By Grace Rao, LCSW
1 out of 8 couples will experience infertility on their family planning journey1. If you find yourself here, I’m sorry for the painful and probably unexpected turn life has taken. Whether you’re a weathered traveler or just getting started on this path, you’ve likely encountered feelings of grief, anxiety, or isolation. There’s no way around it, infertility is hard and can impact mental health in significant ways. As a reproductive therapist who works with individuals experiencing infertility, I hope to describe 3 particular challenges I hear repeated in my work as well as a few strategies that can be helpful in coping and caring for your mental wellness.
In The Art of Waiting, Belle Boggs aptly labels the infertility experience as “The Takeover”. She writes “the problem with infertility is that it is not a patient, serene kind of waiting...it happens for many of us in the context of consuming struggle, staggering expense, devastating loss.” During “The Takeover” infertility tends to consume all of life. Schedules are full of appointments, evenings are full of tracking symptoms, date night may be replaced with administering injections, and free time replaced with planning the perfect diet, desperate budgeting gymnastics, or reading the latest research. It’s not uncommon for this to feel extremely overwhelming and even lead to anxious or depressive symptoms.
Where to start: If “The Takeover” is an unwelcome visitor in your life, think about areas where implementing boundaries can protect even small moments for yourself. Yes fertility treatment will be a big part of your life, but it does not have to be the ONLY part. Think about yourself or your relationship before “The Takeover” and intentionally schedule time free from fertility-related talk to engage a previously enjoyed hobby or activity.
#2 Compounding Losses
It is important to name and acknowledge infertility as a loss. Our cultural view of loss tends to be limited to the concrete terms of a death loss. But the emotional experience of infertility involves many forms of loss that we don’t always recognize. Loss of bodily privacy and trust, loss of control, loss of fairness, and loss of the expected narrative and timeline of our life, just to name a few. When these losses are ignored or minimized, internally or by others with statements like, “You just have to stay positive“ or “oh, you’re lucky, kids are so hard”, suffering is actually inflamed because we remain misunderstood, unseen, and unheard. Prolonged periods of feeling unseen, misunderstood, and unheard can actually activate our bodies’ defenses and make us more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
Where to start: Make space to acknowledge, name, grieve, and soothe the specific losses. Our emotions want to be seen, heard, and understood more than anything. Taking the time to be with and to connect the dots as to why something is painful can actually decrease the emotional activation we feel. Journaling these thoughts and sharing them with a safe person will often yield the greatest reward here.
#3 “I should be happier for my friend’s pregnancy”
For many, the experience of infertility when everyone around you is pregnant can feel like a mirror reflecting a painful unmet desire. This can get sticky when it comes to close relationships. I work with many women who feel guilt or shame about an emotional reaction they had in response to a close friend or family member’s pregnancy announcement. This experience highlights two significant challenges: how to navigate your own emotions as well as your relationships when your friends are pregnant.
Where to start: Let’s take this in two parts, but remember this is just a start. First, remind yourself that humans can experience more than one emotion at a time, even if those emotions seem to conflict. A part of you can feel some joy for a friend’s pregnancy even when another part of you experiences deep pain or jealousy. Both are valid. That is normal! Second, when someone around you becomes pregnant, think about what boundaries fit the specific relationship. Is the person more of an acquaintance? Maybe send a gift rather than attend the shower. Is the person your best friend? Know that all relationships experience ruptures and repairs, so give them and yourself permission to not be perfect in this process. Talk to them honestly about how you would prefer information, events, or updates be communicated.
Infertility is hard, and there certainly exist many more challenges than one blog post can cover. If these words resonate with you, know that you don’t have to walk through this alone. Reach out to a reproductive therapist or psychiatrist or visit Resolve for more resources (resolve.org).
If you reside in Texas and are interested in connecting with others on the infertility journey, RPC will soon be offering a 6 session virtual psychotherapy group: Seeing Through The Lense of Infertility. This group will be led by two RPC reproductive therapists and provide space to share your story, connect with others, and gain skills to cope with the challenges of infertility. Call 512-982-4116 or sign up HERE.