The holidays are imminent, and with them come the unsolicited questions about when you're going to start a family. These questions are annoying at any time, but when you're struggling with infertility, they can feel especially painful.
Infertility, defined as the inability to become pregnant after having regular intercourse without birth control after one year (or after six months if a woman is 35 or older), is common. According to the Office of Population Affairs in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, about 12 to 13 percent of couples in the United States have trouble conceiving—so you're not alone. People all across the country are sitting down for holiday meals dreading the questions to come.
Whatever your particular situation is, you have the right to discuss your fertility and family planning on your own time. Here are some helpful tips for dealing with these unwanted comments.
The scene is set for a wonderful day
Everyone's arrived safely through holiday traffic and bad weather. Candles are glowing, people are laughing, the meal smells divine. You and your partner sit down and conversation starts to flow.
Then, like a DJ's sudden record scratch in the middle of your favorite song, someone says:
- "Don't you think you should hurry up and start a family?"
- "Your biological clock is ticking, Maria!"
- "When are you going to give me a grandbaby?"
- "What's wrong with Joe's sperm?"
Your jaw drops, everyone stops talking so they can hear your answer and you feel mortified.
What will you say?
Some families place a great deal of value on privacy and autonomy. They know if you had big news, you'd share it when it felt right to you. But maybe your situation is different. You wish you knew more people like that, because at least one (or several) of your family members seem to have no boundaries at all. They'll ask whatever they want to know.
The burden on women's shoulders
Historically, the "when are you having a baby?" questions have been directed toward the women in heterosexual couples.
This may be because women are more likely to discuss their fertility struggles, or more willing to dig deeper into the causes of those struggles. Or perhaps they are seen as the sole gatekeepers of when a couple will start a family—a perception not based in reality.
Infertility is not always "the woman's problem," as so many people seem to think. In fact, it's pretty evenly distributed with infertility affecting women, men and both partners.
"Sometimes it's a single factor that explains the infertility, like a fallopian tube obstruction or a low sperm count. In the majority of cases, though, it's multiple factors," said Catha Fischer, M.D., director of fertility preservation at Spring Fertility in New York City. "It's important not to place blame, because that can be so detrimental."
So, what are your options for responding when asked?
If the nosy questions are painful for you, consider whether not attending that holiday event is an option. It's important to put your mental health and wellbeing first. "People dealing with infertility issues should never feel guilty about taking care of themselves," affirmed Jane Frederick, M.D. medical director of HRC Fertility in Orange County, California.
You could also try arriving late or leaving early, in order to miss or minimize interacting with particularly boundary-less loved ones. Or, if possible, only spend holiday time with sympathetic friends and family members you know are supportive.
If completely avoiding a holiday event or problematic person isn't an option, develop a strategy in advance with your partner so you can take a united approach. Sit down together beforehand and discuss how you want to answer those difficult questions. And make sure to lean on each other, so it's not just one partner speaking for both of you.
Changing the subject, saying "that's personal" or "mind your own business," or deflecting the question by asking a question are all perfectly reasonable responses.
In some families, one relative assumes the job of butting into everyone's personal business. Do you have a pushy Aunt Edna or Uncle Ralph? If you know they will be there, consider having a preemptive conversation. It may or may not be a workable solution, depending on your relationship with the person, but you might want to call them in advance and discuss why asking such personal questions in front of everyone is so hurtful to you, reassuring them that you'll share any big news promptly.
Find your strategy
Some people struggling with fertility are comfortable sharing everything, feeling it brings them the emotional support they need. Others would rather keep the discussion between themselves and their partner.
There's nothing wrong with either approach, and there is no single "right way" to respond, no matter how you feel about the questions being asked. As long as you're doing what feels right for you and your partner, that is the right path forward.