April 24th – 30th, 2016 is National Infertility Awareness Week. Infertility affects 1 in 8 couples and 7.4 million woman in the United States alone. This week we will be posting in honor of NIAW and to raise awareness about this year’s theme #StartAsking.
Infertility is stressful is an understatement. Current research shows that stress levels in women diagnosed with infertility are equal to that of women diagnosed with cancer, AIDS, and heart disease. And if that is not enough, research also suggests that stress can lead to difficulty conceiving!
As any couple or individual traveling the road of infertility and infertility treatments knows all too well, the journey can feel at times both never-ending and all-consuming. If you have found yourself facing an infertility diagnoses or difficulty conceiving, it’s important to #StartAsking as many questions as you can to prepare and equip yourself with the knowledge you need to make the best decisions for you and your family. The first question we encourage you to ask is this: What can I do to manage the stress that goes along with infertility?
Here are 7 tips to get you started:
- Find your tribe – whether you are naturally a social butterfly who likes to collect friends and acquaintances or a quiet soul who enjoys just a few close confidants, our desire to relate to others is a deeply hard-wired human need. That’s why the feelings of isolation that can come along with experiencing a prolonged life stressor such as infertility can take a heavy toll on our emotional health. And though our family, partner, and long-time friends may do their best to understand and offer support, nothing can take the place of hearing an emphatic “me too!” when you share your fears, struggles, and frustrations. And while infertility is more common than most of us realize – an estimated 1 in 8 couples have trouble getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy – don’t wait to passively bump into a fellow struggler in line at Starbucks. Make building your “tribe” a top priority. Research support groups in your area, check out social groups through venues like Meetup.com, or participate in an online forum like those found on Mothering.com or Babycenter and get the support you need. The ability to reach out over coffee, on the phone, or through text message when we need to process a difficult doctor appointment or a misunderstanding with a spouse is invaluable in keeping your sanity intact in an otherwise crazy-making journey. And often times what starts out as a support system forged over a shared life challenge ends up turning into life-long friendships.
- Understand the difference between privacy vs. secrecy – setting healthy boundaries is essential in every aspect of our lives. Deciding when, where, and with whom to share our infertility journey is a crucial aspect of practicing those healthy boundaries. Understanding the difference between privacy and secrecy can help with making decisions you won’t regret. Privacy is healthy – your challenges and your feelings around those challenges are your own. In our social media driven culture, over-sharing can easily be confused with authenticity. Don’t feel pressured to share your most intimate life details with just anyone. Decide who you trust, not only to not broadcast what you share, but also with your feelings. Who in your life is empathetic? Who can listen without passing judgment or trying too hard to “fix” something they can’t fix? These are the people who are safe to share with. Everyone else may have the best of intentions, but if they don’t feel safe to share private information with, it’s ok to keep things general or even change the subject when they inquire about your plans around family building. On the other hand, secrecy can be detrimental to your emotional health. Secrecy is a common response to shame – the feeling that you are deeply flawed and there is something “wrong” or “bad” with you or with what you are going through. When we experience shame, a common response is to go into hiding. We cut out even the safest people in our lives and this only adds to our feelings of isolation and despair. If you are struggling with shame and secrecy around your infertility challenges, it’s a good idea to reach out to a professional therapist or support group to help you recognize that while this may be a deeply painful time in your life, you are not alone and you are still worthy of love and belonging.
- Remember who you are outside of infertility – The desire to have a child is a primal one. For many of us, it’s been a part of our life plan since we were very young. That’s why the inability or struggle to conceive can easily take over our lives and become all-consuming. But it’s important to nurture other aspects of our lives and remember that we are so much more than our diagnosis. It’s tempting to take a pass on promotions, give up hobbies, lose our sense of humor, and/or neglect our relationships and our health – all in the name of a singular devotion to the goal of having a child. But keep in mind that however you achieve parenthood in the end – and there are many options (we will cover this in future posts) – you will be responsible for actually parenting that child. And parenting is best achieved by giving your whole, well-rounded self to your child. If you forget who you are outside of infertility, you will have less to offer your child when he or she finally arrives!
- Protect your emotional energy – When you are experiencing sadness and anger over failed treatments and prolonged childlessness – attending baby showers, children’s birthday parties, or looking at what seems like the millionth birth announcement or family photo in your Facebook newsfeed can drain what little emotional reserves you have left. It’s important to give yourself permission to participate – and not participate – as you are able and without guilt. This may mean saying “yes” to a baby shower when you are in a good place emotionally and “no” to one when you are overwhelmed. It may mean taking a break from social media if it drains you and using that time to connect more deeply with your tribe to help you fill your emotional reserves. Realize that not everyone will understand. Forgive them and move on. Value the people in your life who do understand. Infertility is often a marathon and not a sprint. Protecting your emotional energy is imperative to keep you from burning out in the long-run.
- Give people the benefit of the doubt. While infertility affects 1 in 8 couples, that also means 7 in 8 couples can achieve and sustain pregnancy with little or no effort. That likely means a lot of people in your life have very little understanding of what you are going through physically, financially, and emotionally in order to build a family. These people may say or do things that feel incredibly insensitive from time to time. Realize that, with very few exceptions, most people would never do or say insensitive things intentionally. If you do get insensitive comments from close friends or family members, vent about it to your tribe, spouse, and therapist (a great way to let off steam without hurting anyone’s feelings) and then choose to either let it go or perhaps use it as an opportunity to educate those closest to you. Whatever you choose, do it with love. Not just for their benefit, but yours as well. It’s a lot easier to live life from a place of love than resentment.
- Practice Self Care. Don’t fall into the trap of wishing and waiting for others – your spouse, your friends, your family – to care for you during this time. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself. Set aside time for yourself to take a walk, go for a run, write in a journal, spend time in prayer or meditation, laugh with a friend, practice your faith, get a massage, take a class, schedule an appointment with a therapist specializing in infertility, and/or spend time in nature. It doesn’t matter what your form of self-care looks like, just do it. And make sure it leaves you in better place emotionally and physically than when you started. Think of self-care as putting gas in the tank for the long road ahead.
- Cultivate Gratitude. Last but definitely not least, make gratitude a part of your daily practice. Research shows that practicing gratitude can actually rewire our brains for health and happiness. And both health and happiness are what are at stake when traveling the road of infertility and family building. Sometimes the pain of infertility can be all-consuming and it can be difficult to find things to be grateful for. It’s helpful to keep a journal and force yourself to write a list, every day, sometimes multiple times a day, of even the smallest things that deserve your gratitude – a good cup of tea, not breaking down in tears at work today, the smell of jasmine in bloom – it all counts. When practiced consistently, you will find that feeling grateful gives you the energy you need to not only survive, but thrive, in difficult circumstances.
Mandy Persaud is a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in College Park, a distinct neighborhood in Orlando, Florida. She and her husband have personally traveled the road of infertility, including endometriosis, diminished ovarian reserve, and multiple failed IVFs, and had their first child via egg donation.