Infertility Support

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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!

Control and Victimization

Let’s talk about control–who has it, and who does not. When individuals feel they have control over themselves and their lives that’s called an internal locus of control in the psychological literature. Those who see and feel that the world controls them have what is called an external locus of control.  Think about it like an  internal-external (I-E) continuum, rather than a this-or-that set of black and white choices. Internal control (IC) refers to the belief that events are contingent on individual actions and that people can shape their own fate. External control (EC) refers to the belief that events occur independently of an individual’s actions and that the future is determined more by chance and luck.

In the U.S., research finds that high internality correlates with attributes highly valued by U. S. society, such as mastering one’s environment, superior coping strategies, higher achievement motivation, etc.  Other research on generalized expectancies of locus of control suggests that non-white folks, socio-economically disadvantaged people, and women score significantly higher on the external end of the locus of control continuum. Using the I-E dimension as a criterion of mental health would mean that people of color, females, and poor people would be viewed as possessing less desirable attributes.

The problem with an unqualified application of the I-E dimension is that it fails to take into consideration the different cultural and social experiences of the individual. While the framework from which the I-E dimension is derived may be very legitimate, it seems plausible that people of color, women, and the poor have learned that control operates differently in their lives relative to how it operates for more privileged sectors of society. Powerlessness may be defined as the expectancy that a person’s behavior cannot determine the outcomes or reinforcements they seek. A strong possibility exists that externality may be a function of a person’s opinions about prevailing social institutions.

And telling minorities, women, the mentally ill, and the poor to just “pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” doesn’t help much, though it seems to have helped Seth, and more power to him.  In point of fact, power is something he already has quite a lot of as a college-educated, white Mormon male that is upper middle class (just guessing, given he has enough resources to go on a LITERAL odyssey).   If the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps rhetoric really worked for everyone, we’d have racism and sexism SOLVED.   Instead, systemic, structural responses to aid those who have not had access to the kind of power Seth does have often proven more helpful.  For example, the home state of Seth’s faith, Utah, just did an amazing thing to reduce homelessness.  Did they just give folks two spoonfuls of “You CAN CHANGE!” motivational speeches? Nope.   The state reduced homelessness by 74% in 8 years by simply giving homeless people an apartment and a case worker, and asking questions later.    Now that’s empowerment.

Let’s all be a little gentler with ourselves and each other:  agency is contextual, it depends on your environment, beliefs that abusers, racism, sexism, etc have molded onto you, and, of course, poverty.   Unpacking all those restraints on agency isn’t as easy as “snap out of it, you’re in control!”  It takes time and resources.  And at the same time, I’m all for folks unpacking their privilege as well.  I highly recommend this oldie-but-goodie on how to do that, here.   This is tough stuff, folks.  But it is also necessary if we want a more empathic, compassionate society and communities.

Let Your Husband Love You: And Be Yourself

Express yourself, or quietly suppress and let your man love you:  a Victorian false dichotomy.  It’s human to feel like crap, because parenthood is tough, tough stuff.   In my clinical opinion, the last thing a woman needs who is battling feelings of self-worth and exhaustion, authentically displaying it to her husband is to “suck up your pride, your anger, your frustration, and your crazy.”  

I recommend authenticity and processing.  And depending on the situation, therapy.   Irritability and feelings of worthlessness, along with not enjoying the things you used to enjoy (like, sex or spending time with your partner) are hallmark symptoms of depression and/or anxiety.  A counselor can help appropriately diagnose and get you the help you need to feel better end enjoy your relationships more.    Perhaps, if the original post brought up a ton of guilt or shame, considering scheduling an appointment with a counselor.  At the very least, I recommend processing your feelings about the post with an empathic friend or your partner.   You’re not alone. It’s normal to want to be real in your own home and the thought of sucking it up and pretending everything’s coming up roses feels either:  a) exhausting, b) anxiety provoking, c) guilt-inducing.

A counselor can also help process how current relational dynamics are working/not working for you.

To be specific, this post seems to highlight how very black and white division of labor between home and career just doesn’t work for so many.  It will work for some, I acknowledge that, but far too often after a few years of this set-up something’s gotta give:  and all too often its the wife who “sucks it up.”  Usually men work toward their careers, women work at home.  This is not the kind of post to argue which is better for men and women:  only the individual can decide that (P.S.  End Mommy Wars!).   I’m only here to gently suggest that reassessment at some point between the couple on how to help each other (whether it’s doing more housework or meal preparation together, husbands taking the *entire* evening/night shift–rather than a 1-2 hour “break” for mom, supporting mom if she really wants to go back to school or work outside the home) is beneficial.

So I talked a little about processing above (with your partner and perhaps a counselor).  Let me just end a little on a note of authenticity.  First, my own:  I completely resonated with her exhaustion with my 2 babies 18 months apart.  Some won’t though, and that deserves mention.  Men and women who have carved out work and home in different ways won’t relate much at all, and that should be acknowledged.   Given that caveat,  I personally can very much relate to how smelling like vomit, being climbed all over all day can be soul-crushing.  Of course I haven’t believed my husband when he compliments me.  And yes, I could say “thank you” more often.  But there’s nothing wrong with speaking your mind, with processing how you’re REALLY feeling. Lots of women have been trained since they were children to keep words and actions in pretty-mode.  I imagine the author of this article did, too, as highlighted in her comments:  “Dude, I so get it. It was such an eye opener for ME when I stepped outside of myself and saw what my man comes home to sometimes. Not pretty.”   I totally did it when I was younger.  In college, I remember dating some guy who even said after a few months, “you know, I wish you’d express more how you were really feeling–I want you to vent, express, be REAL with me.”  And I did, and I married him, dear reader.  Best decision I’ve ever made.

I emphatically and unequivocally support being yourself, expressing yourself.   Let your partner love you AND be real.  It’s not an either/or, folks.   Personally, I don’t want to be adored/pedestaled.   I prefer to be loved, as myself–exactly the way I am, feelings and all.