(Image courtesy of the author.)
It happened all the time in the first few years of infertility. Well-meaning friends and family would hear that my husband and I were going through struggles to get pregnant and wanted to reassure us.
“It will happen when you least expect it.”
“My cousin’s best friend was having trouble, and she went on vacation and got pregnant! You just need to relax.”
“Try not think about it.”
Their comments gutted me.
On some level, I got where they were coming from. Having babies was just something you did. You wanted a baby, so you had sex, and then you got pregnant. For most of the population, this was a normal thing. Infertility — not being able to get pregnant after old-fashioned sex in a set amount of time— makes others uncomfortable, but in all honesty, their reassurances only made me feel worse.
Fortunately, I’m not alone. According to Dr. Tamar Gur, a maternal-fetal psychiatrist at Ohio State University, these kinds of comments are dismissive and minimizing of a woman’s or couple’s feelings. “There’s this idea that if you were better equipped mentally, this wouldn't be bothering you at all,” she explains, “We wouldn't say [these things] to a marathoner, or someone training for the Olympics. If you're facing your life's challenge and someone says, ‘Oh don't stress out about it,’ it just basically throws that all away. Even if the intention is positive, the result is understandably devastating.”
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It was devastating. Every comment, while given through a kind smile, made me feel like I was broken. And worse, that this was all in my head. The negative pregnancy tests, the failed cycles, the intense stress in our marriage. Because somehow I felt like if I weren’t so freaking uptight about trying to get knocked up, it would have happened for me already.
The anxiety that a woman experiences while going through infertility is on par with women who undergo cancer treatments or other serious medical conditions. It wasn’t all in my head, as I later found out. It turned out my eggs were pretty subpar, and I had this pesky genetic mutation that might have been the cause of my miscarriages. Not because I was stressed. Not because I was thinking too much about it, or that my reproductive system could get a reboot if only I took that Mexican vacation back then.
All the relaxing in the world didn’t get me pregnant.
What finally did was an IVF cycle using donor eggs, baby aspirin, three different supplements, pills being inserted into every orifice of my body, daily blood thinner injections, and a team of doctors using state-of-the-art technology. I was failing to get pregnant not because I was trying too hard, but because I had a medical condition. One that may not be recognized by my insurance company, but a medical condition all the same. And yes, I was stressed. Infertility was the most stressful thing I’ve ever gone through. It tested my marriage, it broke us financially, and I’m continuing to heal from the whole thing after some wicked post-traumatic stress.
It doesn’t matter how put-together you are, Dr. Gur says, “You would still have met your match when it comes to infertility, because you’re going after one your deepest, greatest wishes and facing your ultimate fears of not succeeding every single day, day in and day out, potentially for months or years at a time.”
You might think these statements are supportive, but as someone who went through six years of infertility and who’s now in therapy for it, I’m telling you, please stop telling people struggling to get pregnant that they need to just relax. Please.
Ask them what they need. Ask them how you can support them.
Take them out for pizza and wine or a girls’ weekend. When all else fails, just tell them how hard this must be for them. Tell them you’re there for whatever they need. But don’t reassure them. Don’t tell them to not think about it, because believe me, they’re thinking about it every second of every day. They’re under an enormous amount of stress. You’re words, no matter how well-meaning you think they are, aren’t going to help.
It was a relief for my husband and me when we started our first IVF cycle. I think by that time, people were beginning to recognize that with all this medical intervention we were doing, something was probably going on with more than just being anxious about conceiving. It was a messed up sort of win for me, feeling like I had to prove there was a tangible reason I wasn’t getting and staying pregnant and feeling the success when the daily shots were prescribed, and the comments stopped coming. It wasn’t a good place for me to be in.
What did help were the people in my life who walked beside me, offering their time and attention and yes, the occasional night out with pizza and wine. And to them, I’m forever grateful for. They made the darkest period in my life easier to bear. They made me feel like I wasn’t alone. Which when I think back on that, was exactly what I needed.