1 in 8 couples have trouble getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy.
That means 7.4 million women of reproductive age have received help for infertility in their lifetime.
With that many people experiencing fertility challenges, why does it still feel like a taboo topic? Like something that's talked about only in hushed voices or not at all?
This year, the week of April 19-23 is National Infertility Awareness Week with the theme: #WhatIWantYouToKnow. As a fertility advocate and a woman who navigated over 10 years of fertility challenges to ultimately create my family of five children via In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), international adoption and surrogacy, I strive to raise awareness and open up the conversation surrounding fertility in an effort to normalize this important topic.
In that spirit, here's what I want you to know about the realities of experiencing fertility struggles.
Infertility is a physical disease entrenched in mental and emotional complexity.
Infertility is defined by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine as "the result of a disease or disorder of the male or female reproductive tract which prevents the conception of a child or the ability to carry a pregnancy to delivery." However, when a person experiences fertility challenges, it is not just their reproductive system and their body that is affected. Undergoing fertility treatments can also affect one's mental and emotional well-being.
Frequently, people trying to conceive feel isolated, depressed, powerless, and experience a diminished sense of self-worth as reproduction is innately intertwined with one's feelings of womanhood. Plus, when a person experiences an unsuccessful fertility cycle or a pregnancy loss, grief is oftentimes mixed with shame, guilt and feelings of failure. The stigma of not being able to conceive creates a tremendous mental and emotional strain and trauma.
Fertility challenges affect various aspects of life.
The emotional and physical toll of fertility struggles impact the person trying to conceive and their partner, which then seeps out into other aspects of life such as work and personal relationships. When I was in the thick of back-to-back IVF cycles, there were days when I couldn't physically go to work due to procedures and side effects of medication and hormones.
Fertility challenges also affect relationships. Many of my fertility mindfulness clients feel themselves growing apart from their close friends and family who don't understand the unique struggles that come with building a family. It can feel difficult to engage with others who haven't experienced fertility challenges as things like insensitive questions or pregnancy announcements could trigger an emotional reaction. This avoidance then fuels more isolation and sadness.
Infertility does not discriminate.
The truth is that infertility affects people of all races, sexual orientation, religion and socioeconomic statuses. Another misconception is that fertility challenges are only experienced by women which further feeds the shame and stigma. According to the CDC, however, male infertility accounts for 35% of fertility challenges.
There are many barriers to alternative family building options.
Perhaps the most significant barrier to pursuing alternative family creation paths is the cost and financial burden associated with things like Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART), adoption, surrogacy and sperm or egg donation. Due to the expense of these alternative paths to parenthood, access to care and the pursuit of these options is prohibitive especially since many insurance companies do not provide adequate coverage for fertility challenges and family planning. So while infertility is stressful on its own accord, the added financial strain and barriers to access creates even more hardship.
There are many paths to parenthood.
The truth about trying to conceive is that there isn't one right way to build a family. There are many ways that a child can enter into your life from ART like IVF, sperm or egg donation, adoption or surrogacy. Having gone through three different ways to bring a child into our lives, I can attest that there isn't one path that is superior to others. It's key to do what is right for you. At the end of the day, a family is born out of love no matter how the child came into existence. And always remember that you are not any less of a parent because of the way you built your family.
Fertility awareness cultivates empathy.
The power of sharing fertility experiences goes beyond an understanding of the physical, mental and emotional ramifications. Increased awareness of infertility through open dialogue creates a more robust understanding of the various facets of infertility experienced by many and thereby makes the topics less taboo. Open dialogue allows us to redefine the way fertility challenges are viewed.
If you are supporting someone trying to conceive, the benefit of increased conversation of infertility is the knowledge of what a person trying to conceive (TTC) is experiencing. Hopefully, this knowledge and awareness cultivates compassion and empathy for you to be an ally and hold a safe space for your friend or family that is TTC.
It's important to discuss fertility openly to destigmatize and normalize.
For those trying to conceive, normalizing fertility challenges can cultivate self-compassion. There is a lot of power in realizing you are not alone and that others can relate to what you are experiencing. This realization translates into an improved self-image and mindset that helps you feel supported. The ability to talk about your journey can make a huge shift in your experience providing you with the power to own your story and thereby reconnect to your inner strength and resilience.
If you're struggling to grow your family…
One thing to remember is that you are not defined by your fertility struggles. You are a beautiful warrior that is worthy of goodness in your life. Everything that you feel is valid so give yourself permission to feel everything that comes to the surface. To help you during those dark moments when it doesn't feel like there is any hope, take a moment to pause and prioritize your well-being. From personal experience, I remember how difficult it was to continue along my path to parenthood when I felt depleted. Taking a few moments to care for yourself can re-energize you to keep you going. Plus, there will be times when you'll need extra support by way of your fertility tribe or a mental health specialist. It's not a sign of weakness to ask for help. It's a sign of strength to recognize when you need support and seek it.
I share my personal experiences with fertility struggles to destigmatize the topic, uplift and empower others to be open about their stories should they choose, and ultimately to help people trying to grow their family feel supported, seen and heard. I hope you remember that our individual narratives have the power to change the overall fertility conversation one voice at a time.