When infertility strikes

It seems like the natural course of life – your children grow up, get married, and have kids of their own. But when infertility strikes it can put a strain on your relationship with your grown children and make times for family celebration stressful.

“For me the pain was intense every Christmas, every birthday. The child that I wanted so desperately was never there, and as my husband and I went from tests to drugs to IVF I kept feeling more isolated from the normal happy people – including my family,” says Julie*, 38, of Montreal, Quebec.

Her mother, Marie, 62, also of Montreal, reminisces, “It was as though my daughter was somehow behind a veil of anger,” she says. “Many days it was the way it had always been but other days it was like having to walk on nails, everything had a sting to it.”

And of course Marie wondered if it was her fault, “I smoked and drank when I was pregnant with Julie; everyone did it at that time. But I wondered if maybe it was that that caused these problems or something else that I did or did not do…. It is very hard to see a child suffer, but all that Julie would say was that I could not understand.”

And Marie couldn’t, Julie maintains. “At first she kept telling me to relax. Everyone that I’ve spoken with says the same, that they are told to relax and let nature take its course. It has to be one of the most annoying things people can say…. They say to adopt. There is nothing wrong with that, adoption, but I wanted to carry a child inside me and to have a child that was part me and part my husband. Nothing could take away the sting every month that we didn’t conceive.”

Statistics on infertility are hotly contested, as they may be based only on those couples who seek treatment. But a 1999 survey by Health Canada estimated that 7 per cent of Canadian couples in their reproductive years are affected by infertility. Sexually transmitted diseases and delayed childbearing were identified as two of the most important risk factors of infertility – not maternal lifestyle. (In Julie and Marc’s case, the cause is not known.)

Like a different world
Infertility can be its own world. People suffering from infertility, or “infertiles” as they may label themselves, feel isolated by their grief and cut off from the life they want to have – and the family life they see around them. The smallest discussions can seem like a minefield.

For Marie and Julie, the breaking point in their relationship came after Julie’s first IVF failed. “My husband Marc was the one to tell my mother, because I did not want to have to hear her reaction. When he hung up the phone he said she said we should go on vacation. I was bruised and tired and the last thing I wanted was a vacation. I said it was a good thing I had planned not to be on the phone. I decided not to talk to my mother for a month, and then it stretched on to two.”

Marie remembers it a little differently, “For me the hardest time was when Annette [Julie’s sister-in-law] announced she was pregnant. She [Annette] was so happy, but Julie just got up and walked into the bathroom. I knew it was hard for her and I was angry with Annette for just announcing it, you know, like that. But at the same time I wanted to give Julie a shake and get her to see that we are one family and every child is welcome. I felt it was ripping apart the whole family.”

Acknowledging grief
Ironically it was when Julie and Marc decided to stop trying to have a child that the mother and daughter were able to reconnect. “I finally went to my mother and said we were not going to try any more. Our marriage was suffering and although we may try adoption later on, just now we are just going to find the joy in life as it is. When I told my mother she cried and said she was so sorry for me. That was the first time I really felt that my mother understood that it is true grief, to not be able to have a child.”

When I mention this to Marie she pauses for a moment and then says, “Maybe that was the first time she could hear it, because I felt the same all along. A mother knows.” But Marie admits that when her daughter stopped trying, she started to grieve. “I was so sure that God would provide in the end, but now I feel like there is a whole part of my life – to be a mother – that I will never share with my daughter. I am lucky in that I have other grandchildren, but I still feel that something is missing for me as well.

It’s important to take the time to grieve for yourself as well. Supporting your child in his or her own feelings is important, but don’t forget you will have your own as well. It is a good idea to express these feelings – although you may want to do it privately, away from your child.

What can you do?
Every family and relationship is different. But Tertia Albertyn, author of So Close, the story of her journey through infertility (currently only available in South Africa, but her blog is available at http://www.tertia.org) suggests that there are ways to support friends and family through their journey of dashed hopes and invasive procedures. As she writes on her website:

1. Good friends never judge. Remember that unless you’ve walked in the person’s shoes, you can’t say “well I would never….do IVF (or another particular procedure)….”

2. Good friends will educate themselves about what their infertile is going through…. Read up about infertility so that you get a high-level understanding of the intricacies involved….

3. However, do not willy nilly offer advice, or hot off the press latest research about a fantastic new procedure that is sure to work. Remember the stuff they write about in your local woman’s magazine is stuff that your infertile did in Infertility 101. Been there, failed that…. And please, what ever you do, never, ever be so stupid as to say “just relax”. Would you say to a cancer patient “just relax”? Would you say to someone who can’t see “just relax”? Of course you wouldn’t. Plus you have to know that “just relaxing” will not change the medical diagnosis that is causing your friends infertility….

4. Platitudes. Never ever offer platitudes….

5. The tricky one. Announcing pregnancies / baby showers / births and other kid things. The best advice I can give here is trust the infertile to know what she can or can’t handle. Don’t hide things from her, but respect it when she says to you “I don’t think I am going to be able to handle that”….

6. The level of involvement…. Some [infertiles], like me, are pretty open about the whole thing. Every Friend and their Mother knows when I am going in for ER, ET or whatever. Other people prefer to keep their infertility private. Find out what your Infertile prefers and operate at the level she feels comfortable with….

7. Which brings to me to my final point: If you don’t know how to act, ask.

When I ask Julie about Tertia’s advice she says, “I’m not sure I would have known how to ask for what I needed. I’m still not sure what it is I need. But it might have helped to be asked.”

Sometimes in a complex situation like infertility there is no one approach, but keeping your ears, mind, and heart open is always a good start.

* Last names withheld by request.

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