Do you remember when you first decided to start trying to conceive and it was a sweet little secret between you and your spouse? Or maybe you told just a close friend or two. It was such a big decision to start to try, what if it worked on the first time!? Oh all those innocent thoughts.
But after a few months (or years) of failed attempts, you start to swirl into isolation with the disappointment. You don't want anyone to know you have failed another attempt. Did you notice those words "you have failed"? Yes, these are the words women tell me in counseling. They equate not getting pregnant as a personal failure. And often times it doesn't feel like just a personal failure, but a failure as a woman. These words make me shudder every time I hear them.
It turns out that as humans we really identify with our reproductive parts. If you think of a man with ED, you might think he'd be depressed, not wanting to talk to anyone about it, embarrassed, and isolating himself. And when your reproductive parts aren't working, you do the same thing. It isn't really a conscious decision, but for most people, our working parts tell us who we are in the world. When women can't conceive we take it personally and experience deep personal shame because of it. Shame has a way of making people hunker down and alone to "try harder" which just doesn't work when it comes to getting pregnant.
Many women I see in therapy for infertility have previously been able to identify themselves by their ability to succeed in life, go after their dreams, and get what they want. Infertility is often the first "failure" they experience. Feeling like a failure is miserable and embarrassing so women often don't want to disclose their infertility to anyone else. Infertility is not your fault. There is nothing you did on purpose to make it so you couldn't conceive. Women wonder if they are being "punished" for their abortions earlier in life. And I honestly believe it just doesn't work that way.
Your reproductive parts are a part of your body composition. If you had a problem with another part of your body, such as your spleen, you wouldn't take it personally, right? You would go to a professional and get help with it. The problem wouldn't identify your capabilities as a woman in the world. But infertility does this to women. One thing I have people try is to practice talking about the problem differently. Instead of saying "I failed again this month" say "It didn't work this month." The statements essentially mean the same thing, but it is helpful for you to not identify the nonsuccess as something you did.
Of course in order to practice changing your language you have to have someone you are talking to about this! There is such a string of dramatic experiences throughout trying to conceive that it becomes nearly impossible to go it alone. I've seen in my infertility counseling practice that women come to me because they have no one else they feel like they can talk to about it. When we really start to dig about why, we find all sorts of things going on.
When you go through the list of people you have to talk to about difficult stuff in your life, you realize that they just don't get it. Your best friend got pregnant on their first try, your coworker isn't in a relationship, your mom can't quite understand IVF or fertility treatments and has judgments about the cost or thinks you should "just adopt."
For maybe the first time in your life, you find yourself needing support for an issue that no one you know personally can help you with. Therefore you may have to try things you've never tried before, or perhaps had judgments about in the past. Online support groups, web forums, YouTube videos, self-help books, journaling and counseling are all ways you might start to look for someone who gets it. As we get older our lives diversify. When you're 14 you and all your friends are likely having many overlapping problems. But decades later you have to start to use your own list of contacts to determine who may be best suited to talk to about certain problem going on in your life. If you're having relationships issues you might call the friend you know had successfully been in couples counseling, not your unmarried friend. If you're having a problem at work with your boss you probably won't call your friend who just got laid off. You are becoming more and more unique with each experience you have, which means the ways you seek support must become unique along with you.
And, getting familiar with diversifying the ways you seek help will come in handy for all the others stuff that happens in the future. You are not all set. You never will be! When you think back to who you were 10 years ago, she's pretty different than the person you are now. Your 10 years from now self will continue to be amazed at who you've become. And 10 years from then and so on and so on. When we can welcome the fact that our experiences change us, we can open up and allow ourselves to be flexible enough to bend in the wake of whatever difficulties await us.
If you're reading this you've discovered that your infertility secret is gnawing a hole in you from within. Infertility is a health crisis. As with any other health concern you would not keep it a secret, you would find the right person to talk to about it. And now you also know that not everyone gets it. It may take some trial and error to find someone who does get it, but the pay off will be immense.
Allison Ramsey is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and fertility counseling specialist in the Asheville area. She’s a member of Resolve, The Infertility Association and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Contact her to start feeling better.