One significant psychological challenge for those encountering infertility is dealing with the constant stream of pregnancies in the lives around them. Whether it is at work, with friends or family, or just walking down the street or through the mall, pregnancy is everywhere. When I first was diagnosed with infertility, this struck me as unfair--how could everyone else move on with their life goals when I was completely stuck? Even now, I am occasionally caught off guard by my reaction to the pregnancy of others. The other day, my neighbor, who is a lovely and wonderful woman, stopped by to invite me to her son's birthday party, as well as to announce she was pregnant with her third child (a fact which I had sussed out weeks before...but more on that later). "I just had a third one in my heart. What about you?", she asked. Without thinking too much, I blurted out, "Wow, it never even occurred to me that it could just be up to my heart!"....and created yet another of my trademark awkward social moments.
Thanks to research done on those struggling with infertility, as well as my own clinical work, I know that, unfortunately, I'm not alone in these types of responses. In this post, I will explore some of the common reactions that people experiencing infertility have to the pregnancies of others, and will also suggest some coping strategies that may be useful in dealing with these feelings.
The dark side
One distressing facet of infertility is that it can bring up feelings that we'd rather not experience. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to reactions to the pregnancies of other women. Although reactions to pregnancies will vary, depending on the people and situations involved, it is quite likely some of them will include intense negative feelings such as envy, jealousy, and anger. While understandable, this is often very difficult for people to tolerate. If a person is not used to feeling this way and is not consciously aware of their capacities for these feelings, it can be very shocking to be confronted with such negative emotions. I frequently hear clients berating themselves because despite their best efforts, they can't "just be happy" for the pregnant woman, and instead are flooded with envy and anger. I have also heard countless confessions of clients who shamefully admitted they imagined hitting, tripping, or yelling at pregnant women on the street. (As you might expect, these were just fantasies--no pregnant women were ever harmed!) And all of these clients hated that they felt this way.
Most people are very uncomfortable acknowledging their own capacities for negative emotions. And yet, they exist in us all, despite our efforts to keep them out of consciousness. I think they are probably "hardwired" into our emotional system, in order to give us the energy and the will to protect ourselves from physical harm. Dealing with them is a little trickier in modern day society, in which harmful situations often don't require a physical response, but a psychological one.
Like it or not, the natural psychological response to seeing someone else get something you desperately want, and for which you have been working very hard to achieve, involves feelings of envy and anger at the unfairness of it all. Add to the mix that the desire to have children is usually very strong and a fundamental part of life, and the stage is set for some very strong feelings and emotional reactions. Unfortunately, I don't really see a way around it. You can, and should, control your actions around these feelings--for instance, not acting on the urge to trip that nice pregnant lady--but you can't just will your feelings out of existence.
Thus, the first step to dealing with these feelings is to remember that even though they are unpleasant, they are normal. Beating yourself up for having them really isn't fair, and it's probably not going to change how you feel. Although you may have to live with these feelings, you can find ways to cope with them so that they are not too overwhelming.
The invention of "pregdar"
I'm not the kind of person who loves a surprise, particularly when it's the kind of surprise that is going to send me into an unpleasant emotional tailspin. When I was in the beginning of my infertility treatment, I was not attuned to the pregnancy plans, or slight changes in behavior or appearance, of the women around me. However, a few painful pregnancy disclosures later, I had learned to spot the telltale signs of early pregnancy. While I am not always right, overall I have a pretty good track record. My "pregdar" has been very helpful to me, because if I could anticipate a pregnancy before it is announced, I had the luxury of processing my negative feelings in advance and in private. Now, I am not suggesting you make every woman you see pee on a stick, but I do think it is helpful to be aware of the possibilities and anticipate upsetting pregnancies ahead of time.
Being honest about your feelings
Sometimes just being honest about how you feel may be useful, although it will not work, nor would it be appropriate, in every situation. If the pregnant woman in question is a good friend or relative, yet you are finding yourself having negative emotions about her pregnancy, telling her about them gives the two of you the chance to process these feelings together. Chances are, if you say it nicely, and she's an important person in your life, she is going to understand how you feel. She may be worried about your reaction anyway, and will welcome the chance to discuss it. Many times, after these negative feelings are discussed, they greatly lessen in intensity, making room for more positive feelings, including "just being happy" for the other person.
If all else fails...
Of course, there are some situations in which you just can't process your feelings with the pregnant person. And others in which processing these feelings did not produce the desired result. Further, there are some pregnant women to whom, for various reasons, you will react to more strongly. In these cases, avoidance can be a useful short-term strategy. Much has been written about this strategy already, so I won't belabor the point. But remember, you can give yourself permission to skip the baby shower or bow out of pregnancy related conversations when possible. Although it's not ideal, you are just a human being, and you have your limits, just like everyone else. Acknowledging them, at least to yourself, can give you the freedom to control when and where your negative emotions are experienced and expressed.
In sum, although negative emotional reactions to the pregnancies of others can be distressing, they are understandable and to be expected. Accepting and acknowledging these feelings allows you to be more in control of when and how you express them. As these feelings are not exclusive to infertility treatment, learning to deal with them now may be one of those little "fringe benefits" of the current situation, because in the future, when they are stirred up again, you will have a coping strategy already in place.