How to support your child (or anyone) through infertility treatments.
For many parents, the instant they meet their child, an immense urge to protect their kin at all costs kicks in. As they develop, that probably evolves into an urge to solve all of their problems. And when they’re young, often you can.
As they become adults, their problems become more complex. They aren’t always fixable with a Band-Aid and a kiss, a cuddle during a storm, or a call to a teacher.
But, it’s hard to kick that instinct. As mature and independent as they get, they’ll always be your baby — even when they’re trying to have their own baby. And if your adult child is they’re struggling with fertility, you’ll likely want to fix that, too.
Fifteen percent of couples are affected by infertility, according to the WHO. And your child might be one of them, whether or not they’ve shared that with you.
For those who want children, learning they cannot conceive naturally is heartbreaking. And it can change everything in an instant. If they choose to still pursue parenthood, the uphill journey can be unpredictable and, simply, sad. Not only is this news a difficult pill to swallow figuratively, but fertility treatment also involves expensive hormonal medications that can alter the patient’s mood drastically. Put all those factors together and your trusted tactics for comforting them just might not work.
“It’s really hard for any parent to see their child in pain; it doesn’t matter what age they are,” Rena M. Gower, LCSW, therapist, and author of Infertility 101: A Quick & Concise Guide to the Club You Never Wanted to Join, tells KCM. “Infertility is particularly challenging because you can’t fix it for your child. You can’t give them a baby. You can’t solve it. It’s really hard to feel out of control when someone you know is suffering.”
What can you do? We spoke to experts about understanding your child’s infertility experience and the best (and worst) ways to support them.
Infertility affects everyone in the relationship
Both experts point out that the child-bearing person carries the burden when it comes to infertility treatment. But, whether or not your child is the one with the diagnosis, and whether it seems one partner is struggling more than the other, the couple is facing infertility together.
Infertility changes you
Gower says, “a person going through infertility treatments is not the same person they were before the treatments.”
This is in part because “Infertility impacts every area of that patient’s life,” Alice Domar, Ph.D., chief compassion officer at Inception Fertility, tells KCM. “Everything from their relationships to their job to their body image to their relationship with God to their financial security and anything else.”
Logistically, infertility is a nightmare. It might involve multiple injections a day on a very strict schedule, a drastic change in diet or lifestyle aimed at improving egg/sperm count/quality, or endless doctor’s appointments (often accompanied by long waits and bad news). Then there are the medical bills: According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the average IVF cycle can cost anywhere from $12,000 to $17,000 without medication. With medication, the cost can rise to closer to $25,000. And the side effects of those medications can include mood swings, hot flashes, bloating, constipation, and more.
The way a person processes all of this is unpredictable and can change every day.
They’re probably anxious and depressed
“An inability to conceive, when society has taught you that’s what your body is supposed to do, brings up a lot of guilt and shame and feelings of failure,” says Gower. On top of that natural reaction, “the hormones and the drugs are really intense. You have a high level of stress and pressure,” she says. “There are feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and being out of control. It’s an inability to control your emotions.”
Dr. Domar explains, “The psychological profile of infertility patients is equivalent to the psychological profile of cancer patients.” Findings of a Harvard Medical School study suggest “the psychological symptoms associated with infertility are similar to those associated with other serious medical conditions. Therefore, standard psychosocial interventions for serious medical illness should also be applied in infertility treatment.” Dr. Domar says this research indicates that women going through infertility are “as depressed and anxious as women who have cancer or heart disease,” she says. In fact, 76 percent of women in infertility treatment have a clinical level of anxiety and 56 percent have a clinical level of depression. (For men, it’s 32 and 61 percent, respectively.)
“Infertility is a giant mood swing,” says Dr. Domar. “You get optimistic the first half of the cycle, like, ‘Yes, it’s going to work, I’m psyched up and I love my doctor,’ And then you get your period and you’re crashing and burning for days,” says Dr. Domar. “I think on a daily basis, you can’t have any expectation of what your child’s mood is going to be.”
“You may find your child is getting irritated about things that maybe never bothered them before,” says Gower, who warns that this is not the time to pick fights. “Try and just go with the flow — it’s not permanent. So just ride it out and try to be accommodating, comforting, and calm.”
Commitments go out the window
Because of all the uncertainties that come with infertility treatments, whether it’s IVF, IUI, or another approach, “committing to plans can be a challenge for infertility patients,” says Gower. If they need to be home for shots, they might not be able to plan a vacation or even a weeknight dinner. Last-minute doctor’s appointments or procedures, and mood swings make their schedules even more erratic.
Family events can be especially tough
Being social can be unpleasant when all a patient can think about is getting home in time to jab a needle in their stomach. And events involving kids can be especially unappealing.
“Baby showers, holidays, or birthday parties for pregnant family members can often bring up feelings of jealousy or envy,” says Gower. “Then there’s this dread of people asking you questions like, ‘When are you having kids?’ ‘Are you pregnant yet?’”
“Parents shouldn’t put undue pressure on their kids to attend things or guilt them for not coming,” says Gower. “Try to meet them where they’re at, and be OK with that. Your children may be setting some new boundaries just to protect themselves.”
Don’t give them advice
“Unless you’re a reproductive endocrinologist, do not give advice,” Dr. Domar warns. “By definition, your child or child-in-law’s doctor knows more about this than you do.”
“Every patient is unique, every diagnosis is unique, and every treatment plan is unique. So it’d be extremely unlikely that you would actually be able to give accurate medical, psychological, or lifestyle advice,” says Dr. Domar. “Don’t tell your child or child-in-law to eat or not eat certain foods, or exercise more or less or whatever else. Because in all likelihood, they’re getting the appropriate advice from their medical team.”
Don’t talk about other people’s fertility experiences
As pure as your intentions might be when sharing the news of your neighbor’s daughter who just had a baby at 53 after years of trying, your child might not want to hear it. Says Dr. Domar, “Don’t talk to your child who’s going through infertility about someone else’s pregnancy or baby. As happy as they may be for them, they may not be able to bear hearing about someone else’s successful pregnancy. Some parents think it’s inspiring — it’s not.” She adds, “And don’t tell them how much you wanna be a grandparent. They know.”
Gower suggests asking first before you overshare. “Some people find comfort and strength in those stories, but for others, it can add pressure or be triggering. So simply ask your children, ‘Do you want to hear about other people’s pregnancies?’”
Do some research
We get it, infertility is confusing. What’s the difference between IVF and IUI? What’s in those injections? It’s great to be generally curious, but your struggling family member might not be thrilled in this instance. “If something painful has happened to you, every time you describe it to somebody, you’re reliving it,” Dr. Domar says.
“Read up on infertility from good sources like ASRM.org, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine. It’s accurate information, so you can learn about what your child’s going through without having to make them describe everything to you.” Dr. Domar also suggests Resolve.org, which has a section for family and friends.
Ask what they need and offer support
Infertility is a very individual experience, and there’s no way to prepare yourself for your child’s journey. Both experts agree that the best place to start is by asking your child what they need and letting them know you’re there, “whether that means listening to the latest update from their doctor or simply bringing them dinner,” says Dr. Domar.
If you have the means and they need it, Dr. Domar suggests offering to help them financially. “Most people in this country don’t have the money to pay for treatment. If you can afford it, offer. It’s really hard for a lot of kids to ask their parents for money. So offer it with no strings attached.”
Gower encourages parents to “just ask, ‘How can I support you?’” She adds, “Even if that’s not met with acceptance, at least they’ll know you’re there. But you have to ask, because support is not one-size-fits-all.”