How to Talk to People Who Cannot Get Pregnant


We all know someone. But we probably don’t know we know someone.

Of all the health issues that are difficult to talk about openly, there is a level of shame and embarrassment related to failed pregnancy that isn’t there for, well, cancer, a broken arm, or a migraine. Or any number of other physical ailments that involve some level of malfunctioning body parts.

Why is that?

Because the body parts involved are the kind we learn about in health class? Because the process starts with *gasp!* sex? Because we don’t know how to fix it?

I think we don’t talk about it because of pain. Humans avoid pain.

For me, it is the emotional pain of losing the hope of a child. Of a family. Of grandparents. Of summer camps and tiny outfits, teddy bears and ballet, soccer teams and teenage angst. College, relationships. More kids. Things that begin with pregnancy. Not being pregnant is the loss of those microscopic things that add up to another person and an actualization of myself as a mom. My husband as a father. Our marriage as a family.

My pain is re-imagining a different future than the one in which I’ve existed for as long as I can remember.

Your pain is the emotional pain of seeing me in pain. Because you care. You don’t want me to hurt. You don’t want to bring up something which you think I forgot. You want to fix it for me but don’t know how. I know you care. You’re scared. You can’t handle the pain.

People don’t know how to deal with that kind of pain, in themselves and certainly in others.

We block it out, avoid it. When we do that enough, it becomes how we live our lives and see the world and even how we treat, mistreat, people.

We expect pregnancies to be simple. You get married, have a stable job, perhaps a home, a car, a dog—when is the baby showing up? Monday? July? Why is he not here yet? Oh, maybe they don’t want kids. Maybe they are having “trouble.” “Did you hear they are having ‘trouble’? “Yes, they are having trouble.”

“Trouble.” That awful word. Why the stigma? Why not say what it is? When someone gets a brain tumor, we don’t say, “She’s having trouble with her cerebrum.” No, you say “brain cancer.” (If you’re my mom, you still whisper words like this and usually put a “the” in front of it—but you say it nevertheless.)

We all know someone. But we probably don’t know we know someone. Because they don’t talk either.

It’s not your fault. It’s all of ours, mine too. Society’s.

There is that stigma. Something is wrong with us as humans. Pregnancy is supposed to be simple. When it’s not, well, trouble.

Pregnancy isn’t simple. When it doesn’t happen, there is a reason. And it’s not like that reason is written down by our doctor and put in our back pocket for certainty and clarity. More like it might be this reason. Or it might be that reason. Or it might be something else. It is rarely clear. Hardly accurate. It is a lot of uncertainty. Which furthers the feelings of lack of control and, well, impotency. The physical and emotional conflict in full circle, self-perpetuating.

Pregnancy issues could fall into large buckets of disappointment covered under “infertility” and “miscarriages.” They are medically quite different and should be addressed differently with treatment. But, the pain, guilt, shame, and isolation they bring as carry-ons are extremely similar.

Again, it goes back to pain. The pain is overwhelming. And we don’t like to talk about difficult things. It creates a barrier to communication, which breaks down understanding, which threatens the support that people struggling with this need more than anything. (And nevermind the erroneous and ridiculous belief that everyone should want to have children, assumptions that have been thankfully knocked to the mat by Meghan Daum’s provocative, honest and diverse collection of essays on the topic).

Support. Love. Understanding.

We have to get to that place of support.

First thing is, honestly, that you don’t have to talk about it with me. If you can’t get past the word “trouble,” and if you cringe when I say the word “infertility,” then please don’t ask about it. I can’t spend my time making you feel OK about my health issues. And this isn’t all I am—I can talk about other stuff too.

If you do want to ask about it and hear about it and do whatever you can to support me—great. Here are a few things to consider:

You’ll think to begin by asking “what we’ve done.” I can give you a list, if you want. Sure. Fine. Except, there is a thin line between wanting contextual information and becoming overbearing, making me feel like I haven’t done enough. Stay on the curious side of that line.

