There are two main categories of infertility; primary infertility, which is the inability to have any children at all, and secondary infertility, which is the inability to conceive or carry a baby to term following the birth of one or more children. Secondary infertility can be caused by a range of things such as cancer, complications from previous pregnancies, impaired sperm production, damage to the fallopian tubes, and so on.
Infertility impacts about 5% of couples in the developed world. About a third of the time, it is due to a physiological issue on the woman’s part, another third of the time it is a physiological issue on the man’s part, and about a third of the time, it is due to physiological issues with both the male and the female. Furthermore, in about 10-20% of cases, the cause of infertility cannot be determined.
The process of seeking out and going through fertility treatments can be gruelling, not to mention expensive. In order to seek out fertility treatment in the first place, it is required that you have been attempting to become pregnant through regular unprotected sex for 2 years. This can mean that a couple endures two years worth of miscarriages – of feeling hopeful and then feeling let down.
Three of the major impacts of infertility are loss, identity, and the impact on lifestyle and relationships.
Many people who want to have children have always imagined that they would grow up and have a family of their own. Discovering that you can’t get pregnant traditionally can feel like grieving, as you are grieving the loss of the path that you thought your life would take.
It can have an impact on your relationship; leading to arguments, blaming, guilt, sorrow, and so on. If you cannot have a child with your chosen partner – perhaps you are using a sperm donor or a surrogate – this can involve some relationship re-configuring and can take some getting used to.
If you decide to go through fertility treatments, you are simultaneously holding onto two opposing positions – hope and loss. You might go through cycles of falling pregnant, and then miscarrying, in which case these two positions of hope and loss cycle accordingly.
There might need to come a time in your relationship where you decide to stop trying and start living your life again. This might be because of financial reasons or to protect your own mental health or relationship. Perhaps you decide to look into adoption or perhaps you decide to just stop altogether. Typically, couples don’t come to this decision at the same time. Normally one partner arrives at this stage before the other, and it is important to remember to be patient and kind to one another through this process.
When it comes to discovering that you are having difficulty conceiving or carrying a baby to term, it is common to feel betrayed by your own body and to feel a sense of loss of control over your own body.
We spend most of our teens and early twenties trying desperately not to get pregnant because we believe that getting pregnant is just that easy. If we subsequently discover that we can’t get pregnant, it is understandable that we feel out of touch with our own bodies.
Sometimes, when someone discovers that they are infertile, they start to see themselves as the problem. This translates a physical and medical problem into a psychological one – “I mustn’t be entitled to have a child” or “This must be karma.” You might start to question the decisions and choices that you have made in life up until this point – did I wait too long? Did I work too hard? Did I cause myself too much stress? Was I too unhealthy? There can be a lot of self-blame involved in discovering infertility.
Lifestyle and Relationships
When you go through fertility treatments, there is a lot of waiting. Waiting for tests, waiting for results, waiting for treatments, and so on. As a result, your life can seem to come to a standstill.
It feels impossible to book a holiday, move house, change jobs, apply for promotions, and many other things, purely because you might get that call saying you are next in line for treatment or even discover that you are pregnant!
Another factor is that you may feel that your life is on pause while others are moving forward around you. Friends and siblings might be having their own children – might even be on baby number two or three – and this can cause you to feel left behind.
You might experience a level of resentment felt towards friends just because they are able to have children – and then there might be a level of guilt for feeling resentful. You might also withdraw from seeing friends and family members that have young children or are pregnant. This is a way of protecting yourself from feelings of envy, guilt, or resentment.
You may be inclined to lean on your parents throughout the course of infertility treatments, however, they might also be grieving the same losses as you – the loss of a potential grandchild, the loss of the opportunity to be a grandparent. This can make the relationship feel slightly strained. On the other hand, you may withdraw from your parents, especially if they are enjoying being grandparents to your nieces and nephews. Again, this is a way of protecting yourself from the pain of experiencing something that you cannot currently have.
Finally, there might also be a strain between you and your partner. You are likely to both have different ways of coping with the grief of discovering the infertility and the stress of going through fertility treatments. It might be that these coping strategies decrease your personal distress, but increase your relationship stress. It might be that one of you finds peace and solace by going out with friends and doesn’t understand why the other doesn’t do this too.
Another facet of your relationship that could suffer is your sex life. Something that was once an exciting part of your relationship may very well become clinical and mechanical.
What can you do?
Within the relationship, communication is key. It is important to let your partner know how you are feeling and to find out how your partner is feeling. This is very important when you experience the downs of infertility and fertility treatment, but it is also important to celebrate the little wins together; being accepted for treatment, getting a date for treatment, and so on.
Confide in friends and family members what is going on for you. It is much more likely that they will understand why you can’t attend certain events (such as their kid’s birthday party) if they understand what you are going through. It is important that they understand that you aren’t trying to make them feel guilty – you are happy for them and their little family, and you still love them – but it is just difficult for you at the moment.
Gather as much information as you can – talk to doctors and specialists, get a second opinion, if you can afford it then seek private consultations, and talk to others who have been through this before.
Finally, it is important to remember that there is more than one way to have a family, whether it’s through naturally conceiving, fertility treatments, surrogacy, or through adoption or fostering, and many more.
If you’re going through infertility and need support, or wish to explore ways to boost your psychological health, then get in touch with us to make an appointment with our team of therapists. We have sessions available seven days a week at our Clapham and Tooting centres. Call 020 8673 4545 or email [email protected] to book.