There are many complexities to the disease of infertility. Patients will tell you that one of the reasons infertility is so stressful is that it is usually an unexpected diagnosis. Another cause for the stress is that there is so much loss inherent to the disease. Identifying the losses of infertility is an essential step in coping with those losses.
Women’s Losses in Infertility
The losses women face when diagnosed with infertility might seem obvious. However, what is not as obvious is that the range of the loss varies from woman to woman, depending upon the many factors, including specific diagnosis, cultural or racial contexts, and a woman’s temperament.
The losses in this list are not exclusive to women but represent commonly identified losses women experience.
- The ability to easily conceive. Fondly held dreams of “Here comes Mary with the baby carriage” are suddenly out of your reach.
- Control over your life plans. That 10-year plan you laid out for yourself in college – to first establish your career, then create a family – feels like it’s slipping through your hands, too.
- Your Identity. Your definition of womanhood feels shaken to the core. This might be especially true if you are a CIS-gendered woman who has always planned to parent.
- Social connections & peer groups. Friends with kids are moving on. Others who don’t understand your grief or cannot handle it might also move on.
- Loss of privacy – Your intimate life is an open book to your specialists, not just shared with your partner anymore.
Men’s Losses in Infertility
In addition to many of the losses women experience, men often struggle to feel that their maleness is still whole. Their definition of manhood feels shaken, especially if there is a male-factor diagnosis. This is also true if there is a strong cultural norm around a man’s role in families.
Men facing infertility also struggle to know how to be a partner in their relationship. Though it might be broad gender stereotyping, men often report that they don’t know how to “fix” this infertility or protect their partner from the pain of this disease. They also usually express a feeling of loss of purpose in this relationship. Many men struggle with the inability to pass on their legacy, family name, or traits.
Guilt and Shame Add Layers to the Loss.
While not specifically a loss, guilt and shame are also common feelings for those dealing with infertility. Those emotions are commonly rooted in social and cultural norms of what women and men “do” in a marriage. These destructive feelings might also stem from lifestyle choices or unhealthy habits that could have contributed to the diagnosis.
Because we don’t talk about infertility in our culture, we don’t have useful tools for talking about it. Thus the painful cycle is set for going ‘round and ‘round from silence to shame, and so on.
Infertility is an Ambiguous Loss.
The ambiguous loss of infertility adds another layer of stress to your experience. As a culture, we don’t have rituals or ceremonies around the loss of one’s fertility. Thus the inability to conceive is less identifiable, leading one to feel that the feelings are irrelevant or even illegitimate.
The ambiguity is further layered by those who don’t (or can’t) recognize your infertility as a loss. This frequently causes them to call into question your right to grieve it and cope with it.
The Stresses of Infertility in Your Marriage.
Given all of these stressors and losses, it comes as no surprise that infertility can seriously impact your marriage and relationships. When your relationship is effected by infertility, these struggles can commonly manifest in many ways, including:
- Not being on the same page as your partner. It can be quite challenging to come to a unified decisions about how far up the treatment ladder you will go, how much you will spend, how long you will try.
- Unevenness in the weight of the struggle. Both partners are rarely bearing the burden of an infertility diagnosis equally. The disparity can set a couple up for resentment, exhaustion, or burn out that is also experienced unevenly.
- Loss of enjoyment of your intimate life. The nature of fertility treatment is clinical. That can negatively impact your sexual relationship, ability to be intimate, or your sexual identity. All of those elements have an effect on the enjoyment and spontaneity of your sex life.
This tip sheet offers ideas to nurture your marriage while seeking fertility treatment.
Healthy Coping Techniques
The stress you are experiencing can get in the way of your ability to be present for the process of creating your family. It can impact your enjoyment of a full, satisfying life. It’s important to remember that you are not just an infertility patient. You are a whole person who has many other things that bring you joy and to which you can contribute meaningfully.
How do you cope with the stress of infertility, while seeking treatment and focusing on having a baby?
Practical Tips for Coping with Loss in Infertility
- Take care of yourself. Go back to the basics of self-care. Make sure to eat well, get healthy sleep, and exercise regularly. Attend to your emotional and spiritual health too.
- Engage in activities that you love. What brings you joy? Learn a new hobby. Join a book club. Take vacations and day-trips. Re-engage in your life and in the other dreams you have while working through the infertility journey.
- Create rituals around your fertility treatment. Celebrating and grieving the highs and lows of your journey to build your family can help you be present. By naming the wins and losses, you can help you achieve a sense of balance as well.
- Know when you need help. Are you sleeping too much? Are you withdrawing from the rest of your life? Are you battling negative thoughts and emotions alone? A counselor or therapist skilled in supporting infertility grief will be a benefit to your process.
- Make meaning of your journey. Talk with your partner about what it means for you to become a parent. What would it mean if the two of you remained childless? How do you define “family?”
- Increase your social support network. Whether it’s a support group, a professional therapist, or a circle of trusted girlfriends, bring people around you who can “get it.” You need them to be present for your good and bad days.
- Offer yourself compassion and grace. Be kind to yourself when you are struggling, not just by taking good care of yourself. Recognize how hard this journey is on your heart, mind, and body. Adjust your expectations of yourself and your boundaries with others.
- Evaluate how much and with whom you will share. Not everyone in your social support network will be safe to handle the nitty-gritty of the struggle. Again, your boundaries are a way to give yourself grace but knowing your safe spaces is also good self-care.
Tread Gently with Each Other
Identifying and coping with the losses of your infertility is a learning process. Honor where you are in this moment. It’s okay to take some steps forward and then retreat a few steps to re-calibrate.
Recognize that you are on a path that doesn’t necessarily have a known outcome. That can be a stressor itself for some folks. Tread gently – with your partner’s feelings and your own. You are not alone in your infertility struggles. Our online Facebook support group is full of members who have been where you are. They are happy to walk the journey with you.
Image Credits: Marco; Pedro Ribeiro Simões; Ashley Webb; Adam Bautz