Five Phases of Infertility

When I was young, dreaming about my future life, oh, I had plans. I had it all mapped out. I was going to have six kids: three boys, three girls, each two years apart. I even had names picked out. I was going to be a stay-at-home mom and love every single second of it, have the most organized and amazing house, cook the best meals, and I even had a long list of things I would never do as a parent (gathered and written during my angsty teenage years).

Well, as I’m sure all of us have eventually learned—life doesn’t always go quite according to plan, does it? Let’s take a look at my list above and count how many of those things actually happened. Let’s see here…..uh…….NONE.  I’ve even managed to violate many of the things on my sacred list of “Things To Never Do as a Parent” (including teasing my children about potential crushes in front of other people. Yep, I’ve gone there. It’s just too much fun to watch them squirm).

The biggest struggle for me, however, has been seeing my desire to have more children go unfulfilled. I have two beautiful children, for which I am very grateful. Those of you who are childless, have mercy and don’t resent me for being sad about wanting more kids when you haven’t yet been blessed with any. Hopefully we can unite over our infertility instead of resent each other over differences. I’m reaching out to anyone who has struggled with infertility, ever, in any circumstances. We are forged together through tears and heartache.

I write to offer any hope and comfort I can. This is a hard post to write; it gives my struggle an air of finality, a bit as if I am saying, “I’ve accepted that I will not ever have any more children,” when in fact, my desire for more children remains strong. Thus far, my story hasn’t ended like so many other stories of infertility do: I don’t have a miracle baby to give my tale a nice, pretty ending.  I have, however, gotten to the point where I am at peace with the detour my life has taken. I can honestly say that even though infertility is still a reality in my life, my struggle with infertility is one that I have largely conquered. So, I hope to share a few things I’ve picked up along the way.

Psychologists have identified 5 stages of grief associated with death. When a loved one passes away, we move through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I propose that infertility also has stages, and if not distinctly a step-by-step process, they are phases that each of us go through. I am here to say I’ve felt each of them, and, that eventually, they all can be conquered. Here are what I am calling “Five Phases of Infertility.”

empty crib

Phase One—Self Blame. We feel that somehow our infertility is the result of shortcomings on our part. Are we eating the right foods? Taking the right vitamins? Exercising enough? Are we too stressed? The list goes on and on, and we get pretty creative with imagining all the ways we’re messing things up. For those of us with children, the worst punishment we inflict upon ourselves is the surety that we aren’t being blessed with more children because we are failing so miserably with the ones we have already have. This phase was the hardest for me. I walked around in a cloud of self-doubt, tearing myself apart every time I yelled at my kids or lost patience with them. I would think to myself, “That’s why you haven’t been able to have more.”  

Self-inflicted guilt is a serious struggle for the infertile, especially if your self worth is strongly tied to being a mother. To help with that despair, we have to overcome the false assumption that we are only valuable if we have all the children we want. If we constantly see our lack of children as a personal deficiency, as evidence that we have failed at life or some cosmic test of worthiness, then guilt and doubt is our path. To this I say as boldly as I can: Your infertility does not lessen your worth or value.  At all.

Phase Two—Allergy to Pregnant Women and Babies. It sounds horrible when you say it out loud, but every woman who has struggled with infertility has also struggled with being around pregnant women or babies. It is just a stark reminder of what we don’t have. And those of you who are pregnant or have babies, don’t feel bad; it’s not your fault. We’ll get over it, we really will, but please don’t be offended if we don’t want to hang out for a while until we feel like we can be in the same room as a baby without weeping. I remember baby showers as a particularly acute form of torture. Even the complaints of pregnant women about all of the the things pregnant women complain about irked me to no end.

Your heart aches when you see those gloriously round pregnant bellies, and it becomes a conscious effort to swallow the pain and try to be happy for them. It just hurts too much, and the universe becomes a mysterious and what feels like a very unfair place.

Phase Three—Wanting to Strangle Well-Intentioned Advice-Givers. You have the “fortune-tellers”: Oh, just wait until______ happens, then you’ll get pregnant. Oh, just wait... I had a friend who went 6 years and finally adopted and THEN she had a baby! That’s what is going to happen to you. These advice-givers, though well-intentioned, give false hope. It is someone else’s story, not ours. It just fills us with more shame and questioning when their prophecies don’t come true. Because, you see, we do set little milestones in our mind, and when that 6-year mark comes and goes with no luck, it hurts all the more.

