How to provide real support to family or friends struggling with fertility
As many as one in six couples in South Africa are struggling with infertility. These couples are often surrounded by well-intentioned friends and family, who want to provide much-needed support, but who are poorly-informed about infertility and its physical and emotional impact, and may unintentionally cause infertile couples great distress.
If you have friends or family members who are struggling with fertility problems, you will find the following advice provided by our Resident Clinical Psychologist, Dr Mandy Rodrigues, very helpful. It sheds light on some of the challenges infertile couples are facing; highlights things, topics and places to avoid; and offers practical tips for providing real support during a truly difficult time.
Infertility is one of the most challenging journeys imaginable for any couple – and one that is very difficult to understand for friends or family who have not experienced this challenge.
The result, sadly, is that even the most well-intentioned friends and family can inadvertently say or do things that can deeply hurt or isolate the infertile couple, leaving them feeling misunderstood and alone, avoiding social situations, while their friends and family feel frustrated as they are unable to provide the support and care that is so deeply needed.
To provide real support and care for friends or family struggling with infertility, it is important to understand what infertile couples may be dealing with, to know what to avoid and to have some pointers regarding the kind of support that will make a real difference.
Better understanding the challenge of infertility
For those who have not experienced infertility challenges, it can be very difficult to understand the physical and emotional impact on a couple.
Most people have a general expectation of parenthood, and this is particularly true of women, most of whom have pictured themselves in the role of a mother ever since they played with dolls as children. But for both partners, the possibility of infertility – of never having their own biological child – is a shocking blow. Parenthood is an assumed state, and when it doesn’t happen, it is literally the death of a dream – and in a culture that places a tremendous focus on reproduction and future generations.
As such, infertility is a very harsh reality to accept and causes intense feelings of loss and deep sadness. In fact, infertility counsellors are increasingly realising that the infertility journey brings the same symptoms as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In addition, the causes, diagnoses, and fertility treatment processes – which often include further shocks, disappointments and difficult decisions such as miscarriages and failed treatment outcomes – bring further specific emotional consequences for the individual and the couple.
Individuals may experience responses like depression, anxiety, helplessness and isolation. Impacts on the couple include financial implications, intimacy difficulties and a tendency to withdraw from one another, because men and women cope in very different ways.
But certainly one of the most difficult challenges of infertility is communicating this devastating life-crisis and its effects to family, friends and colleagues.
A better understanding of the physical, emotional and even financial implications of infertility will help friends and family to grasp more accurately what infertile couples are going through, to enable them to provide real support.
What to avoid
For those facing the challenges of infertility, even the most loving relative or caring friend may still say or do things that seem incredibly insensitive and hurtful.
Generally, when someone we care about has a problem, we naturally try to help, often drawing on our own past experiences or those of people we know. However, infertility is very different from car troubles, work challenges or the usual relationship difficulties, and treating infertility as a simple problem invalidates the intense emotions experienced by an infertile couple.
For this reason, it is important to refrain from giving infertile couples helpful suggestions or well-meaning blanket advice. Some of these include:
“Go on vacation – it will do wonders for your fertility”
“You’re trying too hard”
“You’re not doing it right”
“Just relax and you’ll get pregnant”.
Remember that infertility is – in the majority of cases – a medical condition. As such, what other couples did, or what someone else tried, is unlikely to be the solution to a couple’s infertility challenges and it is most likely to upset them a great deal. For someone facing infertility, simple, blanket advice may seem to imply that they are dumb or incompetent.
Furthermore, while there are many medical treatments available for almost all causes of infertility, not all of these options are the right choice for everyone, so don’t judge the medical choices made by infertile couples.
Also avoid suggesting alternatives such as adoption, which insinuates that infertility isn’t so bad as there are ‘other options’, and also implies that adoption is a poor second best.
What to do
The best thing to do for a friend or relative facing infertility is simply to listen and to be sensitive.
Listen without interrogating questions, judgement or advice. Simply strive to be patient and understanding, allowing them to decide how and when to share this extremely sensitive and private information. Realise that it may take months or years to resolve the fertility challenges, or they may never be resolved and other options such as adoption or a childless life may lie ahead. Realise that the experience, regardless of the outcome, will change people forever.
Also, be sensitive to the emotional rollercoaster that is living with infertility. Even though infertile couples are doing their best to cope, it is a physically, emotionally and financially taxing experience that is also extremely stressful. As individuals and as a couple, those facing infertility may experience depression, anger, anguish and exhaustion, while swinging from joy to utter hopelessness from one day to the next.
Think about what you chat about beforehand and avoid upsetting topics like pregnancy and babies. Appreciate how difficult certain situations can be – not only the obvious one such as baby showers or family gatherings – but also the mundane like the baby clothing section at the mall or TV ads for nappies, baby food and toys.
Professional support is an option
Those facing fertility challenges may benefit a great deal from professional counselling.
A professional psychologist with experience in infertility can help a great deal by assisting individuals and couples to learn how to cope with the physical and emotional changes associated with infertility, as well as with the demands of fertility treatment. A good therapist will help to sort out emotions and feelings, and to build coping skills and strategies. Counselling will also help when choosing the right fertility treatment or when exploring other family building options.
If you have a relative or friend struggling with infertility, who could benefit from counselling during this trying time, please invite them to come and meet our fertility specialists at Medfem Fertility Clinic, including Mandy Rodriques, our resident psychologist who specialises in infertility and has decades of experience in helping couples cope with the stress of their infertility journey and who is available for private consultations.
Simply click here to book an initial consultation or contact us telephonically on +27 (11) 463 2244. Our Fertility Specialists can also meet with You During a Virtual Consultation Via Zoom or Skype. Click here to book a virtual consultation now.