Infertility is a deeply personal struggle that can be fraught with shame, loneliness, confusion, disappointment, fear, desperation, judgment, and extreme sadness. Seemingly harmless and often well-intentioned questions and statements by random people can be like a dagger to the most sensitive parts of self:
- “So, are you guys trying for a baby?”
- “What’s taking so long, you’ve been together/married for X number of years.”
- “Don’t you want kids?”
- “Don’t wait too long or you’ll be too old.”
- “What, are his “swimmers” no good?”
- “Just have a bottle of wine and relax, it’ll happen.”
- “You know, stress doesn’t help. Just don’t think about it.”
- “Well, you can always just adopt.”
- “Have you tried essential oils? Acupuncture? Reiki? Prayer? A couples retreat?”
- “It’s a shame you guys don’t have kids yet, you’d be great parents.”
If you’ve heard these types of comments or something similar and felt awful, chances are you could use real support. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 10% of women (6.1 million) of childbearing age (15-44 years old) have difficulty getting or staying pregnant. Being unable to get pregnant after one year of trying to conceive without intervention is the common threshold used by specialists to define infertility. Furthermore, infertility is not just a women’s issue, as about 1/3 of infertility cases can be attributed to the woman, 1/3 to the man, and 1/3 due to a combination of male and female problems, or problems that are unknown. This includes primary infertility (those trying to conceive for the first time), and secondary infertility (those trying to conceive after already having been pregnant). And yet, the mental health concerns of this aspect of life are seldom talked about and seldom addressed. High levels of stress directly correlate with lower life expectancy, lower quality of life, strain on relationships, poorer job performance, and other negative consequences.
To struggle with infertility is hard enough, and to do so without proper and sustained support for the intense emotions it stirs is unreasonable. Support from family and friends is crucial and makes the journey somewhat less painful. However, this is often insufficient and people struggling with infertility need their own space to get help and process the entire experience, which can be very long, very lonely, and full of beautiful hopes and crushed expectations. There are unspoken fears, invasive negative thoughts, doubts about oneself to the core. There are practical considerations as finances drain, insurance coverage changes, interventions are tried without yielding desired results. There is simply immense confusion in all of this, and the pain is often private and misunderstood. For many, the journey ends in that wonderful “miracle baby” that makes all the pain worthwhile. In those cases, I am thrilled to then offer support and guidance throughout the pregnancy and in the adjustment stages of early parenthood for the entire family unit. For others, that “miracle” baby does not come and they are left with ongoing questions and grief. They must then sift through options for how to move forward past the emptiness of parting with their biggest wish. In either case, there is a process of acceptance that must occur as people come to terms with their feelings, their limitations, and their circumstances.
As a psychotherapist, I cannot treat or “fix” your infertility or the biological/hormonal/physical issues that may underlie it. What I can offer is a warm, compassionate, understanding and validating relationship within which you can talk, be heard, process your range of feelings, and receive genuine and non-judgmental support, guidance, and treatment for the mental health consequences of infertility. This can be done for the woman or the man in the partnership as both or either can be profoundly impacted by infertility. If you are struggling, please do not just wish it away or neglect this very important aspect of your health. Psychotherapy is an effective intervention for stress, depression, anxiety, relational problems, and other matters which are directly impacted by the infertility journey. As you work with your team of doctors and practitioners, please consider including a provider to specifically address the mental health aspects so that you can reduce your suffering and increase your sense of hope, optimism, and overall quality of life.