Growing a family is a special time for everyone involved. Having children propels a couple into a new life stage, parenthood, but it also has an impact on the rest of the family as they also come into the new life stage of an aunt, uncle, grandparent or great-grandparent.

With 1 in every 6 couples in Canada faces fertility challenges it can create some interesting and sometimes difficult family dynamics.  Today on the blog we are discussing some of the challenges that can arise for family members who aren’t sure how to support a couple struggling with fertility or they THINK are struggling with fertility and ways they can provide support that is considered and sensitive.

Consider that some couples may not have fertility issues at all

Some people/couples are very open about their struggles with fertility while others choose to keep their fertility challenges to themselves. But not every couple /person WANTS children and it’s important not to assume that all people do want children of their own. This may feel frustrating to a parent eager to become a grandparent (or to have more grandchildren), disappointed that they may not get their opportunity to become a grandparent if their own offspring doesn’t produce a grandchild, but at the end of the day, reproduction is not something we can ultimately control, especially if it’s someone else’s fertility.

 Well meaning tips, advice or IVF brochures you feel may “help” them may actually offend and break down communications. The best thing you can do for a  couple who has not clearly defined “fertility” as an issue is to love and support them at having the happiest and healthiest life and relationship they can . By focusing your efforts on supporting the health of their relationship creates a stronger support system and an overall better relationship with you!

Whether they choose to try to have children or not, knowing they have a supportive family no matter what the future brings will benefit everyone.

It’s not your business to discuss anyone else’s fertility

Because family growth is often an “expected” life stage it’s not uncommon for other family members or friends less connected to the couple to ask YOU whether they are going to have children/more children.

Also, little comments such as “Hopefully I’ll get some grandkids soon” or “I can’t wait to be an aunt”  or even “So, when are you going to give my grandson a little brother or sister?” seem innocuous enough but it IS in fact a commentary on a couple’s fertility. 

These comments can be really disappointing for a couple to hear, and even worse, if they hear it second hand, especially if they have experienced a miscarriage or unsuccessful fertility procedures like AI, IUI or IVF.  

It is also inappropriate to mention to people outside of the immediate family (or even within the immediate family) if someone is struggling with fertility and they haven’t consented to you discussing this with others. Unless a couple has consented or is explicitly public about their fertility challenges (ie posting it on social media or announcing it at the family Christmas party)  you should keep any fertility information or assumptions to yourself.

 The best approach is to refocus our words and dialogue on supporting the couple to be a happy and healthy couple OUTSIDE of the context of having children.  When others ask you “So – any grand babies coming up for you soon?”, responding  in a way that respect’s the couple’s privacy such as “We aren’t sure what tomorrow will bring but our focus isn’t grandkids – it’s seeing our children happy and thriving!” is a good way to let others know that you aren’t placing expectations on your family members, and neither should they.

Ensure you are inclusive 

It can be a complicated minefield to try and navigate different family members at different life stages. For example, one of your own offspring may have 3 children while the other offspring has none.  It is imperative not to make any comparisons between the two that aren’t absolutely necessary, especially with regards to their family planning. It’s not helpful for a couple to hear what worked for their sibling to help them get pregnant, especially if they didn’t explicitly ask.

Also, be aware of biases you may have. When organising events you may always consider “those with kids” first in terms of timing, dates etc but that can also alienate a couple who, although they don’t have children, may have other things that are important.  Acknowledging and seeing the person/couple exactly where they are at , as a person or couple who does not have children, and appreciating them for being exactly where they are in life, can actually be a gift for all those involved.

Have open conversations 

Up until now we have discussed a myriad of things NOT to say however the key to truly supporting a person or couple who who is struggling with fertility is to have open and supportive conversations.  Here are a few places to start the support:

  • See them exactly where they are:
    • “wow it looks like you are doing great things at work”,  “How are your fur babies?”, “I’m so proud of you for everything that you are doing right now!” 
    • These types of acknowledgements may create the space they need to come to you to discuss more difficult topics
  • Be supportive to THEM
    • This is not your fertility, therefore its important to leave your feelings out of it.
    • Try saying things like “I love being your mother” over something focused on your wants such as “I can’t wait to be a grandma!”
  • Avoid advice-giving
    • Sharing articles and anecdotal stories may seem helpful but unless you have the whole picture (and your advice was specifically recruited) these forms of advice may create more hurt feelings or unrealistic expectations.
  • Share your experience
    • Perhaps you have a personal experience with fertility or loss. When the time feels right, sharing that may actually really help them feel less alone.
  • Let them know you love and support them no matter what:
    • “Having you both be happy is all I want for you”, “If you ever want to talk, I’d love to be a sounding board for you”, “I really am enjoy being a part of your life exactly as it is right now”

Communication is key to maintaining and building stronger familial bonds. By being open and loving and removing judgement will keep the door open for someone struggling with fertility to open up to you. Trust that your family member has the skills and abilities to ask for your input or help if they want it and respect their space if they don’t.

Ensure YOU are supported 

Finally, we aren’t suggesting that fertility issues  in your family isn’t disappointing for you. Certainly watching your own child/sibling/friend struggle with something you may or may not have had issues  or experience with yourself can evoke and trigger a lot of feelings in you. Perhaps you always pictured yourself as a young grandparent, and as the years move on you are worried you are losing YOUR opportunity. All these feelings a 100 % valid because the topic of fertility does touch a lot more than just the  person/couple’s lives. However, the more you can clear up some of your own triggers and adjust your own expectations, the easier everything else we talked about above will become. Some ways you can seek support include:

  •   Journaling – when we write out our feelings we give them a place to be seen. Give all those feelings, even the dark, sad or angry feelings a safe space to be expressed and seen .
  • Refocus your efforts into what makes YOU happy. Having hobbies that fill up your cup will lead to more satisfaction and happiness in your own life that won’t be as dependent on things you have no control over, like someone else’s choices or fertility status.
  • See a counsellor to discuss some things you may be experiencing like your own grief over your own issues with fertility or grieving for the grandparent/aunt/uncle you may never become
  • Get artistic. Art can give us an opportunity to express ourselves in non-verbal ways. Find something that doesn’t confine you to rules, a modality that leaves you free to express yourself. Better yet, you can give art therapy a try – our girl Kristin is an expert!

Fertility is a complex issues that affect all members of a family for various reasons, and when we focus on the connection and love for the other person exactly where they are at, we are building the foundation for a stronger family unit. When we face our own challenges and triggers and fears and begin to resolve them within ourselves we can then start to step in and be present with those we love most in authentic and even more meaningful ways.

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