I buried my face in my hands and wept.
Another year had gone by and still no baby. After two rounds of in vitro fertilization, three cycles of Clomid, and five years of trying for a baby, all I had to show for my efforts were an aching heart and a stack of medical bills. “What are we going to do?” I asked my husband, who looked as lost as I felt. “We need to take another break from trying,” he said. “This is consuming our lives.”
It was hard to not let it consume my life. The reminders of our childless marriage were seemingly endless, even during those times when we weren’t trying to conceive. Almost weekly, yet another friend would joyfully announce her pregnancy. Just walking by the baby aisle at Target would bring me to tears. And many weeks I refused to go to church; services at the very family-friendly church we had joined, with the wonderful children’s ministry program and the happy kids giggling in the pews, were now too painful for me to attend.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), and the World Health Organization all recognize infertility as a disease. It affects 10 to 15 percent of couples, which makes it “one of the most common diseases for people between the ages of 20 and 45,” according to the ASRM. Causes and treatments vary extensively, but one thing is certain: There is an emotional side of infertility.
Heather Bjur, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Valley Christian Counseling Center in Fargo, had her own journey with infertility and now counsels people with the diagnosis. She discusses the challenges infertile women face. “Their bodies, which were designed to create and grow life, are, for whatever reason, not able to take on or complete this fundamental part of womanhood. The feelings of betrayal by their own bodies can be surprisingly overwhelming. Many report feeling incomplete,” says Bjur.
Like any disease, it is impossible to fully understand the emotional side unless you have experienced it firsthand. For this article, I interviewed dozens of local people who have been diagnosed and are dealing with infertility. Their experiences indicate the emotional trauma can be life-changing. Hopefully, through increased awareness of the struggles of infertile people, family members and friends will be able to offer helpful support.
A Rollercoaster of Emotions
Erin Lee, nurse practitioner at Sanford Reproductive Medicine in Fargo, works with a variety of patients dealing with infertility. She describes the emotional side of the diagnosis, saying, “It can be so different for everybody—how they cope and how it feels to them. Even one partner can have completely different feelings than the other; one may be struggling emotionally and the other is doing OK.”
For some patients, being diagnosed with infertility feels like being strapped into the seat of a giant rollercoaster and they can’t get off. The highs are extremely high; each new treatment option offers hope, and while waiting for pregnancy test results, the optimistic patients daydream about the babies they long for. The lows are heartbreaking and can occur without warning. A negative pregnancy test month after month, a friend’s pregnancy announcement, and relatives joking, “When will you have kids? It’s about time!” can lead to extreme sadness.
Infertility is an unpredictable ride and, Lee explains, the fluctuation of hormones during infertility treatments can cause patients’ feelings to change frequently. A person who openly discusses the journey one week may choose to keep his or her feelings private the next week and become frustrated with questions from others. This can be confusing for everyone, which is why Lee advises family and friends to show support by saying, “I’ll be here for you for whatever you need, but you have to let me know what you need.”
This rollercoaster of emotions prompts many of Bjur’s clients to tell her they feel “crazy.” Bjur says, “The emotional ups and downs, stress on the marriage, stress on the job from having to take leave for the many medical appointments, the family who is asking for grandchildren, and the strain on the couple’s intimate life are all enough to make a person feel like they’re losing their mind.” Bjur works with infertility clients on normalizing their experiences—helping them see their experiences as “normal” for people in their situation.
Those dealing with infertility face an array of losses that contribute to their complicated emotional state. Foremost is the loss of the experience of carrying and giving birth to a baby. One woman described her anger and disappointment, saying, “I was irate at my body; it wouldn’t do something so primal, no matter how hard I tried.”
The loss of passing on your unique genetic traits to future generations can be difficult for some. According to German psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, people pass through a series of eight interrelated stages throughout their lifespan. One stage involves creating and nurturing something that will last beyond one’s lifetime. Having children typically satisfies this life phase, and infertility requires a person to fulfill this stage through other means.
Loss of self-esteem frequently occurs with infertility. The constant trying and failing to become pregnant often leads to diminished confidence. And some of the medications used to treat fertility problems have psychological side effects, compounding the feelings of decreased self-worth.
Relationships often suffer under the stress of infertility; it wreaks havoc on marriages, friendships, and other relationships. Even the strongest of marriages can be shaken. Medical appointments are taxing, waiting for test results is frightening, and partners may handle the stress differently. Having contradictory views on what medical interventions to try and when to stop treatment can create marital tension. Partners may have conflicting thoughts about utilizing other options to build a family or remain childless. My personal journey with infertility strained my marriage for years. Since I was the one physically dealing with the pregnancy losses, I felt I was letting my spouse down and at times didn’t think my marriage would survive. This feeling, I discovered, is very common among women who suffer from infertility.
