Tuesday, May 27, 2008

What Not to Say

The list that follows is not intended to be a crazy rant (although it will feel kinda good to get some of it off my chest!), nor is it meant to point a finger at anyone in particular or make them feel awful. In our 7-year-and-counting struggle with infertility my husband and I have heard a lot of things, mostly from well-intentioned people who we know care about us and would never mean to be hurtful. That being said, there are just some things that are hard to hear or just plain not smart to say when someone is hurting. These examples are specific to our situation but perhaps you can relate if you have had some other painful experience.

1. “Think Positive!”
We have heard this one many times. Although I believe that positive thinking is certainly a good thing, especially when the other options are fear and worry, what I don’t like about this advice is that it suggests that there is something simple I can do, just a change in thinking, that will solve the problem. If I just think positive thoughts I’ll surely be able to overcome this problem and everything will be fine. I wish it could be so easy! The fact is that it becomes increasingly hard to be positive when you are stuck in a situation where the thing you desire seems within your grasp and then slips away. Repeatedly. I really do have a hard time in this area of remaining positive and it’s something I constantly work on. But it’s just not that easy piece of the puzzle that I’ve been overlooking for years.

2. “Relax.”
Very much like the positive thinking advice, telling someone to “just relax and everything should work out” is actually even worse. It suggests that there is something I am actively DOING to hinder myself from having a successful pregnancy. I am just too worked up and worried over all of this and if I just relax and get my mind off of it for a while it will happen. I do know that stress and worry are not the best environments for pregnancy, but again I don’t think it’s an easy answer. Obviously there are other things at work here medically that I can’t resolve by having a day at the spa.

3. “Have You Considered Adoption?”
Absolutely! I think most people in this situation for this long have had adoption cross their minds. I think adoption is a fantastic option and have so much respect for folks who choose it. Maybe it is in our future, too. At this point I just can’t say for sure, and I think that’s part of what makes this a hard question to hear over and over. I think it such a huge decision with many steps and emotions involved. I have known people who have never been through infertility at all yet have just “always known” that they would adopt someday. I think these are some of the most special people on the planet! For others (like me), the dream was always just to “be a mom.” I never really broke it down and thought about how I would become a mom. I suppose I always just thought I’d get married and decide to have children and nine months later we’d have a baby. It hasn’t worked out like that at all and I constantly have thoughts about becoming a mom through adoption. I haven’t given up just yet on having biological children (and I know I don’t have to give that up in order to adopt) but my husband and I think adoption is wonderful and we are keeping that option open. Don’t get me wrong here – I don’t think this is a “horrible” thing to ask someone! It does, however, get a little awkward when we are asked this by people we barely know since we think it is quite a personal decision.

4. The Adoption That Leads To Pregnancy
If you are anything like me and have shared in these experiences, I’ll bet you a shiny nickel that you’ve heard a story like this about 7,000 times: “I have a friend who had tried to get pregnant for years. When they finally stopped trying and adopted a child, just a few days later she found out she was pregnant!” As often as I’ve heard this it must be happening pretty frequently. I don’t doubt at all that these are true stories but I don’t really know how they should make me feel better. I’ve even had folks suggest that we begin the adoption process and expect a pregnancy, as sort-of a way to trick fate. Strange, I know. The idea, I think, is that we would get our minds off of trying to have a baby and that’s when it would happen. Kind-of like thinking of a big white horse to make you forget about having the hiccups (my great-grandma’s trick and yes, it works… sometimes).

5. “I Know How You Feel”
The reason I tend to shy away from giving this advice to people who are hurting is because it really is rarely true. I may think I know how they feel but do I really? Can we ever really know how another person is feeling? Maybe sometimes. But I do think it is rare for all of the circumstances to be so similar in our two cases for the statement to hold any water. Then again, I guess I’m writing this to reach out to others who may have experienced these things. It’s like I’m saying, “Hey, read my blog. I’ve been there. I know how you feel.” Ok, so this list isn’t perfect! But the more specific “I Know How You Feel” moment that is hard for me to hear right now is coming up next.

