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!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Not quite free to be you and me: Infertility treatment and the recogntion of our limitations

I have come to the conclusion that it is all Marlo Thomas' fault.

As a child growing up in the 1970's, I was raised on a steady diet of "Free to Be You and Me" encouragement--women, it seemed, could have it all.  They could be whatever they wanted--being professionally successful and a mother was no problem.  There were no limits. All a girl had to do was to do her best, and work as hard as she could.  This message seems to be permanently woven into every fiber of my being.  Even though I now know this is not always true, it seems like I constantly default back to this belief. I somehow manage to forget that I, like us all, have limitations, some insurmountable. Every time in my life it again proven that hard work can't solve everything, it stings just as much.  Over, and over, it is an unpleasant, and unwelcome, surprise.

Now I understand what Ms. Thomas was trying to accomplish.  For much of our history, women were discriminated against, and discouraged from entering the professional world.  I am enormously grateful that my generation of women received the encouragement and opportunities that we have.  And of course, I recognize much of the wisdom of Ms. Thomas' teachings.  In almost all areas of life, attempting to solve problems through effort and hard work is a very successful strategy.  I also believe that without trying, we may never know what we can accomplish. 

My problem with the "free to be mentality" is this--if for some reason you couldn't do whatever you wanted, then logically you could conclude that you hadn't worked hard enough or tried your best.  A problem that couldn't be solved with hard work didn't exist in this scenario.   If there were no barriers to your success, there could be no other explanations for your failures.  It is all on you.  I'm sure this logical corollary was completely unintended by Ms. Thomas.

Despite this, whenn it comes to infertility, this type of thinking can be extremely problematic.  IInfertility is not a problem that can usually be solved by effort and hard work alone.  Physical variables, and frankly, luck, seem to be the trump card in many cases.  Thus, despite all the efforts made to fix the problem, it is often experienced  psychologically as a profound personal failure.  Lest this just be my issue, nearly every infertility client with whom I have ever worked has expressed strong concerns that their infertility was somehow their fault, and that the reason that they couldn't have a baby was because they had done, or were doing, something wrong.  In all of these cases, the problems, whether they could be fully identified or not, lay outside of the person's sphere of control.

In my case, infertility turned out to be more than the inability to have a child, but realization that my philosophy of living was fundamentally flawed.  I suppose that's a good thing, because it's more realistic. In learning to accept the limitations of our bodies when it comes to creating a baby, we learn that not all things are possible after all.  This is a painful but important realization, for there will be other aspects of life in which we will also be unable to achieve our goals.

On the other hand, my infertility would have been much easier for me to cope with if I had considered the possibility that there were going to be many things in life I wasn't going to have the ability to do, and that was how it was for everyone.  It didn't mean I was a bad person, flawed, cursed, or lazy.  It was just unfortunate that my talents didn't lie in this particular direction.  Based on my clinical experience, I suspect this is the same for others as well. 

As for hard work, I still believe in its value.  When I recently discussed this issue with my mother (the one who relentlessly played the "Free to Be" album, and in many other ways promoted the omnipotence of hard work during my childhood), she was unmoved.  "Look," she said, "You have lots of problems with infertility.  And yet you still have children.  You worked hard to make it happen.  Marlo Thomas was right."  And I really do see her point, especially if you look at the big picture. 

But like most of us, during infertility treatment, I couldn't look at the big picture, mostly because it wasn't drawn yet.  So all I saw were a series of physical failures, despite maximum effort and worry on my part.  It took a while to realize that hard work wasn't going to solve the problem alone.  During that time, my self-esteem was in tatters.  It has taken years to reorganize my way of thinking, and to come to terms with my physical, intellectual, and emotional limitations. 

If you are reading this, I just hope you can learn all of this much faster than I did.  While we all can and should try to achieve our goals, we must forgive ourselves, if through no fault of our own, we cannot.  In that way, I think we can be most free to truly be ourselves.

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