Bjur recognized the isolation and describes how she felt disconnected from others during her journey with infertility. “My own words were that I couldn’t be part of the ‘club’ that everyone else seemed to be joining. Looking in from the outside is a horribly lonely place to be.”
Infertility can lead to an enormous loss of control. When your attempts at having children are unsuccessful and life does not go as envisioned, it can be difficult to redefine your goals and feel in control. One woman I spoke with said, “My entire life I had planned to go to college, start my career, get married, and then have kids. When that did not go as planned, I felt like my life was in a holding pattern and I was stuck.”
Ask for Help
If you are struggling with the emotional side of infertility, find a local counselor to help. Erin Lee at Sanford Reproductive Medicine in Fargo also directs patients to the website of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, www.resolve.org.
The Unique Grief of Infertility
The many losses of infertility contribute to the unique grief associated with being infertile. Generally, when faced with the death of a loved one, there is a single episode of shock with a period of very raw, intense grief that gradually diminishes. You may grieve the person’s death for decades, but the initial gut-wrenching, crude pain is gone. Grieving during infertility is different. You may have many episodes of acute, sharp pain. Infertility elicits a grief cycle that compounds with every negative pregnancy test or pregnancy loss.
“The grief is traumatizing to the point that many women struggle with depression and anxiety, anger and disappointment with themselves and with God. In addition to the monthly reminder of the infertility, some of the medical procedures involved can be painful, invasive, and embarrassing,” says Bjur. “People often say things like, ‘I never dreamed I’d have to endure x, y, or z, just to have a baby.’”
Andrea Hanson, a Hawley, Minn., mother with a history of infertility, says, “Even though my infertility was temporary, it had an intensity that affected me emotionally, mentally, and even physically. It’s like I felt like there was something wrong with me, but I just couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I think people should know that infertility can hit to the very core of a woman’s purpose here on Earth.”
Men are also affected emotionally by infertility. Lee says men may not talk about the difficulties of infertility as much as women do, but infertility can be an emotional struggle for them. Drew and Meagan Barker of Detroit Lakes, Minn., doctored for infertility before becoming parents to two children. Drew was surprised at how prevalent infertility is. “It is way more common than I ever realized. When you go through it, you don’t realize how many people around you are probably going through the exact same thing.” The emotional upheaval was difficult. “I always found it a challenge to deal with my wife’s feelings during the rollercoaster. Every time we were told to take a pregnancy test and have the result always be negative was hard. Sure it was hard on me, but much worse on my wife, dealing with the tears. It was a monthly high of trying to find out if you were pregnant, and then the instant low of a negative test,” says Drew.
My husband, Brett Petsinger, explains how he felt at times: “As a guy, I wanted to fix the problem, and when I couldn’t, I felt helpless. Not only was I grieving myself, but I was trying to be strong and console my hurting wife.”
How You Can Help
Since you likely know someone struggling with infertility, what can you do to help? The dozens of local people I interviewed said the most helpful things people have done for them include listening, telling them “I’m here for you,” and avoiding judgment.
“Care. Be there. So often women, especially, feel left out of social circles because all their friends are having babies, so make a pointed effort to include friends who don’t have children,” says Bjur. “Women who are having trouble getting pregnant or staying pregnant feel very NOT normal, so help them to do life as normally as you know how.”
Finding contentment along this journey can take years, and many people who have suffered from infertility say it was the most traumatizing event of their lives and it forever changed them. However, countless patients on the path of infertility find happy, fulfilling endings. Some eventually carry babies to full term. Others build their families through adoption or surrogacy, and a number of patients discover peace and joy remaining childless. My own journey included seven pregnancy losses, but my tears of sadness became tears of joy as Brett and I welcomed boy-girl twins into our lives in 2012, via a gestational carrier. Shortly afterward, I became pregnant and, in 2014, our second daughter was born.
As your loved one weathers the storm of infertility, though there is nothing you can do to completely take the pain away, be mindful of the intense emotions he or she may be feeling and offer a listening ear. Bjur’s expert advice? “These people need support and tenderness, understanding and grace. Treat them gently.”
Kerry Petsinger is a doctor of physical therapy in Detroit Lakes, Minn. She lives with her husband, Brett, and three young children, and on most days can be found exploring the Fargo area with family and friends.
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