Infertility and Mental Health
By Morgan Duperroir, LPC
Individuals and couples start their counseling journey for many reasons, one of which may be infertility. Infertility is defined as the inability to conceive after one year of having unprotected sex or the inability to conceive after six months of unprotected sex for couples where the woman is 35 years or older. But how common is this problem?
In a 2013 report from National Health Statistics:
“After 1 year of having unprotected sex, 12% to 15% of couples are unable to conceive, and after 2 years, 10% of couples still have not had a live-born baby. (In couples younger than age 30 who are generally healthy, 40% to 60% are able to conceive in the first 3 months of trying.)”
While our culture is growing in its awareness of the causes and treatments for infertility, it still remains a confusing and oftentimes painful subject to broach within families and friend groups. The very nature of the topic and the wide range of experiences that make up infertility can leave couples facing such a diagnosis wondering where to turn to next.
One thing to understand at the beginning of any infertility journey is that it will encompass grief. Grief and infertility can be complicated as often there is no object for grief and (like other types of grieving) there is no end date. But with infertility, rather, there is a chance for it to recur every month.
In cases of miscarriage, while there is an unborn baby’s loss to mourn, it’s often harder for the public to enter into that grieving process with the bereaved parents as they would with the death of an older child or adult, adding to the feeling of isolation in their grief.
In an article for Counseling Today, Tristan McBain comments on these effects:
“With infertility, the loss comes from an absence of something that has never been rather than the absence of something that used to be. The stigmatization surrounding infertility contributes to an atmosphere of silence and invisibility. Infertility and its accompanying losses are not as outwardly visible and may not be well known or understood by others unless the woman discloses them herself.”
Perhaps you find yourself experiencing this reality and are wondering what to do next, or perhaps someone you love is facing an infertility diagnosis. These are some helpful steps as you navigate this strange journey. Infertility leaves no part of a couple’s life untouched, whether that be the mental, spiritual, physical, or relational realm, so it’s crucial to tend to all of those areas, even if the diagnosis appears to mainly affect the physical realm.
If you find yourself with a new infertility diagnosis, take the time to orient yourself in the infertility space at your own pace. Give yourself time to familiarize yourself with the causes and treatments, but like with any new health diagnosis, researching at this stage can feel like drinking from a fire hydrant. It’s important to feel knowledgeable and empowered about your own health, but not at the risk of heightening anxiety during an already stressful time. Put boundaries around your own research if necessary.
Counseling is a helpful tool to give language to the grief and trauma you are processing each month, but only you can know when you’re ready for that. For one couple, they may benefit from infertility counseling at the beginning of the journey. For others, it might be several months or even years into their journey before they’re ready.
For couples going through infertility, it is important for me to provide a safe space that can hold room for the grief, disappointment, frustration, and unfulfilled dreams and expectations the couple may be experiencing. It is a place your feelings and experience will be validated. Infertility can place an immense strain not only upon the individuals themselves, but the couple relationship as well. Counseling can serve as a way to nourish, rebuild, and maintain the marriage relationship.
It’s also a good time to take stock of your inner circle as you decide how and what to share about your journey. Infertility is an intensely personal path, but it is important to have good support as you continue to live your life and pursue treatments. However, not everyone will prove to be a helpful support to you during this time (even though they may have good intentions).
Quality support for infertility looks like:
- Listening (lots of it)
- Acknowledgment of your pain and suffering
- Offering help if you desire it
Potentially toxic “support” looks like:
- Asking too many personal questions
- Offering suggestions or treatments when you haven’t asked for input
- Minimizing of your pain and suffering
- Offering pat responses or clichés when you open up about your struggles
Pursue Helpful Practices
As you and your spouse walk this path, you may find it helpful to engage in some new practices.
It’s first important to understand that the husband and wife will grieve and process separately and together. And it will look different for each couple. So what are some helpful practices to engage in? Keep in mind these practices in no way replace the dream of having a child or erase all the negativity that can be part of infertility. However, they do invite a healthy environment for minds and hearts to continue to experience growth and healing in the midst of grief and trauma.
- Invest in each other spiritually and emotionally
- Explore other dreams and adventures together
- Serve together in a ministry or non-profit that is meaningful to you both
- Pick up a new hobby
- Where practical or appropriate, consider adopting a pet
Supporting a loved one going through infertility
Perhaps you are reading this and while you yourself aren’t dealing with this diagnosis, a couple in your life is. You have an opportunity to be a wonderful support to this couple, but there are a few important things to keep in mind as you walk alongside your loved ones.
Offer your presence, not platitudes. You don’t have to understand to be supportive. Offer a listening ear but don’t demand to know when appointments or treatments are. Let the couple share what they want to. The couple often feels like they have no control, so any way that you can give them choices in how they share their journey will be helpful.
Still include, but don’t demand their presence at potentially triggering events. Baby showers and kid birthdays can be triggering, but infertile couples know they’d be included if they did have kids. So give them the option to come or not come, and extend grace no matter their choice.
As a friend, family member, or co-worker, it is imperative to put down the need to “fix” or hasten the couple’s grieving process. This is not something we have the power to amend. There is however one action step that cannot and must not be underestimated and that is prayer. Prayer is a powerful way to engage the Lord, the one who truly knows the full depths of the couple’s grief.
If you are facing an infertility diagnosis and think that you and/or your spouse would benefit from counseling, reach out to Morgan today to schedule an appointment. Infertility is hard, but you don’t have to walk that road alone. We are here for you.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” (Rom.15:13).