what to do next: supporting couples through infertility

I never expected this.

Since those words swam in my head every single month that we were waiting for a baby, I should not be surprised that infertility continues to shape my life in unexpected ways.

But this post? More people have read it – and are continuing to share it – than have read anything on my blog in the four years since I started writing it.

The comments on that post are only a sliver of the stories shared with me through email, on Facebook, and in person. I’m floored by how many people are yearning to hear that they are seen.

So many couples are suffering the invisibility of infertility. And so many of them wish their churches would speak a word of peace to them in their pain.

What can each of us do, whether we’ve struggled with infertility or not, to support the couples suffering around us?

IMG_5943Watch your assumptions. That young couple you see? Don’t assume they’re wrapped up in their careers and are choosing to delay parenthood. That older couple you see? Don’t assume they never wanted kids. Those neighbors with an only child? Don’t assume they didn’t want more. Those co-workers with one boy and one girl? Don’t assume they stopped simply because they got their “matched set.”

Plenty of people have complicated situations when it comes to the question of conceiving and raising children. The less we jump to conclusions about someone based on what we know about them, the more we open our hearts to the more likely truth that we do not know their deepest struggles. We offer people such refreshing freedom when we refrain from slapping on labels or squeezing them into boxes by the judgments we pass from a distance.

Watch your words. Sitting with people in pain is uncomfortable. Our natural tendency is to try and fix the situation. But the words we use to show our concern can wound when we want to skip over someone’s suffering and start to offer advice.

My one pastoral suggestion in almost every situation of suffering is to avoid “at least” statements. At least you’re still young. At least there’s always adoption. At least you have other children. The grief and anger surrounding infertility, whether primary or secondary or after miscarriage, are complex emotions. They cannot be easily smoothed over by statements suggesting that the situation is not as awful as it could be.

Honoring the particularity of someone’s pain by simply sitting with them, listening, and letting them know you care for them is a rare gift. You cannot fix their circumstances, so you do not have to try.

You have so much to offer instead: your prayers, your presence, your patience in letting someone give voice to their own story.

IMG_5831Watch yourself change. Don’t make the mistake of holding back from reaching out, simply because you have not experienced their same sorrow. One of the gifts of believing in the Body of Christ is the reminder that we are not confined by the contours of our own life. We are deeply united with each other. We can share our joys and wounds on a deeper level than mere sympathy because our lives are caught up together.

Let your heart be stretched and your prayer life be widened by the experience of allowing others to expand your understanding of the suffering around you.

And once your eyes are opened to a new kind of struggle – like infertility – keep going. Start to see some other silent suffering sitting next to you: on the bus, in the pew, at the coffee shop. Reach out with one kind word.

See what happens.

When we open our eyes, the invisible becomes visible. Pain is no longer ours to bear alone.

And isn’t that what our communities of faith hope to be? Places where we care for each other. Places where we are pulled out of the worries and wants of our own worlds.

Places where we remember that we belong to each other. And to God.

. . .

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11 thoughts on “what to do next: supporting couples through infertility

  1. Thank you for mentioning secondary infertility. Sometimes I feel like couples with secondary infertility receive a little more judgement; after a while, people start to think that couples with no children might have fertility issues but awareness of secondary infertility is so limited that people assume if you’ve had one (or more) children and haven’t had anymore that you are obviously capable of it and that it must be a choice (often regarded as a selfish choice) to not have more. My daughter is a few months away from three and we already get poorly worded questions (often more like accusations) about why I’m not at least pregnant with another. I don’t even know how to respond! We’ve had two miscarriages and many months of trying (and failing) to conceive but I hardly want to share those with strangers. But the things is: should it even matter? What if I didn’t have fertility issues but we had another (health or financial or…) reason not to have another baby right now? I feel like I’m constantly on trial and instead of “innocent until proven guilty”, I have the burden of proof and must explain why I don’t conform to others’ expectations. It’s exhausting and gives me social anxiety.

    1. You are so welcome, Mandi. I know a number of couples who have struggled with secondary infertility, and they have really opened my eyes to this all-too-common suffering. I agree with you that it is probably even less understood than primary infertility. I’m so sorry that your situation has been such a heavy burden for you. I think that people often think they are being encouraging of parents and family when they inquire about plans for more children, but too often this can backfire and have the opposite effect. I will keep you and your family in my prayers, for peace and healing and comfort from your anxiety. Thank you for sharing your story here.

  2. Yes! Yes! Yes! So many great suggestions! This hits home 100%. Thanks for such a prompt and apt follow up!

    I thought that because I have a baby now I was no longer affected by the pain of my two years of infertility.
    But I am finding now that healing still needs to take place, and has taken place here! Thank you!

    1. Anna, I agree with you 100%. A baby does not necessary “heal” the past. We are forever changed by our experiences of infertility, and I don’t think it is a bad thing that our parenting is shaped by the heartache that came before. There is still healing to take place and emotions to process, and whatever lies ahead for our families will be colored by all that it took for us to get here. Thank you for reminding me of this, too.

  3. There is so much work to be done around supporting infertile couples. Years ago, my husband and I suffered an ectopic and then a miscarriage; our dreams of parenthood seemed destined to be thwarted in every possible way. It was such a tough time, but I found such solace from speaking to other women who had experienced what I had. There is simply no substitute for that. It was the grace that got me through the hardest times. So glad you are sharing your wisdom, and that it is striking a chord — it is needed!

    1. You are absolutely right, Ginny – there is so much to be done in support of couples struggling with infertility, especially in our faith communities, I think. I will never forget how knowing your own stories of loss that you share so eloquently in your books helped me when we had a miscarriage. Reaching out to other women who had experienced this loss was absolutely what helped me to start processing this grief, and I was so grateful that I had already connected with gifted writers like you whose words let me find myself in them. Thank you for the reminder of what a gift that grace was.

  4. I like your suggestions. For what it’s worth, what has helped me most is simply genuine friendship, whether that’s with a fellow infertility struggler or not. I guess that might sound “too” simple, but friendships that include true empathy, a willingness to enter my world (and me theirs), and a heartfelt concern for my well-being and interest in my life (childless as it is) has been so healing. Some people say the “wrong” things but I know they mean them well; others say the “right” things and I’m not convinced of their sincerity. The best is when I can just BE with other women and mothers and not feel like I stand out like a sore thumb or need to be treated with kid gloves. I come back again and again to the beautiful truth of our unity in Christ, because so much of infertility is feeling “other” or even “less than” – it’s hard to be outnumbered, no matter what the reason, and I definitely feel outnumbered at church! Anyway, sorry to ramble =) It’s a blessing to read your thoughts!

    1. I love your perspective and suggestions, ecce fiat. Geniune friendship is such a gift. I am so grateful for the friends I have whose life experiences and circumstances are much different from my own. It makes such a difference when someone is simply willing to sit with us and let us know they care without trying to fix the situation or rush to cover over our pain. Of course we will all stumble in the words and the approaches we use, but if we keep coming back to each other and keep trying to understand each other, that is the path to the love that is friendship. What a gift that you have been blessed with this along your way.

  5. Hi, Laura! I’m a new reader and just started reading your past posts. I came across your first post on infertility and then read this one. Thank you so much for writing about this topic. My husband and I have two beautiful children but because of health reasons during pregnancy (preeclampsia and premature babies) despite a healthy lifestyle….my doctors told us to expect an 80% of me getting a seizure and an even more (our second was born at 34 weeks) premature baby if we decided to have another. It breaks my heart to always hear: when are you going to have more or are you going up try for a girl next time? Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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