Having a baby is one of the most natural and universal experiences human beings have – unless you are struggling with infertility. For millions of people, the inability to have this most common experience can lead to a heightened sense of isolation and grief. Babies are everywhere – or seem to be when you are trying to have a child and can’t. Normal encounters such as casual conversations, social media, portrayals in magazines, television and movies, and interactions with friends and family become everyday reminders that can trigger pain and a deep sense of loss.
Infertility actually affects a substantial number of people. In this country, 11.3% of women (6.9 million) have received treatment for infertility at some time. (CDC, 2013) According to CDC data analysis of the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, 7.5% of all sexually experienced men younger than age 45 reported seeing a fertility doctor during their lifetime, and 18% of those who sought help were diagnosed with a male-related infertility problem. Still, when you are the individual or couple coping with infertility, it is easy to feel alone. This is a very personal type of loss that is often not well understood by family and friends. (CDC, n.d.)
Several authorities, including the World Health Organization, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), recognize infertility as a disease. It is defined as the inability to conceive after one year of unprotected intercourse, with some other contributing factors, such as age. Infertility is also classified as the inability to carry a pregnancy to live birth. (Resolve.org, 2015)
We don’t normally think of infertility as a mental health issue, but, as anyone who has experienced it knows, there is a strong emotional component that can be complex and confusing. Negative emotions such as anger, sadness, disappointment, and frustration are not uncommon, yet can be misinterpreted or downplayed by others. These deeply held feelings, however, should be addressed as you experience the situation and evaluate your options. Infertility can affect relationships when both partners are not on the same page about what to do or are not in the same emotional place.
There are some ways to take care of your emotional health as you cope with infertility:
Set conversation boundaries about your process with family, friends, and coworkers. Think about who will be supportive in the process and include only those you feel will be beneficial to include. Remember that it is all right to keep private whatever parts of the decisions, processes, results, and emotional experiences that you want to, as infertility can often be a deeply intimate, emotional roller coaster.
“I had a male client, Seth*, who was experiencing depression as he and his wife were suffering from infertility. This created problems when he disclosed to his coworkers that he was struggling with these issues,” explains Maria Droste therapist Michael Webb, MA, LPC. The problem occurred when a supervisor responded that he needed to work on his depression, because depressed people make bad breeders and once he got happy, he’d have a baby. “This caused a lot of friction in his workplace. It left him feeling vulnerable and exposed to his coworkers and created resentment toward that supervisor,” says Michael.
Michael worked with him first on identifying and setting boundaries with his coworkers, and then tackled how he could assertively speak to his supervisor about the troubling comments. Seth was successful in managing these relationships. In addition, by taking these steps, he was able to gain some ownership of the struggle he and his wife were going through. Now, rather than feeling at the mercy of their circumstances, he has a new sense of empowerment.
Ask friends and family for the type of emotional support you need. As in the case of bereavement, those close to us often don’t know what to say or do to help. They may not say anything, for fear of saying the wrong thing, or they may offer stories or suggestions that can be upsetting rather than helpful. Let people around you know what you need emotionally from them through open and assertive conversations. This can be especially important with close friends who have successfully started families.
Joanne*, another client of Michael’s, struggled with infertility for years. She had difficulty maintaining her relationship with two close female friends. Each of these friends had a child after trying for only a month. They would do their best to be comforting but at the same time did not understand the emotional upheavals that Joanne experienced when going through an unsuccessful IVF procedure. Because they were unclear of the boundaries that the client wished to maintain on the subject, they often made comments or offered advice that made her uncomfortable. This contributed to her overall sense of loss and isolation, and put a strain on the friendship.
Therapy was a safe space for Joanne to talk about the feelings of resentment and jealousy that weren’t considered acceptable to express elsewhere. While she was in the midst of her infertility struggle, she wasn’t able to speak openly with her friends, but therapy did help her understand those difficult feelings. Once she successfully conceived, she was able to explain to her friends what she had needed and what the experience had been like for her. She was then able repair their relationship.
Partners or spouses can help each other through difficult social or family situations by talking in advance. If you are going to a family function where there will be many children, or a function where some version of the “When are you two going to have children” question is likely to come up, strategize ways to help each other navigate these conversations. You can also agree on a signal and even an exit strategy for when the emotions are becoming difficult.
Take a break from social media, and give yourself permission to occasionally skip a social engagement. Just make sure that this doesn’t turn into a lengthy period of isolation, as that can worsen the emotional difficulty.
While you may feel like the only one dealing with this issue, remember that you are not alone. Talking with others who have been or are going through infertility issues can be very helpful. Consider joining a support group to share experiences and resources.
That being said, each person’s journey with infertility is unique and has its own trials. The same holds true for the end of the journey. “Know that whatever decisions and outcomes you experience are your own and need to be honored as such,” says Michael.
Infertility can be all consuming, and if it is impacting other areas of your life, talking with a professional can be quite beneficial. If you would like to speak with someone about your struggle with infertility, contact Maria Droste Counseling Center.
*Not real names.
CDC (2013) National Survey of Family Growth. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved on April 19, 2016, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nsfg/key_statistics/i.htm#infertility
CDC (n.d.) Infertility FAQs. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved on May 6, 2016, from https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/infertility/
Resolve.org (2015) Fast Facts About Infertility. Resolve – The National Infertility Association. Retrieved on April 19, 2016, from https://www.resolve.org/about/fast-facts-about-fertility.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/