This blog addresses various emotional aspects of experiencing infertility. It is written by a clinical psychologist who specializes in infertility counseling. Thank you for reading, and best of luck with your journey!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Does infertility change you as a person?

Many times, my clients ask me if their experiences with infertility will change them forever. Usually, this “change” isn’t regarded in a positive light. I feel that change is inevitable. Over time, I feel that I myself changed on multiple levels as a result of my experiences with infertility, in ways both large and small. I have also observed similar gradual transformations this in my work with clients dealing with infertility. Although the thought of change can be unsettling, many of the changes I have observed in my clinical work are actually signs of increased personal growth and psychological maturity. To be honest, it may not be the most recommended or enjoyable way of achieving this growth--but as infertility is usually not a choice, we must take from it what we can.

To illustrate this, let me tell you a story about one of the smaller changes I noticed in myself as a result of my infertility adventures. A year or so after I stopped a two-year course of infertility treatment to pursue an adoption, for no particular conscious reason, I started thinking about progesterone in oil shots. As I mused about the painfulness of those shots, it suddenly occurred to me—they were progesterone in OIL shots. Meaning that, on and off for two years, I had been willfully injecting fat into my derriere, a part of my body that I had otherwise spent my entire adult life incessantly, albeit unsuccessfully, trying to make less fatty. What surprised me was not so much the idea that I had made that decision, but that I hadn’t even considered the oil/fat/derriere issue until a year later. During treatment, I focused so narrowly and single-mindedly on achieving a pregnancy that I had left my prior priorities, however shallow, behind without a second thought.

The above example, although seemingly trivial, demonstrates how experiencing infertility can produce profound shifts in our focus and our willingness to undertake hitherto unthinkable efforts. As we try harder and harder to achieve our goal of having a family, we often become more flexible and open-minded. Many times, when someone begins treatment, they have preconceived notions about what they will or will not do. I often hear people tell me that they would not ever consider IVF, using donor gametes, adoption, etc., at the onset of treatment only to later reconsider and find themselves actively pursuing the very possibilities they originally dismissed—and grateful for the chance to do so.

Such a change usually does not happen all at once—there seems to be a “just one more thing” quality to the process. As each type of treatment fails, the next round is just a little different. For example, going from clomid to clomid plus an IUI is just one more thing. Then it’s off to injectibles and IUI, and it that doesn’t work, IVF “just adds the retrieval and the transfer”, as my RE told me. If you made this shift all at once, you might be shocked by your future choices. However, as the process unfolds, a once unthinkable option may start to seem like the best choice after all.

In addition, as you go through treatment, you start to redefine your goals and distill what is really important to you. One example of when this type of perspective change occurs when it seems unlikely that a person will be able to have his or her own genetically-related children. Of course, this is a profound loss that must be mourned. From that loss, however, often comes a change in perspective about what exactly constitutes a family. Instead of the genetic relationship to the child, the quality of the interpersonal relationship becomes more important—people feel connected and related to their child because they devote themselves to caring for the child and share so many experiences together. Interpersonal relationships then become the defining feature of a family, not genetics.

This focus on the quality of interpersonal relationships can carry over into other types of relationships too, in that people are often better able to overlook surface differences and will be able to form deeper connections with a variety of people. Thus, they may develop a larger and emotionally closer network of social support. Their circle of friends may also become more diverse, allowing them to have access to new experiences and perspectives.

Another change I frequently observe is that people who have experienced infertility tend to have an increased capacity for empathy for others, regardless of the nature of their struggles. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, we tend to walk around with the myth that bad things only happen to other people. When something bad happens to you, this myth is shattered, forcing to you acknowledge that bad things really do happen. With that comes the realization of how profoundly painful such experiences can be, whether they happen to you or to someone else. Even though the nature of the hardship or disappointment may be different, you can still have a pretty good idea about how another person may be hurting. Also, almost everyone who has been in infertility treatment has experienced insensitive comments from others, and thus tries to be more thoughtful about what they say, or don’t say, to others.

Many of my clients have also reported that as a result of dealing with infertility, they have increased confidence in their coping skills. By surviving, and even triumphing over their struggles with infertility, they learn that they can survive difficult times, challenges, and disappointments. Plus, they have now developed more sophisticated coping skills, so that the next time a life crisis occurs, they are more prepared and can handle things more easily.

So let’s see here—increased open-mindedness and flexibility, increased capacity for connecting with others, increased empathy and sensitivity, and an increased sense of personal strength—those all sound pretty good, right? Now I know you may be rolling your eyes right now, and thinking that it isn’t worth it—the current pain of your situation is too great, and you’ve got enough character already! But since we usually don’t have a choice about the medical circumstances causing our infertility, all we can do is try to learn from our experiences as best we can. (For instance, my spending a lot of time futilely worrying about the size of my rump probably isn’t the most productive use of my energy, and it certainly isn’t making it any smaller!)

As long as we try to learn from our experiences, I think that the changes in that result from them will be mostly positive. In the case of infertility, the type of personal growth that occurs better prepares us to be parents—we have more emotional maturity and higher levels of tolerance for the stresses that lie ahead. There are several research studies that confirm this theory, in which parents who had experienced infertility prior to becoming parents scored higher on measures of effective parenting.

So if you are worried that your experiences with infertility are going to change you for the worse, remember that are most likely going to become an even more mature, emotionally sophisticated, and empathic person than you already are!


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