April 19-25th is National Infertility Awareness Week and this year’s theme is “You Are Not Alone.”
The inability to have a baby “naturally” often causes the 1 in 8 couples who are unable to achieve pregnancy on their own to feel as if something is wrong with them or that they are not a member of “the fertility club.” Infertility is often experienced in isolation. Many times the individuals going through the maze of infertility treatments don’t quite know how to navigate the journey, nor do those who support them know what to say. This month’s blog provides tools for both.
Navigating the Infertility Journey
For many couples, the experience of infertility is the first life crisis they must confront together. We expect that pregnancy is something we need to prevent, not something we will have to pursue. The realization that there might be a fertility issue results in a number of emotions: shock, denial, anger, confusion, guilt, loneliness, grief, and depression. Each person experiences infertility differently, yet these emotions are often present at some point or another.
You have decided it is time to have a baby. You stop your birth control, and expect the blue stick will follow, right? Many individuals are unaware that 1:10 couples have difficulties becoming pregnant. When it seems like everyone around you is pregnant, the diagnosis of infertility is often a cruel awakening.
Tip: The grief of not getting pregnant “the old fashioned way” is normal and needs to be discussed. Take time to attend to the shock and disappointment that each of you may be feeling. This is vital to future coping abilities throughout the infertility treatment.
The infertility experience is accompanied by a feeling of “no control.” Often the “If I work hard, I’ll get it” philosophy serves as a motivation for pursuit of solutions. Denial can be a negative experience if each partner is in a different place with respect to optimism for the future. It is not uncommon for one partner to believe that pregnancy is going to happen, while the other is filled with the belief that treatment will prove futile.
Tip: Work with a physician who can give you honest information with regard to procedures and the realistic opportunity for success. If you find it difficult to accept the infertility diagnosis, or are feeling different with respect to optimism for pregnancy, counseling can help. Counselors serve as translators of medical information and provide a neutral sounding board for discussion of differences.
Anger is a very normal response to infertility. This can be directed toward a variety of individuals including your partner, self, friends, family, medical providers, and God. When friends announce pregnancies, when past experiences have caused your partner’s infertility, when previous health care providers have ignored concerns about infertility, or when you have lived with the belief that “if I’m a good person, bad things won’t happen,” anger may result.
Tip: Choose to talk to each other about your feelings and find ways to express your anger directly. Exercise can help release the tension caused by anger. Many times anger masks other emotions that are difficult to express. Spend time clarifying your emotions either alone or with a therapist to help defuse the intensity of anger.
Questioning “why” infertility happens is normal. We live in a “cause and effect” world, so searching for answers comes naturally. The ability to accept randomness is foreign and often uncomfortable. The desire for control is a normal desire. Infertility experiences bring our control into question and can lead to increased anxiety about other areas of life.
Tip: It is beneficial to acknowledge areas in your life that you do control and accept those that you can’t. For some individuals, turning toward their faith can provide comfort and support in the process of letting go of the need to control.
Blame & Guilt
Many times the quest for an explanation for the infertility can lead to self blame. Individuals who have experienced previous sexually transmitted diseases, abortions, sterilizations, and thoughts of never wanting children are at increased risk for feelings of blame and guilt. Taking on feelings of blame and guilt can lead to decreased self esteem.
Tip: Challenge negative thoughts. Remember that hindsight is 20/20. It is important to remind yourself that you made the best decision you could at the time. It is always easy to come up with a better answer after we see the result of our previous decisions, yet second guessing does more harm than good.
Infertility is a personal experience. Issues of discomfort, embarrassment in talking about sexuality and reproduction, feelings of inadequacy, or shame can lead to cutting off potential support of others. Sometimes being around others who “have what we want” can lead to sadness and jealousy and ultimately a distance in the relationship. Elimination of social connections can lead to increased isolation and lack of support.
Tip: Identify and spend time with individuals who support you, rather than with those you must support. Directly communicate what you need and what you don’t need. Support groups can be very helpful in decreasing the feeling of isolation. Groups can help normalize the prevalence of infertility and the emotional responses to this experience.
Society does not always acknowledge the grief over the inability to have children, but this grief is valid. Each unsuccessful cycle is often experienced as the death of hopes and dreams. The grief of infertility is “ambiguous,” as there is no “body” to mourn and, often, there is not an arena for expression of this grief with others. Minimizing the significance of treatment cycles will not decrease the pain if pregnancy doesn’t occur. The accumulation of unresolved grief can make it difficult to continue to pursue treatment.
Tip: Acknowledging the painful feelings associated with negative pregnancy tests, or menstrual periods that start is the first step to grief resolution. Everyone experiences the grief of infertility differently. Be honest with yourself and decide what you need to do to heal from the disappointments of infertility. Working with a counselor experienced in infertility counseling and bereavement can be incredibly helpful in navigating the feelings of loss.
Depression is a natural emotion to experience when grieving. Many couples fear that they will never be happy again. If this is the first loss that has been experienced, the feeling of depression can be very scary. Expecting to “snap back to normal” prematurely can actually increase the depth of the depression.
Tip: Talking about disappointments and feelings of loss helps alleviate depression. Acknowledging the hopes and dreams associated with each pregnancy attempt helps validate the reason for depression. If the depression persists and leads to physical illnesses or feelings of hopelessness, it is important that you talk to a counselor.
“Infertility Etiquette” Tips for Friends & Family
- Don’t minimize the problem by mentioning the hassles of parenting or say there are worse things that could happen. Coping with infertility is so, so hard, and only those experiencing it understand how difficult it can be
- Don’t offer advice or tips on how the couple can fix the situation, whether it’s exercise, food or lifestyle. If the couple has seen a fertility specialist, the physician has already covered these issues. People coping with infertility often blame themselves, so asking whether they’ve taken certain measures could reinforce their sense that the situation is their fault.
- Don’t tell the couple to relax. While stress often appears to be a contributor to infertility, the human reproductive system is complex and affected by a number of biological and physical factors. And don’t ever utter the words, “If it is meant to be, it will happen.”
- Don’t complain about your own past or present pregnancy. Couples dealing with infertility hope for the day they can worry about morning sickness and swollen feet.
- Do be supportive. Hugs and encouragement go a long way. Spend time with the couple to show them how much you love them with or without a baby, and plan activities that don’t focus on children.
- Don’t push adoption. Each couple has their own approach to family building and is well aware of their options. The decision to adopt or not is a deeply personal one that they may have considered or struggled with already.
The Cabin Staff Can Help
With over 40 years of combined experience, the therapists at The Cabin are here to join with you as you navigate the emotions that accompany the infertility journey. We can assist you in developing enhanced communication skills, dealing with family and friends, processing the emotions associated with the infertility experience, and evaluating treatment options. If you have questions or would like to schedule an appointment, call 317.873.8140. We look forward to joining you on your journey.