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A Bellefonte resident on the right — and wrong — things to say to someone going through fertility treatments

Courtesy Nikki Etter-Newman

This week is National Infertility Awareness Week. Nikki Etter-Newman is a Bellefonte resident and an assistant professor in Health and Human Development at Penn State. She sent us this essay about her struggles with infertility:

Being friends with someone going through fertility treatments can feel like walking through a minefield. You never know what to say. You want to be supportive and helpful. So, with your kindest voice, you tilt your head slightly to the right and offer, “Have you considered adoption?”

After three years of struggling with infertility, I’ve heard that question from friends, family, coworkers, strangers and even a nurse as she was doing my ultrasound.

Here’s why asking about adoption can be particularly hurtful to people going through fertility treatments.

First, asking about adoption feels like you’re not supporting the journey we’re currently on.

Over the last few years, I’ve put a tremendous amount of effort into trying to get pregnant. I've had multiple exams, biopsies, transvaginal ultrasounds, endless hormone treatments, and surgery. I’ve looked beyond traditional medicine, started all the vitamin supplements, and overhauled my diet. Because of IVF lore that enzymes in pineapple can help with embryo transfer success, I’ve gone out of my way to eat it. Following even more infertility folklore, I’ve eaten McDonald’s fries after an embryo transfer because…well, I’m not sure why, but I tried it because I’m currently putting all of my energy into achieving success through this process.

Asking me if I’ve considered adoption right now, is listening to your friend complain about a home renovation and saying, “have you considered moving?” You may be accidentally implying your friend is wasting their time, money, or energy.

Second, couples facing infertility do their research and have considered all possible options – and yes, that includes adoption.

I’ve talked to doctors, friends and strangers on Facebook. I’ve read books and joined Instagram and Reddit support groups. I’ve scoured my in-person and online social networks looking into all of my options. And so has your friend.

Third, adoption is not free, fast, or easy.

People seem to suggest adoption without considering the cost. A quick Google search shows adoption can cost up to $40,000 and take several years. And even though I have great health insurance, very few of our fertility treatments have been covered. We’ve already spent tens of thousands of dollars. For many, immediately moving to adoption may not be financially feasible.

Now, after I’ve shared the cost concerns, my most extra helpful and persistent of friends will likely follow up with, “but, what about fostering first?”

Fostering does reduce the cost of adoption, but it can also increase the likelihood of heartbreak. Children can be in and out of your home even after you’ve formed an emotional bond. And there’s no guarantee you end up getting to adopt. Couples may not be emotionally ready to begin another long, uncertain process.

Fourth, this seemingly innocent question inadvertently places the responsibility of the entire foster care and adoptive system at the feet of infertile couples.

You know this is true because I’m guessing you’ve never asked a couple who is expecting, “Why didn’t you consider adoption first?” When people ask me why didn’t I just adopt, it unintentionally implies that any baby will do. It makes me feel guilty for trying fertility treatments first.

Now listen, I am not against adoption. Adopting and fostering children is a beautiful and generous act on its own. I’m simply asking that people stop offering it up as a consolation prize for those who struggle to get or stay pregnant.

It feels rude to end this rant without offering advice on what you should ask your friends who are struggling with infertility. So, here’s my suggestion. Ask nothing — you should ask absolutely nothing. Every couple is facing hard decisions and second guessing their choices. And we’ve been doing all of this during a global pandemic. Infertility is mentally, financially, physically, and emotionally exhausting.

I am exhausted. Don’t ask me any more questions. I don’t owe you answers or justifications. Maybe try a less-is-more approach and say, “I’m sorry this has been so tough.” The very simple, “This sucks.” Or the gentle reminder, “I’m here to listen anytime.” If you feel you MUST ask a question, try “How can I support you?”