In the advice-giver category you also have the “know-it-alls”: Oh—you’re having trouble getting pregnant? Well, if you go gluten-free it will help. Or if you take this pill/hormone/diet regimen it will solve your woes. Are you doing this, that or the other? Well, you should. And don’t do this, that or the other. Fix that and you’ll be pregnant in no time. In my years of infertility, believe me, I’ve tried many of these strategies offered by others, to no avail, which only increases the frustration and again, the self-blame and questioning.  

In this phase, the main reaction for those of us on the receiving end of such warm-fuzzy advice is anger, frustration, despair, and occasionally, the desire to strangle. We think, “Please, just listen. Don’t try to fix me, because I feel broken enough already. Just ask me how I am doing, let me vent, give me a shoulder to cry on, and listen. That is what I need right now.

Phase Four—Feeling Directionless and Meaningless. My plan was all centered around my 6 kids and being a mother to them. When that didn’t happen, I didn’t know what to do with myself. It took some major re-adjusting; there was a period of feeling totally and completely directionless. A period of thinking, well, now what?

I remember a time where I was feeling particularly worthless due to my infertility, like I was just living an empty existence. Then one day, I had several of my students tell me how much I had helped them out, and that I was an example to them. This rarely happens in teaching, and never all in one day. To me, that was a direct answer: I was doing what I was supposed to be doing, helping people in valuable ways. I realized that infertility does not define me. I may be infertile, but I am not infertility. I am so much more.

Gratefully, I have been led to many other avenues of fulfillment that I use to fill my time and find my worth, and each one has been as surprising as the last. I never would have predicted what I’ve ended up doing in my life, but guess what? I have learned to love these new adventures.

These first phases before the last one—acceptance—are tough, and can everything really be classified into one specific phase? Of course not. Those of you struggling with infertility also know that it is so much more. It is life. But I am here to tell you that these painful phases of griefand everything in-between—don't have to translate into a life of grief. Even though your feelings are natural reactions to the harsh reality you face, they do not have to become your permanent reality.

It is possible to move past the pain. For me, it got to the point where I was so exhausted with being miserable, of constantly feeling frustrated and angry and filled with despair, that I told myself that something had to change. When I was around others, I got very good at pasting on a smile and chanting mantras in my head until the pain subsided. Eventually I discovered, to my surprise, that after years of faking it, my smiles eventually became sincere. And in solitary moments I trained myself out of dwelling on the pain. Hang in there; I promise you it will get better. Eventually, you will be able to move on to acceptance—phase five.

Phase Five—Acceptance. This is a nice step to get to. An acceptance of your infertility does not mean giving up. It does not mean you are just throwing in the towel, or that your faith is lessened, but it does mean that you are able to live each moment given to you free from the despair that accompanies the struggle with infertility. You will keep trying for children, and do what you can. But in the meantime, if you have accepted your life for what it is, not for what you wish it was, you will be busy and happy, living a full life. You will be confident in the knowledge that you are who you were meant to be, even if it isn’t who you envisioned being years ago. You are still a beautiful you who makes a positive impact on the world.

Additionally, there are some nice things about not having as many kids as you wanted. Of course, you would trade these perks in a heartbeat for more kids, but don’t feel guilty for enjoying them while they last. It’s nice to sleep. It’s nice to not be covered in poo. It’s nice to take a nap and go to the restroom and shower—unhindered. It’s nice to eat a bowl of ice-cream without having to share. No dirty diapers. No frantic mommy-cab afternoons. No potty-training woes. So, there are positives. Live your life to the fullest.

So, for those of you who struggle with infertility, I know that you can relate to much I have said. You can also relate to the monthly budget of pregnancy tests, the elated feeling of hope as you pee on those sticks that hold so much power over your life, then the crushing despair as it is negative—once again. You can relate to the questioning, the pleading in prayer, and the heartbreak. You can relate to the monthly calendar mapping, to the scheduling of sex like it is a dentist appointment, to the research and hormone therapy and guilt and self-hazing and the frustration as the people around you don’t know how to comfort you each month as you spiral into depression and grief. Yes, you can all relate to this heart-wrenching way of life.

But I hope too that you can also, someday, relate to a joyful life that can be yours, despite the infertility. Someday you will be able to relate to the sweet joy as you are able to freely and fully enjoy the children in your life, even if they aren’t your own. Someday you will be able to relate to the joy that comes from letting all the advice roll off your back, knowing it was given in love. Someday you will be able to relate to the joy as you discover new talents within yourself. Someday you will be able to relate to the joy that comes from knowing you are of value just as you are.

Someday you will be able to relate  to the joy that comes as you make peace with the life you have been given. I promise you, you will feel that joy, because I have, and do, each day. Work towards it, and with time, it will be yours too.