8 Strategies for Surviving Infertility
Oh, high school self, if you only knew what was coming around the corner.
Yep, that's me with the lion-like hair and the queenly sash. I cringe when I look at this picture now. I'm well aware of today's beauty pageant rep and would not likely encourage one of my daughter's to become a contestant. It is worth taking a moment, however, to consider my naivete at this point in my teenage life. I had faced very few challenges and didn't spend a whole lot of time thinking about the ones that might lie ahead. Less than a decade later, I would be in the throes of full-fledged infertility treatment, each month turning a new page of grief and uncertainty and feeling very much alone.
Now that I am on the other side of that journey, I realize how very caught up I was in the whole thing. I wish I had had someone (someone besides my therapist!) to come alongside me at the time and insert the truth into the pack of lies that were running rampant inside my head. All I can do now is to share what I learned with you...and pray that you will hold onto hope, dear reader, in your struggle. Let me assure you that there is every reason to hold to it tightly and experience peace in the waiting.
8 Strategies for Surviving Infertility
1. Focus on the other things that made you "you" long before infertility came along
When Mark and I were going through waiting and treatments and more waiting, the "infertile" part of me became the whole me. I was just one large, walking label that read "broken" and "defective" and I spent a whole lot of my time believing that lie. My life became more manageable when I stopped seeing myself from that skewed perspective and took time to honor the other parts of me, which -- in truth -- made up much more of me than the infertile part. I started celebrating the "worship leader" me and the "teacher" me and the "photographer" me and the "loving wife, sister, daughter, friend" me.
Your God-given gifts do not disappear just because one thing is not working right. You'll feel a whole lot more positive if you wear this truth like the comfortable and protective garment that it is.
2. Allow yourself to celebrate holidays in new and different ways
I will never forget the family Christmas party after our last failed fertility treatment when my cousin, Tracy, announced, “OK, all moms with kids go through the buffet line first!” I was the only woman of my generation at the party who failed to meet Tracy’s criteria and made a swift trip to the bathroom to avoid dampening the festivities with my blubbering.
During holidays, family and friends will expect you to celebrate with them in the same ways you have in the past. Regardless of the celebration, most of your loved ones will truly believe hanging out with them is the best thing for you and you certainly don’t want to offend. However, holidays can be devastating to the couple experiencing infertility and they are no time to spare other people’s feelings at the expense of your own. As much as Grandma or your BFF want to support you, they have no idea what it’s like to be walking in your shoes. Like most people, they are simply blind to the many ways holiday gatherings can pierce the heart of those trying to conceive.
This is a time for you and your spouse to create new traditions. It is ok to kindly turn down the Easter party and egg hunt invitation to take a hike together, instead. Likewise, it is fine to forgo the Mother’s Day church service and family gathering afterward to enjoy a therapeutic comedy or action film with your husband. Take some time to tell those closest to you about your alternative plans. The people who love you will show support, regardless of whether they grasp the nature and intensity of your grief. They will recognize this stage of your life as temporary and that happier times will likely allow you to rejoin traditional celebrations in years to come.
3. Throw yourself a limited-time-only pity party
This may sound obvious, but feelings demand to be felt. As much as you might like to send your anger and sadness on the fast train to Timbuktu, ignoring them will not make them go away. On the other hand, these feelings might just set up permanent residence if you allow yourself to wallow in them 24-7. Instead, take 10 minutes a day to dwell on the unfairness of infertility. To curse your current state, to cry, and to ask why. Then, pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and go on with your day, taking time to count the positive things in your life. Perhaps you have a fulfilling job, a supportive husband, or a friend who understands you. Whatever your blessings, there are sure to be many. Don’t let infertility steal these from you.
4. Grieve over real losses
I have three babies in heaven and, even though I never held my little ones or rocked them to sleep, they were the ones who first made me a mama. An early miscarriage or loss of a baby later in pregnancy are real causes for grief and must be marked and remembered as such. Plant a tree or place a garden stone in a prominent place in your yard. Write a poem or keep a memory journal. Light a candle, say a prayer and remember. Give yourself time to cry. Take time to honor the small life that was lost and to say goodbye.
