So Always Measure Your Words Carefully
What if you knew the person or people you were talking to desperately wanted to have a child or would give anything to have another child, but were struggling to make it happen? Wouldn’t you measure your words more carefully? Wouldn’t you navigate conversations topics more thoughtfully? Wouldn’t you avoid saying something insensitive or possibly hurtful?
12.5% of couples trying to have a child struggle with infertility, or secondary infertility. Think about those numbers. If you are at an event or sitting with eight couples of childbearing age, statistically at least one of them is struggling to have a baby and you almost certainly don’t know which one it is because that couple likely hasn’t shared these private struggles.
Not only do insensitive words unintentionally hurt those struggling, but even events, programs, or rituals on the Jewish calendar can compound pain. Several years ago, I heard from someone desperate for a child how she dreads Simchas Torah and is filled with anxiety and angst the days leading up to it. You see, while the Kol Ha’Nearim Aliyah is among the highlights of the year for those with small children, for those yearning to be a parent, hearing and seeing parents kvell at their children and grandchildren gathered under the communal Tallis is a harsh reminder of what they don’t have. In some ways, the Aliyah serves as a harsh reminder that they don’t belong to a club they desperately want membership in. (This can apply to singles, too, who also deserve our great sensitivity and thoughtfulness.)
In an effort to channel that moment of parental joy and satisfaction into an opportunity for prayer and petition on behalf of all those wanting children, that year, we introduced a special tefillah right before the Kol Ha’Nearim Aliyah. Immediately before reciting the Tefillah, I quietly read a confidential list of names submitted from around the world. It was so gratifying when I got an email from someone I don’t know whose unbridled happiness practically burst through the computer screen as he shared that he had submitted a name to us the previous Sukkos and wanted to inform us that he was now the father of a healthy baby. I can only hope and pray for more follow-up emails like that.
Once again, we invite anyone who would like us to direct our heartfelt prayers towards their merit to share their name or the names of others by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
As we get ready to spread our enormous world-record tallis once again during Kol Ha’Nearim, let’s not only think about the children sitting under the tallis, but also about those still absent from that special moment. In their merit, let’s commit to be more sensitive and thoughtful. Here are some tips on what to say and not say to any couple, whether or not you are aware of their particular situation. (The following are actual things that have been said to people in our community suffering from infertility.)
- Avoid the question, “How many children do you have?” This is difficult for those trying to conceive who have never gotten pregnant as well as those who have miscarried or those who have lost a child or children. A parent (especially a mother) will always remember how many children she has carried so this comment can be very hurtful to respond to. A child at any stage who has been lost will always “count” to a parent. Not sure how to approach this question? Let others volunteer information about their children if they wish first.
- Avoid the questions, “How long have you been married…No children yet?” or “When are you going to have another baby?” Don’t assume you can question or comment on one’s plans to start a family or add to a family, as no couple will answer with, “We have been trying for [2, 4, 10] years and don’t have a child yet.”
- Don’t assume that a couple who doesn’t have children or has one child is “focused on their careers” and has no time for children or doesn’t want children.
- Don’t say, “You guys are so lucky you don’t have children now – you can be free to do whatever you want.” Couples who are struggling with infertility want nothing more than to be tied down with a baby. Making light of the situation and brushing it off with a “you’re so lucky” comment is extremely hurtful.
- Never say, “You’re young, you have time before you have to start trying,” “Don’t try right away,” “Give yourself time to get to know one another,” or, conversely, “You should have a baby before [such and such age].” The choice of when to start having children is never a topic for a friend or family member (including a parent). It is the couple’s choice when to start, and is a private discussion that occurs between husband and wife. This is a sacred and private aspect of a marriage. In addition, if someone has decided to open up to you and share their struggle, it means that they are sharing something extremely private, making them extremely vulnerable and exposed. Many need an ear, not an insensitive “wave it off” comment.
