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!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Don't Ignore Infertility: but don't ignore the power of ignoring!

It is National Infertility Awareness week.  This year, Resolve's theme is "Don't Ignore", reminding us all to pay attention to infertility, its interpersonal ramifications, and its legal and financial issues. I hope that as more people become aware of the issues surrounding infertility, there will be an increase in sensitivity, legal protection, and funding for treatment.

I think the theme of awareness is an extremely important one.  However, I also believe that there are times in which, in order to best cope with your infertility, you may benefit from a little judicious, purposeful ignoring.   I have come to the conclusion that there are certain interpersonal problems and experiences that are better left neglected.  Intervention only makes them worse, and only makes us more miserable than necessary.  As Ruth Bader Ginsberg wisely said during her speech at my graduation ceremony, "Sometimes, it pays to be a little deaf."

For instance, if someone who is not particularly emotionally close to you makes a hurtful or insensitive comment about your infertility, sometimes the best thing might be to just pretend they never said it at all.  Let's say Great-Aunt Mabel gets on your case for not having children yet, observing that after all, you aren't getting any younger.  You could try to correct her--but since she's 97 years old, she's not likely to alter her behavior.  You could allow the hurt of her words to seep inside, stirring up all the painful issues of which you are struggling.  Or you could pretend, as Ruth Bader Ginsberg might suggest, that you just didn't hear that comment at all, and completely change the subject.  After all, Aunt Mabel clearly doesn't have a good understanding of the situation, and she isn't a source of emotional support.  Her opinion is not valid in this situation, and it will not be of any help to you. 

The two rules of thumb I use in these situations are 1) Is the person close to you and typically a source of emotional support? and 2) is this person able to hear and make good use of constructive feedback?  If the answer to both of these questions is no, then thinking about or responding to what they say is often a waste of your energy.

Another example occurs when after you and your partner have carefully considered your treatment options and chosen a path, only to have others, usually less-informed (and in any case, not you) opine about what you should, or shouldn't do.  If considering their opinion isn't going to change the outcome of your decision, then arguing with them about their thoughts on the matter is only going to be detrimental and upsetting to you.
 For example, if you've decided to try IVF, but your always opinionated cousin doesn't understand why you don't "just adopt", there may not be much benefit in responding to or arguing with him.  A blank stare often suffices.

For the most part, the internet has been a blessing to those of us struggling with infertility, allowing us to connect and share information and support.  Unfortunately though, it seems to be another prime source of information and comments best left ignored.  The anonymity of the internet allows people to feel entitled to say things to and about us that they would never have the courage, and many times even the inclination, to say to our faces.  For example, early on in my blog, I wrote a post which contained some of my feelings about the experience of adopting my daughter.  Someone commented that they had featured my blog post on their blog and to click over and check it out.  When I did, I discovered that this person had used my words, which I had thought were filled with love, as evidence that adoption was bad.  Several of her readers commented that I should never have been given a child in adoption, and that I was not a fit parent.   My first response was to get upset and defensive and leave a comment of my own--but I soon realized it wouldn't do any good.  After all, these folks had never met me, and really didn't have any valid information with which to judge my suitability for parenthood.  Any comment that I wrote would be unlikely to change their minds, and an internet fight was not going to be good for my emotional health.  So I decided to leave the situation alone, and it quickly blew over, without any effort on my part. 

Almost any news article about infertility treatment, if one scrolls down to read the comments, seems to invoke a negative, judgmental reaction in some of the commenters.  I've decided to stop reading those comments.  It's impossible to argue with an anonymous, closed-minded, and misinformed person.  I think our energy is better spent going on about our business and working hard to achieve or family building goals.  Instead of fighting with someone who will never be convinced, I think we should focus our efforts on educating and   informing the public as a whole about infertility and infertility treatment.
Another type of interpersonal situation I think it is pretty safe to ignore are those in which someone with an obvious profit motive is trying to tell you to buy something or try something.  If it seems to good to be true, than I'm afraid it probably is.  I would be wary of any product or professional that guarantees that if you do X, Y, or Z, then you will get pregnant. 

Of course, there are a lot of things about infertility treatment that you should never ignore--your bodily sensations, and your feelings about and reactions to important people in your lives.  We should also never ignore the medical facts surrounding our diagnosis, and need to learn about and carefully watch over our treatment.  By letting go of the stuff that people say that really doesn't matter, we can have more energy to devote to attending to the things that do--and thus help ensure we create the most positive outcome for ourselves.

For more information about Resolve, infertility and National Infertility Awareness Week, please visit:

Friday, April 6, 2012

Sex, infertility treatment, and the real purpose of sex

It's no secret that experiencing infertility can be hard on your sex life.  In fact, I don't think I've ever heard a client tell me that their sex life had improved once they realized infertility was an issue. Typically, the scenario goes as follows:  at first, there is great excitement as a couple begins to try to have a baby.  However, if things don't work out relatively quickly, anxiety sets in, and sex becomes a more scheduled and anxiety-fraught affair. By the time infertility treatment begins in earnest, sex has become associated with feelings of failure and unhappiness, and couples sometimes struggle with maintaining a healthy sex life.

Many times, I've had clients tell me that they feel that because they are infertile, that sex has lost some of its meaning for them.  After all, sex exists for the purposes of reproduction, and if having it can't achieve it's purpose, they experience feelings of loss and failure.

Although this reaction is understandable and predictable, it seems to have more to do with cultural values about sex rather than the realities of the situation.  Although I'm no evolutionary biologist, I would argue that reproduction is only one of the purposes of sex, and perhaps not even its most important purpose.  This is because for human beings, a sexual encounter rarely produces a child.  Even in the case of the Duggars, only 20 or so of their instances of their intimate moments resulted in a pregnancy.  In contrast, many other species only engage in sexual behavior when reproductive potential is at its highest--cats, for example, who only participate in sexual behavior when the female cat is ovulating. 

For humans, then, sex plays another very important role--sexual behavior leads to affiliation.  A couple's sexual intimacy keeps them close to each other.  This had several evolutionary advantages.  Historically,  human beings have survived better when they lived in group.  Their offspring tended to survive more often with more adults available to protect and care for them.  Thus, sex really isn't merely about reproduction.

In the history of Western culture, sometimes the reproductive aspects of sexual behavior have been emphasized over its affiliative aspects.  In recent times, societies' values about sexuality have changed.  Interestingly, from a psychological perspective, when it comes to infertility, we often take a more reductionistic view, focusing only on the parts with which we struggle.

Thus, if you are finding that your sex life isn't what it used to be since infertility, keep in mind that for human beings, sexual behavior isn't primarily about reproduction.  Rather, for us, sex is primarily about forming and maintaining an important relationship.  Even if you are infertile, you can still be successful at feeling close with your partner.  In the end, the survival of the species may depend more on that than on reproduction per se.