Infertility Has Long-Term Emotional Impacts
Having a baby doesn’t erase years of struggle.
It’s a really hard journey, physically and mentally. Nobody really understands unless you have gone through it. So many doctors, so much false hope. People want to be asked about it. Talking helps, but I feel it is still a bit taboo. When you are in it, you feel like it will never end. — Lindsey, reflecting on her journey with infertility.
Trying to get pregnant (or TTGP as it’s called in the online world of fertility) typically begins with an optimistic outlook. You do the deed, you wait a few weeks, you pee on a stick (POAS)… You think: I will certainly see a positive test when I POAS this month. The excitement heightens as you wait for those two lines to appear. Three minutes of waiting and I will get to celebrate, you think.
Except, for many women, it doesn’t work that way at all. And then for an even smaller number of women, this cycle of disappointment lasts three months, six months, twelve months …
“It’s just such a personal journey that it can be hard sometimes to relate to others who have infertility treatments let alone someone who hasn’t… People say they know how personal the journey is, but it really only scratches the surface.” — Jessica
Infertility is “characterized by the failure to establish a clinical pregnancy after twelve months of regular, unprotected sexual intercourse or due to an impairment of a person’s capacity to reproduce either as an individual or with his/her partner. Fertility interventions may be initiated in less than one year based on medical, sexual and reproductive history, age, physical findings and diagnostic testing.” (Resolve.com)
To think of oneself as ‘infertile’ is a slap in the face.
It is such a barren term with no wiggle room. When you’ve been diagnosed as ‘infertile,’ what it really means is that there are medical interventions that can be explored in the hopes of achieving and maintaining pregnancy. The term ‘infertile’ can be quite misleading for that reason. Either way, it stings.
For me and my husband, it took us a year to get pregnant on our own. I miscarried that first pregnancy. We subsequently began seeing a Reproductive Endocrinologist (the ‘fertility doc’) to figure out why we could not seem to get pregnant easily, despite timing everything quite well. It turned out that the issue was two-fold: I had high FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) which, in a nutshell, means that my egg quality was a bit shoddy, and he had slow swimmers.
We started with intrauterine insemination (IUI), which required me to take pills for a set number of days to increase my chances of healthy ovulation, followed by strict timing to get the swimmers past my cervix and directly into the uterus — we essentially cut out the middle man on the way to the uterine chamber and went straight for the uterine lining in hopes that the cells would come together and stick, eventually resulting in a baby. To our delight, two weeks after the IUI, my pregnancy test came back positive.
Sounds so easy, right? Well, emotionally, it’s anything but.
We went in for an early ultrasound at the fertility clinic. The sound of our baby’s heartbeat filled the room. It was a beautiful moment. When we were given the go-ahead to switch from the clinic to my usual Ob/Gyn, I couldn’t wait to hear that heartbeat once again. The weeks in between the appointments were long, and I had to constantly reassure myself that lightning would not strike twice — that, statistically speaking, things were more likely to go well with the pregnancy than not.
The day finally came when I went to the Ob’s office. I explained to the ultrasound technician that I was very nervous due to my previous miscarriage. She looked at me with sympathy, reassured me that things would be fine, and got to work with her ultrasound. After a few moments of her clicking away at her computer screen, making measurements, she asked:
Are you sure you have your dates right?
I took a deep breath. She asked again, “Are you sure you have your dates right?” I instinctually knew what this meant. The baby had stopped growing. There would be no heartbeat.
She apologized and left the room so that my husband and I could come to terms with the news.
It felt like a nightmare. This time, I had a D&C. From this procedure, we learned that our baby girl had trisomy13. We mourned her loss and headed back to the fertility clinic a few months later.
We opted for another IUI, which is how I became pregnant with our twins.
It would be easy to sum up the pregnancy and just say, “And nine months later, they were born,” but the effects of the journey leading up to that point — the pills, the blood tests, the shots, the loss — it took a deep toll on us emotionally. I always imagined that once I could hold our baby (babies, in this case) in my arms, everything would suddenly be okay. But it wasn’t.
The Lasting Effects
This got me thinking: Surely I am not the only person who has these lingering, painful feelings regarding the setbacks that are part of the journey toward parenthood. So, I decided to find out.
Throughout our fertility journey, I joined online groups with women who were going through similar situations regarding baby-making. These support groups were a source of comfort during a time when so many things were completely out of control.
But these groups had a swinging-door effect. You’d join, ‘meet’ the women in the group and hear their stories, and then they’d get that positive pregnancy test and be gone.
So what happens after those months of pregnancy go by and your baby is born? Do you start to feel like the past is just an echo? That you can simply move forward and feel it was all worth it? That depends.
