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!
Article by Pamela Madsen, 2012
I have watched women assume all responsibility for conception for over 20 years in my role as President and Executive Director for RESOLVE NYC, as the Founder of The American Fertility Association and now in my role as a private fertility coach. I also remember what it was like when I was trying to conceive my own children. It was all about me. I was no different than all of the thousands of women I have talked to for years.
For many women, the decision to get pregnant can take on a life of its own. It was so affirming to see what I know to be true, represented in a new survey conducted for SpermCheck® Fertility. 42% of those who conceived say they became obsessed with getting pregnant once they started trying. Yet just 10% say their partner shared this obsession.
Approximately 7 million couples will experience conception issues and about 50% of these infertility problems will be directly attributed to the male, according to John C. Herr, Ph.D., director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Research in Contraceptive and Reproductive Health; most male infertility problems are mainly due to low sperm count, he adds.
Yet women are typically the ones to take action when conception is slow to happen, often undergoing a battery of sometimes invasive and typically costly testing. While analyzing the male’s sperm count is considered a key first step by infertility specialists – less than one-fifth of men (17%) ever get tested for their sperm count, according to the SpermCheck survey. And just 23% of the women surveyed in the SpermCheck survey who are currently pregnant or who have conceived a child said their partner did everything he could to get himself as healthy as possible before they started trying to conceive.
I think a part of this fear, is that there are a percentage of women (validated through the SpermCheck survey) that fear that their partner will leave them if they don’t get pregnant. Somehow, the assumption is that getting pregnant is her responsibility.
While there is absolutely nothing to be self-conscious about, many men are often reluctant or embarrassed to go to their healthcare provider to take a sperm count test, even if it means that their partner might take it upon herself to start having herself tested and in some cases begin taking fertility treatments.
The SpermCheck survey found that 8 out of 10 women (83%) trying to or planning to conceive say their partner assumes he is fertile, and 43% say their partner would like to know for sure that his sperm count is normal. A much higher number, more than two thirds of women surveyed (67%) say they would like to know their partner’s sperm count is normal when they start trying to get pregnant.
The following are highlights of this survey:
A little less than half (44%) of those trying/planning to conceive are worried that when they actually want to conceive, they won’t be able to because they tried hard for years to avoid pregnancy.
More than half (59%) of those trying/planning to conceive say they won’t tell people they are trying to get pregnant in case it doesn’t happen.
Almost half (49%) of women who took longer than expected to conceive indicated their significant other was not eager to have his sperm count tested.
23% of women who have conceived/trying to conceive would not seek advice or testing for their significant other if it was taking longer than expected to get pregnant.
More than a quarter (27%) of those trying/planning to conceive are embarrassed to discuss fertility with friends and family, and a similar number, 23%, say their partner is uncomfortable discussing male fertility issues.
So, if you are a woman trying to conceive with a man—please know that it’s really not all about you and you are not alone in feeling like it is! When it comes to baby making, it really does take two! Talk about it with your partner, he is way more receptive than you might think. And please—get his sperm count tested before you being any fertility treatment!
Got questions? Ask the Center!