6. The Person with 17 Kids Who Had a Miscarriage between Numbers 11 and 12
The risk of me sounding very coldhearted is very great right here, so I want to start by saying that I know the pain of miscarriage is something that has been felt by many women. There is emotional pain as well as physical pain and such an overwhelming sense of loss (which of course is shared by the men involved). That feeling is certainly relatable by all women who have experienced it, I would guess. Where I often have a problem is when I encounter someone who has a house-full of kids and tells me that they know how I am feeling because they have had a miscarriage before. As I mentioned in the last point, it’s so hard to say that and genuinely know. How could she know how terrifying it is to wonder if you will ever, ever be able to have children? The pain of her loss is every bit as real as the pain of my loss(es) and there certainly may be a time and place to discuss that shared experience. In fact, it has helped me at times to talk to people who have actually experienced miscarriage and I have been able to share some of my experiences as well. But my point is that just as it might be hard to take financial advice from someone who is very wealthy and has never had to do without while you barely have a penny to your name, it’s hard to look at someone who has children and hear, “Hey, it’s ok. I had a miscarriage once too. You’ll get through it,” when you’re right in the middle of that trial and have no idea what your future holds.

7. “Hang In There”
No, “Hang in there” isn’t an inherently bad thing to say, I’ll admit, but one time I was told the following story: “I met a lady today who’d had 10 miscarriages before she ever had her first child. So, hang in there!” I think this came when I was recovering from my fifth miscarriage. I remember thinking, “Dear Lord, please don’t let that be me! I can’t go through this five more times.” In my friend’s defense, she did call me back a few minutes later to apologize because she realized that it was the wrong thing to say. That meant a lot to me. I think it’s safe to assume that a person who is suffering wants out NOW! It’s excruciating to think of enduring that painful circumstance a minute longer before finally having some relief.

8. “Hello, my name is _________.”
Every time I first meet someone I know what’s coming. They are going to ask me how many children I have. Now, I’m not crazy enough to blame a person I don’t know for not knowing my situation! However, I have learned that I don’t need to be a question box when I meet someone. There are plenty of ways to let a conversation flow and get to know someone without firing off 100 questions. And I try not to assume things about people because you just never know where another person is in life. I know men often get asked, “What do you do for a living?” or “Where do you work?” as an ice-breaker, which I’m sure is awkward for the guy who is “in-between jobs right now.”
Never mind the follow-up questions and statements I get after they learn that I, in fact, do not have any kids. To complicate the whole thing, somewhere in the conversation (because yes, women also get the job questions right after the kid questions) they will learn that I am also a homemaker (a “stay-at-home... wife”) and this totally blows their minds! Here are a few of the common ones: “What in the world to you do all day?” “Oh, do you guys just not want any kids?” “How long have you guys been married? Are you just waiting?” And my very least favorite, “Well, if you want some kids I have some you can borrow!”
In order to avoid these moments and simultaneously explain my situation I usually find myself responding with some strange story-of-my-life, run-on sentence like, “No, we don’t have any children yet but we would like to have some it’s just been a struggle and we had no idea it would take this long and be so difficult and I just always wanted to grow up and be a wife and mom so I made the decision to stay home and before we knew it seven years had passed so here we are.” Anyway, you can imagine what a great first impression that makes on people.

9. “Life Is So Unfair”
This is another comment that has come up so many times in conversation. Someone will tell us, “You know, I just don’t understand why God won’t give you guys children when so many other people are having them and don’t deserve them.” What I have to say to that (here, in the privacy of my living room but I wish I had the guts to say it in those moments) is summed up in one word: Mercy. The fact is that, thankfully, God doesn’t give us all what we deserve! As a Christian I believe in a just, loving, and merciful God who created me, loves me, and has a plan for me. That doesn’t mean that I’ll get everything I want or think I should have. Yes, I can pray confidently that one day the Lord will give us children. And I pray that prayer to a God for whom nothing is impossible! But I really don’t think God sits around figuring out how to hand out his blessings. We can’t do anything to earn his grace. He gives it to us as a free gift. We live in a fallen world where bad things sometimes happen to good people and good things sometimes happen to bad people. I have no idea why I’m having trouble having a baby and someone else is not. It’s even hard to envision myself as the “good” person in the scenario. But I can rest in the knowledge that God isn’t considering what we deserve then giving or withholding his blessings. That’s just not biblical. The other point is that God loves that unwed teen who “made a mistake” just as much as he loves his most faithful child (and I don’t mean myself here). Infertility has taken me on a journey that has had many dark and lonely paths. I’m sure the spiritual aspect of it all will be touched on in a separate blog since there’s so much for me to cover. It’s amazing how the same issue has at different times brought me as close to God as I’ve ever felt and as far away.
To sum up this point I would just like to say that in general when someone is hurting and you want to encourage them or give them a compliment, I think the best way to go about it is to come right out with it. If you want to say, “I think you guys would be great parents,” that would be a very nice thing to say. Usually when people look for a round-about way to say something nice it ends up getting lost somewhere in all those words.