Your gratitude for a healthy pregnancy can exist alongside the trauma from fertility treatments, but from reaching out to others who have gone through this journey, the lingering impacts seem to be ubiquitous. We are not alone when we feel that we’ve somehow been wronged by our bodies, or that it feels like we were dealt a bad hand.
Take Karyn’s story, for instance. The emotional impact of her journey still lingers, years later.
We had our first child in October 2014. I got pregnant without trying and had my first miscarriage in March of 2015 (at eight weeks); a second miscarriage in April of 2016 (at eight weeks); then went through two rounds of IVF in 2017–18, and my journey ended in September of 2018 when I got a full hysterectomy due to endometriosis.
One thing I will never, ever forget was the overall sadness and despair I would feel after each appointment when I was not seeing enough eggs. None of the nurses or doctors would ask me if I was ok emotionally. I would be sitting in a waiting area by myself, crying about the appointment’s outcome, and the staff would just go about their day. Now maybe the place I went to was just bad at helping women with the emotional part of the process, or maybe that’s just the way it is.
I also hated waiting for appointments in the waiting room with all the other women. Every time I could feel this horrible, sad energy in the room. It was emanating off of each woman in there. I also wanted to talk to them because I knew that each one of them was going through what I was going through, and if we could just talk about the process and commiserate together, we might feel just a little bit better. The reason I never spoke up was that I always felt that it was a quiet secretive thing and that we as women aren’t supposed to really talk about it, just like with the miscarriages. — Karyn.
The feelings of isolation and shame are part of the reason that this process feels so daunting. When Karyn shared her story with me, I couldn’t help but feel a pit in my stomach, but one that lit a fire inside of me. As a woman who has gone through miscarriages and fertility treatments, I feel moved to share my story, too. If we begin to openly share our stories, perhaps we can help someone else feel less lonely when it’s happening to them.
So, I continued to ask female friends about their experiences.
It led to an influx of stories in my inbox. I heard from women whose children are toddlers, and others who have adopted children who are now adults themselves. I was amazed at how openly we were able to discuss these stories with each other.
I am hoping that by sharing a few here, with permission, we can work toward creating a stronger network of support among women dealing with this. Not only that, but it offers some insight to others, who have not had this experience, about the lingering effects of infertility on an emotional level. Part of the reason the journey is so difficult is that there is a huge lack of understanding among the general public about what infertility means and the impact it has on individuals or couples.
I knew early on that it would be almost impossible to conceive naturally. I had a botched surgery when I was nineteen from ovarian cysts, and it resulted in the loss of one of my ovaries and most of my organs fusing together due to the amount of scar tissue. So from that, I was fortunate and didn’t have to suffer for months and years before making the choice to use IVF.
The first time was pretty easy with three rounds of IVF and my son being conceived in the second transfer. But my husband and I have been trying to have our second for just under a year. We had a miscarriage, which I had a DNC for, and have had numerous transfers from our frozen storage and have used those all up so it’s still ongoing.
When I was done the first time with [fertility treatments], it was mostly just a relief that I was fortunate enough to have it work, but it was still difficult to know that if we wanted another baby, it would be a hard journey.
Personally, I was mostly angry about it. I didn’t know exactly at nineteen what impact it was going to have in the long term, or how difficult the road would be…
I won’t lie, [there is] some resentment. I know infertility affects so many women, but when you’re in the club, it still feels as if all your friends and family members are having babies with ease. It really is a mental game. Physically, it’s a cakewalk compared to what it does with the mind. Not just with the lack of sleep when you have to drag yourself in for blood at 5 am almost every other day and then go to a full day of work, but the whole process of waiting after transfers is where I really felt my mind pushed to the limit. — Jessica
Our journey lasted just shy of two years — we were actually very lucky. Given that, it was incredibly emotional and downright draining. I was a wreck. It was tough to know what to do because so many experts provided conflicting information and I felt completely overwhelmed.
It has been emotional despite the journey being over, partially because I still have friends going through it. My clinic offered yoga which allowed me to connect with other women who understood. I’m constantly reminded of how lucky we are to have our amazing daughter. That being said, I experienced postpartum depression, and that was difficult because I felt like I wanted this SO badly. I felt increased guilt and frustration that I didn’t feel an instant connection with our daughter.
I wish that people knew what to say. I wish that fewer people passed judgment and unknowingly asked ignorant questions. I wish that people understood how crazy of a process it is and the emotional toll it takes. I never knew about ALL of the appointments, ALL of the tests, ALL of the shots, ordering meds online … it’s crazy how much we learn when faced with this! — Kristine
We can’t go back and change what happened to us, and the negative feelings cannot be erased, regardless of what happened at the end of our journey through infertility — whether or not it resulted in a baby. We are a tribe of women who have been to a certain kind of hell and back. And we continue to function, to be there for our families and friends. We bury the heartache and show up for life. But we don’t have to bury it all. What we can do is offer each other support in whatever capacity possible.