Catholics Do What?,  Contraception,  guest post,  infertility,  IVF,  NFP,  Sex

Can we all just agree that fertility is not small talk?

Today I’m grateful to invite Mandi Richards into this space to share a little about her personal experience with infertility. Mandi and her husband have one sweet daughter on earth, 4 babies in heaven, and are currently pregnant with number 6. Her new site, A Blog About Miscarriage, is full of beauty, wisdom, and yes, hard stuff. She has some advice for us all today, so pull up a chair

I’m sure you’re all with me on this one if you think I’m talking about menstrual cycles or the nitty gritty of Natural Family planning or sex.  No one wants cervical mucus to be the topic of a casual conversation with acquaintances or any conversation that’s public.  It’s just not appropriate.

But what about some of these common questions that seem to often come up in public, caual conversations and often between complete strangers?

“When are you going to start trying to have a baby?”

“Was this pregnancy planned?”

“When are you going to give (your child) a sibling?”

“Are you done (having children) yet?”

Are these questions appropriate?  Unless they’re part of a (private) conversation with close friends or family, I would say these (and related questions) aren’t appropriate.  Because these questions are about fertility.  They are about sex.  They are about cervical mucus and life and death.

And they aren’t small talk.

I totally get it.  You’re curious.  I’m curious too.  When I see a young couple who has been married a few years and there aren’t any babies, I also wonder when they are going to have children.  I used to also think some kind of judgy thoughts, like the couple must be too selfish to welcome children.  Not any more folks.

Now I wonder if they are having fertility problems.  Perhaps they have gotten pregnant and lost the baby.  Maybe that’s happened many times.  Maybe they are actively postponing pregnancy for valid reasons that I know nothing about.  Employment or financial issues.  Health problems.  Or a million other things.  And the truth is, as much as I want to know, I know it’s none of my business.

There might be a lot of hidden pain behind that couple and that question might be publicly opening a wound.

And also think about what you are conveying about fertility: That you think it’s easy.  That it’s a commodity.  That people can control it.

When a baby is desired, all they have to do is “try.”  That, for some reason, it’s significant whether a baby was “tried for” or an “accident”.  That the intention somehow makes a difference in the baby’s inherent goodness.  But what’s the difference?  Is a “planned” baby is more loved, more wanted, more important?

Even if you think your words are innocent, they have a deeper meaning.  And even if you greatly value life, you might not realize that your “small talk” is not just a harmless repetition of the questions that you’ve heard others ask a million times, but a reflection of some deep societal ills.

So before you ask something about fertility, think not about your intention, but about the message you are actually conveying with your words.

And if it’s not consistent with your beliefs, take that out of your “small talk” repertoire.

You know what is terrible?  That I had to experience these questions with my own hidden pain in order for me to understand what they can do.  I couldn’t get outside of my own little box and into the lives of other people on my own, I couldn’t imagine their pain.  I had to experience it.

So I’m saying this on the behalf of the ignorant, like I once was: I know you don’t want to hurt the people you encounter, but if you ask these questions, you just might.

I was especially blissfully unaware of secondary (in)fertility issues.  I naively assumed that once a couple has a healthy pregnancy and baby, that’s it.  They’re always going to have healthy pregnancies.  But sometimes they can’t get pregnant again.  Ever.  Sometimes it’s a struggle or they have miscarriages.  Or serious economic or health or other reasons crop up that put off another child, perhaps forever.

Unless you’re comfortable hearing the answers, don’t ask the questions.

“Actually, we’ve been trying to get pregnant for years, but can’t.”

“We did give our child a sibling, but then miscarried.”

“We are done because of a serious health issue (that’s none of your business).”

I know that anytime I’ve been asked an insensitive questions about giving Lucia a sibling and have responded about our miscarriage, it’s made the conversation mighty uncomfortable.  Because the question was asked as small talk, a cute little question where the questioner doesn’t even care about the answer either way.  It’s just what you ask when there is a lull in conversation, right?

but I’m asking, can we all just agree that issues of fertility are never small talk?

infertility awareness week


  • Diana

    Yes! After going through years of infertility I know how painful those questions can be. I don’t think most people intend to be rude or hurtful but it certainly feels that way. Best to avoid with the vast majority. Thank you for this!

  • Colleen

    This post rings true in so many ways. My husband’s family members do not understand why we don’t appreciate their questions about our family plans. In my mind, my uterus is only the business of me, my husband, God, and our doctor. That’s it. My brother and his wife lost their second child this year shortly after her birth, and I was completely floored at some of the questions/comments people had for them. It’s hard to remember that people generally have good intentions when they act in such an insensitive way.

