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, February 3, 2011

An inspiration for the hard times during infertility treatment: Ernest Shackelton, Antartic explorer

During the dark days of my own infertility treatment, I came across a biography of the life of Ernest Shackelton, an early 20th century British explorer who attempted to cross the South Pole, but failed to due so, due to a series of bad luck and unforeseen events. Although he was forced to abandon his original goal, he performed another even more spectacular feat--despite the most extreme circumstances, he was able to ultimately lead his men to safety, without the loss of a single life.

In the story of his journey, I found numerous parallels between his experiences and those of individuals forced to take the journey of infertility treatment to try to create their family.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, I am quoting a summary from an article by Charles Chappell (2001; link to full article can be found here):

"On December 5, 1914, Sir Ernest H. Shackleton and 27 men under his command sailed from South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic aboard the boat Endurance. Their goal was to land on the Antarctic continent and become the first to cross it. The North Pole had been reached in 1909; the South Pole, in 1911. Shackleton, a veteran of Antarctic exploration who had been knighted for his earlier expeditions, felt that crossing Antarctica was “the last great Polar journey that can be made.” He named his endeavor the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
Shackleton and his men failed utterly at the expedition’s stated goal; they never even set foot on Antarctica. Yet the courage and determination they displayed have become legendary.
In January 1915, before they could reach the Antarctic coast, their ship became trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. For nine months, they and their ship drifted helplessly with the ice. Then, in October 1915, currents and wind drove massive plates of ice in on the Endurance,crushing it. Members of the expedition were forced onto the ice floes surrounding the ship.
They salvaged three lifeboats and whatever equipment and provisions they could extract from the tangled wreckage of the ship before it sank.
The ice became their home for the next six months. Attempts to move their provisions and gear dozens of miles over the ice to land were frustrated by gaps between floes and impassible ridges of ice blocks pushed up against each other by currents and winds. As their food supplies dwindled, they were forced to hunt whatever penguins and other sea life they could find. Although the men initially hoped that the drifting of the ice would carry them toward land, in time it became clear that they were drifting northward toward the open ocean. In late March,1916, cracks began splitting the floe into ever-smaller pieces. On April 9, they were forced to take to their boats in an attempt to reach one of a few small islands off the Antarctic coast. For seven sleepless days and nights, they battled the sea ice and the ferocious weather of the Southern Ocean, finally landing on remote, uninhabited Elephant Island.
Shackleton and five others left that island eight days later in the most seaworthy of the boats, the James Caird, to get help at South Georgia Island, a staggering 650 miles away.
Battling towering waves and weather that made navigational sightings almost impossible, they reached South Georgia 16 days later, only to come ashore on the uninhabited side of the island, opposite from the whaling stations they sought, and with the Caird’s rudder gone.
With no choice but to travel on foot, Shackleton and two of the other men set out to cross the mountainous, glaciated, and uncharted interior of the island. On May 20, 1916, they walked into the whaling station at Stromness Bay. Although the three men on the other side of the island were rescued the next day with help from the whalers, it would be four months and three attempts before a Shackleton-led rescue party succeeded in making its way through the sea ice to reach the remainder of the men at Elephant Island on August 30, 1916. Amazingly, after almost two years of danger and privation, not one of the expedition’s 28 members had been lost."

As you can see, Shackelton and his men did not have it easy! Numerous times, they were forced to change their goals; to endure extreme physical discomfort and deprivation; and to traverse unmapped territory; and to depend on strategies that had at best limited chances of success. Although the conditions Shackelton and his men faced were undoubtedly more extreme, many people undergoing infertility treatment deal with similar challenges. Sometimes, we must abandon our goals and hopes of having children the easy way without medical assistance, or having genetically related children. Also, infertility treatment involves its own physical discomforts and deprivations, and the outcome is never guaranteed.

To me, though, the most salient lesson of Shackleton's experience is that even though he did not achieve his original goal, he did the best he could with the set of circumstances (and they were really lousy circumstances) he was given. He used every bit of his physical, intellectual, and psychological abilities to survive, and to make sure everyone else on the expedition did too. He took great risks, made profound sacrifices, and his accomplishment, the survival of his entire team, still seems nearly impossible. For this, he is rightly considered a great man and a hero.

Although infertility treatment is necessarily more private than a polar expedition, I see similar heroes in my clinical practice with great regularity. And like Shackelton, who unfortunately did not view himself as a success (and in fact died of a heart attack during the launch of his "comeback" expedition), too often my clients do not themselves recognize the magnitude of what they have done. Despite the outcome of their treatments, they have also used all of the intellectual, physical, and psychological resources to give themselves the best chance of success. They have come up with innovative solutions to the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves. They have demonstrated profound endurance, and have tolerated physical and emotional conditions that are inhospitable to say the least. And so in my book, they are heroes too--no matter how things work out.

I think it's important to try to recognize all the different ways you yourself have been brave and heroic in your own infertility journey. This can be particularly helpful during the discouraging and dark moments, and can give you the strength to move forward. And I suppose it's always comforting to remember that at least one other person, Ernest Schackelton, didn't always have smooth sailing either.


  1. Thanks for sharing this inspiration story.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing that. Truly inspirational.

  3. What a wonderful analogy. Thank you!

  4. Thank you
    When I was Infertile most of the time I felt I was surviving, just hanging on by my fingernails. I privately felt I was weak for not coping better. You gave me something back when you wrote 'Despite the outcome of their treatments, they have also used all of the intellectual, physical, and psychological resources to give themselves the best chance of success'.

    Thank you for doing what you do.
    Ange Hutchins