What Not To Say To Someone With Infertility

Couples, especially women, are already dealing with tremendous amounts of shame and guilt when they find out that they are not able to conceive naturally.

We sat on the edge of the bed strewn with wedding gifts, an awkward silence brewing between us. I was racking my brain for small talk when, without any forewarning, she asked me softly, ‘Are you on treatment?’ I should have laughed out loud at the irony. After all, this, Are you on treatment? Instead, I went blank, the familiar dread of being caught, exposed, rising up my stomach. 

I made some noise and looked away, displaying my discomfiture. 

She kept her eyes on me for some time, expecting more information. Eventually, she too looked away. The awkward silence was now an impregnable wall. 

A voice announced that it was time for tea and we both got up and went our separate ways. I sought out Ranjith and she went missing in the crowd. But her words were echoing in my head like jammed tape. Are you on treatment? 

We did not know each other well enough for such an intimate and probing question. We had only met a handful of times on occasions such as this. I didn’t remember ever sitting down one-on-one to have a conversation with her. Yet, she had asked the question she did. It seemed as if she had been waiting for this quiet moment and as soon as an opportunity presented itself, she popped the question. She did not initiate pleasantries or build any context. She did not ask about my life, work or routine. This was the only thing about me that stood out for her. This was the only question she found worthy of asking me. Why are you not pregnant and what are you doing about it?

– Excerpt from ‘What’s a Lemon Squeezer doing in my Vagina? A Memoir of Infertility’ Published by Penguin Random House India

This episode does not describe the first time I encountered such a query, nor was it the last. Despite my considerable experience in confronting such ostensibly ‘harmless’ and casual questions, I never learnt to bulletproof my way through the shelling. Each time, it hit the mark. Each time, it penetrated the outer walls of nonchalance and indifference and left a deep hole in my psyche. It made me feel small, inadequate, and defective.

I am quite certain that my experience was neither unique nor extreme. These are questions couples who are childless, especially women encounter on a regular basis. They may be well-intentioned, originating from a place of concern and from the need to ‘problem-solve’ but such prying is a source of anxiety and pressure for those who are at the receiving end. We, Indians, as a culture, do not have a great track record in respecting personal boundaries. We do not hold back our judgment on clothes, food, body type, or lifestyle, especially when a young person is the target of our opinions.

The following are thoughtlessly flung around. 

  • So, when are you giving us the good news?
  • Time to stop focusing on your career. You are in your thirties. The clock is ticking.
  • Have you visited that clinic/doctor? 
  • What about IVF?
  • Just relax. It will happen. You are thinking too much about it.

Even when it is not asked/said explicitly, silent incrimination can be felt. It is lurking just around the corner and when the opportunity strikes, it rears its head. Unsolicited medical advice, references to other couples who fought the same battle and now have a baby, directions for temples, priests, holy sites, and votive offerings. Or the flippant ‘Why don’t you just adopt?’. Not only do people undermine the individual’s choice and agency while asking the question but also reveal their ignorance about the adoption process in India. It is complex, lengthy, and expensive. It is not a – breezy walk through revolving doors, pick up a baby and breeze out – kind of activity. 

Couples, especially women, are already dealing with tremendous amounts of shame and guilt when they find out that they are not able to conceive naturally.

So don’t make it worse, by subtly suggesting that they waited too long to start trying or that it is their fault in some other way. Don’t be dismissive of their struggles either by suggesting that they are better off without kids or that this is nothing on the scale of life-altering events such as a terminal illness or a debilitating injury. To each person, their story and struggle occupy all the space on the canvas. Do not minimize it. 

If you have said these things or acted in the way described here, consider going back, expressing your remorse and having an open conversation with them. One of the most difficult things about infertility that in invisible phenomenal and having their feelings recognized and cared for will definitely open paths of trust and connection. As the infertility awareness week is being observed Internationally (April 18-24), it is our responsibility to make the effort to educate and sensitize ourselves.

The important thing is to honour an individual’s personal space and choice of life. We may offer support if and when someone invites us on their journey.

Without judgement.

Without asking for hourly updates.

Without jumping in it to fix issues.

Without looking at them as if they have committed some crime or are characters in a tragic novel.

We all fall short of the ‘norm’ in some way or the other. Be the person you would want to meet, sit down and talk to at such a time.    


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