What not to say to someone going through IVF

Maggie Martell* explains why it’s not always good to talk about babies — or the lack of them.
Where IVF is required, there is by definition almost no chance that sex will lead to a baby. Photo / Getty Images
Where IVF is required, there is by definition almost no chance that sex will lead to a baby. Photo / Getty Images

Christmas is all about the kiddiewinks. When every commercial and every billboard is celebrating young children and family life, it can be a special sort of hell for those struggling with infertility.

Many people keep their infertility problems private. But there's often a well-meaning relative or friend who nags about when the babies will come until someone leaves the room in tears. The thing is, even in a close family you often just don't know.

But if you do know we're doing IVF:

DON'T ask if we've thought of adopting instead. (Bonus Disaster Points if you manage to frame this as proof of your own more Dalai Lama outlook: "It just seems a shame when there are so many children out there who need a home ...")

Why not? Well, it costs a fortune. It takes years. It's extremely complex.

Many developing countries now ban international adoptions. Criteria for adoptive parents no longer read "Bald 1930s tycoon" and orphanages do not line every street. And, as always -  because you don't know if we've already tried that too. (But yes, I can guarantee we'll have thought of it.)

DON'T tell me about this couple you sort of know who did 17 failed rounds of IVF, gave up, "And then she fell pregnant. And Hobgoblin is now 2 years old!"

Why not? This seems like a feel-good jam for everyone, right? No  -  for two reasons. First: I can guarantee the infertile person you're talking to has heard this story a billion times before. If it's novelty you are going for, the Nativity itself has less wear on the tyres. My face aches making the delighted "How about that!" reaction you expect in return.

Second, what's your point here exactly? "You guys! You know how you've spent all your money on IVF, leaving you trapped on a joyless monthly treadmill? Due to solid medical evidence that there is no other way you can have a child? You should stop all that, because: magic!" [Exit stage left on high-stepping unicorn with rainbow reins.]

DON'T assume it's the woman's body that's the problem and go straight into Homeopathy 101. Yes, it's the woman who goes through the invasive and uncomfortable treatment. But in about half of IVF cases male infertility is in play as well. Want to avoid a mutually excruciating conversation? Don't ask.

DON'T say: "Well, at least you can still have fun trying!" or "You should just relax and see what happens!"

Why not? Because that might be how you got pregnant, but it probably won't be for us. There is no sex more grim and joyless than scheduled beat-the-crappy-odds sex. Where IVF is required, there is by definition almost no chance that sex will lead to a baby. Brutal truth, it's more likely that only the embryologist has seen an IVF patient's vagina up close recently. Mine has encountered more wands than Harry Potter and I yearn for stirrups that are attached to a horse. Pointing out that fun sex can lead to babies? A helpful insight.

DON'T suggest I hold your baby. There is no non-awkward way for me to say "No thanks"  -  and on a tough day, festive gatherings with lots of babies can be a challenge. It's made worse by desperately wanting not to be a downer. So if I'm not reaching for the baby, just let me be. But if I do, try and limit the meaningful exchange of glances. You may feel like this is a poignant Moment  -  but I feel like you're communicating how to disable me if this turns into an attempted kidnapping. I promise not to steal your baby.

DON'T ask how my pets are doing. Please, please don't call them "fur babies". No one enjoys being catronised. It's awkward for me watching your feet fly off the pedals while you search for meaning in my life. Yes, pets do soak up a lot of our love for now  -  perhaps forever  -  but drawing attention to that, however kindly, can still make us feel foolish and less-than. Infertility already feels like a permanent seat at the kids' table. Take the small talk wide instead  -  ask if we saw Trump coming. Anything! Throw open the door and watch the elephant shamble out of the room.

DON'T say, "As a parent..." before launching any dinner-table opinion on the world and its future. Try to avoid saying "you don't know love until you have a child of your own". We all know there's no malice meant. But comments like these cut an infertile person like a knife  -  every time.

You may think you sound grounded, empathetic and invested in the future. But to us it sounds self-absorbed at best and at worst, cruel. Take a moment and wonder how you'd feel if someone told you the real meaning of life was always going to be held just out of your reach?

And how about that assumption that without a child of my own, I can't really feel for or properly care about any child who is suffering? No. If you didn't experience empathy until you had your own kid, then take a seat, Tin Man  -  what if the problem was more yours than mine?

DON'T urge us to try "one more time" if IVF has failed again and we are calling it quits. Here's the sad truth of IVF: it works about one-third of the time. That's a lot of private grief to offset all those "My Miracle Baby!" magazine covers. It's not a training montage from Rocky, it's months, often years of heartache. So try not to insert yourself in our decision-making  -  even though we understand it only comes from love.

DO remind us that we matter in your kids' lives, and that we always will. No, it's not the same thing. But it means more than you can know. And above all:

DO say, "I'm sorry you are going through this. I've heard it's very tough. I hope you are doing okay. More turkey?"

* Name changed to ensure Christmas Day is not totally awkward this year.

- Canvas

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