Sunday, March 27, 2011

Infertility: Do You Wear A Scarlet Letter?

We may remember Hester Prynne whose scarlet “A,” sewn to the front of her dress, branded her as an adulteress. But, for those of us with infertility, the letter “I” can be a prominent symbol in our lives, sometime public sometimes not. And we have some choices about how to “wear” that symbol.

When it’s public, here’s what you find. The first sentence out of a friend’s mouth is an expectant “Any news?” The next sentence could be about anything from a friend’s just-announced pregnancy to an invitation to go shopping at the mall, which you’ve been avoiding like the plague, given the number of pregnant women and new mothers pushing strollers who seem to fill every mall in your life. And then, there are inquiries from mothers and mothers-in-law, too embarrassed to speak to your partner directly, but eager for you to know it’s not such a good thing if he’s still wearing jockey underwear or taking long bicycle rides or balancing his warm laptop on his lap. And, then there’s always the awkward pause as you enter a room of chatting friends or co-workers when, out of sensitivity, everyone pauses and hastily changes the subject from babies to something more neutral. And, still more awkwardly, may be your reaction as less sensitive friends or co-workers circulate photos of their sonograms, their newborns or their thriving infants. And, of course, the supreme indignity comes when you receive an invitation to a baby shower and you have to figure out how to respond, convinced that you’re probably the only one reading this invitation with anguish rather than anticipation. Of course you wonder whether it even was worth it to go public with news (limited as it may be) of your infertility. Some friends are super-sensitive, whereas others seem clueless.

And if the scarlet “I” is well hidden, what does this mean for you? Well, like Hester Prynne, knowing that you are different in some symbolic reproductive way may make you feel very alone. It also can raise issues of shame, since you may believe your friends/relatives/acquaintances/co-workers will think less of you if you are not successful in reaching your goal of parenthood. Or you may want to share your situation with others, but your partner isn’t ready for either of you to go public, probably out of those very feelings of shame that can lurk so deceivingly in the background. The hidden “I” forces you to put on a good face when your heart is breaking, especially in the presence of babies and pregnant or nursing women. It may make you question what is wrong with you, now that you are having such awful feelings about these women who are, after all, just doing their best at what you can’t yet experience. Hiding your infertility from others puts you and your partner in the unique roles of being each other’s sole emotional support. In short, staying private with your infertility can feel lonely and solitary, even as it enables you to have some control in figuring out your own issues without unwelcome intrusions by others in your life.

But let’s imagine that your public or private “I” is causing you some distress. If so, there are some things to think about in the way you offer information (or not) about the impact your infertility is having on your life. Let’s first consider how you might want to re-focus a loved one’s well-meaning inquiries about your infertility. In fact, these constant inquiries may make you feel as if the only thing others perceive when they see you is your infertile self. Granted, you spend a good part of each day preoccupied with your infertility, but chances are you’d welcome an escape from this. So, one approach is to give a very brief “infertility response,” followed by a change of subject and an effort to inquire about your friend’s or loved one’s life. Or you could be more direct, by saying something like, “You know, I really appreciate your concern with my infertility treatment, and I’ll be glad to let you know whenever there’s any news. But I also really enjoy it when our time together can be a distraction from my infertility. So I’d love it if we could talk about things that have nothing to do with my reproductive health: current events, girl gossip, work challenges, new movies……That would help me stay in touch with stuff that was important in my life before it got hijacked by not being able to get pregnant.”

There’s another issue in the lives of those of us who have loved ones who constantly express their concern about us. We begin to feel somehow less capable, more vulnerable and, perhaps, less balanced in our relationship with others. After all, they are constantly extending their emotional support in our direction, but we don’t feel as if there is much of an opportunity to reciprocate. How can we, if the major focus of conversation is on us and how we’re coping? So, again, it’s up to us to shift the conversation. Perhaps beginning with “Gee, thanks for asking, but nothing much has changed. How about you? We’ve been so focused on me recently that I really miss feeling caught up on your life. What’s going on?” Or, if you want to be more direct, you could say something like “Susan, you have been such a dear all these months to care about my efforts to get pregnant. But, as I think about it, what I really treasure about our friendship has always been the give-and-take, and the support we both can offer to each other. I feel like I’ve been more on the receiving end lately, which doesn’t give me an opportunity to feel as connected as usual with what’s happening in your life. Can you help me by trusting that I’ll let you know when I need your support, and in the mean time we’ll try to get back to a different balance in our friendship? “ Those strategies can convey your appreciation to others, as well as a wish to refocus your energies back to a more reciprocal relationship. And, while you’re at it, another thing to consider might be to indulge in a new hobby, join a class or a book club, try out some new recipes to share, find some new hiking spots, or in other ways broaden yourself so that you can initiate conversations about things in your life, beyond your infertility, that friends can find interesting.

Now, for those of you who have been guarding your privacy so you can avoid the one-sidedness in relationships I’ve just addressed, does it really seem so difficult to redirect friends away from your infertility when you don’t want the conversation to go there? I have a healthy respect for the need for privacy but, as I say in my new book When You’re Not Expecting, it is a heavy burden for a couple to bear when the two of you have decided to keep your infertility to yourselves.

Other readers who may be reluctant to share news of their efforts to become pregnant include same sex couples and single women, who may anticipate disapproval of their decision to bring a child into this world. However, here, too, there are choices you can make about which friends and loved ones to tell. Keeping silent about your hopes for a pregnancy can sometimes simply reinforce your feelings of being unconventional or different in a society that expects heterosexual married couples to have children and excludes others who cherish the hopes of parenthood.

So, cast off whatever remnants of the scarlet “I” that may have clung to your identity! There are many ways to live with your infertility that need not include being out of balance in your relationships. And, actually, it is those relationships that may be the foundation of strength that help support you emotionally through the especially tough times when you welcome a shoulder to lean on.

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