What's Your Beef? Fertility Not To Be Taken For Granted
Do you have any kids?” “When are you two going to have kids?” These may seem like benign ice breakers and cute, probing questions. Unless that is, the person who you are asking is in the private struggle of trying to build a family. Most of us probably know or have met someone who is striving to have a child of their own, but because they are wearing a brave face, we may not know it.
Consider this: In the U.S., 7.4 million, or 1 in 8 women of reproductive age have received help for infertility in their lifetime. Or, through another lens, 1 in 8 couples have difficulty getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy. Infertility affects both men and women.
The definition of “infertility” varies a bit between the World Health Organization and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine but generally refers to a disease defined by the failure to achieve a successful pregnancy after 12 months of well-timed, unprotected sexual intercourse. According to their blog, RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association prefers to use the definition of infertility (and statistics) that include impaired fecundity – the inability to carry a pregnancy to a live birth.
For those affected, infertility is a health crisis fraught with physical, emotional, mental and financial burdens. For many, the seeming inability to procreate cuts to the existential core of their life’s purpose and what most people expect is a given, natural part of their life cycle as a male or female. I’ve read that the stress caused by infertility has been likened to a cancer diagnosis. When one is in the throes of an infertility struggle, it seems like pregnant women are everywhere – a constant reminder of what one cannot have. It can be overwhelming and feel like an emotional rollercoaster of shock, sadness, anger, disbelief, grief, envy, even guilt.
The secret struggle is often made even harder by the lack of cognizance of others. Even well-intentioned people can unwittingly add to the stress of those experiencing infertility by asking questions, sharing unnecessary information and/or giving unsolicited advice. Why does this matter? Stress is a fertility killer.
There are ways to reduce stress and boost fertility but they are not necessarily easy to do. And, one may have the cleanest diet, optimal weight and mindfulness practice and still experience fertility issues.
With this article, my hope is to broaden our collective awareness of this reproductive crisis – to let those experiencing infertility know there is support and give a little guidance on how to support others in crisis.
With the stats as they are, there are plenty of people around who are experiencing infertility, yet it can still feel very isolating. You do not have to feel alone. I learned that when I walked into a RESOLVE Bozeman infertility support group back in 2012. By then I was six years into my infertility journey. There were about 10 other women at the meeting, and I was surprised to see a woman I knew. I had no idea we were both struggling! I don’t remember what I verbally shared at those meetings or the specifics of what others said. What I do remember was the feeling of comfort of being heard by those who understand because they were living it themselves.
Three years later, I found myself in the role of the peer support group leader, and I still volunteer my time to host meetings once a month. Most of the time, it’s an opportunity to share one’s story and to listen to others. Inevitably a good discussion comes out of it, helping everyone feel validated for the wide-ranging feelings they have. Sometimes we have guest speakers, do mindfulness exercises or brainstorm coping mechanisms. The meetings are confidential and there is the tacit understanding that no matter what path one chooses – lifestyle changes, holistic medicine, assisted reproductive technology, adoption, donors, moving on to other aspects of life – there is no judgment. Just respect.
Outside of those meetings, my inability to conceive was a private matter shared with few. I have memories of a clandestine follicle-stimulating hormone injection in the back seat of our car while camping at Wade Lake with visiting family. Publicly, I can recall how my social interactions started shutting down in attempt to avoid the dreaded question about having or not having kids.
As the support group facilitator, some of the main laments I hear are about those people who ask the questions “Have you thought of adoption? Have you tried this? Have you tried that?” Yes, yes and yes, they probably have. Or, make the statements “So and so wasn’t even trying and got pregnant.” “Oh, their kids are so cute!” “You just need to relax.”
It can very hard to be empathetic without context surrounding the crisis and feelings someone else is experiencing. I was very fortunate that my family, friends and in-laws didn’t pry or pressure me about why I was 40-something and had no kids. When I was ready to talk openly about our struggle with certain people, I felt they generally listened and respectfully kept their questions to a minimum.
While talking openly about struggles sometimes helps, it’s a very personal decision to decide when, where and how much to share. Remember that. If you don’t know if someone has children, it is usually a good idea to wait for a cue before asking about whether they have children. Think of it as an exercise in restraint. Your thoughtfulness may just make someone’s day or at least not make it harder.
Angie Kociolek navigated a six-year infertility journey and now is the mom of a kindergartner. She is the current volunteer peer support group leader for RESOLVE Bozeman. As a Licensed Acupuncturist, she works with men and women in her private practice, Rootstock Acupuncture, and serves as the Education Coordinator for the Montana Association of Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine. Angie also devotes time on the planning committee for the third annual Moms Like Me event (March 3, 2019) to shatter the myth of the post-partum experience.