnant now, I’ll be 35 when the baby is born. Then 37 when the second kid is born. That means I’ll be 55 when the youngest goes to college. What if they don’t have kids until 34? I’ll be nearly 70 then.” Before you know it, you’ve convinced yourself in a panic that you’ll probably die before getting to experience grandkids.
Yes, 35 is young, and women can have healthy babies into their 40s. But don’t tell me I have plenty of time. I’m almost 70, dammit.
8) “I didn’t invite you to my child’s birthday because I thought it might upset you.”
Thank you for thinking of me, and for trying to protect my feelings, but you should invite me anyway. I may decline your party invite because seeing happy parents with lovely children is just too hard. But let me make that choice for myself. And if I do decline, know that I still love you, and your children, and want to be a part of your lives.
Plus birthday cake is good for the soul.
9) “Have you tried charting your temperature/eating pineapple/acupuncture/putting your legs over your head?”
We tried everything Google had to offer. I drank fertility tea. I ate pineapple during ovulation. I made my husband keep his laptop off his lap. I charted my temperature and peed on ovulation sticks and stood on my head after sex.
Those things are great, and small tokens of effort for couples who are early in their attempts to conceive. But to a couple who has been trying for a year, they’re rituals done out of desperation. And they don’t work.
And one thing you should say: “What can I do?”
The answer to this question is different for each couple. Some couples are private, and will tell you they need nothing from you. Others, like my husband and me, were comfortable discussing the process and will tell you to ask questions.
The fertility process can make everyone feel helpless — from the couple going through it to the friends who don’t know what to say. This one question empowers both of you. It allows the couple to tell you what they need, and lets them know it’s okay if those needs change as things get harder. And it lets you feel like you’ve said the right thing, when everything else sounds wrong.
by Sarah Kogod on March 18, 2015