Why Do We Pretend Away Infertility?

Humans don’t do well with emotional discomfort of any kind. This has been proven time and time again, but no more so than with infertility. It can be traumatizing on many levels, but I guess I didn’t realize how difficult an infertility diagnosis can be on other people.

They just do not want to see it, hear it or talk about it. They prefer to pretend it away.

Are you cured? Boy, I sure hope so because that means I can finally relax.

This universal sigh of relief was made abundantly evident in a recent post called The Magical Cure by Cristy (one of the most eloquent and sensitive infertility bloggers I know). She gave me insight into an experience I never had: sharing news of a pregnancy.

The responses she encountered made me shake my head in disbelief (as did a few of the comments). Cristy writes:

All the sudden, those who were distant are actively trying to enter our lives, wanting to share in the excitement. Yet too often, this excitement is prefaced with people wanting to ignore the past, ignoring the scars that are still very visible. Worse yet are those who are quick to offer the ‘see, you just needed to do X’ or ‘it all worked out for the best.’

Don’t even get me started on the ‘G_d’s will/plan” explanations.

 

Avoidance or denial seems to be society’s preferred way of coping with infertility. You can just hear the thought bubbles forming overhead…

What? Use the experience of watching a friend, family member or colleague confront a difficult diagnosis to reflect on how someone else might wanted to be treated? Instead of my perfected duck and run move you want me to try to understand this prolonged period of infertility uncertainty and loss? You mean you want me to be an adult about it?

Well, yes actually, that would be a nice change of pace.

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It made me wonder how emotionally-stunted people manage with other hard-to-process diseases or unpleasant realities. Apparently, this “pretend the infertility away” syndrome doesn’t just happen when pregnancy occurs, the pattern repeats itself as evidenced by S.I.F. who commented about the radical behavior change she witnessed following her recent adoption.

Since bringing Cheeks home, I have been AMAZED at the people who have suddenly warmed up to me in major ways, after being cold or distant for a long time. It honestly shocked me, but then one of my close friends (who was there for me all along) finally said ‘Those are the people who just didn’t know how to handle your infertility, or how vocal you were about it. Now that you have a baby, they feel like they can be friends with you again.’

Seriously!!?

To use one my favorite Irish expressions, it’s time to give out — and I’m not just aiming this at the fertile world. Some of the worst offenders in perpetuating the myth that babies (or extended travel or therapy or a new outlook) cure infertility reside in the infertility community. If I could assemble all the “curists” in one room, here’s what I’d say:

Life is not a Disney movie, people. Infertility stays with you, always. You survive it. It changes who you are, how you see the world and where you fit in, among other things.

Contrary to conventional wisdom there is no magic formula that delivers TV-talk show closure. There is no tapping our heels together three times and, voilà, cured! The truth is it takes time for the many wounds to heal — and sometimes they re-open. Each of us comes to terms with infertility in our own way, but even that can be complicated by the weird way society expects us to pretend away something that has shaken us to the core. It’s only when we can give voice to our infertility experience and be heard that we can find our north star and move forward.

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One more thing (and this may be a particularly hard concept to accept): children are not the elixir for happiness. Beyond being massively unfair to expect any child to shoulder that burden — making you happy — it’s important to remember that happiness comes from within, as does finding peace with all the messiness of life.

Now back to living and relishing my life (infertility scars and all) — grateful for women like Cristy and others who aren’t afraid to tell it like it us.

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29 thoughts on “Why Do We Pretend Away Infertility?

  1. Thanks for your post. I think that your point about babies not being the ‘cure’ for infertility is really important. I agree that that is too big a burden on them (for those who have a child on this journey) and those wounds will still exist. I had lunch with a good friends mom who had experienced IF 20+ years ago and has two grown children – one from IVF and one adopted. She was in tears at the table just talking about how difficult it had been for them and thats when it hit me – no matter how we resolve, this will still be a big chapter and continuous part of our lives.