5. Stay away from energy drainers
During our infertility struggle, pretty much every one of my friends and family members close in age experienced pregnancy, childbirth, and becoming a mother. Many of these women knew of my distress and steered away from painful topics, such as their baby’s feeding schedules and newest milestone, when we were together. Other women not so much.
I had a few friends who insisted on toting their purse-size baby brag books everywhere (this was before smart phones) and leafing through the pages, stopping to give me a play-by-play analysis of each and every dimpled and drool-laden photo. As much as I loved (and still love) these friends, I learned they could not be trusted with my fragile spirit during this painful time. You must learn early on who in your circle of friends is going to drain your energy and who is going to lift you up. Avoid the first group as much as possible and hold tightly to the second. And, while you’re at it, try to include a fellow struggler in your circle. You’ll be grateful for the relief found in not having to explain your sorrow and in the deep fellowship fostered by your common experience.
6. Steer the conversation
When word gets out that you’re trying to have a baby, it’s time to brace yourself for well-meaning friends and family members who want to hear the gory details of your struggle. They will ask plenty of questions, like: What type of testing have you done? What’s wrong with you? Is the problem with you or your husband? How many times do the two of you have to do it in a week? How are the little fellas swimming? Are you pregnant yet? What treatment are you going to try next?
Very much akin to this line of questioners are the advice-givers, ready with a long list of ideas and procedures you should try. Many of these folks have experienced a relatively short period of waiting (a few months up to a year) before blissfully achieving pregnancy and they are nearly certain their chosen methods will work for you!
The best strategy for dealing with this line of questioning and advice is to change the subject. Ask your friend/acquaintance about her recent vacation or bring up your promotion at work. Discuss a new hobby/exercise plan/TV series/recipe you’ve discovered. Most people are genuinely trying to help and will get your not-so-subtle hint. If not, refer to #5.
7. Hand over the balloons
Despite what you may see as evidence to the contrary, God truly is in control and he knows what he’s doing. We like to think we are the masters of our own destinies until we hit a brick wall like infertility, which makes us painfully aware of our own helplessness. You cannot handle this roller coaster ride alone and white knuckling every moment of the journey will steal your joy and your peace of mind.
Picture your infertility worries as a bouquet of balloons with names: unforeseen test results, miscarriage, negative pregnancy test, upcoming procedure, cost of treatment, uncertain future. Now, imagine reaching toward the sky and handing over each balloon, one by one, to God. Your heavenly father does not expect you to carry this burden and waits for you to willingly let go of the pain, bitterness, worry, and loss. He’s got this.
From time to time, you’ll find that you’ve reclaimed one or more of your balloons, taking them on as your responsibility. When this happens, take a deep breath and hand these burdens back over to God. You can trust him to lovingly care for them and to fill your heart and mind with peace as you continue to walk through each day, eventually arriving at a new and more hopeful place.
8. Envision the future
One of the most comforting and helpful ideas I contemplated in therapy was that, although I had stopped being able to imagine having a baby to hold after years of failed treatment, God already held my little ones in his arms. He knew exactly what they looked like. The texture of his hair and the color of her eyes. The smell of her neck and the sound of his cry. The thought that my babies were already in existence in God’s mind comforted me and helped to bridge the gap until they would be placed in my aching arms, finally an affirmative answer to so many years of earnest and desperate prayers.
Have no doubt. Whether your baby is birthed from your womb or yours through the gift of surrogacy or adoption, God already knows her this very second. He knows the exact moment your prayers will be answered no longer “wait”, but “yes”. And he holds both you and your baby in the palm of his hand. Rest in the knowledge that the timing will be exactly as it should be and that, believe it or not, your infertility struggle will seem like a blip on life’s screen once you face the day to day blessings and challenges that come with being a parent.