IVF can be an emotional rollercoaster, having a huge toll on people’s emotional and physical health, as well as their finances. Stylist speaks to a relationship expert and three women who have been through IVF about how to support someone experiencing the fertility treatment.
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IVF can be a brutal and unforgiving process. The fertility treatment, which sees eggs taken from the body, fertilised, and then placed back into the womb several days later, can take a huge toll on a woman’s mental, physical and emotional health.
IVF treatment can push relationships to the limit and with each cycle of IVF costing as much as £10,000, including the price of fertility drugs, diagnostic tests and so on, it can also cause considerable financial strain.
After being subjected to weeks of self-injected drugs, tests and invasive medical procedures, there is no guarantee it will actually work. According to the latest statistics from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), in 2019 IVF birth rates for women under 35 was just 32% per embryo transferred.
You may think you don’t know anyone who is going through IVF, but with almost 53,000 patients going through the process in 2019 alone, it is possible someone you care about is currently riding this particular emotional rollercoaster.
Rhian Kivits, a Relate-trained sex and relationship therapist based in Cornwall, has supported many people going through the IVF process. “It has such profound hopes and dreams attached to it,” says Rhian. “It can result in miracles, yet it can also be a rough ride and result in huge disappointments.”
IVF brings “huge emotional challenges”, she adds. “When someone has struggled to conceive and IVF feels like their only chance, or they only have access to limited rounds because of financial limitations, there’s a huge amount of stress attached to the process.”
“Not surprisingly, this can place a strain on relationships. Men can find themselves struggling with their partner’s emotions and unsure how to meet their needs, especially if they’ve hidden their own emotions to put on a brave face. Women often say they feel unsupported or misunderstood.”
With all these challenges, it’s vital someone undergoing IVF has a good support network around them. Here, Rhian and three women who have been through IVF explain the practical things you can do to help a friend who is going through the treatment.
5 practical ways to support someone going through IVF
Avoid making tactless or unhelpful comments
Jenny found the comments particularly difficult because she had a miscarriage after her first round of treatment. “I found it very difficult when people talked about how hard their pregnancy was, or how hard being a mum was, or particularly when one friend said jokingly ‘you can have one of mine’,” she says.
Jenna Farmer, the founder of online motherhood publication Mumernity, had one failed round of IVF before falling pregnant with her son naturally.
“People should treat an IVF failure as a loss and allow you to grieve for it as you would with any baby loss,” says Jenna. “I got comments such as ‘it wasn’t really there’ or ‘it’s not the same as a miscarriage’ because obviously, an IVF loss is much earlier, but it still very much felt like loss and grief to me.”
Rhian adds: “Don’t share stories about how easy it was for you to conceive and pop babies out one after the other. Don’t say anything that pressurises the woman or couple to feel like they are responsible for what’s happening or focus on how an IVF failure devastated someone else you know. Women and couples are extra sensitive while going through IVF. It’s important to respect this.”
Do let them know you are there for them
It’s great you are taking an interest in your friend’s treatment, but bombarding them with questions about it may not be helpful to them. Instead, let them know you are there when they feel ready to open up.
“Asking endless probing questions can be draining. Make it clear you’re ready to offer a listening ear and ask your friend if they want to talk,” says Rhian. “Ask questions like, ‘How can I support you?’ or, ‘Do you want to talk about it?’, so they know they can draw on your support when they’re ready.”
Sometimes actions can speak louder than words, as Emma Haslam discovered. Emma became pregnant after three rounds of IVF using a donor embryo at a clinic in Prague. She gave birth to her son in 2018. Emma and her husband Adam run Your IVF Abroad, providing personal and practical support to people who are considering travelling abroad for IVF treatment.
“I had a friend who dropped a ‘care’ package on my doorstop during my two-week wait to find out if I was pregnant or not. She didn’t knock, just left it for me to find,” says Emma. “It had some flowers, a candle, a card saying she was there for me and some chocolate. I was really touched and it was nice to know she was there.”
Do give them space
While it’s good to have people around when you’re going through IVF, you must respect your friend’s need for space too.
“Space is really important because there’s so much of IVF that feels painfully slow – whether it’s waiting to know when it’s going ahead, when your transfer day is, or the dreaded two-week wait when you find out whether you’re pregnant or not,” says Jenna.
Jenny added: “To be honest, I really struggled to see other people who were pregnant or had children. It felt like every time we went anywhere someone announced a pregnancy. I felt horrible for not being happy for people, but it just reminded me of what I couldn’t have. It felt easier sometimes just not to see people.”
However, giving your friend space doesn’t mean cutting them out of your social circle completely. “Invite us to baby showers, christenings and so on, but tell us you understand if it’s too hard to go. And mean it,” says Emma.
Do offer practical support
Whether it’s doing the shopping or running errands, offers of practical help could make a huge difference.
“The process of IVF can be very hard on the body too. It isn’t just mentally tough but also physically,” says Jenny. “A friend offering to drop over dinner after you have been through a medical procedure, or after you have had bad news is a small way to make someone feel loved and supported.”
Emma agrees, saying: “We were away for our treatment so it was nice and relaxing. However, when we returned, we found our families had filled our fridge and freezer and cleaned the house – nice things like that. It made life easier and showed us their support.”
Rhian says you should consider what practical support your friend may need, adding: “Your friend might really benefit from some extra time to rest or to take it easy during the IVF process. Little things really do mean a lot.”
Don’t give unsolicited advice
Has your friend asked you for advice about their IVF treatment? No? That’s probably because she doesn’t want it. Just like tactless comments, unsolicited advice can be unhelpful and harmful.
“It’s true that if IVF doesn’t work, that some couples do get pregnant unexpectedly, some choose adoption or others focus on different things in their lives besides children,” says Rhian. “It’s also true that herbal supplements worked for some people, or that if you were in their position, you might decline certain medications, or make different decisions. But advising your friend about all these things is completely unhelpful.”
Rhian says someone undergoing treatment needs to focus solely on their chosen goal, adding: “She doesn’t have the bandwidth for confusion or other options for the time being. Every decision she makes about her journey needs to be professionally-informed and taken as her own.”
Besides, no one knows more about her body and its needs than your friend. “Ask questions and don’t make assumptions,” says Jenny, who went on to have her daughter using a frozen embryo left from her first round of IVF. “I was a massive expert on fertility whilst going through IVF and I didn’t need any advice. I just needed support.
“I think it is very hard for people to know how to support someone going through this unless you have yourself – so just being present, thoughtful and kind goes a very long way.”
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Images: Getty, Rhian Kivits