Written By Erin Mitchell, MSW, LCSW
What is infertility and why do I need to be aware? Infertility is technically the inability to become pregnant after 1 year of unprotected, timed intercourse due to either female or male reproductive issues. However, let’s be a little more inclusive with this definition. It can also apply to those individuals who are able to achieve pregnancy consistently, but are unable to sustain that pregnancy to term. According to a survey by the CDC, 1 in 8 couples have trouble getting pregnant or sustaining that pregnancy. This has become a far more widespread issue than most are aware. While some couples are able to treat their infertility through medication alone given through their general OB/GYN, many need to seek treatment through a Reproductive Endocrinologist (RE) at a specialized clinic.
So, why is awareness so important? We live in a culture where we are raised from childhood with the understanding that we will grow up to have children of our own. Little girls are given baby dolls and told to care for them. Consider all the ways that we reinforce this in our society, even the expectation that “a family” refers to parents and their children. With the importance that is placed on having children, it is no surprise that an experience like infertility can have significant physical and psychological impacts.
While the impacts of infertility are varied for each person and couple, there are a few that are more common. Physically speaking, it is just exhausting. There are so many early morning specialist appointments, monitoring appointments, days off of work, injections, blood draws, medications, invasive tests, and overall hormonal upheaval. From a financial standpoint each of the above named items costs money and insurance can cover some costs, but it can range from thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands out of pocket. Emotionally, people are struggling with not being able to do something that they feel their bodies “should” be able to achieve. All of the education and knowledge that the average person gathers centers around preventing pregnancy, there is no general knowledge for encouraging successful conception that is not based on old wives’ tales. There is also the unique experience that comes from the rollercoaster ride of hope and despair that can come from a failed pregnancy attempt. For many, this has been coming on a monthly basis and is now requiring far more effort and expense making it hit that much harder. As people have become more open about their experiences with infertility, they are creating the opportunity for others in their life to be supportive; but there is still quite a stigma associated with requiring infertility treatment that leads so many people to travel this road virtually alone.
Hopefully that helps to give you a little insight into why people experiencing infertility can really benefit from support. Now the big question is, what can you do to help someone who is experiencing infertility? Below you will find a list of common phrases or experiences that people going through infertility hear from loved ones in their lives, along with better alternatives. The best way that you can be supportive is to assume that you don’t know what they’re going through and to ask them for the best way you can be supportive.
It is perfectly acceptable to feel as though infertility is a complicated process that is hard to wrap your mind around, because it is. Even people who are going through the experience themselves feel very overwhelmed and unsure, so it only makes sense that you may feel that same way. The best way to summarize how you can be supportive to someone you know or care about is to ask them what is helpful. Take this as an opportunity to learn what they need at that time, but understand that their needs may change as well. If they’re not sure you can offer to: listen, help in some way they have determined, or provide a distraction for them. We can get through the most difficult experiences in our lives with the loving support of people who care and you can help to be that person.