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Secondary Infertility: The Secret Struggle

Four tips for handling secondary infertility.

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“But you already have a child”

That’s the response most women or partners with secondary infertility tell me they hear if they look for sympathy or support from friends or family.

Secondary infertility means you’re unable to get pregnant or carry a baby to term after previously having a child without any reproductive assistance. If you’re dealing with secondary infertility, you’ve probably heard that response too.

All feelings are valid

It’s entirely possible to have two feelings at the same time—thankful that you have a child or children, and a yearning for a bigger family. But these aren’t the only emotions someone faces during this time.

Suppose you feel shocked that your fertility changed, and you blame yourself for delaying after the first baby. Maybe you feel jealous when you see big families and feel guilty that you are not satisfied with what you have. What could make matters worse is because you’ve been pregnant before, even your physician may be telling you to just keep trying.

So, you keep trying, but this time you’re doing it with a child or children at home, while also feeling pressured to give them a sibling and you’re surrounded by other mothers who are pregnant again or have new babies.

How do you muster the courage to reach out to a support group or friends? How do you feel like your voice is heard when you’re at a support group that tells you, “you should be lucky you have one”? Secondary infertility is just as hard and deserves the same level of attention. Here are four steps to take if you’re struggling with secondary infertility:

1. Take Stock of Any Changes

The National Survey of Family Growth finds that at least one million couples (about one in six couples who already have a child) are going to need fertility treatment to have another child, and most are unsuspecting.

The first step is to understand why you are having trouble conceiving. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) suggests seeing what’s changed since your last pregnancy. Things to look out for:

  • Age
    • You're now over 40—female fertility drops to a 10 percent chance of natural conception once a woman hits her 40s.
    • You're over 35 and have been actively trying to conceive naturally for over six months.
    • You're over 30 and have a history of pelvic inflammatory disease, painful periods, or a history of miscarriage.
  • Changes in your menstrual cycle and ovulation
  • Endometriosis
  • Scarring after childbirth
  • Sexually transmitted infection
  • Problems with the thyroid or pituitary gland
  • Being underweight, overweight, or exercising much more than before

Tracking life and health changes can help you get a clearer understanding of the problem at hand.

2. See a Doctor for Diagnosis and/or Treatment

Knowing your body is the first step in understanding your secondary infertility, and seeing a doctor for diagnosis and potential treatment options is the second step.

A reproductive endocrinologist has the tools to assess your fertility and identify the root of the problem. From there, they can present treatment options that you may not have considered with your first pregnancy. Some typical paths to parenthood include:

  • IUI
  • IVF
  • Tissue Donation
  • Surrogacy
  • Adoption

With all the options on the table, you can make the best decision for you and your family.

3. Decide How Far You and/or Your Partner Want to Go to Have Another Child

Unlimited assisted reproductive technology (ART) treatment, however, is costly and time-consuming, and if you have secondary fertility, you already have the expenses and demands of raising the child or children you have.

If resources are limited and employer-sponsored fertility benefits like Progyny aren’t available, you might want to set a limit to ART in advance. Weigh your options and decide what works best for you—everyone is different!

If you’re feeling pressured into going through fertility treatment mainly to give your first child a sibling, you might want to think again.

A summary of only-child research in Scientific American titled, “Is The Only-Child Syndrome Real?” by Corinna Hartmann concludes the characteristics of children with and without siblings actually don’t differ. In fact, only-children are often more creative and successful, with stronger bonds to their parents, so dealing with secondary infertility makes more sense if you want another child, not as a gift for your first child.

4. Prioritize Yourself

Secondary infertility can be challenging to navigate emotionally, so be sure you’re keeping yourself level and grounded. Here are a few tips for a better headspace:

  • Be Clear on Your Vision for Your Family: Some people place the same emphasis on having a second or third child as becoming a first-time parent. Some don’t. Either way, make sure you’re informed and weigh your options.
  • Don’t Look at Your Decisions Through Others’ Eyes: They are living their lives, and you’re living yours. Don’t expect anyone who hasn’t experienced secondary infertility to really understand the intensity of your desire for another child. If you find understanding from your friends or family, it will be a bonus.
  • Join a Secondary Infertility Support Group or Find One Online: Hearing, “I know how you feel,” instead of, “You already have a child,” is the best antidote for the stress of secondary infertility.
  • Focus on Self-Care: Being able to reset during a stressful time can make a world of difference! Take a break and do things you enjoy—reading, exercising, spending time with friends and family, playing games, watching movies, etc. Your family deserves to feel you still enjoy them, and you deserve fun and relaxation!
  • Don’t Confuse Pregnancy and Parenting: Remind yourself that if you want to build your family, there is always a way!

Secondary infertility can be equally as frustrating as struggling to conceive your first child, but there are steps you can take in order to put yourself in the most empowered position. Whether it’s deciding not to have another child or pursuing ART, make sure you’re putting yourself first! If you need additional support, speak to your physician.

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