    I hope you will elaborate on this point a bite more: “It’s only when we can give voice to our infertility experience and be heard that we can find our north star and move forward.” Are you suggesting that this is the universal treatment (rather than cure)? Obviously for many of us here, writing and talking about IF is very helpful – thats why we blog and write books, etc. But do you think that “being heard” really is the only way everyone can move forward? Are people who are in the closet really never going to be able to move on? Curious about your thoughts!

    1. Appreciate the comment, Kimberly. As for your question, there’s definitely more than one way to move forward, but speaking as one who experienced being in the infertility closet and coming out — I much prefer daylight. Not everyone will want to share their private thoughts and feelings, but for those who do attempt to raise infertility in conversation only to be shut down or ignored there’s a lost opportunity for all — for the person who wants to heard and those who could benefit from a broader understanding of the infertility experience. This topic doesn’t often get a receptive audience, but then neither did breast cancer when people first talked about it.

      I’m not saying it’s easy. We have a long way to go. Many have written to me about being “silenced” … discouraged in their social circles from discussing what happened to them, which only reinforces the stigma and causes further harm by invalidating the individual who craves empathy or support. Best to start with the blogosphere, which has certainly opened up a healthy discussion and provided a platform to share and be heard.

      The more open we are today the more we can clear the way for women and men coming behind us.

    2. Kimberly – interesting story about your friend’s mom. Isn’t that incredible – that after all these years, it is still so painful.

      I want to address your question about whether “being heard” is the only way to move forward. I agree with Pamela – there are no absolutes. However, in my research, every single woman I interviewed talked about and emphasized how helpful it was when they finally found someone (and/or found the courage) to open up to. It was this opening up that made a huge difference, whether it was with one person or many. I think something shifts internally when we say something aloud and have a personal, receptive, and empathic audience.

      Writing and reading blogs and books, and journaling, is incredibly helpful too. But it is this last piece – the live relational component – that can make a huge difference.

      1. And Pamela – thanks for this post. As usual, it left me with a big gigantic smile. :)

      2. Thanks, Dr. Marni! I see now that I was subconsciously recalling your research while writing last night. Glad you can add some first-hand validation here.

      3. Alexicographer

        I’m here via the Roundup (albeit belatedly), and think this is a great post and very helpful comments. All that said, it’s not obvious to me, Dr. Marni, about how broadly we can generalize from your experience? I know nothing about your research (and didn’t find a summary visible on your blog or turn anything up in a quick PubMed search), but without more information it’s hard to know how representative the women you interviewed are of the larger population of people who experience infertility (certainly at most they represent about half the relevant population, i.e., not men). Beyond that, surely we should reasonably ask (and I say this not as a criticism but as someone who does research involving human subjects and who is genuinely interested in the answer) whether individuals willing to participate as human research subjects and be interviewed aren’t already skewed toward those who are willing to/benefit from “opening up.”

        All that said, I absolutely don’t doubt its value to many of those affected and completely agree with Pamela’s and your point about the importance of not constraining dialogue on this topic!

        1. Hi Alexi
          Thanks for contributing to the conversation. You can find a link to Dr. Marni’s research here: http://repository.upenn.edu/edissertations_sp2/20/
          best, Pamela

          1. Alexicographer

            Thanks, Pamela — looks very interesting, I am looking forward to reading it!

  2. Great post (including the fabulous “Warning” at the beginning)! I’m glad you highlighted Cristy’s post, it was such a good one – and perhaps in response there have been a few others on the same issue too.

    I remember reading – in one of the two books about infertility I managed to find about 10 years ago – your exact point. That adoption or babies doesn’t cure infertility. Yet go to almost any infertility blog or messageboard, and you’ll find people who are convinced that “if only they could be pregnant” everything would be alright. And then they get a shock when they find they can’t enjoy pregnancy because they worry right through it, or they get a worse shock when they are hit with post-natal depression, or other issues with being a parent.

