Have you ever asked a dumb question? If you answered no, congratulations! You are the smartest person ever – and a big, fat liar.
Posing ignorant inquiries isn’t a practice limited to those whose names end in Kardashian. We all have asked someone a question that was irrational, tactless, ill-advised, or utterly asinine. Circumstances that involve sadness and grief especially trip us up, as we fumble around with insufficient expressions of sympathy and summon common platitudes, meaning well to provide the other person comfort, but perhaps more earnestly trying our darndest to ease our own discomfort.
The situation of a loved one experiencing difficulty getting pregnant provides ample opportunity for insensitive questions and overall awkward conversations. Example: responding to your mom’s courteous inquiry if you’ve tried standing on your head after intercourse.
Aside from the embarrassment factor, part of what makes dialogue with a friend facing infertility so challenging is the helplessness of it all; neither you nor she can ultimately change the situation. And, in your attempt to find ways you could help, you run the risk of sounding trite, nosy, or rude.
Talking with your friend who is longing to be a mother is unquestionably complicated, but it is not futile. When I was despairing over my failure to conceive month after month, one of the things I appreciated most about friends who tried to support me was their willingness to ask me questions and their patience listening to me vent. Having the guts to go deep into your friend’s personal struggles and the tolerance to hear her gripe about her jacked-up ovaries? That’s love.
For this year’s National Infertility Awareness Week – an initiative aiming to educate the public about the disease of infertility and the 1 in 8 couples of reproductive age who are affected by it – the sponsoring organization, RESOLVE, is urging people to #StartAsking how they can support the infertility community and promote better, more affordable access to treatment and various family-building options. I thought I’d chip in to this worthwhile effort and chime in a few questions of my own – 20, plus a few extra – to provide a handy list for those who want to show interest in the infertility issues their loved one is experiencing but don’t know what to ask.
This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list, as if you should ask all of these questions at once. No need to go all Jack Bauer Interrogation Mode on her. These are simply a mix of open-ended, insight-seeking, emotion-emancipating questions that can help her process her grief, increase your understanding of her situation, and strengthen your relationship.
Before you launch into any query, be sure to affirm your affection:
I love you. I’m so sorry you’re hurting right now. I’d like to help, but I’m not sure what the best way is to do that. Know that I’m here for you, willing to listen, if or when you want to talk about it.
This sets the tone for grace-extending dialogue, demonstrating your heart to support her and giving her space to share hers when she’s ready.
First, a few questions to avoid like [name your food allergy/intolerance.]
1) So, how’s the “not having a baby” thing going?
2) Whose fault is it?
Totes innaprops. Infertility is a medical condition, not a moral consequence, and asking this type of question heaps shame upon your friend who is likely already burdened by guilt. Plus, your friend’s and/or her spouse’s specific diagnosis is private information that only she can decide whether or not to disclose.
3) How did the appointment go?
If your friend has just been disappointed by a discouraging prognosis or yet another negative pregnancy test, she may not be eager to report back and disappoint you, too. Instead of pressuring her to respond, shoot her a text/email/snapchat(?) saying you’re thinking about her and then wait until she wants to talk about it.
4) Have you tried _____?
It’s 2016, people. If your friend wants to learn more about various supposed fertility-enhancing techniques, she can Google it.
5) Why don’t you just adopt?
The ultimate cringeworthy inquiry. Because a) “why” puts her on the defensive, b) she may not be prepared to think about adoption yet, and c) there is no “just” about adoption; it takes time and demands significant financial and emotional investment. As an adoptive mother, I can absolutely attest that adoption is a tremendous blessing, but it is also a lot of work and a major decision that cannot be rushed.
Put your good intentions to better use than displaying your own ignorance by floating a few of these kinder, more gently phrased questions.
1) How are you doing?
Open the door to deeper conversation.
2) Do you want to talk about it?
Extend the invitation to talk while giving her an out.
3) What options are you considering?
Offer her the opportunity to explain the paths she’s pondering and to weigh her inclinations and reservations about them. WITHHOLD JUDGMENT.
4) Can you tell me more about _____? (fertility test/treatment, adoption, etc.)
Seek information and find a friend grateful for your interest.
5) How are you feeling about _____? (fertility test/treatment, adoption, etc.)
Let her let it all out.
6) How are you feeling physically?
Reproductive problems can be painful, and fertility treatments can take a huge toll on a person’s body. Recognize the physical ramifications of what she’s going through and allow her to discuss her health if she wants.
7) How is your spouse doing?
Infertility can rock a marriage. Show concern for her spouse and the well-being of their relationship.
8) What is helping you get through this difficult time?
Find out how she is coping and learn if/how you can aid those efforts.
9) What is adding to your hurt at this time?
Discover her triggers.
10) Who else have you talked to about this issue?
To respect her privacy and deter gossip.
11) Would you consider participating in a support group?
Suggest – but don’t push – the thought of finding a community of women who understand what she’s going through.
12) Are you open to hearing from others who’ve experienced similar issues?
Personal referrals and book or blog recommendations are great, but be careful how you pitch them. Hearing about “success” stories might piss her off more than inspire her, depending on her feelings about prolonging hope.
13) How do you like to be encouraged?
You may be your own Master Self-Esteem Builder, but you can’t assume that role for your friend. Acknowledge that she is the authority on what she needs and take note of her preferences.
14) What do you like to eat [or drink]?
Provide a little consumable consolation.
15) Do you want to build a snowman?
Sorry, couldn’t resist. For reals, though, see if she wants to catch a movie, get a pedicure, go for a hike, or join you in some other fun, stress-relieving activity.
16) How do you like to express your creativity?
The woman who yearns to nurture life within her can nurture life through her by engaging in creative endeavors such as cooking, blogging, gardening, DIYing, etc. Cheer her on in those activities that bring her joy and enrich the world around her.
17) How can I show you I value our friendship?
#somuchsap, yet it reaffirms your care for her and her importance to you.
18) Where are you at with God?
Yeah, I know. This is the one that’ll get me – er, you – into trouble. Here are the caveats: a) if you are close friends, and b) if the conversation is private and already at a deep level, and c) if she is even open to talking about spiritual issues at all, then go ahead and go there. Stripped of Christian clichés, conveyed from a place of grace, this question gives her a chance to process her feelings toward the most important Person in her life and possibly give you a chance to reassure her of the truth of His love.
19) How is [any other aspect of her life] going?
Your friend isn’t defined by her infertility; it is a major part of her life right now, but it isn’t WHO she is. By bringing up other areas of interest, you can validate her worth as a person – not just a person who wants to but can’t yet be a mom – and emphasize the importance of her contributions in other meaningful pursuits.
20) Can I pray for you? [or, better yet] How can I pray for you?
Hands-down, the best question to ask and the best action to take. As much as you love your friend, God loves her infinitely more. And whereas you cannot offer her the one thing she so desperately desires, the Creator of all life can – in His timing, according to His plan. So, once you are done asking her how you can help, ask Him to give her the blessing of a child and grant her strength to wait in the meantime.
RESOLVE Infertility Etiquette page
RESOLVE Family and Friends: How They Can Help fact sheet
The Carry Camp For Family and Friends page
Mayo Clinic “Social support: Tap this tool to beat stress” article