Secondary infertility – what NOT to say.

Nov 06, 2023

Secondary infertility is just as common as primary infertility.  In fact, depending on the source or study you look at, it affects approximately 1 in 10 couples. But despite this huge percentage, it’s not something we talk about specifically.

I’m not going to argue or get into a debate around which is more difficult – primary or secondary infertility – both are devastating and soul-destroying.  But I do feel there is a lot less support and empathy, or understanding around secondary infertility. And there are a lot more triggering or insensitive comments that get thrown around.

Sure, you hear all the common ones that come with fertility struggles – just relax, just go on a holiday, just stop trying, just get drunk, just stop thinking about it.  Or the unsolicited advice of, have you tried_______. But there are a lot more AT LEAST comments provided, and a lot more assumptions made too.

Supporting someone through infertility can be hard, regardless of whether it is primary or secondary.  Which means that getting the support you need through this is difficult too.  So, I’d like to give some guidance on how to support someone experiencing secondary infertility, based on comments that those who are going through it, commonly hear.

These are some of the things you may be tempted to say to those going through secondary infertility.  And I’ll explain why it doesn’t help, and in fact, can cause more pain and angst.

At least you have one child. Some people don’t have any.  If you were aiming to make us feel like shit, mission accomplished. Any statement that starts with “at least” minimises the pain, longing, and pressure we are currently under.  It makes us feel guilty, or like a bad person for wanting more.  And as a result, we punish ourselves. And given the fact that infertility makes us question our sense of self-worth to begin with, this can set us on a self-destructive spiral.

Why can’t you just be grateful for the child you have? You’re so blessed!  We are grateful. We know more than anyone else how blessed we are to have one child, given the struggles we are now facing. You saying that insinuates that we are ungrateful.  But we can be grateful for what we have, and want more.  This is not a crime.

You wouldn’t say to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, to just be grateful that there are treatments available. Or just be grateful that they didn’t get hit by a bus and die.  And yes, I draw this parallel between a cancer diagnosis and secondary infertility, because research has shown that women with infertility have the same levels of anxiety and depression, as women with cancer, heart disease and HIV. And in fact, I know a number of women who have experienced both, and they say that infertility was in some ways, much MORE stressful.

When are you going to give your child a sibling? Firstly, this is a really personal question – if you wouldn’t be so bold as to ask a person when they’re going to have sex, please don’t ask them when they’re going to have a baby.  Secondly, this puts a heck of a lot of pressure (in addition to the pressure we’re already putting on ourselves) on us. That picture we had in our head of how our family would look is slowly slipping away.  We look at other families that have more than one child with longing and envy. And this question is a reminder that we are trying and failing.  It brings up a whole lot of pain and fear that we may not want to share with you.  And let’s be honest, if we turned around and told you the whole truth of how we’re feeling and what we’re going through, would you know what to say back to us?

In addition to this, our child may also be asking us when we’re going to give them a little brother or sister to play with.  This breaks our hearts every time we hear it from them.  And you asking that same question, may be enough to make us crack open.

Oh, so you just have one. Ouch! This hurts because it emphasizes the hole that we already feel in our family.  It indicates that one isn’t enough.  And while we may feel the same way – that our family isn’t complete – you saying this makes us feel inadequate.  It puts up our walls and we feel like we need to defend our position of having one child. It creates conflict within us – because we need to justify why one is enough, even though we want more.

You better hurry up and have baby #2 - you don’t want too much of an age gap!  We’re trying as hard as we can. Rest assured, we are already counting the years in between, and panicking about whether we’ll be too old, or whether our children won’t be able to bond with a larger age gap in between.  We worry about their relationship.  We worry about people’s judgement. We worry about our biological clock and can feel it ticking.  Please don’t tell us to hurry, or tell us why a large age gap isn’t good.  There is no perfect age gap between siblings, and not all of us get to choose.

You managed to get pregnant once - your body knows what it’s doing.  Not helpful!! If only it were that simple.  This isn’t “just like riding a bike”. Just because you’ve run a marathon once, doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be able to cross the finish line again, because your body knows what it’s doing.  There are so many things that can change within our body and our partner's body that affect our fertility.  And you just assuming that it was easy the first time, may not be true.  We may have struggled previously, which means we know that battle ahead of us. For some of us, getting pregnant and staying pregnant isn’t that easy.  And you saying that, makes us feel even more lost – plus it puts pressure on “our body”.  It makes us feel like it’s our fault if it isn’t happening. And then we think it’s because we’re not thinking positively enough, or are too stressed, or aren’t relaxed enough.  Which leads us down that spiral of self-blame once again.

Those are the main things NOT to say to someone going through secondary infertility, and why.  

So, what CAN you do and say instead?

Listen to us without trying to fix us or make us feel better.  Validate our pain by saying things like – that sounds really hard. Or I’m so sorry you’re going through that, can really help. And as a general rule, please stay away from statements that start with “Just” (because it’s not that easy) or “At least” (because that’s dismissing our pain and how hard this is).

Never assume that just because we got pregnant before, we can now. 

Instead of asking us WHEN we’re going to have another child, ask us about our existing one, or just talk about something else.  Rest assured, if we want to talk about it with you, we will.

Tell us that every family looks different, and there is no right or wrong way, or divine timing to create your family.

Tell us that you love us, no matter what.  Hug us, and let us cry when we need to.

Let us know that you’re here whenever we need to talk. Provide a safe space without judgement.

Tell us it’s ok to want more than one child.

Forgive us when we lose our shit.

Show us compassion without pity.

But more than anything, we just want to feel seen.

So, if you’re going through secondary infertility right now, I want you to know that I see you. You’re doing such a great job of raising your child, and going through this shit-show of a journey.  I know how hard it is to support a child AND go through the grief and fear associated with infertility at the same time. You’re amazing, and I’m sending you all the positive vibes.

Jen xx


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