One of the toughest things about infertility treatment is that often it is a test of endurance rather than speed, a marathon rather than a sprint. If it were an intense, but brief experience, you could take a leave of absence from work, put other projects and people on hold, and hunker down to get through the crisis. But it is the chronic, seemingly unending nature of infertility that makes it so difficult to deal with.
Even if you would like to, it’s impossible to put everything on hold for an extended period of time. And yet the infertility experience can be so all consuming, that, when combined with the various demands of daily life, you can easily feel completely overwhelmed. Add to this the side effects of medications, the anxiety, depression, the misunderstandings you may have with your partner, and everyday living feels all but impossible.
Your loved ones and co-workers may have all sorts of suggestions for how to make life easier, most of which completely miss the mark, or are simply ridiculous. “Oh, just don’t think about it.” “Why don’t you take up a hobby?” “You have to distract yourself.” “Just live life as if it is normal.” “Just relax.” “Go on a romantic weekend with your partner.” All of these are well intentioned and completely misinformed interventions and will likely leave you feeling worse, not better. But how do you cope during this difficult time? How do you keep from just crawling under your bed for the duration? How do you keep living your life when it feels as if your life is on hold? Interestingly, the answer lies not only outside yourself, but inside as well. Infertility and its treatment inflict a massive blow to self-esteem and self-confidence. People often define themselves by their infertility, forgetting, or not fully believing, that it is a medical condition, not a character flaw.
So part of maintaining your connection with life is to recognize that you are more than your reproductive organs; conception is not a skill that you have failed to master. Knowing this, and believing it, helps to create a balance between the parts of yourself that have to deal with infertility, and the rest of yourself that needs and wants to live fully. It reminds you that you have many other aspects to who you are—your personality, your interests, your relationships, your work. Infertility is but one part of your life experience and one part of your identity.
It is also helpful to recognize that it is virtually impossible to “just relax…not think about it…etc.” Trying to do so takes enormous energy and is often counter-productive – so don’t fight your feelings. Having compassion for yourself actually helps you defuse the turmoil and self-judgment you may be experiencing. If you are having a bad day, accept it, ride it out, and know that tomorrow will come. If you don’t feel like seeing a friend or family member, give yourself permission to stay home. If you and your partner are at odds, acknowledge that you are both stressed, and that you will work out the issue later when you are both less agitated. If you need to talk, and your partner is unavailable (either physically or emotionally), call a friend, a family member, or a therapist. And actually, some of the suggestions people may make can be helpful, IF you do them, not with the expectation that you will feel fine, but simply as a means of coping, of passing the time. It is the pressure to feel, act, and be ‘normal’ that is so burdensome and unrealistic during this time. That does not mean, however, that going to the movies, or shopping with a friend, or out to dinner with your partner, can’t provide a bit of respite and be a brief break from your stress. Just don’t expect it to be as “fun” as everyone else wants it to be.
The other snag in the fabric of life during this time is how to plan more than a day at a time, given the demands of treatment. You may find yourself not wanting to take a promotion, a vacation, or even a class “just in case it works next time.” The feeling of being chronically suspended in life can be very debilitating, however, and undermine your sense of self.
While the nature of the job change, or vacation, or class can be taken into consideration, it is important to allow yourself to make these plans. Recognize that you can always change your mind later. If you’ve just started a new job, and you do get pregnant, you and your employer will deal with that just as anyone would have to. If you worry that you will have to cancel a trip, make the reservations, and buy trip insurance to relieve that anxiety. If you start a class, remember that you can withdraw if necessary—your doctors can support you in this by writing letters on your behalf.
The main point is, nothing is carved in stone, and you, like everyone, will make adjustments to your plans as needed. This applies to financial decisions as well. People often feel that they must put every penny toward their treatment, and deny themselves important self-supporting experiences. So even if money is tight, set aside some amount, any amount, to use on other enriching aspects of life. One of the most difficult losses experienced by infertility patients is the loss of control. You have no control over your body, your doctors take over your sex life, your future feels like it’s up for grabs. Acknowledging your feelings, being gentle with yourself, giving yourself permission to be in whatever state you are in, and allowing yourself to make plans are all ways that you can take back a sense of control. Countering the sense of helplessness created by infertility can help you reestablish your sense of self as a whole person whose identity goes far beyond your medical problems.
About the Author: Martha O. Diamond, PhD, received her doctorate from the University of Michigan after completing her undergraduate work at Radcliffe and Stanford. Dr. Diamond is a co-founder and director of the Center for Reproductive Psychology in San Diego, California, and is co-author of Unsung Lullabies, Understanding and Coping with Infertility. She has presented nationally and internationally on the psychology of the reproductive process.
Copyright © 2011 Center for Reproductive Psychology, www.reproductivepsych.org. Reprinted with permission.