How to support your friends through infertility and IVF without being a Karen

Disclaimer: we know that some people are going to get annoyed about this article, and that is absolutely fine. You can complain about it in a number of ways – in the comments below, or on our Facebook or Instagram accounts. We are advocating for people with fertility struggles, against the horrible way that they are routinely treated by society. If that means annoying a few people then so be it.

Content warning: miscarriage, IVF, adoption, sexism

Do you want to support your infertility and IVF friends in an empathic, helpful way?

Of course you do! Everyone deserves support when they are going through bad times. Fertility struggles affect 1 in 8 couples, and frankly, everything about it is horrible and awkward. It’s vile. 

Supporting people with fertility issues is no walk in the park either. It’s difficult to find the right words, and Hallmark don’t exactly cater to friends of the fertility-frustrated with “Sorry about the miscarriage that you only mentioned to four people” cards. 

The broad lack of insight into infertility, until you’re actually in the middle of it, is a large part of the problem. Another hurdle is the way that society treats women who can’t have babies, and men who aren’t producing viable sperm. From the sexist assumption that women should simply take on any child they can get their hands on, to fix society’s problems and fulfil the expected role of mother, to the depictions in books and movies of batshit-crazy, barren women, the world can feel low-key hostile to the fertility challenged. This is why your support is so, so very important. Here’s how to confidently support your friends and colleagues, without being a Karen about it. 

What do we mean by “a Karen”? 

Like all pejoratives, calling someone a Karen is not a very nice thing to say. There are far, far worse insults in the world though. If “Karen” is the worst thing one or two people have said to or about you in a good few years, you’ll get over it.

“Karen” is now shorthand for someone who is being demanding or acting entitled from a place of relative privilege. People who can get pregnant relatively easily, or those who have chosen the childfree life, often don’t understand the struggles of those who just can’t have that experience without a whole load of hassle, heartache and expense. 

Likewise, well-off women (who can afford to do things like buy a new house to give them room to adopt twins, or pay for multiple cycles of IVF) don’t always understand the challenges of lower income women, or the limited choices they may have. 

This all means that even the most well-meaning friend, who doesn’t really understand infertility, can come across a bit “Karen” about it, without intending to. 

“It’s not fair to use the popular slang term “Karen” without acknowledging where it came from!!”

Absolutely. Calling white women who act entitled and demanding “Karen” or further back in time “Becky”, or going back to slavery and its aftermath “Miss Ann”, originally came from African-American culture. Such women can pose a real danger when they throw their weight around, and expect special privileges due to their place in society. The Guardian declared 2020 “The Year of the Karen” highlighting the trope of the petty, self-righteous white woman causing stress, trouble and even deadly danger for black Americans.

Thanks to the Internet, “Karen” is now used worldwide, to describe women who are abusing their power in a petty or oblivious way, without realising or caring about the hurt they cause. 

Of course, we are not comparing the hurt feelings of the childless to the ongoing civil rights struggle across the world. The term has filtered into the mainstream, to describe someone, often female, who is being a pain in the butt due to their lack of empathy. We’re using “Karen” exclusively in its diluted, bi-coastal slang spirit, to describe someone – as anyone can potentially be a “Karen” in this sense, who believes they know better because they’re a mom/fertile woman/are mature/have chosen to be childless/are religious etc.

Although “Karen” has been criticised as sexist, classist and ageist (and these people do have a point), it’s also an inescapable reminder that as women, especially as mothers, we’re not perfect, and we can lack empathy and understanding too. This happens a hell of a lot to people struggling with fertility issues, and some of that comes from mothers, grandmothers and women from all walks of life who have consciously embraced feminism – but who slip up slightly, when it comes to honouring the path of the people who experience infertility. 

Now, perhaps more than ever, the world needs less of that divisive energy and more understanding and empathy. Here’s how you can be more empathic and less judgemental towards your friends with fertility struggles.

Do not, whatever you do, suggest adoption to a couple going through IVF. Just don’t

Why the hell not? Your friend would make an amazing parent. There are so many children in the world who deserve a loving home, and it would satisfy your friend’s apparent itch for a child, right?

Calm right down there Karen! You’re attempting to solve a societal problem (unwanted and parentless children) with your friend’s medical condition (and perhaps a smattering of institutionalised sexism too). None of that is helping your friend. 

If you think adoption should be more of a thing, why don’t YOU adopt a child? Oh, you have your own kids already? You don’t want to? It’s a big commitment? You don’t know if you could handle a child with issues from neglect or ill-treatment? Well. Maybe it’s not the ideal solution to your friend’s medical issues that you first thought it was then, Karen. 