    “Children are not the elixir for happiness.” Exactly right. But it is this belief that makes our own situations so hard – because we are surrounded by the myth of modern society that your life will be happy and fulfilled only when you have children. Sigh. Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny indeed!

  3. Yeah, such is the stuff that dreams are made of, – says Hamlet to his friend Horatio upon seeing the ghost of his father…

    It’s a very interesting post. It is succinct with many ideas I hold, and what I think is most prevalent here is the notion that for our emotional bodies to be healthy we need to be heard, understood and accepted for who we are. In the recent times the ideas of the fabric of society, the paradigm of connectivity between people and waves of conscience have been emerging, and I think infertility is one condition that really takes the way we see the world and places the whole picture upside down, asking us like in a Zen koan if we get it now.

    It’s terrifying to share in your darkest secrets with the stranger, but sharing is what lets the light into those dark corners of the soul and cleans the path, and if it’s done authentically, it opens the space for trust, respect and understanding. First time I told someone outside the family that I’m dealing with infertility I almost fainted, I had to drink a jug of water and sit down to recover.

    Every day we see examples of people trying to sweep things under the carpet, it’s easier this way. Just this morning my grandma was so happy to hear from me on the phone, hear my jokes and good spirits, and she tells me to keep it up and not to go into the OTHER SIDE. I tell her, well; the other side is always there, even right now. Imagine, a guy’s leg got blown off and people said they’re sorry and then quickly got tired of the issue. But for this guy this will never go away. It’s for the rest of his life. It’s a fact. He’s got no leg, – I tell my grandma. Simple enough, but she’s having trouble hearing what I have to say, she wishes it will go away and stop being a subject of discussion.

    I love her, so I switch it back to jokes. I’m the grown up here.

    Thanks Pamela, great post!

    1. So much here, Irina! It speaks volumes, doesn’t it, that you have to be the grown up with your grandmother?
      I was also taken by your comment that you almost fainted when disclosing your infertility. I remember having a similar experience — a physical, almost overwhelming reaction. By saying it, it made it real and brought up all sorts of new, weirdly primal fears — not the least of which was fear of being rejected, made an outcast.

      1. When we did the Bitter Infertiles podcast, it had been some time since I had verbally “told my story” to anyone, and I’m not sure I had ever talked at length about the childless aspects… I could feel myself getting all hot & red, as i sometimes used to do in our pg loss support group meetings (although I felt less anxious as the hour went on!). It ultimately feels good to talk it out, but the process of telling can be a bit anxiety-producing.

        Our group used to recommend that people tell their loss stories at every meeting, at least some version thereof (even if you’d told the same story to the same people a dozen times before). First, because every time you tell your story, you process another piece of it in your subconscious, and it becomes easier to tell, and second, because new details & memories will pop up when you least expect it.

  4. I really appreciate your insightful paragraph about children not being the elixir for happiness. They provide lots of joy, but families without children can also find joy in the opportunities they have. As someone who won’t have the chance at motherhood, I still feel very blessed. My life is full and rewarding even though I took (or accepted) “the road less traveled by.” Thank you, Pamela, for providing a forum for this message to spread.

    1. Thank you, Tracy, for continuing to participate in the dialogue!

  5. Thank you for writing this! I love the Disney parallel. I may use that for the mysterious people who are suddenly popping back into our lives and offering us advice we didn’t ask for. I don’t know how to explain to people that I’m not “fixed” other than just saying “I’m still infertile,” but that is of course not the whole picture. Thanks for saying it all so well.

    1. I’m intrigued, Lisa, by mysterious people you describe (and the ones that Cristy and SIF referred to as well).
      @Irina: Wouldn’t it be telling if we could get them on camera?

