Monday, March 1, 2010

The Invisible Face of Infertility

In thinking about the many faces of infertility that I mentioned in my last posting, the most prominent one in my mind, ironically, is the invisible face. Adopted by both couples and individuals, this face comes across as having hardly a hint of the developing anguish felt inside. Of course "face" in this context means far more than eyes, nose and mouth. It really captures how you present yourself to the outside world where infertility merits not a word to loved ones, and you resolve to carry on as usual.

If you are in the early months of an infertility workup or the recipient of a recent diagnosis, or if you are someone who guards your privacy, an invisible face may feel like a safe way of figuring out how, whether or when to disclose news of your infertility. "So what's the big deal?" you may ask. Isn't the invisible face a perfectly good option? The answer is both "yes" and "no." I'll start with the reasoning for "yes."

  • An infertility diagnosis is an unexpected and an unwelcome piece of news. You need time to digest it, to gather information, to learn from your doctors and to make sense of this with your partner. During that time it can feel best to remain silent on the topic until you believe you have answers for the inevitable questions that others may pose once you become more open about your news.
  • You may feel a sense of denial, mixed with hopefulness that this infertility is temporary and will respond to the recommended treatments. In that sense you see no point in getting loved ones all stirred up about something that you hope will be a mere glitch in your plans to build your family.
  • Depending on the diagnosis and recommendations for treatment, you may feel in shock as you contemplate medical interventions, lengthy appointments with infertility specialists, and a diminishing bank account. There are no words to capture this jolt in your life, so you initially choose silence.
  • You may perceive a diagnosis of infertility as such an assault to your self esteem that you need your invisible face just to be able to hold your head up each day.
  • You and your partner may disagree on whether to tell anyone and, if so, how much to reveal. While trying to figure this out, you both adopt the invisible face until you can come up with a plan for disclosing news of your diagnosis and the emotional reactions each of you is having.

All of the "yes" bullets listed above make sense, at least for a time. But after a while, as you and your partner have only one another to turn to for emotional support, you are likely to experience infertility as an increasingly heavy burden. You also may experience it as a source of conflict. Therein lies the foundation for my list of "no's" that target why an invisible face may not be such a good option in the long run:

  • Being in treatment for infertility does not mean your emotional needs are being recognized. Physicians will concentrate on your body, your treatments, and treatment outcomes. The nursing staff often is more emotionally attuned, but that is a brief and temporary response during an office visit or on the telephone after learning disappointing test results.
  • Not only does having your partner as your sole confidante place a heavy burden on both of you to meet one another's emotional needs, but you probably face the additional challenge of being at different places emotionally during various stages of your infertility journey. If your energy is on taking care of yourself and your partner, do consider expanding your support system.
  • The absence of an external network of comfort means that you have no buffer when friends and family members joyfully announce pregnancies, show off sonograms, and invite you to baby showers, christenings, and other events at which your invisible face threatens to crumble.

So, in the midst of emotional overload, how do you and your partner move forward to share with loved ones the news that you are infertile? In essence, how do you make more visible the face of your infertility? Perhaps the most logical first step is to decide what kind of emotional support you need. If seeking out an infertility counselor is appealing because it enables you to delay disclosure to loved ones a bit longer, then seek out a counselor. In my upcoming book When You're Not Expecting, I devote a great deal of attention to how you can connect with a counselor who is appropriate for you. Working as an individual or as a couple with a counselor can still enable you to bring up the subject of engaging loved ones as a buffer and as a support system.

Perhaps, rather than seeking a counselor, you decide to confide in loved ones. Then the question becomes who to tell and what to tell them. In addition, be prepared to suggest to them how they can be most helpful to you, since that will enable you to get what you need from these relationships. And remember, even as you are leaning on loved ones for help, you do not want these relationships to become one-sided. So offer your help when folks in your evolving support network have their own troubles. It feels much more affirming to be in balance when asking for and offering help.

Loved ones are potentially a fine way of helping the face of your infertility to become more visible. And they can be wonderful in shielding you against events of family and friends that celebrate fertility. However, unless they have experienced infertility or pregnancy loss, they may have empathy for you, but not a visceral response to your emotional pain. So, once you have assessed how satisfied you are by your network of loved ones, you may want to consider joining an infertility support group. Another option is to inquire whether the infertility clinic where you are being treated has any support groups. These groups are likely to make you feel easily understood, and they have the additional advantage of members who can offer important tips about everything from low cost prescription medication to people in the community who have been great as resources on a wide range of infertility issues.

So, if your face is invisible to the infertility sisterhood of survivors, consider why you have made the choice to remain silent. You may not be ready just yet, but when you are, remember that there is a world of kind and concerned people you can invite into your life who will embrace you, at whatever stage of the infertility journey you may be.

If you're interested in learning more about how you can enter to win a free copy of my new book, When You're NOT Expecting, click here!

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