Adoption is a truly wonderful thing. Sadly, it’s not for everyone. Just as it probably isn’t an option for you, for your own personal reasons, your friend has their own reasons. And yes, they have probably considered it already. It’s more respectful to talk to them about the journey they are actually on, whether that’s trying to get a diagnosis, or undergoing IVF. 

But surely it’s OK to just suggest it? That’s not offensive or anything is it?

The thing about offence given and taken, is that it’s contextual and personal. You can be offensive without realising it, and you can feel offended by someone who isn’t intending to offend. And when we say “offended” we’re not using it in that whiny way that people do, when they want to say inconsiderate things without consequences. We mean hurt. Some things are hurtful to hear, because they show a lack of empathy. 

When you suggest, or even worse, insist that adoption is the correct and moral solution to fertility struggles, you’re completely railroading your friend’s deep feelings on the subject. You’re suggesting that they should give up on something very important, and do something else that they don’t want to do right now – even if they may want to in the future. It’s just not very nice, Karen.

“You make it sound like adoption is terrible! Adoption is not bad!”

Adoption is wonderful. People who adopt children are heroes, because they can overcome all of the difficult barriers to adoption, with the sheer force of their love for the mere idea of being a parent. They are wonderful people and nobody is saying that adoption is bad. But adoption isn’t for everyone. 

It’s unfair on both sides to suggest funneling potentially damaged and neglected children towards slightly traumatised folk (because infertility is traumatic) who aren’t completely down with the idea of adopting a toddler or older child. Why not a baby? Because adoption doesn’t work like that. It’s very hard to adopt a newborn, they don’t just give them out like L’oreal samples, Karen. 

Support them with understanding, not advice

We all have our favourite health & wellbeing hacks, but these aren’t very helpful to people with fertility issues. You see, by the time they get around to telling HR that they need time off for IVF, they have already been struggling for many months, if not years. It’s likely that they’ve tried absolutely everything – or that they know what’s wrong, but that yoga, supplements and so on simply will not help them.

People with fertility issues tend to have looked long and hard at their own lives and habits, because there is a hell of a lot of guilt and self-blame involved. Saying “Yeah but running releases endorphins and that will help with the depression you feel after your miscarriage!” will, I promise, make them want to pick up the nearest sandwich and smoosh you in the face with it, even if all they do is smile politely and nod at you, Karen. 

What can you say instead?

A great start can be some variation of “I’m sorry you’re going through that, it must be very stressful.” 

They might not even want to talk about it, so watch them for cues to whether they want to open up and chat or change the subject – or whether they have simply decided to keep things as private as possible & are informing you out of courtesy. All three approaches are as valid as each other. 

If you really want to be helpful – just ask! “Is there anything that might help you in the future? It must be hard managing the stress – do you want to talk about that?”

Tell them you support them!

“It really helps to have a good support network when you’re going through stressful stuff. I don’t know much about IVF or fertility struggles, but I hope you know you can always talk to me about it & I’ll try to understand.”

This is music to the ears of many people with fertility struggles. 

Finally, don’t try to make sense of it for them

Fertility struggles can happen to absolutely anyone, from royalty to teenagers. It’s actually on the rise in an alarming way, and even Elon Musk has talked about the population collapse in the future because of rising infertility. Scarily, we’re not 100% sure exactly what is causing it – or how to fix it. We can only deal with it on a case-by-case basis right now. 

This means that “Just relax, it’ll happen!” and “You’re young, you have plenty of time!” and that old chestnut “It must be God’s will, maybe He is pushing you towards the path of adoption.” just do not cut it in terms of helpful advice. 

One of the worst things you can say to someone with fertility issues, is that their miscarriage or stillborn baby was a spiritual or moral “lesson”. This is beyond cruel, and literally, nobody should ever say this to anyone ever again, Karen. 

Fertility doesn’t make a lick of sense, morally speaking. Cruel and neglectful parents can be incredibly fertile, while the most wonderful, kind couple you know can discover that they are hopelessly unable to conceive. Some people are pregnant and don’t want to be, and others try for years and it never happens. It is pure, dumb luck, and humans have a hard time with that concept. Let go of the idea that there’s any rhyme or reason to it, because if there is – no one on earth has figured it out. Just support your friend in their pain and uncertainty, empathise with them, even if you don’t truly understand and remember – society treats the infertile incredibly badly in all kinds of small and mean ways. Your kindness and understanding means a hell of a lot to them.