Fertility struggles can bring up a whole host of difficult feelings ― a sense of loss and grief, a lack of control, overwhelming resentment, shame and more. But the first emotion that tends to come up is disappointment.
“Disappointment is one of the most common emotions felt for people dealing with fertility struggles,” Maya Grobel, a psychotherapist who specializes in reproductive medicine, told HuffPost. “There is a hope-wait-crash cycle that happens each month for so many people who are trying to conceive. When it doesn’t work, disappointment is inevitable.”
It’s grappling with expectations versus reality. You might have imagined that getting pregnant and carrying the pregnancy to term would be easy, but then it turned out to be demoralizing, lonely, painful and expensive. The letdown can be overwhelming.
“When we’ve had disappointment in the past, we tended to be taught that if we work harder or try something else, we’ll be able to do it next time,” said Julie Bindeman, a therapist who focuses on reproductive challenges. “While that is the case quite often in life, it’s not how things work with fertility ― it’s not something you can just easily figure out.”
Indeed, there’s no simple workaround or clear timeline when you’re having trouble conceiving or staying pregnant.
“The worst thing about infertility is that you don’t know when it’s going to happen or if it’s going to happen at all, and that’s where you can’t recover from the disappointment the same way you do with other disappointments you can get over or just move on from,” said Amy Klein, author of “The Trying Game: Get Through Fertility Treatment and Get Pregnant Without Losing Your Mind.”
So how can people cope with feeling disappointed as they face fertility struggles? Grobel, Bindeman, Klein and other experts share their advice below.
1. Build a support system.
“Know your support system,” advised Andrea Bryman, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in assisted reproduction. “Talk with your partner, family, friends when you need to and let them be exactly what they are ― your support.”
Make a list of people you can call on for help and go through that list during particularly difficult moments. Fertility struggles can feel isolating and confusing, but you don’t have to go through the experience alone.
“Seek help and support outside of your partner and your medical team,” suggested licensed professional counselor Justine Froelker. “Find community with others who are going through the journey too, and follow people who are on every side and path of the infertility journey. All to remember that you are never alone in this. Ask for help. Reach out.”
2. Feel your feelings.
Give yourself permission to feel all of your feelings and acknowledge that there’s no right or wrong way to feel.
“Name them and identify them correctly,” Froelker said. “Cope with them in a healthy way. Allow them to move through.”
Validating your feelings is an important and ongoing part of the process, as you might feel different waves over time.
“Feelings like disappointment are often compounded,” Bindeman said. “So the initial disappointment might be, ‘Oh, we’re not going to be able to make a baby spontaneously. Ok, I can get over that, thank God there’s science.’ Then the next disappointment might be, ‘Oh wow, IUI isn’t working for us’ and then, ‘Wait a second, we’re not creating the amount of embryos I was expecting.’ All of these all compound on the original disappointment.”
“Continue caring for your body. While you may feel betrayed by your body, your body still deserves your love and compassion.”
If those feelings add up and lead to moments of deep despair, try to remember that you won’t feel this way forever (though that’s easier said than done).
“Sometimes it helps to zoom the lens out to see the bigger picture and remember the feeling won’t last forever ― that it’s a hard moment in time,” Grobel said. “I think people need the space and sometimes even the permission to grieve, and be in the intensity of the feelings. And then they need a way to move through it.”
3. Talk about it.
“Don’t hold your emotions inside,” Bryman said. “Don’t expect people to be mind-readers and know how you’re feeling. Communication is key.”
Talking about your experiences and feelings can be a meaningful way to process all of the difficulty. When you’re ready, don’t be afraid to share your story.
“Coping with the disappointment and sadness associated with fertility challenges may look different for each individual,” said Ashley Ertel, a licensed therapist with Talkspace. “Some people find support in openly discussing their pain. Others prefer only to speak with people who can personally relate, whether it be friends, family, or a support group.”
But of course, you don’t always have to share if it doesn’t feel right.
“Never feel obligated to share what you are not comfortable sharing,” Bryman said. “Creating a baby is intimate, and because you are facing obstacles, does not mandate that you have to share every detail of the process.”
4. Practice self-care.
“Continue caring for your body,” Ertel advised. “While you may feel betrayed by your body, your body still deserves your love and compassion. Make a point to engage in healthy activities that are in line with your level of physical ability. This also includes things like taking regular showers, eating balanced meals (and not depriving yourself of the tasty treats), and practicing good sleep hygiene.”
Self-care might mean waiting a bit to schedule your next fertility treatment if you have that luxury.
“Take a fertility break if time allows,” Bryman suggested. “Give yourself time to reset.”
Give yourself emotional support, as well as physical support.
