A Holiday Survival Guide for the Infertile
Does the approach of the holiday season make you want to book the next flight to Tahiti? Or Nome? Or even Pittsburgh? Or perhaps you’re the “bury your head in the sand” or the “not so silently martyr yourself” type of gal (or guy). In any event, if you are dreading the upcoming holiday season with the litter of adorable nieces, nephews, and cousins; nosy, clueless relatives; and pregnant relations, then I have two words for you—Plan Ahead!
Now in fairness, I should point out that for some lucky few, the holiday season means being surrounded by understanding and supportive relatives. It is actually a time of renewal–a place to fill up their emotional tank. For you folks, all I can say is count your blessings, for you are indeed blessed. The rest of you mere mortals, read on.
The key to surviving and maybe even thriving during the holidays is planning. For most people who have been struggling to conceive, the two big holiday triggers are:
- Being surrounded by what you so desire- kids and pregnancy.
- Some variation on the “When are you going to procreate” question.
The problem for most infertility sufferers is not that they don’t love and even enjoy their relative’s children; rather, it is being surrounded non-stop by other people who are living your dream. It’s easy for the children to become a representation of all that you want, and so far, don’t have. And let’s face it, the holiday season is kid centric.
The goal is to get through the holiday doing as little damage as possible to yourself and (this is important) to others. Here are some ideas.
1. Sharing your Infertility Struggles
For privacy and for self protection, many people with infertility keep their struggles to themselves. This may make sense, especially at the beginning, if your family is not a source of emotional support or your privacy needs are great. However, as time goes on, you may want to rethink this approach. When your family is clueless of your struggle a lose/lose pattern may develop. Your family, not knowing what is happening, continues to put you in painful situations and you continue to react in ways that seem either rude or unexplainable. Inevitably, feelings get hurt on both sides.
If you haven’t told your family by now, it is likely either because you aren’t certain of their support or you don’t want to go into details. This is where advanced planning comes in. Consider these ideas:
Writing a letter. Although it may feel awkward and overly formal, there are several advantages to this approach. Most people seldom, if ever, receive an actual personal letter that arrives in a real life mailbox, thus they pay particular attention to any they receive. A letter allows you to say what you want to say without forgetting something, and without letting your emotions or their response affect the message. It also allows you to politely set boundaries of how much detail you want to share or how much you want to talk about your infertility. “This has been the hardest struggle of my life. I would prefer not talking about it. Please know that we will share any important news with you, when we have some. Until then we would appreciate your prayers (or good thoughts or well wishes). Thank you for caring about us and supporting us.”
Selectively tell. Telling is not an all or none proposition. Scout out your family for kindred spirits or at least sympathetic ears. Share your struggles and your discomfort at holiday gatherings with them. Ask them to help run interference.
I have heard from quite a few that they were pleasantly surprised by their family’s response. “Sarah” recounted the following story. She gathered the women in the family to tell about her infertility after a particularly uncomfortable gathering. She was particularly dreading the intrusive questions and all around lack of support from one bossy old aunt. After she recited her practiced speech, this aunt sought her out in private. The aunt hugged her and said she understood all to well what she was going through. “People think we waited seven years to have kids so we could enjoy the good life and save money. We were trying to get pregnant the whole time. Finally, the doctor mixed some other man’s sperm with your uncle’s sperm to teach them what they needed to do. It worked, and viola your cousin Robert was born 9 months later. Don’t give up hope.” This story was shocking on so many different levels, but the aunt became Sarah’s staunchest supporter, and now dotes excessively on Sarah’s son.
Be Specific about What You Need from Them
The first step on being specific about you need from others is to figure out what you need to make the holidays tolerable. What was most painful for you last year? At what points did you want to curl up in a closet and cry? At what point did others want to curl up in a closet and cry because of something you said or did? In short, what pushed you close to or over the edge? Some of our Creating a Family family have shared their own Waterloo moments.
- Christmas morning when the nieces were opening gifts.
- The constant talk of children at the Thanksgiving table.
- Being around my pregnant sister and sister-in-law.
- Being asked to hold everyone’s baby. Or conversely, not being asked to hold anyone’s baby.
- Seeing my mother spend all her time with the grandkids and feeling left out.
- My in-laws wanting me to be fully involved with all the kids and happy for all the pregnant couples.
- The Christmas Eve family service at church.