  • Ally | A Home Called Shalom

    Yes, yes, yes!

    I very naively thought that I could control my fertility, too- I figured, one baby every 1.5 years, spaced “responsibly” with breastfeeding.

    Ha! I’ll most likely, spacing children is the least of my concerns. Having children at all will be a struggle. And it’s all completely out of my hands.

    I still get tongue tied when people ask questions about when we’ll have kids… (or worse, “You’re running out of time, you know.”) mostly because I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. My husband tends to say, “We’ll have kids when God gives them to us,” which is true, and very gracious. =)

  • Liz

    This is a great article that really resonates me. I had one healthy, successful pregnancy when I was a newlywed in my early 20s, and then never again. After my second child was stillborn (and I suffered life-threatening complications during delivery), we tried NaPro stuff for two years, naturopathic doctors, a wide assortment of specialists, you name it– eventually, they unearthed a pretty serious medical disorder. My doctors have warned me that another pregnancy would be quite perilous both to me and my unborn child. For the sake of my husband and especially our living child, I’ve chosen to listen to them, and we are looking into our options for adoption.

    Still, it bothers me sometimes when other Catholic couples we meet feel it’s their right to make these casual, rash judgments about our situation. e.g.: I have a Masters in Theology, and so I often serve my parish by teaching Adult Further Education classes. One time, I was teaching a six-week course on JPII’s Theology of the Body, and some sanctimonious mother-of-five actually had the gall to approach our pastor and ask him if he really thought it was appropriate to allow someone like me, who had “obviously never gotten the memo on Humanae Vitae,” teaching such an important class. Ugh. Thankfully, my pastor admonished her and defended me…but I wish people would learn to keep their mouths shut and their minds unfettered by ignorant and uncharitable assumptions.

    My other pet peeve is when Catholics think I should be despondent over this “terrible lot” that has befallen me and my family– and that my son’s status as an only-child is an evil which must be remedied at all costs. I don’t feel that way, though. If the Lord blesses us with the opportunity to expand our family some way, I’ll be delighted; if it never happens, that’s okay, too. I just feel immeasurably blessed to have been given the chance to BE a mother at all– to have the privilege of educating and nurturing another life. I know plenty of women who don’t even have THAT and yet want it badly, so I try to remind myself regularly that I have a whole lot.

    • Brittany

      Liz, your last point spoke to me! I’ve felt very isolated in my lack of “despondency” in having only one child and possibly only ever having one child. It’s a beautiful thing to be happy with the situation God has given you, and you’re definitely not alone.

    • Rebecca

      Similar situation happened to me (and I’m sure still does but I don’t hear about it). My husband and I don’t have children, being involved in the Church can raise red flags and people will gossip about what they *think* is going on. My husband seems to find much better words than I do, he will often say “we’re always open to life” when people question.

      This past weekend I was at an event and walked over to speak with some couples, and one actually said that they didn’t want me in the conversation because it would be uncomfortable because they were talking about their large families (5 kids, 7 kids, 12 kids, etc). I love children and large families and I’d love to support yours and be welcomed into the conversation! It’s the only way we can grow as the body of Christ and hopefully they can understand a little bit about my life too.

      My life is filling and wonderful. Yes, I wish there were children. Perhaps there will be in the future. But my life is full and wonderful because I make it so, and because I’m a child of God who loves Jesus and wants to spread that joy to others. I agree so much with not being despondent over this “terrible lot”!

  • Brittany

    Yes! I completely agree!

    However, could I make a request? Generally the only thing I see regarding fertility–whether infertility, or miscarriage, or “accidental” pregnancies, or any number of other things– is how the “other” person should act and how they can avoid making insensitive comments. The problem I’ve found with this is #1 inevitably, not everyone is reading this articles and insensitive comments get made and #2 sometimes there’s just no way of knowing how what you’re going to say will affect another person. (Although I think the rule in this article surrounding fertility and small talk should be a pretty basic standard).

    The difficult fact remains that level of comfort we feel in any conversation is mostly up to us. I’d be really interested in an article that explains to people how they can graciously receive and respond to just about any remark in addition to articles that discuss the “other” person.

