They say patience is a virtue, and nowhere is this virtue tested more than when you’re trying to get pregnant. Back when I was trying to conceive for the first time, it seemed like everyone around me was sprinting toward the fertility finish line, announcing pregnancies on what felt like a daily basis. I, well, we—as my exhausted husband would attest—tried and tried, but the periods and negative pregnancy tests kept coming.
On a day when two colleagues shared their pregnancy news in our morning meeting, a close co-worker joined me on a lunchtime walk. “Don’t worry,” she said. “If it’s meant to be, it’ll be!” I smiled politely and stuffed more of my sandwich in my mouth to mask the gritting of my teeth. Then she said the two words that became the bane of my TTC existence: “Just relax.”
I’ll be willing to bet money that almost every woman who has tried to conceive has been told to relax. That her stress and anxiety are keeping her from baby bliss. That if she’d just calm down, she would get pregnant faster than you could say “ovulation kit.” While it may be well intentioned, the advice “Just relax” isn’t helpful. When you’re concerned about your ability to conceive, being told to relax can make you feel like those worries aren’t valid. And when you’re wondering whether something you did or didn’t do is causing your pregnancy delays, being told to relax can feel like a reminder of yet one more thing you’re doing wrong.
When you are young and healthy and want to start a family, the general assumption is that your body will do “what it’s made to do.” We smile with excitement for the future and say that we understand “it might not happen right away,” but it’s still a hard pill to swallow when the months (or years) pass without a successful pregnancy.
When I was trying to get pregnant the first time around, part of my conception plan included me and my husband getting our annual physicals out of the way first. His was perfect, but mine came back with some red flags. My Pap smear revealed the presence of abnormal cervical cells, and the concern of developing cervical cancer meant that I underwent surgery, followed by a year of treatment and follow-ups. After the year had passed, I finally got the all-clear to start trying for a baby, but it still took months before I actually got pregnant. Friends and family who were aware of my health challenges would say “Be patient!” and “Just relax!” It felt like there was no appreciation for the fact that I had already tried to do both things during the cancer scare that had delayed our plans.
Conception challenges can be painful, exhausting, isolating and often private. Unless someone has shared their personal story, we never know what they’re going through, so our well-meaning advice can be the very last thing that person wants or needs to hear. “Just relax” might be the best thing to combat the fact that common sense (and science) says that stress can impact fertility, but stress is also a very natural response to major life events. Telling someone not to worry erases a very real piece of the human experience and demands that we add another superhuman feat on top of the job we’re already trying to get our bodies to do.
So, what can well-intentioned people do to support someone who is trying to conceive? First of all, don’t tell someone to relax; show them how. If you have a friend or family member who is trying to conceive, meet them for a walk on a nice day, make plans for a lunch date or send them a gift card for a massage if you’re able. There are ways to help someone relax—or at least get their mind off things—without chiding them about being understandably stressed out.
You can also let them vent. Sometimes the one thing someone needs is to just feel like they’re being heard, and “Just relax” is a conversation killer. At that point, the person worrying feels like they have to validate their concerns before they can even voice their concerns. Instead of shutting someone down, let them vent and just listen. Check the temperature of the conversation to see if you can offer any helpful words or if you just need to support them by providing the space to express themselves.
Lastly, ask what you can do to help. “Is there anything I can do to help make things any easier?” is a great question that doesn’t get asked enough. “Do you want me to check in, or should I wait for you to bring things up?” or “Are there topics you want to avoid talking about?” takes away the guesswork in how to support someone who is going through a challenging time.
I’ll never forget the day a total stranger came to my rescue. I was in line at the grocery store checkout, making silly faces with the baby in the cart ahead of me. His mom and I got to chatting and she asked if I had any kids. I said “No” and followed up with a peppy rehearsed line about being patient and letting things happen when they’re meant to. I’m not sure if she could see that I wasn’t fully invested in the sentiment, but she simply put her hand on mine and said, “Waiting can be the hardest part.” I was relieved to feel like someone understood my struggle, and it changed the way I spoke to others in the same boat. Let’s reshape the way we support each other and try to remove some of the pain that comes with the process of being patient.