Then you might want to tell me what some friend of yours went through. That is fine. That feels supportive, makes me feel less alone. “I saw her suffer, and it was very hard, very hard. There just aren’t easy answers. Tell me about what you’re going through.” And it is ok to ask specifically, to reach beyond metaphors and other things that can obscure understanding.

That is empathy. Empathy works.

However, if you are tempted to turn someone else’s story into what my husband and I should do—“I had this friend who had trouble conceiving and what she did was sacrifice a baby goat every second Sunday and wow, it just worked! That’s all I’m saying. Think about it. Goats.”—don’t.

Are you a doctor? No. Don’t give anecdotal medical advice or what might pass for medical advice in 1615.

I need your emotional support, not your technical know-how. Because you don’t have technical know-how, and I know more about my body and what we’ve been going through than you do.

While you’re at it, support my husband, too. This isn’t a female thing. In many ways, it’s tougher on him, he controls less than I do. Imagine how that makes him feel. No one asks him if he’s OK.

And another thing: don’t say “It’s alright, it’ll be alright” in a patronizing “let’s wrap this up” tone. That is an aphorism to make you feel better, and it closes down the conversation and makes it awkward. More awkward than talking about uteruses and sperm. Ending the conversation doesn’t end my pain. I’m thinking about this whether we talk about it or not.

And don’t say “Relax.” “You have to relax.”

Or any imperative that includes the words “relax” and “you.” Feel free to say, however, “Sucks how everyone tells you to relax when that is the last thing you can do.” And then I’ll say “Yeah, I know. It does.” Then we’ll smirk and snort and hey – I’ll might even relax.

Everyone is different. I’m sorry I can’t speak for all couples who go though this, but I know we all need support and honest, deliberate, specific conversation.

Honestly, if you want to get right to it, what we’re really looking for is this: I want someone who is capable of standing in front of me, figuratively, and saying:

“I know there is pain. I cannot imagine how much. I’ll help you carry it. I won’t run away when it gets uncomfortable. You can be less than perfect in front of me. I love you anyway.”

And then listen.

Check in once in a while.

Don’t avoid it.

Make me laugh.

That’s really all we need from you. And don’t worry about whether I’ll love your kids, not having my own doesn’t affect how much I care about you and yours.

  • lisa perry

    Thank you for this. People DON’T know what to say. People said the oddest things to us. You know where to find me anytime you need to do whatever you need to do: cry, vent, swear, or just talk about books and writing and maybe laugh. Much love. xxoo

    • Thanks Lady. Or talk about shoes?! I sure do.

  • Jeff Ronne

    wishing you and anyone else the best of luck, many people have been down this road with varying degrees of success and failure, being in the 1st world helps with more options but there is never a guarantee, the 3rd world measures are non existent, the best doctors are highly competent while also capable of copious amounts of caring, my wife and I were lucky and we knew it as the journey is uncertain

    • This is very true. And something we don’t often think about. Thanks Jeff.

  • Amy James

    great article. I wanted to add that inability to get pregnant doesn’t mean loss of hope of children or a family. Many same sex couples or anyone who wants a child but for any reason can’t, could adapt new borns, use other methods of pregnancy etc.

    • Thanks Amy. You are absolutely right. I haven’t thought about adoption and didn’t mention it only because I hadn’t thought about it and thus, didn’t have good thoughts about it. But it is as viable as anything for most people. Whether it is for us, I don’t know yet but we’ll figure that out. Thank you for your comment.

  • Pingback: Stunted – Ellen Vrana()

  • Pingback: Kittens, Kids and the Nature of Family – Ellen Vrana()

  • Pingback: 10 things I love about my husband (when I don’t hate them) – Ellen Vrana()

  • Pingback: Chasing Sheep and Other Signs of Neediness – Ellen Vrana()



To keep up to date with the latest news enter your email below.