Infertility is a life crisis; an emotional, social, developmental, medical, ethical, and spiritual crisis. The medical definition is: “trying to conceive over a 12-month period without success.” These days, there are a higher percentage of people trying to conceive after age thirty-five. Thirty-five is when fertility starts to make a marked decline in women. Secondary infertility is defined as, “the inability to become pregnant, or to carry a pregnancy to term, following the birth of one or more biological children. The birth of the first child does not involve any assisted reproductive technologies or fertility medications.”
Psychological research shows that a diagnosis of infertility is as stressful as a diagnosis of cancer. People struggle, often quietly for years, with depression and anxiety due to their prolonged state of infertility. This leads to social isolation, which further exacerbates existing anxiety and depression. Because infertility is invisible, it can become a secret, which can lead to feelings of shame, guilt and personal failure.
The social aspect is often debilitating. Co-workers, friends, and relatives are pregnant, sending birth announcements and celebrating. Baby showers, children’s birthday parties and Facebook posts can be painful reminders of being left behind. This creates a social “in” and “out” group. These situations create a hyper-vigilant state of urgency around trying to catch up with peers and a desperate feeling that time is running out. Then there are the well-intentioned, yet typically uninformed questions, from those who want to be supportive but miss the mark.
What follows are my “best practices” in coping with the stress of infertility:
Do Your Homework. Initially, you may be overwhelmed with fear and disbelief. Try to stay calm so you can gather information about your options. If you have knowledge, it is power and it can settle down the feelings of uncertainty about your future. Review websites such as www.resolve.org and www.asrm.org since they are full of resources and factual data. Avoid infertility chat rooms. They are guaranteed to make you feel miserable and confused. If you haven’t already, make an appointment with a reproductive endocrinologist at a fertility clinic.
Feel Your Feelings. You will experience feelings akin to death and dying. Denial, “this isn’t happening to me!” Bargaining, “if only I’d… or, if only I hadn’t.” Grief, “I am incredibly sad, I cry all the time.” Anger, “I am so angry! Why is this happening to me?!” Acceptance, “I am accepting that this is my journey, I will get through this one way or another.” This cycle does not progress in a linear fashion. You can wake up one morning angry and be in denial the next. This is a normal response to loss and infertility is a big loss. You might not be able to have a child the way other people do. Your vision of the surprise moment when you tell your partner you’re pregnant, seems like a shattered dream. Other common emotions include envy, fear, guilt, shame, and confusion. Don’t stuff your feelings down. Talk to your partner, friends and family. Write in a journal. Seek professional help with a counselor who specializes in infertility counseling.
Focus On Self Care. It is extremely important to take extra good care of yourself during this stressful time. Eating a healthy diet will optimize your conditions for getting pregnant. Stay clear of processed foods and restaurants. Say goodbye to sugar, alcohol, dairy, caffeine and white flour for now. These foods cause inflammation in the body. Inflammation is the enemy of conception. Stay hydrated and get at least seven hours of sleep per night because sleep is incredibly healing. Engage in gentle exercise such as restorative yoga, walks, easy bike riding or swimming. Practicing deep breathing, meditation or prayer calms your central nervous system. See an acupuncturist who knows about infertility. Adopt a mindset of being in the moment. Don’t focus on regrets of the past or worries about the future. Repeat a soothing mantra such as “everything is going to be okay.” Give yourself a break and decline that invitation to another baby shower or birthday party.
Stay Connected To Safe & Trusted People. Share your story with friends and family who have the ability to listen, show empathy and not make judgments. Most are uninformed about infertility. Don’t take on the burden of trying to educate them. That is not your job, especially when you are struggling. Gently guide them to infertility resources so they can take on some of the responsibility of learning. It’s okay to say, “I don’t want to talk about it right now or I’ll let you know when I need an ear.”
Check In With Your Partner. Infertility is a couple’s problem and it can negatively impact your relationship. Unspoken resentment, feelings of inadequacy, and sexual pressure is not uncommon. Couples report increased conflict and decreased sexual relations due to invasive treatments and the impact of added hormones on mood stability. The financial strain takes its toll as well. Fertility treatments are costly with little to no insurance coverage provided. Seek out counseling for even a few sessions with a counselor who is knowledgeable about infertility. Attending fertility support groups or fertility weekend workshops can also be a great support.
Diane M, Coté, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Mateo and San Francisco. She specializes in all things fertility related and mindfulness based practices. Her website link is: www.dianecotelcsw.com