Those who have been on the receiving end of unsolicited remarks about their fertility know firsthand the lasting impact they can have. Stylist spoke to two women at different stages of their fertility journeys about what you shouldn’t say to someone trying to conceive.
On the surface, asking a woman when she’s going to have a baby seems like an innocent enough question. One so common that the average person would consider it nothing more than a throwaway query that would flitter from their mind as quickly as the words left their mouth.
But all you have to do is scratch ever so slightly below the surface of these types of comments to unearth the often complex and deeply personal set of circumstances that a couple could be navigating while trying to conceive.
According to NHS data, around 84 out of every 100 couples will get pregnant within a year if they have regular sex and don’t use contraception, but this can be impacted by things like age, health and how frequently you engage in intercourse. This means that one in seven couples in the UK struggle to conceive, and in a quarter of those cases the causes of infertility are unknown. With this in mind, it’s not far-fetched to deduce that many of us know at least one couple who’ve experienced issues with fertility, so taking a moment to consider the things we say to people about their family planning is something we can all benefit from.
A key piece of advice from Marley Hall, aka Midwife Marley, is to take the lead from the couple as opposed to broaching the topic yourself. “Unless that couple says to you, ‘We’re going to try for a baby soon’ or ‘We’re pregnant’, don’t assume anything,” she says. “Don’t ask things like, ‘When are you going to have children?’ or ‘Isn’t it about time you tried for a baby?’ because you never know. That couple could have had multiple miscarriages, they could be going through other fertility problems, or they might not even want kids.”
Those who’ve been on the receiving end of unsolicited remarks like this know firsthand the lasting impact they can have. Stylist spoke to two women at different stages of their fertility journeys to help demystify the dos and don’ts around this discourse.
What not to say to someone trying to conceive
Amber, 38, Surrey
Amber has two children who were conceived through IVF. She has documented her experience with infertility on her website, The Preggers Kitchen.
“We started trying for a baby as soon as we got married. I was 31 and just assumed it would happen quite quickly because I was healthy, I’d never had any medical problems, we’d never had any indication we’d have trouble and we didn’t have any friends that were having trouble,” she explains. It wasn’t until after three years of trying that Amber and her husband were eligible for IVF in their area. “That’s when the comments started coming in.”
“The most common ones we got were, ‘I’m sure it will happen if you just relax and stop thinking about it’, which is not a great one because there’s nearly always a medical reason, even if it’s not explained, as to why pregnancy isn’t happening. That’s like telling an insomniac to just sleep or a depressed person to just cheer up. We also had ‘You can always just adopt’, which is another classic. I think the most shocking one was my dad. He once asked, ‘Are you sure you’re doing it right?’ I didn’t know how to respond to that because I didn’t quite know what he was asking.
“One of my friends was very sympathetic and she asked me to explain the ins and outs of IVF. Then right at the end she said, ‘Are you sure you don’t only want a baby because you can’t have one?’, which was a really strange comment – like I was being competitive with life and the only reason I wanted a child is because I was struggling.
“And then, when I did have a baby, the things people said changed. So with our second, GPs, friends, family, everyone said, ‘I’m sure you won’t have any trouble this time, it’s always the way. You’ll fall pregnant naturally really quickly’. But it took five years for me to get pregnant again.
I can see why people have trouble saying the right thing if you haven’t gone through it. I’m sure I’ve done the same with things I haven’t experienced so I think it’s completely understandable. I take it all with a pinch of salt.”
Noni, 31, Southport
Zimbabwean-born Noni is the host of the Unfertility podcast. After trying for a baby for two and a half years, doctors found that her husband has a low sperm count as a result of his dialysis treatment for kidney failure. She is currently going through IVF and completed her third cycle earlier this year.
“[When doctors started our infertility investigation] I was catapulted into this world of trying to find out what was wrong with me because they do all the tests on the woman first,” she says. “All that time I kept thinking ‘It’s me, it’s me. I’ve got an irregular cycle, something’s going on there’. I kept trying to justify why [pregnancy] hadn’t happened.”
And Noni wasn’t the only one who jumped to the conclusion that her struggle to conceive was because of her. “One of my cousins told me, ‘I’m sure your husband still loves you’, and it blew my mind. She obviously assumed it was me. It could only be me in her mind, not him.
But the comments didn’t stop there. “Mainly people that weren’t really close family members, they’d touch my belly and say, ‘What are you waiting for? Where’s the baby?’ Because I wear loose clothing in general, people would ask, ‘Are you hiding something there?’, and they’d be trying to see what was under my dress.
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“I think one of the things that Black African couples do especially is we normalise a lot of the BS that we get when we’re trying to conceive. Because that’s the better way to cope rather than to try and challenge everyone, every single time.”
So how have things changed now that she’s been open about her journey with IVF?
“I think people are more sensitive in so far as their capacity to understand IVF allows. They get that we’re going through a process, but I think there’s still the expectation that ‘this is going to be it!’ with each round. People are expecting it to work each time. So now the questions are like: ‘Where are you with things?’ And sometimes it’s nice to be asked, but other times you don’t want to be asked that. It’s quite hard to get the balance, because some days you’re feeling it and some days you’re not.”
There’s an element of unconscious entitlement when it comes to knowing a person’s pregnancy status, which is so normalised it’s no wonder more people aren’t trying to strike this balance, or thinking much at all about the things a person has every right not to disclose.
Be mindful that it’s not your job to speculate when you think somebody you know may be trying to have a baby, or to trivialise what could be an incredibly difficult time for them.
If you’re unsure of what to ask, sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all.