Infertility is a very distressing and disabling life event. The loss of one’s fertility – the dream of a family – is akin to the loss by death of a loved one. The depression experienced by an infertile couple can linger for years and years.
For most people, having a family is part of the normal process of life: you go to school, grow up, get married, have children, spend years rearing them, retire and watch your grandchildren grow up. The loss of this dream is a devastating experience. We live in a world in which most people fulfil this dream, so infertile people are constantly surrounded by images of children and families – a painful reminder of what they don’t have. Their friends and family members are often having babies at just
the time when they are struggling with the realisation that they cannot.
You may at some time need to tell your friend or family member about a pregnancy or a new baby – perhaps your own or that of someone close. You will probably feel awkward about it, and they will too. What can you do? Don’t hide it or put it off for too long – tell them, but in a sensitive way, not
in front of a group of people, but perhaps when you are alone together, or by writing them a letter. Realise that the news
will be upsetting for them, and they may react in a way which is strange or uncomfortable for you.
People sometimes feel that their infertility is the ultimate loss of control. Infertility means losing control of your reproductive future. Infertile people often find themselves having to organise their bodies and their lives around a series of investigations and treatment cycles predetermined by a clinic; putting their sex lives and genital organs under scrutiny; being instructed when to have sex and when not to, and how and when to masturbate into a plastic jar; or having to submit to a government department investigation into their worthiness as parents (if they apply to adopt). Infertile people experience this as an awful loss of control. They sometimes become very angry, and may take this anger out on the closest target, which may not always be an appropriate one.
People sometimes say that the emotional “highs” and “lows” experienced during their infertility are like being on a roller coaster. You know how a roller coaster goes – the higher it gets, the worse the fall is? Infertile people sometimes refer
to their experience like this. They may feel themselves
getting carried away on a “high” of optimism as they start
a treatment, or a new course of action (eg. an adoption application). They start to fantasise about prams and christening ceremonies. Then reality hits. They have another period, or the treatment fails, or the adoption social worker starts asking difficult questions. Their feelings are very fragile and they hit “low” with a big crash.
People deal with the emotional impact of their infertility in individual ways, although there are a few common themes:
Depression: It’s normal – and quite OK – for people to feel depressed about their fertility problems, and it’s normal for them to want to avoid contact with people at times.
Avoidance: Don’t be surprised or offended if your friend or family member doesn’t want to spend time with you. If you have a young family or are pregnant, it may be just too painful for them to be confronted with your fertility. Maybe they just want time to be by themselves for a while. Family times such as Christmas, Mother’s and Father’s Days and christenings are particularly difficult times, as they are surrounded by everyone else’s families. They may feel obliged to attend though they feel very uncomfortable. However, don’t stop inviting them. Leave the choice up to them. Let them know that you’d like to see them, but will understand if they don’t want to attend. They need to know that you care, and they may eventually want
to take up some of those invitations. Try not to cut them off, even if you haven’t seen them for some time.
Secrecy: Some people don’t reveal their infertility to anyone, even to close family members. Many choose to tell just a few close people. They might do this because they fear that people will believe the wrong things (eg. That they’re not “doing it” right), say the wrong things (eg. “Borrow my husband for a night – I only have to look at him and I’m pregnant!”) or put them on the spot about it. Some simply believe that it is a very private thing, and no-one else’s business to know. Still others feel too vulnerable and sensitive about it to discuss it with anyone. You should respect your friend’s or relative’s wishes regarding confidentiality.