Do you remember when you decided to start a family? The excitement and anticipation is palpable.
But for many people, what was supposed to be a seemingly easy and natural occurrence of getting pregnant proves to be a challenge. Month after month, letdown after letdown, couples finally decide to seek out medical advice on why they aren't getting pregnant as planned. And so begins the largely misunderstood and still taboo experience of infertility and its unique stressors.
If you have not been through infertility, you are probably completely unaware of the toll it takes on families. Whether it's a couple's first child, or they're dealing with secondary infertility (meaning they have already had a child but can't seem to have another), the stress and strain, both physically and emotionally, affects everyone.
WATCH: What no one tells you about infertility. Story continues below.
Some women undergoing fertility treatments face multiple, invasive medical procedures, ranging from from daily self-injections to full-out surgeries (yes, plural) and more. Their hormone balances are artificially manipulated, which affects mood and a multitude of other body functions. Enduring multiple miscarriages is painfully common.
As if the physical stressors weren't enough, infertility is a highly emotional affair. People can feel a sense of responsibility to conquer their infertility and make a baby. When the reason for the infertility is unknown, there is a feeling of having no control. Loss of control of one's life can be panic-inducing.
Stress, isolation and guilt are common
There seems to be no bandwidth left to attend to much else. For parents who already have a child, the distraction of infertility can leave them feeling guilty for not being as attentive or attuned to the children they have. Intimacy can suffer, as love-making switches from being a fun night of pleasure to a job that needs to be done.
Isolation and guilt deepens over time as other friends and co-workers go on to announce their pregnancies, have baby showers, and enter motherhood. While happy for others, it makes the pain more acute and so avoiding those people just seems easier. Sometimes, friendships are lost forever.
Even at work, the secrecy is a burden, as you make up interesting excuses for why you have yet another appointment and are taking more time off work. And just when you're not sure you can handle this unabated stress anymore, someone says, "You would get pregnant if you would just relax."
WATCH: What NOT to say to someone who's had a miscarriage. Story continues below.
That is NOT helpful.
The reality of infertility is that it is going to be stressful. While we can't promise to eliminate the stress, there are ways to improve your own self-care and reduce the stress and suffering so it feels more manageable.
1. Find your people
Build a community of support with others who are facing this same challenge. Whether that's connecting over coffee with the other people you meet in the waiting room at clinics or online through social media, find others who know what you are feeling and going through.
2. End the secrecy
You don't have to tell the whole world, but decide who amongst your close family and friends you can share what is happening in your world, so you can call on them for support. Same goes for work. Even if you don't have a close relationship with your co-workers or boss, when you let a few people know the issues you're working with, they'll be on your support team, too.
3. Knowledge is power
Many people find reading and researching about infertility helps them feel more empowered. With the treatments, everything is done to you. But with researching, you are the one in the active role of actually doing something.
Plus, learning about the complexities of infertility can also help make the journey feel less personal. It's not about you, per se. It's a million factors that all have to align just so and it's really a miracle anyone has a baby, when you think about it.
4. Put yourself first
What do you need? It's OK to put yourself first and let others do their own emotional caregiving. If you think it will disappoint someone because you are opting for a good night sleep instead of going to a friend's dinner party — let them be disappointed.
If you don't want to put on a fake smile and choke back tears at your niece's first birthday party, tell your sister you can't come, that you're not up for it. Tough if she doesn't understand, but that's on her, not you.
5. Be a friend ... to yourself
We are our own worst enemies at the best of times, and even more so when we are up against a challenge. It's helpful to step outside of yourself and ask, "What would I be saying to a friend in this position?" "If this was me talking to one of the other people in my Facebook infertility group, what would I say to her?"
Be as kind to yourself as you would to others. Self-support is a skill we can hone if we practice.
6. Don't forget about the basics
In your focus on your fertility, don't neglect the basics, like a good night sleep, eating well, exercise, and even meditation and regular massages. I'd probably throw in some mani-pedis myself just for good measure. If that morning cup of coffee is the joy of your life — have it. If a glass of wine adds to a perfect date night — have it.
And the final bit of encouragement I will share from talking to parents who had happy endings to their infertility is that they wanted others to know just how much easier it made parenting. When you are up five times a night breastfeeding, or have a colicky child, you just seem to roll with it graciously, so damn happy they are alive and that you are finally a parent to this miracle.
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