Infertility myth busting: Just relax!

When I was invited to participate in a debunking of infertility myths, my main problem was figuring out which one myth to tackle. There are so many frustrating and annoying things that people under the influence of these myths do and say that choosing just one to write about is a difficult task.  In the end, I decided to go with the comment that most often made me want to kick people.

It goes like this:  I’ll be explaining to you that my husband and I don’t have any kids because we are infertile, and you respond with, “Just relax! All you need is to destress. Get a massage, take some time off, make sure you are relaxed and happy, and you’ll get pregnant in no time!”

This is one of the most obnoxious and hurtful things you can say to anyone dealing with infertility. It is bad enough that the statement is utterly unsupported by the evidence, but the problem is exacerbated by the fact that telling a woman to “just relax” implicitly blames her for the couple’s infertility. It suggests that the couple cannot get pregnant because the woman worries too much, or because she has a controlling, Type A personality.

If nothing else, the advice “just relax” is virtually impossible to take.  Trying to get pregnant if you are infertile is not a relaxing thing.  Oh, sure, it can start that way.  Initially, my husband and I had a very relaxed attitude about getting pregnant.  We paid a little extra attention to cycles and made some attempt to plan our euphemistic activities in accordance, but we figured that it would happen when it happened.

After the first year, it was clear that this strategy was not working.  We paid more attention to cycles, and eventually marked the calendar with the days that we were supposed to have sex. We got a fertility monitor, which not only had to be peed on every morning, but which utterly controlled our sex life.  And this was the fun part of the problem!

Over the next three years, there was a litany of stressors:  consultations with medical specialists, exams, specimen collections, needles, pills, hormones, and, in the end, a glorified turkey baster (I believe that the medical term is “intrauterine insemination” or IUI). A massage might have been nice, but it would have done nothing at all to relax me. In fact, I can’t think of anything that would have made that time in my life easier to take. It was hard and painful and unpleasant and I never want to go through anything like it ever again.  Infertility is stressful, and there is not much that can be done about it.

So, when you told me to “just relax,” you were talking to a person who was already under a great deal of unavoidable stress.  And you know what?  You made it worse.  Allow me to explain: when you told me to “just relax” during that period in my life, I had several simultaneous reactions, none of which were relaxation.

First, I wanted to yell at you for giving useless advice.  I wanted to tear your still beating heart from your chest and eat it as you watched.  I wanted to rip off your head and spit down your spine.  I wanted to punish you for saying something so utterly inane.  You probably wouldn’t have noticed this reaction, but it was there.

Second, my fight-or-flight reaction went into overdrive.  Telling me that I would get pregnant if I would “just relax” was an attack on my character.  You were telling me that I can’t get pregnant because I was doing something wrong. You were saying that our infertility was not one of those unfortunate but random events that are a result of living in a large and uncaring universe, but a deep, personal flaw, which could be corrected if only I were a better person.  I already felt broken and useless. I felt like less of a woman because I had not yet done the one thing that billions of years of evolution suggested I should be able to do. I tried to convince myself that our infertility was not my fault, but you were saying it was.  Ouch.

Third, I made the decision, then and there, to never speak with you about anything personal ever again. You blithely came in and offered an uninformed opinion on a very painful subject, and, instead of helping, you did the equivalent of poking me with a sharp stick.  On some level, I understood that you were trying to make me feel better, but you clearly lacked basic human empathy.  I didn’t need to put my hand in that beehive again.

The reality of the situation is this:  in most cases, ours in particular, infertility has nothing to do with relaxing or stressing out. We had clear biological reasons that we were unable to conceive. Sometimes that happens, even to perfectly nice people. No matter how much we relaxed, we would not have been able to conceive on our own. Even with a turkey baster (sorry–IUI), we were told that we had less than a 5% chance of conceiving over three cycles. While that may sound like a reasonably good chance, that is medical speak for “You would have a better chance of being struck by lightning.”  IUI is not particularly cheap, our insurance didn’t cover it, and the chance of conceiving was quite small.  We elected not to go through the procedure more than once. We could have tried IVF, but we were told we were not good candidates, and the costs for even one attempt are exponentially greater than several IUIs.

Here’s the point:  telling me to relax was counterproductive. It only made me angry, which actually increased my stress level.  If you really believed that all I needed to do was relax, then the last thing you should have told me to do was “just relax.”

Right.  I’ve told you what not to do, but that probably isn’t the best way to end this discussion.  It’s just going to leave us all hurt and angry.  Instead, allow me to offer some advice for interacting with infertile couples.

First and foremost, you need to understand that infertility provokes a grief response somewhere on the spectrum between losing a good job due to a bad economy, and finding out via text message that your baby brother has just had a stroke and died.  If a couple knows that they are infertile, it is certain that they had planned to have children, and that the diagnosis of infertility is threatening to rob them of that dream.  This is a real, tangible loss for those couples, and you need to treat them as though they are in mourning, because the reality of the situation is that they are.

Think about how you would speak to a grieving widow.  Would you ever say, “Just relax!  All you need is to destress.  Get a massage, take some time off, make sure you are relaxed and happy, and you’ll land a new husband in no time!”  I’m guessing not, and if you wouldn’t say it to a grieving widow, then you probably shouldn’t say it to an infertile couple.

You also need to realize that there is no advice that you could offer that the infertile couple has not already heard.  We’ve all been told that we should relax, and which fertility treatments we should try, and how your best friend’s second cousin’s freshman year roommate got pregnant after taking a trip to Barbados.  Unless you are a physician with experience in the area of reproductive health, your advice is unwanted.

Like anyone in mourning, what we really want and need is to know that you are there for us.  Instead of telling us what to do, why don’t you ask what you can do for us? If you know someone who is infertile, think about what you are saying. “I’m sorry you have to deal with this. Is there anything I can do to make it easier?” is a perfectly valid response. Offer to take us to lunch and give us a shoulder to cry on for an hour.  Come hang out at our house for an afternoon and help us fight off the zombie hordes on the PlayStation.

Trying to fix the problem if you’ve never dealt with infertility, especially if you are fertile, will most likely just make us feel hurt, sad, or angry–or all three! You probably don’t know what we are dealing with, and you probably never will unless you ask. In short, think before you open your mouth.

This post was written in response to Resolve’s “Bust an Infertility Myth” blog challenge. I think it is an excellent idea. One problem with infertility is that there is so much misinformation surrounding the subject that, often, people just give up on trying to talk about it. Here is a link which might help give you a basic understanding of infertility, and here is one giving a background on National Infertility Awareness Week. You can read all of the submissions so far here.