“Practice self-compassion and acceptance,” said Landon Zaki, a psychologist and founder of Bloom Therapy. “Acknowledge that what you are going through is a moment of struggle and loss, and practice giving yourself the gentle compassion and kindness you would to a friend in this moment.”
You can also take breaks from people who say harmful things to you and events that might add to your trauma.
“Protect yourself if you need to,” Bryman said. “It’s OK to skip a baby shower if you need to, or tell others you’re not in a place to talk about your fertility issues. You own this discussion, and you and only you and your partner have complete control over what you want to talk about and what you don’t.”
5. Dive into activities that bring you joy and fulfillment.
“I think it’s really important to remember that as people, we are not defined by our fertility or our family,” Bindeman said. “This notion isn’t really internalized in American culture, but the easiest advice to give ― and the hardest to follow ― is to make sure that your life still has other things in it that have nothing to do with a future family. So if you loved basket weaving, don’t stop basket weaving.”
Zaki echoed this call to remain committed to activities and goals that matter to you outside of fertility. Do things that make you feel happy and good about yourself, whether it’s reading, exercising, antique shopping or traveling.
“For most people, having a family is an important goal in life,” she said. “However, it is likely not their only goal. Staying committed to other important values and goals can reduce feelings of disappointment and increase overall well-being and mental health during fertility struggles.”
6. Try to remember that you’re not the only person facing these hurdles.
“When you’re struggling to conceive, seeing other friends or family become pregnant easily can be painful and increase feelings of disappointment,” Zaki said. “People may start to wonder if something is wrong and can feel disappointed in their bodies when pregnancy does not come quickly or easily.”
It’s easier said than done, but try to separate your experience from what you see around you. And remember that what you’re experiencing is just that ― a journey ― and you’re not at the finish line.
“You are creating your family story, and while this is a painful time, it will be part of how you came to be,” Bryman said. “Every family has their own story. This is your story. Think about how you want to tell it.”
If you can’t help but compare your situation to the happy families you see around you, remember that you are not alone in experiencing this struggle ― even if it feels that way sometimes.
“Fertility struggles are extremely common, more so than most think, because they are often not widely or openly discussed,” Zaki noted.
“The easiest advice to give ― and the hardest to follow ― is to make sure that your life still has other things in it that have nothing to do with a future family.”
7. Find experts you trust.
Instead of relying on the internet for medical advice, make sure you have a good OB/GYN you feel comfortable talking to and asking for advice. And ask for a referral for a reproductive endocrinologist if you need to talk to a specialist.
“Often it feels crazy-making to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome,” Grobel said. “But staying grounded in finding a doctor and a support team you trust and getting the information and education you need to make the best decisions for yourself may alleviate some of the disappointment knowing you did the best you could in that particular moment.”
8. Remove blame and regret.
Try to wrap your head around the fact that infertility is a medical condition.
“Just like you wouldn’t be mad at yourself if you had a heart disease or a broken leg or cancer, this is a medical condition that’s terribly difficult, and it’s not anyone’s fault,” Klein said.
She added that she used to ruminate a lot, wondering what would have happened if she’d tried to get pregnant with her husband before they got married. Would they have been able to have their baby earlier? Or would she have had a miscarriage that led them to break up?
“It’s so hard to look back at all the ‘what ifs’ and wish things were different,” Klein said. “What if I had frozen my eggs? What if I had married that other guy? What if I just had a baby on my own? But we have to remember that we all do the best we can in the moment.”
She believes that working on regrets, blame and getting your “emotional house” in order allows hopeful parents to continue on the fertility journey “with a full heart and all your resources.”
9. Understand that your partner might feel differently.
“Recognize that you and your partner might not be feeling the same thing at the same time,” Bryman said. “Find ways to stay connected and try not make fertility the focus of your relationship. This will only add extra pressure to an already difficult time.”
When things don’t feel aligned, remind yourselves that the reason you’re hoping to expand your family is because you love each other. Keep that love at the forefront, not the fertility challenges.
“Find a balance in your conversations and activities,” Bryman added. “This advice goes with all aspects of life as well.”
10. Seek professional help.
“When normal coping tools fail to provide enough emotional relief from fertility struggles, know that specialized professional support is available and can help,” Zaki said.
You can find group, couples or individual therapy to deal with the overwhelming feelings that can arise from this experience. Often, an impartial third party will offer the kind of support you need.
“Many people find that therapy is an effective way to process through the stress and disappointment associated with fertility challenges,” Ertel said. “There are even therapists that specialize in the grief caused by infertility and miscarriage. You deserve to have a space where you can openly and fully talk about your feelings related to fertility challenges.”