If there is one thing that I have learned from my own infertility, it is that people can say some rather insensitive and mindless things! Enduring countless questions about when you are going to start a family, admonishments that you certainly aren't getting any younger, and other helpful "advice" can wear on a person, especially a person who is already experiencing a lot of stress and disappointment. The holidays, with their many family and social engagements, especially seem to be a hotbed of activity in this regard.
It's hard to know how to respond to these types of comments. I myself still struggle with this issue, and many of my clients describe similar dilemmas. In this blog, I will outline some creative strategies of responding to these situations that may be useful.
Striking a chord
I think one of the hardest aspects of responding to upsetting comments is that they often stir up our own feelings of inadequacy or self-blame about our infertility. As I have discussed in a prior post, it is quite common for individuals experiencing infertility to worry that somehow their medical problems are caused by their actions, beliefs, or feelings, despite all evidence to the contrary. Thus, hearing, "You just need to relax" for the zillionth time can reinforce our feelings that we are somehow doing something wrong, and that is the root of the problem. Our emotional reaction doesn't take into account that rather than a lack of relaxation, there are medical issues at play--and the speaker likely does not have any expertise in this area. In addition, if infertility has already taken a toll on self-esteem, hearing about how so-and-so became impregnated merely by her husband looking at her can heighten feelings of inadequacy.
When you are experiencing negative feelings about yourself, it can be hard to formulate a response to the comment or question right in the moment. This is why I believe it is important to try to anticipate problematic comments or questions in advance. I'm not suggesting getting paranoid about it, but it can be helpful to consider what might be said or asked, and by whom. As you start thinking in this way, you will find that certain situations call for such comments, and that certain individuals can be counted on to say something insensitive or unfortunate. Planning in advance can help you to develop a plan you can implement if and when verbal misfortune occurs.
They started it!
When responding to insensitive or inappropriate comments or questions, it is important to consider that although society teaches us to answer questions when asked, and to try to be polite no matter what, in reality we have much more freedom in terms of our responses. In my way of thinking, if somebody else has already crossed a social line, then all bets are off! We often fear breaking a social rule because we worry the consequences will be severe. After you try it in one of these situations, however, you will realize that in actuality we have much more flexibility than we may believe.
Let's say someone has just said something inappropriate or upsetting to you regarding infertility or family building. How do you respond? I have a few approaches you may not have previously considered that might work for you depending on your needs at the moment.
Sometimes saying nothing at all says the most. We are trained otherwise, but it is true that just because someone asks you a question doesn't mean you need to answer it. So many times, the questions that people struggling with infertility must endure are very intrusive. For instance, you probably don't go around asking fertile people with whom you are merely acquainted what sexual position they used to conceive their children. So a silent stare, and a change of subject, might be just the trick in these situations to set your boundaries in place.
Many times, instead of answering questions or responding to comments, I have found myself giving a little manners lesson to my unfortunate conversational partner. I don't know whether they found this to be a helpful lesson, but I do know it certainly made me feel better. I was especially inclined to do this when someone pressured me about not having children, and not getting any younger. I would tell them, "You know, let me give you a piece of advice. You really shouldn't be going around making these statements or asking people these questions. You never know if someone is having a problem having children or not, and if they are, the things you are saying can be very painful. I'm sure you wouldn't want to cause anyone to feel upset, so this is why I bring this up." This usually shut down the conversation right away, although not surprisingly, I never got the sort of thanks I felt I deserved for imparting this sage wisdom.
Sometimes in these situations it is most effective to think outside the conversational box. The best example of that I can think of is not infertility related, but does illustrate the point. When I was growing up, my mother provided foster care and adoptive homes for orphaned cats. Sometimes, quite a few of them were with us. Of course, they had to eat, and my mother, being thrifty, wanted to buy the cat food when it was on sale. She would get embarrassed though, buying all the cat food because people would always ask her questions about how many cats she had, why she had them, and wasn't she crazy for having all of those cats? Finally, she got so tired of this that she sent my father to buy the cat food instead. He loaded his grocery cart full of cat food, and as usual, he was approached by a woman who wanted to know how many cats he had. With a straight face, he looked at her and said, "Ma'am, we don't have any cats." He left it at that, and rolled off his cart as she struggled to contemplate what other possible uses there could be for all of that cat food.
I am sure you can come up with similar zingers for your particular situation, especially with a little advance planning. Not only will you be able to protect yourself and effectively end the line of conversation or questions, but you also may enjoy doing so.
Get the heck out of there
Sometimes, none of the above strategies are going to work. You might already be so overwhelmed with emotion that you can't continue the conversation any more. In these cases, if it feels too hard to continue, then simply excuse yourself. Try to do something that will comfort you and help you feel better, whether it's a good cry in the bathroom or hanging up the phone and yelling at the wall. You can always deal with the consequences of exiting the situation later, and hopefully the person will understand. If they don't, then it doesn't reflect well on them, does it? Dealing with the difficulties of your own situation is probably hard enough--you don't need to worry about saving the feelings of everybody else too.