Researchers estimate that 12% of women (or, 1 in 8) at some point in their lives will be diagnosed with infertility. In my experience as a psychologist specializing in infertility and a researcher, this number sounds surprisingly high to the women who are diagnosed, as infertility can be an extremely lonely and isolating experience.
Research shows that the effects of infertility affect the mental health of both men and women, but women are more likely to internalize infertility as “their problem” or “their fault,” even when male-factor infertility is easier to test for and correct for in many cases. Sadly, the woman is often first to seek testing and treatment, even when the process is significantly more invasive, complicated, and painful. Even when the cause is found to be male-factor related, women tend to take the burden of infertility upon themselves and experience significant stress. This is likely due to how our society puts so much emphasis on the importance and joy of motherhood as an integral part of a woman’s identity. Without it, many women feel incomplete and broken. This is especially true (but not exclusive to) women in religious communities.
Infertility can be incredibly stressful, and it’s often a double-hitter: coming to terms with infertility can be both depressing and anxiety-provoking, and then on top of the diagnosis, infertility treatment has also been shown to further complicate existing mental health conditions or introduce them into the client’s life due to the stressful nature of testing, medications, injections, surgeries, and the unknown. It’s very common for the stress of infertility to overwhelm usually-confident and capable women whose life stresses up until that point have been handle-able and surmountable. But the stress of infertility from a myriad of feelings including loneliness, feeling broken, shame, anxiety about the future, feeling out of control, unfulfilled, and judged by family can tip the scales and cause usually-completely capable people be overwhelmed. Mother’s Day, other holidays when you have family gatherings, and baby showers can be especially rough.
Luckily, there’s hope. You are not alone. So many other women (you may already know them) have dealt with or are currently dealing with infertility. Consider joining a support group or opening up to friends you trust, who you know will listen to you without judgment or will dish out “quick fixes” that don’t help (for example: “why don’t you spend more time with your sister’s kids, so you don’t feel like you’re missing out!,” “Have you prayed about it?” “Try this diet, it’ll fix you right up!” “Maybe you should read your scriptures more,” or “it’s ok, even if you’re not a mom in this life, you can be in the next one!”
Regarding the last comment, I don’t mean to invalidate the sentiment for women who the thought of having children in the after-life is comforting to them. In my experience as a psychologist, I have heard a few women for whom, at some point in their life, it brought peace, and I validate their experience. For the vast majority of women I have counseled with and interviewed however, that sentiment brought little comfort in the present life, when feelings are raw and the thought of going through one’e entire life without the ability to conceive is heartbreaking. So to those who have loved ones who come out to you about their fertility journey, my best advice is to create a safe space, reflect their feelings, and avoid simple solutions, as it’s likely your loved one has already heard or considered them. Just let them know how you care about them, and how rough this is. If possible, try to avoid relating an experience in which you tried for 1-3 months to get pregnant before it finally worked, as your loved one may have been trying for years.
More good news for women: new research is discovering that relaxation and mind-body therapy adapted specifically for infertile women not only improved their quality-of-life (so, through stress reduction and addressing depression/anxiety), but also improved fertility rates. Relaxation improves endocrine functioning, and has even been shown to jump-start ovulation in women with irregular cycles or anovulatory. For this post, I’ll keep it brief and do-able, but here are some tips: 1) Take long relaxing walks where you focus your thoughts on what makes you happy, experiences from your past you cherish, or vacations you’d like to take. 2) Look up muscle relaxation exercises to do on yourself or listen to like this one here: mp3s with guided imagery exercises you can download and listen to when you feel stressed are wonderful, 3) join an infertility support group sponsored by your local community, hospital, or fertility treatment practice, 4) Talk to a professional about what is stressing you, especially if you are about to undergo treatment, in the midst of treatment, or don’t know what to do and feeling out of control. In short, take care of yourself, ask your partner, family, or friends for help so that you can focus on what will help you feeling better. This is a great sheet for friends or loved ones who have asked if they can do anything but are feeling at a loss.
If you have any questions, you are welcome to contact me for free support! Just ask the Fertility Shrink!