      1. Yes! we need those mysterious people to come front and central and declare that IVF is against the will of God who will provide when time is right, that infertility is the bad woman’s doing, that people shouldn’t have catharsis out in the open at the expense of others who have to hear it all and be disturbed, and that if you just relax, it will happen. See, I told you so…

        1. Oh you ladies are so right. That would be so cathartic to actually catch their judgments on camera.

  6. Min

    Thank you for the post–as always insightful, honest and so real!
    I have actually seen people move away— physically–when they find out I don’t have children. And I have actually had friends “move away”–who could not take our infertility and are sadly no longer friends. My sister in law still hangs onto her “truth”– that we did not have children because we did not want them!! That seems “easier” for her to handle instead of the truth— we desperately wanted children but could not have them.
    The story of infertility is not a fairy-tale–it is a drama filled with sadness, hardships and hopefully peace at the end.

    1. Good to hear from you again, Min. Powerful stuff here — in particular the “truth” that allow others to perpetuate their distorted reality.

  7. TacomaRoamer

    Another Disney’ish comment I posted on another blog recently: All too frequently life seems like I’m inexplicably on a Disney Families/Grandparents Cruise and am the only single/childless person…thinking about taking my chances w/the sharks and going overboard and swim to the nearest island rather than get ” The Look ” over and over.
    So much truth and The Real Deal in this particular day’s blog post ! Thanks !!

  8. I can remember the overwhelming joy among extended family members & the fuss they made over dh & me when we announced our pregnancy after almost 13 years of marriage. I think on dh’s side, there was some guilt among his relatives, because we got married in my home province, and aside from my FIL, BIL & two of his cousins who stood up for him, nobody bothered to make the trip for the wedding. His cousins were still relatively young, and none of his aunts or uncles were very well travelled back then — they’d been back home to Italy or to Florida, & that was about it. ; ) So this was something they could (finally) celebrate with us. I don’t recall any big clunker comments then, aside from the fact that everyone had been waiting for this day (yeah, us too…).

    After we lost the baby, of course, the silence on most people’s parts was deafening. There are still some of dh’s cousins who have never said a word to us what happened, not even a card or condolence call… and you may recall the story I’ve detailed in my blog of dh’s cousin’s wife, who lives only a few blocks away, who was going to host my baby shower and come over every day to help me out, etc. etc. — and, post-loss, gradually pulled away, to the point that we now see them only at the same weddings & funerals we see everyone else at. Dh & this cousin grew up just blocks from each other & were like brothers (he was one of the ushers at our wedding). I still get sad thinking about it.

    When another cousin lost one of her triplets (we assume they were conceived via fertility treatments — nobody’s saying…), I tried to reach out to her (through her mother — who had also lost a baby) & was completely rebuffed… I was told she appreciated everyone’s good thoughts, but she wanted to focus on the two babies she had left, no calls, no cards, nothing. I am probably the one person in the family who can relate in some way to what she went through, but we have never discussed it to this day. I don’t want to force anyone to talk about something they don’t want to talk about, but I found this incredibly frustrating, particularly since I would have been all over anyone who had had a similar experience & was willing to talk to me about it.

    Love your closing speech. :)

  9. Anna

    “it’s important to remember that happiness comes from within, as does finding peace with all the messiness of life.” – something I always knew, but am having trouble putting into practice. However, just exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you.

  10. Fantastic post, loved reading it…especially this line “it’s important to remember that happiness comes from within, as does finding peace with all the messiness of life” … Thank you!

  11. love this, especially the part about children not curing all and coming to peace with the messiness of life. wonderful post!

  12. I like the term “curists,” and I have to say that those who annoy me most are not the infertiles who believe that they’ll be happy if they just have a baby (we know why these people are lying to themselves), but those who now have a baby and claim that they are now perfectly happy as a result. If they were genuinely at peace beforehand, or have gone through intensive therapy between misery and here, then I believe them. Otherwise, no, that’s a lie; and it’s a dangerous lie, because you are not deliberately lying to me, you are unconsciously lying to yourself. (Which means I should feel sorry for them, and I do, but I am also THAT annoyed.) But the truth will out – and the longer you repress it, the more it’s going to hurt when you have to face it.

