In recognition of National Infertility Awareness Week, we are seeking to raise awareness about this struggle by sharing stories from local moms and a dad who have been in this difficult place, as well as additional local resources to help parents along this journey. Through this series, we hope to provide encouragement for women and men who are facing infertility and perspective for those supporting them in the battle. Thank you to our sponsors, UAB Women & Infants Services, and to each of the contributors to this series — especially the courageous parents who have shared a painful piece of your journeys.
Procreation or making a baby should be simple, right? That may have been your thought as you took the first steps toward becoming a parent. You may have spent months making the decision and setting the stage for the perfect time in your life. You were not prepared for the delays, disappointments, and unexpected turns this journey would take. Not only are you dealing with the medical side, you are also dealing with the emotional issues that come with infertility. The journey that started with great excitement has turned into one of many complicated feelings and emotions. Most of these difficult responses are typical during challenging circumstances; however, this does not make them easier. Sometimes these big thoughts and feelings can make you feel different than you once were, out of control, or depressed. In addition, families experiencing infertility are often battling these hard emotions rather silently and may feel like they have nowhere to turn for support. This is where therapists (like me) help many women and men dealing with infertility. I hope to give insight into the mental and emotional strain of infertility and provide ways you or those you know can work towards healing.
Emotional Effects of Infertility
Infertility may affect people in different, unique ways, but there are some common thoughts and emotions. Most people report feelings of stress. Wondering if and when pregnancy will occur can lead to feelings of anxiousness. Sex that used to bring fulfillment and excitement can start to carry feelings of tension and disappointment.
Infertility is also bathed in grief and loss. Many women and men grieve the loss of an expected baby or wish their process of expanding their family were easier. Women grieve when they feel they are not able to naturally generate life as they believe they are supposed to. They may feel disappointed in themselves and their bodies; they may even think of themselves as failures. This may lead to feelings of guilt and even more deeply, shame. Infertility can create thoughts of not being “good enough”. Shame can make women and men feel like infertility is their fault and they are to blame.
Typically, when someone feels disappointed, shameful, and filled with grief, it can lead to isolation and loneliness. The person may think that no one understands what she or he is going through. They may feel alone in their suffering. Many times when we grieve, we become more sensitive and aware of what we lost. This can make us want to avoid others with healthy babies, whether they be our close friends and family or people we don’t even know at the supermarket. Infertility can make people feel deeply sad, angry, helpless, and lost — but there is HOPE.
Moving Towards Emotional Healing
As with any sort of struggle, healing is a process. There is no quick fix or overnight solution, but here are a few ideas that may help you process your weighty feelings and thoughts. When working with couples in counseling, I strive to help them make sense of their story, who they are, and who they want to be. If you are struggling with infertility, you can begin to do this by telling your story. Tell it to your journal or in letters to yourself through writing or verbally tell your story to your spouse, friend, safe support group (whether online or in-person), or counselor. Start simple by writing or telling what has happened over the course of your journey and then add in emotions and thoughts you had along the way. Continue to tell your unfolding story over time, taking note of how your thoughts and feelings have changed.
You can also take a moment to write down a list of possible triggers (people, places, things, or dates) that may bring about some of the intense feelings mentioned above (e.g. baby showers, the smell of baby powder, or Mother’s Day). This list is not situations you should completely avoid but rather a list of potential difficulties to prepare for mentally and emotionally. I suggest you also plan ahead how you will cope with those feelings. Some ideas include taking deep breaths to calm down in the moment and taking time to do something you enjoy before or after the trigger event.
After looking at that list of potential triggers, you can ask yourself what is helpful versus unhelpful. What is not helpful or encouraging that you know deep down you should take a short break from? For some families, that may be social media or dinner dates with that one friend who seems to talk incessantly about their newborn. You can also take this time to search for helpful, supportive people, places, or things to remind you that you are not the only one. There are men and women walking similar roads as you who need similar support. Even when it feels like you are alone in your struggles, speak truth into that negativity and remind yourself that you are not.
Lastly, I gently encourage couples to try and harness a small piece of positivity every day. Even when your thoughts and feelings may seem dark, try to notice at least one thing that you are thankful for daily. It can be as small as the way chocolate tastes or more complex, like the work you are doing to process your journey. Noticing and paying attention to things we are grateful for will help us remember that there is still good during the difficult.
Infertility is a challenging journey. Your life may not look the way you planned sometimes. You will feel hard emotions and think challenging thoughts. But there will also be times of happiness and joy. There will be people who want to support you. You can find hope during the hard.
P.S. A quick note for friends of someone struggling with infertility: If you are a friend or support person, you can let them know you are available to talk if they ever need it. Don’t expect that they will open up to you but simply show you care and be patient as they process. Remember, it’s not your job to fix it but to listen. It is typically not helpful to give them options to try, such as seeing a particular doctor or seeking a certain treatment, unless they ask. Comments like this will possibly add more pressure rather than seem helpful. Also, infertility is not a one-time loss for most people, so gently check in with them periodically. Don’t assume and avoid topics that you worry will hurt their feelings; rather, gently ask them if they are okay talking about something. Don’t treat them as if they are “damaged” because it may make them feel damaged when they are not. Remain emotionally available and supportive because they need you.
Ashley Yeager, LICSW, PIP has a Bachelor of Science in Psychology & Sociology as well as a Master of Social Work. She is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and is certified for Private Independent Practice in Social Casework & Clinical Social Work. She is currently a Family Therapist with Lifeline Counseling and Lifeline Children’s Services in Birmingham, Alabama.