Many infertile couples have had to set aside their dream of having children. What is the best response when one of them shares such news with you?
A while back I wrote an article, “Sometimes It’s Best to Say Nothing,” that explains what not to say to couples who are dealing with infertility and in that article I also described a little about the struggle my husband and I went through trying to conceive. For about two years we tried to have a baby through the regular, tried and true method. When that failed we spent another two years working with fertility doctors to make it happen. To describe that experience as a nightmare would be an understatement. After spending thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs, getting countless tests done, three failed artificial-inseminations and four failed rounds of in-vitro-fertilization (IVF) procedures, it was time to stop.
Our decision to call it quits was not an easy one. It was not a simple matter of reading a negative pregnancy test, shrugging our shoulders and saying, “Oh well, we give up.” Every woman who has traveled down this road knows the devastation of receiving that call from the fertility clinic—after a grueling two-week wait you were first inseminated—telling you that the pregnancy test you took that morning is negative.
And, no, the word “devastation” is not an exaggeration. The National Infertility Association describes the experience an infertile couple endures (especially the woman) as very similar to grief over the loss of a loved one. Now imagine experiencing that type of bereavement on a monthly basis. When a late family member dies, you know that person is not coming back. You experience and work through the different stages of grieving and eventually move forward with your life. The loss is still there, but you’ve made peace and have adjusted to living with it. Infertile couples grieve the loss of a baby that they may never know. The next month comes along and their hopes are raised that they will conceive that baby. Then comes the bad news that they’re not pregnant, followed by the grief,again. No matter how hard you try, there is no preparing yourself for the bad news. Imagine going through this, month after month, year after year.
I’ve known many couples who have been through this same experience but were eventually successful and had that baby for whom they worked so hard. Even after my husband and I made the decision to stop trying, I was still happy to hear those success stories. I know their struggle because I haven’t forgotten mine; sure,I have recovered from it and come to terms with the disappointment, but I haven’t forgotten. (I’ve always assumed that those couples remember the heartache and bitterness that accompanies infertility. That’s not always the case.)
After my husband and I closed that chapter of our lives and even adopted a puppy to help us move on, one of the many emotions we felt was, surprisingly, relief. Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t happy about having to abandon our dream of a Mini-Me or two, but I have to admit that the thought of not having to go through what I described above, plus injecting myself every month with hormones, was quite liberating. Seeing Facebook birth announcements and hearing the latest news of a Teen Mom still sent me into either a depression or a fit of rage, but at least I could start thinking about where we would go on our next vacation and not worry about when my next cycle was starting or when I was ovulating and thus need to pack fifty syringes. I tried my best to look at the positive side.
The problem is that there are many well-meaning people who are overly eager to think of the right things to say to a struggling friend or relative. I was expecting our decision to also mean the ending of well-intended-but-annoying platitudes such as “just relax and it will happen,” “everything happens for a reason,” “you can always adopt,” etc.True, we didn’t have to hear those clichés anymore; but there was more to come.
What many people fail to understand is that when a couple makes the decision to stop trying to conceive, there are other issues they need to deal with aside from “getting over” the fact that they will not have children. Not only have their dreams been dashed, but:
- Their bank account has probably taken a big hit. Not everything is covered by insurance and it’s not cheap, not at all! We were trying holistic treatments such as acupuncture, which as you know insurance does not cover. Then, I’m ashamed to say, there’s retail therapy. Many of us are guilty of this when going through depression. I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m guilty. It didn’t help matters that I was working within walking distance to Coach, Anthroplogie and Manolo Blahnik!
- The hormones the doctor prescribes take an enormous toll on the would-be mother physically, mentally and emotionally and she doesn’t always bounce back from it. I once had an emotional outburst that was so bad I actually hit myself over and over until I bruised. I easily gained about twenty-five pounds, and although I have lost most of the weight, my body has not gone back to the shape it was in before. I also now experience hot flashes on a regular basis, swollen feet, and my menstrual periods are much more difficult and irregular than previously. Sure, I can go on birth control to make my periods more tolerable, but do you really think I want to put more hormones into my body? I think I’ve had my fill.
- The intimacy in their marriage is negatively affected. Does anything I just described put you in a romantic mood?
- Communication within their marriage can start to go downhill as well. While I was going through my issues it never occurred to me that my husband may have been hurting as well. He always wanted to have children and there were times he blamed himself for all of this. Do you think that was relayed to me by him? It eventually was, but not until much later when we were spending less time together and doing a lot less talking. It took several months of therapy and a lot of tears until things got back on track. I feel blessed because I personally know other couples whose marriages did not fare as well as ours and have heard that the divorce rate of infertile couples is three-times higher than that of those who can conceive
Everyone Means Well
Since we’ve gotten over the biggest hurdles—namely, the grief and the marital issues—I’ve been able to discuss everything with friends and relatives without getting worked up to the point where I scare everyone. Still, I’ve been a little surprised by the reaction I’ve gotten from many people once I tell them we’re no longer trying.
One of the responses I get most often is a combination of an enthusiastic, “Well, you never know, it still could happen!” and “Maybe now that you’re not trying so hard it will happen!” I know what you’re thinking right now; the people who say this are trying to be encouraging, trying to be positive, etc. Here’s the thing: we don’t want to hear that. And when I say “we,” I’m not just talking about my husband and me; I’m speaking for all couples in our situation. All of us have been lucky enough to pick up the pieces and move on with our lives. Since then, we’ve managed to set new goals for ourselves, and design new plans for our future. You may not realize it, but by making the statement(s) above, you’re negating all of that.
This is what we hear: “Never mind all of that other stuff you’ve been able to start focusing on, I don’t want to hear about it. It will be great when you have a kid even though you’ve just been through hell and back with no luck.” Those may not be the words coming out of your mouth, but it is still what we hear.
In the past, my knee-jerk response to statements like that was to express how angry I would be if I did get pregnant now. Of course the way I expressed it is a little more colorful than that, but you get the gist. The immediate response from those around me: “Oh, no you won’t. Maybe at first you’ll be mad, but you’ll eventually be happy about it. I know you will!”
Now here are my questions to “you”:
- How do you know that?
- Are you living in my head and heart right now and honestly know what I’m feeling and will be feeling in the future?
- Do you know what kind of financial condition we’re in?
- After what my husband and I have been through, can you honestly say that we are in any way emotionally, mentally and physically able to have a baby?
You never know how these types of experiences affect someone in the long run.
“Why don’t you adopt?” is another common question. Adoption is not as easy as celebrities make it out to be. If we could walk into an agency and make it rain millions of dollars I bet we would have no problem walking out of there with a kid but we’re not Angelina and Brad. The adoption process is extremely expensive, time-consuming (the process can take several years) and it’s just as emotionally draining. It is not for everyone and the last thing an infertile couple needs is to feel guilty about not taking that route.
Here’s the point I’m trying to make: couples who make the decision to stop trying to conceive do not make this decision overnight. They don’t take it lightly. In our case that decision, without a doubt, came down to a matter of self-preservation. This article touched on a lot of what we went through, but it was only the tip of the iceberg, and I know full well that my husband and I were/are not alone.
Whether you realize it or not, it takes courage to say, “It was obviously not in the cards for us. It’s time to move on.” The best thing you can tell someone in a situation like this is that you are happy to see them moving forward with their lives and finding new interests. Chances are that couple is just now coming out of their deep funk and rejoining the living. They want to focus on their new future and are ready to share it with others. Let them do so and show your support the way a true friend/sister/colleague would. After all, it is their decision and their life, not yours, and that empathy implies sensitivity.