The language of fertility

Language is powerful. It is not just a tool of communication but is the way that humans, perhaps uniquely as a species, connect minds. When you are trying to conceive, the tone and choice of words others use can have a profound and long-lasting effect on how you feel, on the choices you make and even on your outcome.

As one fertility expert said, “Language is a lightning rod that conducts the jolt of involuntary childlessness straight to the heart of every person unable to achieve a spontaneous pregnancy.”

There are moves afoot in many countries to improve the way we talk about fertility in the western world. For instance, in the UK, some health professionals within fertility clinics are taking the lead in providing guidance, a sort of linguistic etiquette when it comes to this sensitive subject.

Mr. Cesar Diaz-Garcia, Medical Director, IVI London said “You should always be careful when talking to someone who is trying to conceive because infertility and the impact it can have is invisible. Be mindful that in that moment they may be under intense physical and emotional strain. They are processing a difficult diagnosis or could even be mourning a loss. It is always best to take a cautious approach and try not to make assumptions about their experience, especially if they seem outwardly fine in social settings.”

Be careful about offering advice and sharing happy ending stories

It’s only human to want to help. However, Mr. Diaz suggests that you should be wary of asking unsolicited questions or offering advice without being asked. Likewise, you should be careful about sharing happy ending anecdotes.

He continued, “It can feel as if you’re offering reassurance when you share the happy story of a person it all worked out for. And maybe that will happen to your friend, but it may not. Offering these kinds of comments can not only create false expectations but also lead to feelings of being at fault for not being normal if things don’t go the same way. Just let them know you’re there for them. Sometimes, just being present is the best thing a friend can do.”

Telling them to just relax will probably have the opposite effect

Popstar Ed Sheeran was in the news recently relating his and his partner’s struggles to conceive. They were, happily, eventually rewarded with a daughter. However, Ed’s advice for people in a similar situation to just relax and it’ll probably happen hasn’t been well accepted. Many people yearning for a child simply don’t have the time left on their biological clocks to take a chance with just relaxing.

Mr. Diaz added, “Although nearly always well-meant, encouraging someone who’s trying to conceive to try to relax can come across as insensitive. Ultimately, infertility isn’t a lifestyle factor, it is a medical condition recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and needs to be treated with sensitivity. Relaxing is not a cure, nor does it make someone struggling with infertility feel any better about their situation. Plus, from a medical perspective, telling someone experiencing infertility to relax is simply not good advice and it certainly won’t help them get pregnant if they have a fertility issue.”

Never say “At least you have”

Mr. Diaz said that comments starting with “At least you have” are particularly disempowering because they minimise the pain the other person is feeling and can cause them to feel guilty for having those feelings! He advises that if someone is sharing their struggles, they usually just want those feelings to be heard and acknowledged.

What can you do to help?

Mr. Diaz suggested, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with simply asking, “How are you?” and “Is there anything I can do to support you?” In fact, these are often the questions that are appreciated the most. Without prying or intruding, it gives that person the opportunity to share if they feel ready to or if they’d prefer not to talk about it. These sorts of questions show empathy and acknowledge their struggle without forcing them to go into details.”

Specific wording

Mr. Diaz and his colleagues have compiled a helpful lexicon, the Language of Fertility to help people negotiate the potential minefields when communicating about infertility.

It is certainly worth considering. Even a word like infertility is emotionally charged and can cause pain. Instead, it is recommended to use terms like fertility challenge or fertility struggle.  With a little mindfulness and with the advice of people like Mr. Diaz, we can avoid adding to the burden of infertility and make it more comfortable for those who struggle to conceive to talk about their plight.