Mother’s Day is a great time to celebrate moms everywhere, but it can also be a tough reminder for those who are struggling to start or grow their families. The stigma around infertility can make those who are experiencing it feel like they’re alone, and it’s so important to be empathic and supportive to those affected.
What is Infertility?
Infertility is defined by the inability to become pregnant after 12 months of regular unprotected sex. It’s prevalent and can also happen to people who have already had a child. We tend to think that having a baby is easy, but nearly 6.3 million people – 1 in 6 Canadians – face fertility challenges. Often this is a stigmatized topic, particularly for women, who often do not open up about their struggles to friends and family. This can make their journey lonely and isolating.
What we know through research is that the level of emotional stress one faces while going to a fertility clinic is comparable to someone who is facing a life-threatening illness like cancer or heart disease. There’s a monthly emotional rollercoaster ride of hope and then disappointment and sadness when you get a negative pregnancy test. This heartbreak is that much more devastating after an IVF cycle because of all the time, money, and effort you put into it.
In addition to individual emotional impact, infertility can also contribute to marital distress. All of these are reasons that celebrations like Mother’s Day can be difficult reminders of every negative pregnancy result, miscarriage or stillbirth. Despite this, women experiencing infertility are still not talked about, and are expected to suffer silently.
How can we be more supportive and empathetic towards women who are dealing with infertility?
No matter if it’s your sister, daughter, neighbour or co-worker, don’t make the assumption that they don’t want or are too busy for children – it’s a private matter. So don’t ask “why are you not having kids?” or “when do you plan to start a family?” since each person may have their own reasons or struggles in regards to having children. Even if you know someone is trying to conceive, it’s not helpful to say “just relax” or “you can always adopt”. Honestly, has “just relax” ever worked?
Instead, just say “I’m here to listen, let me know how I can be of support” or send them a meal to show you are thinking of them. If someone has miscarried, it’s not helpful to say it wasn’t meant to be. Rather, you can validate their feelings by acknowledging that it totally sucks, end of story. There’s not much you can say to help someone in this position, but you can be a listening ear.
If you find yourself in the difficult position of having to announce a pregnancy to someone struggling with infertility, be understanding. Your pregnancy may be something that’s very difficult for them to hear about, and if they need some time away from you, don’t take it personally.
How do you deal with infertility-related stress?
If you happen to be on the other side of the divide, there are a couple things to keep in mind. the most important thing is this: acknowledge that your feelings are real and valid. You’re going through an incredibly difficult time, and it’s okay to be angry, sad, resentful or any other emotion you feel… except guilt. Don’t blame yourself for your infertility, because it’s simply not your fault. Instead, put that self-hating energy towards researching and understanding your options with the help of reputable resources. Here are some places to start:
- Fertility Matters Canada
- Resolve: The National Infertility Association
- Fertility Talks with Mary Wong
- “It Starts with The Egg” by Rebecca Fett
- “8 Steps to Reverse your PCOS” by Fiona McCulloch
- “Pathways to Pregnancy” by Mary Wong
You can also reconsider who you follow on social media or even remove your apps if seeing people’s kids or pregnancy shots is upsetting to you. Your mental health around this topic is so important. And of course, if you think you need more personal help, find a community of support beyond your partner. This could be anything from a fertility counselor to a therapist to a natural practitioner. Having one person of support at home and one at work can be a good way to cover your bases.
In order to reduce the stigma around these issues, we need to talk about them, and with time, we can all learn to have more open and empathetic conversations around infertility.