10. The Ambush
This next scenario is one I call “the ambush.” Let’s say I’m in the car on my way to a party I’ve been looking forward to attending. My family and friends will be there and I’m just minutes away. I’m giving a friend a ride and just as we’re approaching our destination she turns to me and spills her guts about how I’ve really been on her mind lately and she’s really been praying about my situation. She’s just heartbroken and is hurting so badly for us and just wanted to let me know.
Well, these aren’t necessarily bad things to say to somebody. These are typically very sincere and heartfelt moments. But here’s how the story ends: we pull up to the party and my friend gets out of the car feeling like a weight has been lifted off of her shoulders because she told me something that had been on her mind for months. I, however, am usually in tears by this point. I spend the entire evening having people ask me what’s wrong, and I sit there thinking of how this problem in my life really stinks instead of enjoying what would have been a delightful party.
I have been ambushed in almost every place that I visit on a regular basis: the grocery store, church, parties, reunions, but the worst place of all to ambush me is at a baby shower. I’ll tell you why. Chances are that I’m already doing my very best to put a brave face on and keep it together. The slightest sympathetic word or even look is all it would take for me to lose it. Oh, and if you’re the organizer of the baby shower and there’s someone in the crowd who you know is in the middle of going through infertility, it’s probably not a good idea to suggest that we all go around the room and take turns describing how wonderful it was when we gave birth to our daughters. Yes, that really happened.

11. “Have Fun Trying!”
I won’t dwell on this one for too long but we have heard it and think it’s kind of silly. I’m not being stereotypical, but we have mostly heard it from men. The reality is that if you’ve ever been a couple going through infertility, you know that the “trying” isn’t always what you’d call fun. It can be a challenge to view sex with your spouse as something other than trying to make a baby at just the right time, and it can become very stressful for a couple.

12. The Worst
This list may grow longer (although I sincerely hope it doesn’t!) in the future but for now I have intentionally saved the worst thing for last. I have heard this before and I’m sure that others have been on the receiving end of this one as well. I believe it is the absolute worst thing to say to someone who has had a miscarriage. It is, of course, “It’s for the best because there was probably something wrong with the baby.” Even if there were any way of knowing that I just don’t see how this remark could ever be helpful to anyone.

*Maybe you’re reading this and you are the friend or family member of someone facing infertility. Maybe I’ve overwhelmed you and you think there’s absolutely nothing you could ever say to make your loved one feel better. That may actually be true, but please don’t give up on them! Here are a few great things to say to someone who is hurting - as long as you mean it and as long as you’re careful not to “ambush” them!:
1. I’m sorry you have to go through this horrible thing.
2. I love you and I’m here for you.
3. I’m praying for you.
4. And finally, if you don’t know what to say, that’s ok. Just say “I really don’t know what to say…” on its own or followed by any of the others listed above. It’s ok that you don’t have just the right words. There are no right words. Sadly, there are lots of wrong words. But don’t let that scare you. Your friend will know when you are sincere. I’ve felt abandoned by many friends who just don’t know what to say and so they don’t try. They just give up and we pretty much lose touch completely. If you have said the wrong thing (which I have also done), don’t be afraid to apologize.

Thanks for letting me talk about one of the many bad things that I’ve had to deal with in this situation over the years! I hope it has been helpful to you in one way or another.


Kevin and Beth said...

I wish I could have this printed onto a shirt or maybe a card they have to read before they open their mouth to speak to me...I loved every word of this and often times said a loud "AMEN!"

Erin said...

I stumbled upon your blog quite by accident,but thank you so much for posting everything, but especially "What Not To Say." My husband and I have infertility issues post cancer treatment and are right in the middle of struggling to get through and to not have angry outbursts at every happy family we see. I know that God is in control of our lives, I just wish that sometimes others would let God be in control of their mouths! Thanks again.

Amelia said...

I found your blog through your husband through SCL, and I just started reading.

I am definitely filing these away. I don't know what it feels like to miscarry (or even be pregnant), but I want to be a mom someday. My heart goes out to you for the struggle you and your husband have been through (and are still going through).