    • Mandi

      Brittany, I totally agree with you. There really aren’t many posts about how to respond to it. I’m guessing because it’s much easier to suggest things not to say in most situations, because the response would vary so much depending on who you’re talking to, whether you are along or in front of others, and your own personal preferences regarding whether you want your fertility struggles to be public knowledge or not. But there are some basic things to keep in mind like always assuming the best of the questioner, etc. I’d love to attemp a post like that in the next few days, would you mind if I used your comment in it?

  • Julia

    I love the first paragraph here so, so much. Why? because when I was dating my (non-Catholic) husband, I took him to his first Catholic wedding. One of the girls seated at our table decided to offer him a primer on NFP. Complete with use of vocabulary such as “egg-white.” Sweet. Jesus. Have. Mercy. This girl later went on a modesty tirade. Because you know, talking about your cervical mucus at a wedding reception is totally modest. Yes, fertility is not small talk and neither is cervical mucus. Amen! (And my now husband probably deserves an ‘Amen’ for not immediately breaking up with me.)

    • Mandi

      Julia, I originally wrote this post last year. When rereading it recently, I realized that since I’d written it I’d met several women who probably wouldn’t agree that cervical mucus was small talk! But oh my, it truly, truly isn’t! Kudos to your husband for sticking around after that!

  • Conceiving Hope

    Yes, we can absolutely agree it’s not small talk. 100%!!!

    In fact, if you’re looking for a list of Please Do’s and Please Don’ts on the topic of Infertility, from a Catholic Perspective, check out THIS LINK (a collaborative effort of over 430 Catholic men and women suffering all forms of infertility).

  • Valerie

    Yes! I loved this. I was naive about the weight of these words until last year. My husband had lost his wedding ring, so we bought him a new one and wanted to get it blessed, like the original had been during our wedding Mass. We went with a priest into the sacristy after Mass and he was joking around and making small talk. “You guys have been married over a year?” He said. “So what’s the deal? Where are the babies?!” I know he was trying to make small talk and it was said in jest, but at the time we were struggling with discerning starting a family, feeling very muddled about the difference between discerning God’s will and just deciding for ourselves, feeling extremely burdened by NFP and it’s effect on our marriage and feeling totally and completely alone, lost and confused. His words stung, and I wanted to scream “I DON’T KNOW. I DON’T KNOW WHAT GOD WANTS. EVERYONE TELLS YOU TO DISCERN BUT NO ONE TELLS YOU HOW.” I think we can ALL do better, both in the questions we ask and the ways we respond, to surround this topic with graciousness, kindness and much more understanding.

    • Brittany

      Valerie, my husband and I had a similar experience! Celibate priests are often blissfully unaware of the difficulties of this discernment, and I say that as a means of being charitable to them in seeing it as simple ignorance.
      I think one of the biggest problems with modern marriage prep is they’ll give you 800 reasons that are ok and not ok for avoiding childre , but there is virtually. I thing discussed regarding when to actively seek children. People, as a result, sometimes conceive children with truly poor motives in mind (ie the excitement of marriage has worn off, they have a psychological void that hasn’t been properly healed and they are trying to fill it with a child, they want the attention it brings, etc) and it plays a part in how they raise hat child. We are truly blessed to have had financial reasons to avoid children because I was seriously tempted at one point to have kids for the wrong reasons.
      Anyway, point being, it’s a major issue with modern marriage ministry, and I definitely identify with the struggle of that discernment.

  • Feisty Irish Wench

    There are statistics that indicate 1 in 4 women have had a loss. I really think that number is higher because of super early losses before a woman has even missed her period. And I think that number is higher because just within arms reach and my circles of friends, more than 25% of them have had at least one loss.

    And I have been on the receiving end of commentary about my family size since practically day one. We had our first 2 children at a young age and close together. And then we stayed together unlike so many others in that situation. Then, we kept going – not intentionally, but it happened. Not one of my pregnancies has been left unmarked by unkind or negative comments from somewhere. So, no wonder I fear becoming pregnant again! Then with the 5th pregnancy, I didn’t want to tell anyone till it was impossible to hide. And then, it got worse when people learned about our next surprise.
    After hearing THREE times before 4pm in one single day, “Don’t you know what causes that?”, I took to my blog and laid it all out there.

  • Erica

    Yes! Thank you! I’m a mom of one, we have always desired a large family but it isn’t happening for us and some days I’m okay with that and other days it breaks my heart. It kills me when someone makes a casual comment or even a suggestive comment like I am trying to withhold a sibling from my child. I don’t know how this ever became small talk but you are so right and it is so painful. Thanks for your post

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