One of the most challenging aspects of the infertility experience is dealing with the emotional ups and downs relating to medical treatment, the uncertainty about outcomes, and the challenge of having to make important decisions such as when 'enough is enough.' It is important to learn how to take care of yourself, make sure that you get the support you need, and to manage your emotions so that your self-esteem and outlook on life remains as positive as possible.
What does a couple who has just been diagnosed with a fertility problem have in common with a couple who just had their fourth miscarriage? The level of anguish may not be the same, but these two couples do have a lot in common: a sense of loss and disappointment, and the feeling of emotions and events being out of control. For both couples a basic assumption—that by being decent people who try hard in life, your wishes will be fulfilled—has been shattered.
Even if your mind isn't consciously thinking about loss, your unconscious mind and your body may be responding to feelings of grief. Do you recognize any of the following symptoms that either appeared or worsened during your infertility experience:
The best way to get back to "business as usual" is to take care of the emotional business at hand. And there's nothing wimpy about healthy grief work - it calls on all of your courage and resourcefulness. A Zen proverb says, "The way to control a bull is to give it a big pasture." Paying attention to grief ends its power over you. Give grief its due and you'll find the energy and concentration to get on with your life. See a mental health professional if you feel that infertility is making it hard to cope day in and day out.
After several months of unsuccessful attempts to get pregnant or stay pregnant, feelings of shock or numbness may result. Feelings of "this can't be happening to us" or "I know next month we will be successful" begin to change over to anger and guilt.
Anger usually results from feeling vulnerable or helpless or both. Helpless feelings result from the lack of control that you may feel over your life plan, your body, and your future. This may be a new experience; previously, when you worked hard at something, you probably achieved your goal. Now you are working hard and doing everything you can to conceive, but without reaching your desired goal. A sense of vulnerability evolves from feeling "jinxed," or feeling that life isn't fair. You may feel as if you can no longer count on anything good happening in your life.
Anger can consume you, coloring your everyday thoughts and experiences. You may feel emotionally guarded, pulled between tears and sadness or anger and rage. The next time you feel angry, irritable, or frustrated, take an inventory of your body and identify how different parts of your body respond to the angry feelings. Do your legs feel weak? Does your heart beat faster? Do you feel flushed or shaky? Does your breathing change? Become familiar with how you react physically to these intense emotions.
Remember that anger is a normal response to infertility. You may find it helpful to try some of these techniques to manage angry feelings. There is no "right" way to do this; don't force it, and don't expect a specific response. Tears and feelings of sadness often mingle with anger.
Shame is a searing, painful feeling associated with faltering self-esteem, and a sense of inadequacy, defectiveness and helplessness. As repeated attempts to get pregnant come to naught, there is a realization that this intensely strived-for goal has not been, and may never be, attained. As this failure becomes more and more evident, one's self-image is assaulted. It is easy to move from procedures that have failed to the feeling that "I am a failure." Anguish, self-doubt, and chronic sadness converge as couples come to think of themselves as failing, not only in realizing their own dream to reproduce and nurture, but failing their spouse, parents, and siblings as well. Because shame embodies the painful sense of self-defect, it is often hidden and disguised, even from oneself. The tragic story of chronic infertility is that, over a period of time, the sense of failure gradually and imperceptibly spreads like a shadow over a person's experience, while simultaneously the sense of other competencies gradually becomes obscured.
Ultimately what heals is the acceptance of the self with all of its weaknesses and failures. The goal, then, is to reach a point where you can accept what you see as failure and no longer have to conceal these feelings of shame. The process of coming to terms with infertility is long and gradual, but it is possible to transform the sense of failure into an empathy with yourself, an affirmation of your strength, an acceptance of your limits, a pride in your endurance, and maybe most of all, an empathy with others who, as partners in the human condition, also face defeats. In time, the shadow cast upon your life can fade and the light can shine through again.