Before we begin…
If I were to see the title of this post, I would immediately scan the list of phrases and words below to see if I had ever said any of them to someone I know. I could then end up feeling one of two ways: guilty if I had said one of them, or relieved if I hadn’t. I want to name that upfront with you and address it.
A vast majority of the time, hurtful statements—like the ones below—come from good intentions, but still end up with unintended, negative consequences. In order to comfort someone who is hurting, relieve the palpable tension of a sufferer, or avoid awkward silence, these well-intended words can easily have the opposite result. Instead of giving comfort, they can cause shame. Instead of bringing hope, they can bring despair. Words are powerful, and even true words can be used to hurt people.
However, my goal in sharing the words below is not to shame or guilt anyone. If you haven’t read my first post, We’re All Going to Mess This Up, please do. Instead, my goal is to shed light on words that you might be tempted to say to someone you know in pain and encourage you to reconsider.
What not to say.
How could this not be at the forefront of your mind? It is often at mine. Like I said in my first post, there have been times when I have not known what to say to friends who are struggling with infertility. Everyone’s story is different and everyone processes their situation differently, so it can be hard to know how and when to respond. So, here is my attempt to weed through the murky waters. The things that have been said to me and many others.
It will happen.
AKA, “you will get pregnant” (or any other version of this impossible promise). The simple fact is that you don’t know if this is true. I have had many people tell me that it will happen—that I will become pregnant eventually. They say it with confidence. And they say it with sincerity. I want to believe them, and I want them to be right. But my stomach sinks every time I hear those words. I wonder why they think they have the right to say these words to me. Often they come from people who don’t know me well. They have heard parts of my story and, as a means of interaction with me, they choose to offer what they see as hope. They want to finish my story with a happy ending, and so they curtly offer these empty words. But this token of well-meaning hope is often hurtful and ironically leaves me feeling hopeless. It causes me to doubt their words and intentions. It causes me to doubt the goodness of God because I wonder where their confidence comes from, and question if I trust God enough.
They don’t know that it will happen again and that’s the worst part: it’s a promise they hope someone else will fulfill.
It’s good to suffer.
People can be quick to impose their own experiences of pain and suffering, even those who have walked the infertility road and now have become pregnant or have children through other means. They look back on their experiences and see how much they have grown, how it was a process of acceptance and growing closer to their spouse or partner, or how it gave them a deeper understanding of God’s sovereignty. But this is not exclusive to those who have experienced infertility, it can be said of anyone who feels that a particularly hard or painful experience in their life led to something good. These can be really encouraging stories. But it can also feel like they are imposing their experience on my story or suffering.
Another version of this assumes that I will get pregnant once I finally learn whatever it is that God is trying to teach me through infertility. Of course the Lord is teaching me things through the various parts of my life—the good, bad, and the mundane—but it is a dangerous thing to claim that God is somehow being withholding or petty.
Worse, people may even say that this suffering is good and imply that I should have to experience some type of hardship before getting what I desire. This feels so insensitive. Suffering, although it is used to change us, is not good by itself. When someone is suffering or has suffered, it is not okay to try to force them to call it good or to make them try to imagine how much good might come as a result.
Try this, not that.
EVERYONE thinks that they have the answer to infertility. “Have you tried this supplement? Or oil? Or pill? Or diet? Or exercise? Or treatment? Or doctor? Or new ______?” It can make us feel guilty for not trying all the things that have worked for so many others, and if someone is trying to get pregnant, they have likely done a lot of research.
I understand that they want to be helpful and share the knowledge that they have learned or experienced from these products, but the reality is that we might be overwhelmed by more suggestions. And we might—probably—have already looked into this new product on our own. We may have even tried it and it was unsuccessful or harmful.
All that to say, as a general rule, unless your friend comes to you for resources or you are a medical professional, it’s better not to offer your magic pill. No matter how encouraging the book or how healthy the vitamin, just resist.
This one may seem obvious, but unfortunately, it is more common than you think. If not this exact phrase, spiritual words and verses have been used toward infertile women to communicate that what we are dealing with is because of a lack of faith. To ever suggest that a woman or couple is experiencing infertility because she or they have a lack of faith is unbiblical and harmful. God is kind, gracious, and desires to give us good things. He is not waiting for us to pray a specific prayer; he is not waiting for us to do our devotions; and he is not waiting for us to believe enough. God, time and time again, is the giver of good gifts to those who stumble, to those who are weak, and to those who have no faith. Even more, he is wise enough to know if, how, and when to give us good things.
Too often, we want to slap a verse or inspirational phrase on a bad situation. But look at the counsel of Job’s friends in the book of Job. They had all the theologically correct ideas, but they did a terrible job at comforting him. Instead of trying to tell people what you think God wants them to hear, consider inviting them to take their pain to God. God is big enough to handle the hard questions that we bring to him in our suffering. “Why are you doing this?” “Why does God hate me?” “Why won’t he answer my prayers?”
This one is hard. I have found that this comment almost always comes from people who already have their own children. They typically have not adopted children or even been involved in foster care. They don’t know the costs of adopting a child, both financially and emotionally. And again, they see the answer to your problem as one that is easily remedied with any child you can get.
Adoption is a beautiful and wonderful thing. It is at the core of the Christian religion and I think that our world always needs more people to participate in foster care and adoption. But that doesn’t mean that everyone is called to care for orphans in the same way. Adoption and foster care are hard, and it often feels like those we aren’t able to have children of their own are almost expected to pursue them. There can be a lot of guilt surrounding this area. I know that I have felt pressure from people saying, “Well, you can always just adopt”. For me, it cheapens adoption. I don’t look at adoption as the default option, or the second-best option, but this is often how it is portrayed. This may be the road that God is leading some couples to pursue, but don’t assume that this is the option for everyone.
I hope that this list, although not comprehensive, gives you an insight into the many things that have been spoken to those who are experiencing infertility. Next time you are with your friend or sibling, remember that it may have been recently that they heard one of the phrases above. Offer them a listening ear to hear and acknowledge the pain they’ve experienced and continue to seek to honor them with your words. Next week we will look at What To Say.