- If you know of a couple who has a few children and are trying to conceive, have lost a pregnancy, or have had a stillborn, a hurtful thing to say to them is, “Be glad for the children you have – maybe you were only meant to have [1, 2, 3, etc.]” Such a comment can cause irreparable damage.
- Don’t ask another person’s child, “Don’t you want a little sister/brother?” So many people ask young children this question and children are usually unaware of the struggle parents go through. This comment can hurt a child or cause the child to put pressure on the parents who are already trying to do all they can as they deal with their infertility issues.
- Difficult as it can be, try not to complain in any way about your children in front of a childless couple. Mentioning how annoyed you are that they woke you in the middle of the night, how frustrated you are with your crying baby, how your children drive you crazy, how carpool is “the worst,” how you got no sleep and “miss the days you were free like you guys,” how hard it is to be a parent, etc. is extremely insensitive. Couples struggling with infertility would give anything to hold a crying baby in their arms and have a sleepless night.
- If possible, plan a night out with a couple who doesn’t have children. Helping someone challenged by infertility feel like they still “fit in” even though they don’t have children lets them know they have your friendship even though they don’t share the common bond of being a parent. A lot of pain comes from feeling left out and not having anything in common with friends who are parents.
- If someone you know has told you they are struggling with infertility, check in once in a while and say you are thinking of them and wondering how they are feeling. This is much better than saying, “Thinking of you and your struggle” or “How are your treatments going” or “When is your next fertility treatment?” If someone you really care about is struggling, let them know you are praying for them and that you are there no matter what – they will open up to you if they feel comfortable and ready to share the intimate struggles they are going through.
- Some of the most hurtful comments are: “Why don’t you adopt?” or “We know someone who adopted and then got pregnant right after” or “There are so many children who need adopting” or “Maybe this is a sign from Hashem it’s not going to happen for you naturally.” The choice to adopt or expand a family in a variety of ways is deeply personal, and you can trust a couple is weighing all the options without needing such unsolicited advice from others.
- Lifestyle suggestions such as what to eat or drink, going organic, putting one’s legs up, catching the next full moon, doing yoga, and avoiding things like trampolines are not helpful. Remember that you are not a fertility doctor. What worked for you or a person you know, or something you read online, is not always going to work for someone else. Many fertility issues need to be corrected with intense medical treatment, and some can never be corrected for various reasons. Your input is only another painful reminder of the struggle they are dealing with. If couples are looking for suggestions, they will ask for advice. Unsolicited advice is usually very unwelcomed and can have the opposite effect than what was intended.
- The comment, “Just relax, it will happen,” can be offensive because it comes across as concluding the reason for the infertility being stress. Infertility is a medical issue and especially painful – a lot of stress stems from the pain of not being able to be a parent and less from the medical diagnosis. In addition, the couple will never not stress. Infertility is a daily struggle–everywhere a couple turns they are reminded of children (on Facebook, in shul, commercials, movies, at the mall, etc.). People struggling with fertility cannot escape it and every day these reminders add to their burden.
- Religious suggestions such as “Get a bracha from this rabbi,” “Try this segula,” “Say this prayer,” or “God has a plan–stop worrying,” again, are unsolicited and unwelcome pieces of advice. Many people do all of the above for years and still have no child. These suggestions can, in fact, turn couples away from God. When prayers, blessings, or segulas don’t seem to be working, they can easily start to lose faith. Unless they ask, don’t offer your two cents. Instead, give them the honor of being “kvater” at a bris if you think it appropriate, ask for their Hebrew names so you can daven, say Tehillim, and bake challah with them in mind. If you are in your ninth month of pregnancy and go to the mikvah for the segula of an easy birth, offer the woman the honor of going into the mikvah right after you as a segula for them. These things may not work, but it’s less about trying to find a “magical potion” that gets them pregnant, and more about letting them know that you have their back and support them, are doing all you can to be there for them, and that their struggle is important to you.