Once you’ve identified your trigger points, be proactive in addressing ways to survive them. Your family can’t read your mind. Chances are they have not walked down the infertility road. It is unfair to think that they should simply intuit what would make this easier for you. Share with your family that you will be self protective this year and you need their help. Often, the only help you will need is their understanding. Use sentences that begin with “I” rather than “you”. For the above examples, consider the following ways to address them in advance.
- Arrange to stay with your in-laws or your own home on Christmas Eve night and show up at your family’s house after the Santa hubbub has died down. Tell your parents in advance: “It is so hard for me to see the kids on Christmas morning. I need to take better care of myself, so even though this isn’t their year, we’re going to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with Bob’s parents. Thanks so much for understanding.”
- “Would you mind arranging the seating at dinner so I’ll be sitting next to Uncle Fred? It would help me to be sitting next to someone who talks about his prostrate, rather than his kids.”
- “I am so happy for Bertha and Ruth. I want to fully embrace their excitement, but I am feeling particularly tender around pregnant women right now. As much as I wish I could be around them without feeling sad, I simply can’t, so we are going to ______(drop by for a short time; go camping by ourselves; etc.)
- If you want to play with and hold babies and kids, let the family know. “I need all the baby love I can get right now, so when possible, someone else wash the dishes and let me snuggle with this delicious baby.” Or “He’s adorable, but he’s breaking my heart. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but hope that you’ll understand why I don’t want to play with him.”
- “Mom, is there some time this year during the chaos when we could spend some quality time together? I know how excited you are to be with the grandkids, but sometimes I feel a little left out, and I miss you.” You might want to offer to help her in the kitchen while you visit.
- Either you or your hubby can say to her: “Mom, we are happy for Bertha and we love all the kids, but when you are struggling as hard as we are with this disease of infertility, sometimes our sadness is bigger than our joy. We don’t want to put a damper on anyone’s fun, so we are going to need to come see you when they are off shopping. I know this makes it harder for you since you’d love to have us all together, so thanks in advance for making it easier for us to take care of ourselves during this hard time.”
- “Hubby and I have decided to go to the midnight service this year so we can focus on the reason for the season, rather than on our pain. We know how important it is for you to have us all at church at the same time, but we also know you understand our pain.”
Often it is not any one event, but the cumulative total of all of them that is simply more than you need to handle. This may be the year to come up with some alternative plans to either skip the family gathering entirely or limit your exposure. Again, consider sharing your reasons with your family to avoid hurt feelings.
Avoid completely. You may need to consider avoiding the holiday gathering completely by going on vacation, going to your in-laws, or volunteering or working over the holiday.
- This is a great time of year to find vacation deals. Or if money is tight, campgrounds usually have openings over major holidays.
- If your in-laws are easier for you to visit because they aren’t as child focused or their grandchildren won’t be with them, explain that to your family. “I felt so depressed during Christmas last year even though I love you dearly. This year, I’m planning on taking better care of myself, by spending the holidays with John’s family since they don’t have the kids this year.”
- We received this comment on the Nov. 17 Creating a Family show on “Holidays and Infertility.” I wanted to share something that my husband and I have done for the last 3 years when we were actively trying to conceive. We are both in the medical field, and there is always a need for people to work on the holiday. It is a huge imposition for most doctors, nurses, and techs. We decided to kill two birds with one stone—we volunteered to work on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. It got us out of awkward family celebrations that would have caused us pain and it helped out our coworkers and they appreciated our efforts. Now that we are finally expecting our first child in January, we have lots of good will stored up. I’m hoping that we won’t have to work another holiday for a long time. We’ve decided to do it this year one more time because it has now become our tradition. Work, then go out to a really nice restaurant to celebrate just the 2 of us. No one in the family can be mad because we have to work. Ready made excuse.
- Many organizations need volunteers over the holidays: Meals on Wheels, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, hospitals, nursing homes, etc.
2. Answering the “When are you Going to Have Kids” Question
Almost guaranteed, sometime within the next two months you will be asked when you are going to have kids or why you don’t have kids. You know it, I know it, the man in the moon knows it. So rather than getting irked, get prepared.
- Ten Answers to the “When are you Going to Have Kids” Question
- Ten “Snarky” Answers to the “When Are you Going to Have Kids” Question
(No, you can’t actually use these, but you can have the guilty pleasure of giggling while you fantasize about saying them.)
Please share you own coping strategies or responses. Also, we have tons of resources for Surviving the Holidays, including a video and Top Ten Tips.