To Those of Us Struggling With Infertility This Mother's Day
A psychologist's personal story of infertility and healing.
Posted May 11, 2017 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
You are not alone
Happy Mother's Day to all the wonderful moms and maternal figures out there! This post is in no way intended to take away from a worthy day of celebration and gratitude. However, the truth is, this day can be tough for those who struggle with grief, loss, and/or infertility.
For many, Mother's Day is a painful reminder of what never was or what no longer is.
Some have endured the unthinkable pain of losing a child. Many have lost their mothers and will forever miss being able to spend this day with her or call her on the phone. Others may hardly feel like this day warrants celebration. Their mothers failed as parents, were dysfunctional, or even abusive. And then there are those who yearn desperately to experience (but haven't) the joy that comes from hearing a little one whisper, "I love you, Mommy." I include myself amongst the latter.
It's been five years since I learned of my own infertility. The diagnosis that makes it all but impossible to conceive (premature ovarian failure), came after eight months of trying to start our family. The news that I ran out of eggs before I was ready to bear a child was the most dumbfounding and heart-wrenching reality of my life. When acquaintances, extended family, and strangers asked me when I'd have children, I could barely muster a response more than a shoulder shrug.
I felt broken.
I felt ashamed.
I felt jealous. Jealous of the awe that comes from experiencing the miracle of birth, an infant not only of your own blood but also that of the person you love most in this world. Jealous of the ability to hang the hand-drawn pictures on the fridge. Jealous of experiencing the pitter-patter of tiny feet around the tree on Christmas morning.
My life felt meaningless.
My infertility—something of which I had no control—was labeled a personal defect. I punished myself with critical self-talk and judgment. When I sought support, I was met with ill-informed promises such as:
"It will happen, just relax."
"As soon as you adopt, you'll get pregnant."
Eventually, I shied away from saying much about it to anyone and told myself to just get on with it. Looking back, I think I didn't seek much support because I felt my particular infertility issue was much more hopeless than that of anyone else who struggled with it. And honestly, many of the people I know who struggled with infertility did, in fact, eventually get pregnant. This only perpetuated my desolate and silent suffering. Mother's Day became a punctuation mark of the daily emptiness, sadness, and overall feeling of being lost.
Moment by moment and day by day, I slowly learned—what I have perhaps always known deep within my heart—it wasn't my fault and I wasn't alone.
How I survive Mother's Day (post 5 years of infertility)
After four infertile Mother's Day holidays, I've learned a few things about coping. I now realize that my self-flagellation and judgmental self-talk only deepened my despair and was, at least in part, a consequence of lacking self-compassion. Many researchers agree that self-compassion (i.e., empathy and kindness turned inwards) is the most important skill in life.
We can all be hard on ourselves from time to time. I would never dare speak to someone I love the way I can speak to myself. But why are so many of us surprised when our utter lack of self-compassion makes us feel even worse?
Grace will always take us places that harshness simply cannot.
Since the onset of my diagnosis, I fully understand how infertility by and in itself is a very isolating devastation. It seems our friends get pregnant by a mere glance from their spouses. Everywhere we turn is a reminder of the joys of motherhood: commercials, print ads, songs, even just driving past a mother pushing a stroller.
On the one day that's sole purpose is to celebrate mothers—where congregations ask mothers to stand and accept applause—the emotion hits us like a thousand dirty diapers falling from the 15th floor. It's difficult not to drown in it all. But to survive, we must tread this water by balancing our emotions in a way that recognizes our right to our feelings but does not reduce us to helpless victims. It is easy to overly identify with our feelings. We know we've done it when we feel like we're gasping for air. For weeks. For months. For years.
Embrace Our Shared Humanity
Researcher Dr. Kristin Neff writes:
"Self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience–something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to 'me' alone."
Although 1 in 8 couples struggle to get or stay pregnant, infertility feels rare. The more severe the case of infertility, the more unique the suffering can feel. There aren't many people who truly appreciate the gravity of not having the eggs required to reproduce.
Too many well-meaning individuals attempted to ease my pain by offering a solution to a problem that could not be easily solved. Besides, I had already painstakingly considered every possible solution that they could conjure. I felt that no one could understand my suffering or be of any help. Since no words of encouragement could soothe my broken heart, I isolated myself and put on a mask that conveyed bullet-proof strength. It was a lie and a mistake.
Suffering is a part of life, to suffer is to be human. None of us are exempt from the rules. Anyone can draw the short straw, and we are all inextricably connected in our humanity.
"The idea that we can go it alone defies the natural world. We are like other animals, we need ties to others to survive...we live in the shelter of each other."
Last Mother's Day, I received a text message from my sister-in-law. She was a recent inductee to the not-sought-after infertility sisterhood. Her text message was generous, warm, and poignant.
She wrote that she was thinking of me and that I wasn't alone on this day. It meant the world to me and opened my eyes to our shared connectedness. Much like Dr. Johnson's quote, my sister-in-law's message reminded me that we don't have to go it alone. We were never meant to.
So if you're hurting this Mother's Day, reach out to those you can count on. If you know someone who is struggling, contact them and let them know you're thinking of them. It may serve as the card, bouquet of flowers, or lavish brunch that they won't receive for being a mother.
A bit more advice to those of us struggling with infertility this Mother's Day:
- Recognize—don't ignore—your feelings. These feelings are valid and understandable but they won't kill you (they'll only try to).
- Practice validating, compassionate self-talk.
- Give yourself permission to cope in whatever way feels healthy. Schedule a spa day and skip the Mother's Day brunch. Spend the day at a comedy club with those who love you.
- Be yourself.
But most importantly, no matter what you do today, please remember (my sister), you are not alone.
To learn more about the elements of self-compassion as described in this post, visit Dr. Kristin Neff's website.
This post originally appeared on Dr. Jamie Long's website.
Please also read: A Male's Perspective on Coping With Infertility on Father's Day.