Almost everyone knows that the journey through infertility is hard. And anyone intimately familiar with infertility knows that it can be debilitating, paralyzing and terrifying. I recently gave a Tedx talk in which I shared my own experiences with the trials and tribulations of infertility. The journey is filled with twists and turns, extreme hope and shattering heartbreak. It's not for the faint of heart.
Most young women live in fear of getting pregnant. We are taught in 7th grade health class that simply looking at a penis will cause pregnancy. As adults, many of us put our energy and focus on our professional lives first, so that when the time is right to have a child, it's too late to conceive easily. (When I began trying, my doctor actually said to me, "Why did you wait so long? You know at 39, you're really old.")
Generally speaking, I am a driven, overachieving, type-A person. I get things done! Not so with conception. This wasn't something I could check off my list or work my way through like a 40-page proposal. No, my own journey with infertility brought me to my knees and nearly broke me. It was a two-year journey of hope, despair and, ultimately, joy.
I learned so much about myself, my husband, my community and my friends and family. And one of the biggest things I learned is that most people simply did not understand what I was going through and did not know how to help. One of the hardest things to deal with was this unintended ignorance and how much it hurt me.
It's not their fault. People just don't know. While infertility is not uncommon, most people's understanding of the process is. I found that there were many deeply caring, loving people who simply couldn't grasp what I was navigating. Family, with the best of intentions, would say the stupidest things (however unintentionally) that could send me into a tailspin for weeks. Friends, wanting desperately to help, just didn't know how.
Infertility is not rare. According to the CDC, almost 12 percent of American women have received some form of fertility treatment in their lifetime. One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, and an estimated 20 percent of couples have challenges conceiving. Chances are, you know someone who is on her own journey through infertility. Having gone through it myself, I'd like to share some best practices. A good starting point is these six dos and donts:
1. Don't suggest handstands after sex. In fact, don't suggest anything. All too often, in our effort to help or show we care, we offer recommendations and ideas that, while well intended, are not helpful or useful. Whatever you do, don't suggest that they "just need to relax and stop trying" or try some supplement or drink a bottle of wine. Just don't offer any advice.
2. We don't want to hear about your friend. We do not want to hear stories about your friend who got pregnant as soon as she stopped trying, or as soon as she adopted, or as soon as she "relaxed," or went on vacation, or took herbs, or wore purple on Tuesdays, or (fill in the blank). While these stories might uplift you, they can compound our grief. Please keep it to yourself. It's not helpful. Plus, women undergoing fertility treatments are jacked up on hormones. We will punch you in the face and then burst into tears.
3. Do acknowledge and honor the suffering. Acknowledge the heartache. Acknowledge the anguish and suffering. Respect all that they are doing to create a family. One Thanksgiving morning before guests had arrived, my mother-in-law pulled me aside and said, "I am so sorry sweetheart. I watched a PBS special on infertility, and I had no idea what you have been navigating." That made me feel very good.
4. But do not commiserate with a story about your dog. Yes, please, acknowledge my pain and my struggle, but please do not try to commiserate with a story about how badly you want a dog. Don't equate the struggle of an infertile couple to anything else. Just accept it for what it is.
5. Listen. We have friends who literally showed up at our house after every single failed round (in my case, seven). Each time, they called first to ask, "Do you want one, two, or four of us?" (They have two boys.) Sometimes they came with a box of tissues, sometimes with a pint of Ben & Jerry's, sometimes they came with their walking shoes. Every time, they listened. They followed our lead. They were there for us in the best way. Today, they are our son's guardians and god family.
6. Educate yourself. My Tedx talk provides a primer on infertility. In less than 16 minutes, you can understand the process and learn first hand about someone's experiences. Perhaps you might even learn a few things about navigating your own discomfort. You can watch my talk here.
Dr. Camille Preston is the founder and CEO of AIM Leadership, an organizational and leadership development firm in Cambridge, MA. She is a renowned executive coach, facilitator, and speaker. She is a thought leader in virtual effectiveness and the author of Rewired: How to Work Smarter, Live Better, and Be Purposefully Productive in an Overwired World. Camille has worked with thousands of individuals and companies around the world, including GE, Verizon, Fannie Mae, Harvard University, Zappos, NBC, and the U.S. Army. For more information, please visit www.aimleadership.com.