    And using a child to seize your happiness is SCARY business. We’ve all seen parents who have done this (and most are not infertile at all, actually), and what a bunch of miserable and badly-adjusted children and manic mothers. They’re humans, not instruments of others’ self-actualization. Seriously scary.

    And the stories of people who re-connect with infertiles after the appearance of the magic baby make me seethe.

    But what struck me most here is the point about airing our experiences. I like that comment about telling the tale EVERY time – I think it does underscore how important it is to live this narrative. (And I shock myself when I tell my stale, years-old story to a friend who apparently hasn’t understood it so I have to start from the beginning, and I find myself emotionally overwrought. This is well-trodden ground for me!) But the real point (to me) is that the cathartic experience is telling the story to an empathetic audience, one that cares and is really LISTENING. Outside of therapy (yes, I know I need to get me some more), who has ever had this experience? I’m totally serious. There are snippets of conversations in which I’ve had friends and relatives listen, make the right faces, and manage not to say anything stupid for a minute or two together. But they are RARE and they are BRIEF. I have NEVER run through the whole narrative (even the short version) with someone who gave the impression of wanting to hear it; being open to the associated emotion (I have a packaged version I use that is not too hard to hear – that doesn’t count); processing what I’ve said at any level; and responding in some appropriate way (inappropriate is anything that indicates they weren’t listening, but waiting for an opportunity to tell me my experience doesn’t matter because they’re about to make it all better by telling me the saint they’re praying to for me or the number of their stylist’s sister’s babysitter’s cousin’s neighbor who had her ovary singed with a laser and is now CRAZYFERTILE). I may well go to my grave without having that experience. If I rely on ANY kind of appropriate level of maturity or empathy in those around me, I am never going to process my experiences. I have to take ownership of the process myself, and recognize that these people are weak, selfish, inconsiderate, bad friends, who need me to be there for them at times but have no idea how to reciprocate and aren’t interested in learning. And not feel sorry for myself, because worse than HAVING a bad friend is BEING one.

    Part of me is, actually, waiting for the day when my peers step into another level of tragedy – when they start losing their children early (it will happen), not through miscarriage (which is as unspeakable as infertility) but through leukemia and car accidents and drugs and suicide and all those awful things that for some reason we DO get to talk about. They won’t get to live all of life with kid gloves; suffering happens, and not just to infertiles. When they come to that stage, perhaps I’ll find I have some friends I can relate to again. Or perhaps I’ll get to hear about how their sufferings are REAL, unlike mine, and I’ll be saving a lot of money on funeral bouquets!

  13. I’ve seen this, with those who have graduated out of the IF world into parenting, where their friends and family come out of the woodwork. I haven’t experienced it, because many of those people are still distant with me, not knowing how to handle the IF, cancer and finally divorce I went through. I find it funny that they want to waltz in and play happily ever after, given that they retreated during a time we could have used their support.

    Life is messy, and we all go through a lot of trials. Grief and loss and painful decisions happen to us all, but those “curists” can’t be a part of the bad times, and I can’t have those people as a part of my life anymore.

  14. Helen Segal

    Thank you so much for your honesty and thoughts. I have just finished my 1st cycle of IVF with a negative and even though I thought I had the balance of ‘what will be will be’ sorted out in my head, over the last day or so I have been knocked over by emotions of deep grief and heart breaking pain in my heart, I never thought I would have. Talking about it, I feel is the only way that I will come through this, and where to I don’t know at the moment. But ignoring it is not an option. The scary part of it is I am starting to be very aware that friends and family are moving away, scared of the pain that I am feeling and not wanting to deal with it (not that its theres to deal with), but I do wonder if its actually me putting the barriers up. I am not sure at the moment, but I think this is a vital part of my life process and I need to take very good care of myself and share with people that can listen and hear me.

    1. My condolences,Helen. You’re right to be gentle with your broken heart. The emotions can be raw and unpredictable. Keep expressing them. You’re among friends here. Wishing you strength and peace.

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