Infertility: You Don’t Have to Struggle Alone
I always knew I’d have children. From an early age, I loved kids. I was the neighborhood babysitter as a teenager and I gladly helped with the caretaking of my little sister when I was 18 and she came along. Growing up, I was always vocal about wanting kids. I knew it would happen.
In my 30s, I was with someone who I thought would be my life partner, but we decided we weren’t ready for kids just yet. We got married when I was 37 and we still weren’t in a hurry. There were other things we wanted to do first, including establish our careers. I knew that others had trouble with infertility past their mid-30s, but I knew that wouldn’t be me. Finally, we started “trying” when I was almost 39 years old. After about six months and no success, my husband at the time let me in on a little secret: He didn’t actually want to have kids. He wasn’t sabotaging our efforts, but he didn’t want to keep trying to conceive. I was devastated as I tried to come to terms with a life without kids.
He and I split shortly after that and I decided to go it alone. I was nearing 40 and suddenly realized that my time was running out. I first looked into adoption, but then a friend talked to me about intrauterine (artificial) insemination, or IUI. When I started my fertility evaluations, it was determined that I had fibroids that would need to be eliminated before I could proceed. I went through a minor surgery and was ready to go. After three rounds of unsuccessful IUIs, I decided to take a break and pursue acupuncture to help my chances. During this time, I met my current partner, which complicated things a bit. He was willing to co-parent with me, but didn’t want to have a biological child with me. I decided to continue with the IUIs. I was 41 years old when I did my last three rounds of IUI. They were all unsuccessful. With no hope left and, running out of money, I gave up.
Internalizing the stigma around infertility
Like many others who face infertility or difficulty conceiving, I wondered how I got to this point. How did this become me? Other people had trouble conceiving (those poor people!), but not me. I was meant to have children. More than that, I just always knew that I would. It was unfair.
There’s a word for people like me: Childless Not By Choice. In every one of those words, I felt the stigma of being childless weighing down on me. There’s a stigma in our culture not just around being childless not by choice, but around needing any kind of help to have a child. It’s different for men and women, but the stigma is very real for both. There’s a sense of feeling worthless, inferior, or even defective. For men, there can be an added stigma of not feeling “manly” enough or virile enough. We don’t just isolate ourselves when we feel the stigma – sometimes families can add to this isolation by expressing their “disappointment” in us (or worse) when we can’t conceive.
When I was going through my fertility processes, my younger friends were starting to have children. One even got pregnant while she had an IUD. My older sister, who never wanted children when we were growing up, even had two children of her own. Holidays and friends’ birthdays became excruciating. Everywhere there were babies and pregnant women. Friends who knew I was trying to get pregnant looked at me with pity or tried to make me feel better. “I know it’ll happen for you too! Just relax!” When it didn’t happen for me, I was embarrassed. I poured my heart and soul into having a child. And I failed. I had failed at doing the one thing that people everywhere can do with ease – and that often happens to people “by accident.” Everyone knew there was something wrong with me. The shame I felt was immense.
Why you can’t “just relax”
When you’re trying to conceive, it’s all you can think about. It becomes your life. You can’t focus on anything else. Every time I found out I was ovulating, I wanted to throw a party. And then every time I got my period, I wanted to cry and bury myself under the covers. There was so much waiting, so much clinging to hope, so much sheer wishing – and so much disappointment. You start to bargain with the universe: “If I can just get pregnant, I swear I’ll never do X again.” When the universe keeps letting you down, eventually the anger comes. I felt angry at the world, at those around me who had no problem conceiving, and at myself. I didn’t want to be around anyone who had what I wanted and I began to isolate myself. For much of my experience I didn’t have a romantic partner – and even when I did, it was a partner who didn’t want to conceive with me – so I wallowed on my own.
Because here’s the thing: Not being able to conceive is a LOSS. It’s not always a visible loss, but it’s a loss nonetheless. Sharon Covington, in her 2015 book Fertility Counseling: Clinical Guide and Case Studies, describes it as “the loss of the imagined or dreamed-of child” (p. 35). And just like any other loss, we need time and space to grieve. Sometimes we grieve the small losses along the way, like getting a period after a round of IUI – or there may be significant losses along the way, like miscarriages. Whatever the extent of our losses, we need to be able to grieve them.
Beyond the emotional stress there may also be relational stress and financial stress. Going through fertility treatments often puts a strain on relationships. It definitely changes one’s sex life. Some partners will come closer together in the process, but many disconnect from each other, especially if they feel a personal shame or guilt. And for many there’s a financial stress. I eventually stopped treatments because I was broke. Fertility treatments are expensive – we often hear how expensive procedures like in vitro fertilization (IVF) are. For someone living paycheck to paycheck, without insurance coverage for these procedures, even $850/month for IUI treatments can break the bank. While I was struggling with the emotional distress of infertility, I was also starting to wonder how I was going to afford having a child, should I be successful.
Each story is unique
My story is different from many others. I was older, single through much of my experience, and I ended up not having a child. Some struggling with infertility issues don’t even qualify for infertility treatments (Assisted Reproductive Technology or ART) because they haven’t yet met the threshold for unsuccessful attempts. But they may still be scared and struggling. Some who seek out ART are gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender, intersexual, or asexual. Some are single men and women who didn’t want to go it alone unless absolutely necessary and have hit the point where they have to act. Some were busy pursuing other endeavors and wanted to achieve other things before having a child. (Time is not on our side.) Each person’s struggle is unique to them.
My story is also just about IUI and fibroids and financial struggles. Infertility struggles can involve those going through IVF, those using donor egg or sperm, and those using surrogates. It can mean miscarriages, and excruciating decisions around multiple births. It can mean stillborn children or traumatic births. I’ve heard from a colleague that she knows providers who work at fertility clinics who have heartbreaking experiences in their own lives around conceiving. They then have to relive the experience with their patients.
How therapy can help
Therapy can provide a safe space to experience all of the emotions that you’re experiencing – to let it all out. It can be a place to talk through what matters with a therapist who speaks the language of infertility treatments. Therapy can be a safe place to grieve or a place to explore your resistance to grieving. It can be a place where you can bring your ups and downs and know that the person in the room with you will be rooting for you and supporting you on your journey.
A therapist can help you look at your coping strategies and explore with you what’s working and what’s not working. With the therapist, you can develop new ways to deal with the emotional distress of infertility. You can build your resiliency, whatever form that takes for you, including building your acceptance of the situation. With your therapist, you can find ways to go through this experience that feel true to you. When you find yourself not wanting to talk to friends or family about what you’re going through, your therapist can be there for you.
Covington, S. N. (Ed.). (2015). Fertility counseling: Clinical guide and Case studies. Cambridge University Press.
Morrow, A. (2018, December 6). The Four Phases and Tasks of Grief. Retrieved November 17, 2019, from https://www.verywellhealth.com/the-four-phases-and-tasks-of-grief-1132550.
Jenny Larson loves her work as a therapist at Live True Counseling and as a Volunteer Counselor at William Temple House. When not seeing clients, she can be found reading psychology books and celebrity memoirs, watching bad (good) 80s movies, and sewing or baking. While self-identified as a cat person, she also has a fondness for dogs and other animals.