There are several special “holidays” each and every day. Some are bizarre like “Fruitcake Toss Day”. And I take advantage of some of them, like “Breakfast For Dinner Day”. Recently was “World Kindness Day”, and THIS is a holiday I thoroughly endorse. What does it mean to be kind? It’s many things. To me, in part it is trying to do and say things that comfort other people when they are going through difficult times. In fact, sometimes the best thing to say is nothing, but rather to listen and keep people company in their sorrow. But other times, a truly nurturing comment can really help those struggling. This includes those dealing with fertility and family building challenges. What feels supportive for one person may not work for someone else, but I believe generally in any situation there is no downside to saying, “I care about you and am here for you”.
My jaw drops when I hear some of the things that people say to individuals and couples trying to become parents. Just this week someone posted that her co-worker told her that “maybe God doesn’t intend for you to be a mother.” I feel this is unacceptable and cruel. However, I think most of the time, people MEAN well and want to help, but their words unintentionally are hurtful. So, here are some specific things I suggest saying – and not saying – to your loved ones that are struggling to grow their families.
Don’t add “Just” to anything. I feel that the word “just” lessens and cheapens the supposed advice/support that is being given. For example, recommending that someone with infertility should “just adopt” suggests that adopting is a simple process in any respect, including emotionally, financially, or logistically. Adoption is a wonderful and important path to parenthood, but it isn’t simple! Instead I recommend that you ask your loved one where they are in their own family building journey and how you can help them navigate the next step, rather than sharing your own ideas of what they should do (or not do.).
And hopefully you have heard by now that “Just Relax” should never be said to someone with infertility. This serves to blame the person suffering, like they are causing their challenges by being “too stressed”. It is also ineffective. I love a meme I saw with a message something like “Nothing is less effective in getting someone to calm down than telling them to calm down”. Instead, it would be helpful to validate whatever your loved one is feeling about their struggle to build their family.
Coming to the end is not giving up. I know that saying “Don’t Give Up” is meant to encourage and inspire, but I bristle at it. Many individuals and couples come to the end of their family building efforts, without parenting, for a variety of reasons, including emotional, philosophical and/or financial. I don’t see this as “giving up”. I prefer saying, “I am wishing for a positive outcome for you.” This positive outcome may not be one they envisioned but one with which they hopefully will find peace in time.
Don’t say “At Least”. I think that adding “at least” to certain statements is an attempt to focus on the positive, even in the time of great pain. However, if someone has experienced a loss during pregnancy and hears “at least you know you can get pregnant” or “at least the pregnancy was not too far along”, this can actually add to the suffering. I feel this is because people are uncomfortable with the enormity of grief, even if the loss occurs early in pregnancy or even if the individual is grateful to have conceived, despite the outcome. We, and I include myself in this, find it challenging to sit with someone in their sorrow, so we try to offer up things we think will be reassuring, instead of just supporting the person we love and meeting them where they are emotionally. My favorite thing to say is something like “I am so sorry this has happened. What can I do to help you?” Or even take a guess at what would be nurturing, such as dropping off a meal or thoughtful gift, without asking.
You can’t assume that language you find comforting will comfort others. For example, some people like hearing “Everything happens for a reason” and some, including me, resent it. I recognize it’s not practical to ask each person whether they like certain words or not, especially on social media. And in no way do I want people to be so worried about offending that they stop reaching out to help others. We need more support and conversation, not less. But I think we need to deal with the discomfort of people’s sorrow and also try to figure what we can say or do that will actually nurture our loved ones.
True kindness is more about how it is received than how it is intended.
Guest Post by Kate Weldon Leblanc, Executive Director of Resolve New England. Having experienced infertility, Kate has a strong personal and professional commitment to the mission of RNE. Prior to her arrival at RNE, she worked for the Center for Early Relationship Support of JF&CS, the Child Advocacy and Government Relations departments at Boston Children’s Hospital, and the Massachusetts Legislature. Kate holds a Bachelor’s of Social Work from Skidmore College and a Master’s of Public Affairs from UMass Boston.