Infertility and Shame: The Body Broken

I believe it’s a valid choice to stay silent about your infertility. There are many reasons to choose to keep your struggles private. But don’t let shame be one of them. In ways big and small, life seems to tell us that we should feel shame over our inability to conceive or give birth. And I’m here to say there is nothing shameful about being infertile or experiencing pregnancy loss. You’re not less of a woman or man. Your worth and ability to contribute are not dependent on birthing a child.

I hope you liked that pep talk, but I know overcoming shame is not as easy as saying “Shame, be gone!” So, to help you unpack your feelings, I’ve put together a list of five perspectives about infertility/getting pregnant that breed shame. It’s my hope that in identifying the sources of these feelings, you can set aside the shame and give yourself the gentleness you need during this difficult journey.

shameInfertility is someone’s fault.

When you’re diagnosed with a medical condition, it’s natural to wonder, “Why isn’t my body working properly?” That question doesn’t always carry an implicit tone of blame, but it often does for people having trouble conceiving. You know from your doctor and the online forums you visit that the reproductive system is extremely intricate and complex. It’s not always clear which partner is having the issue. But when it is, there’s this persistent question: would my spouse already be a parent if he/she had married someone else who didn’t have a condition that causes the infertility? The partner who has an identifiable issue feels tremendous shame, grief, and responsibility.

Let me also say that while you may increase your chances of getting pregnant by losing weight, reducing stress, or making other healthier choices, these changes aren’t a magic bullet that solves everyone’s fertility problem. I used my infertility as an opportunity to get more serious about eating better and exercising more. It was a lovely to discover that exercise improved my mood. And at that time, I needed any little thing that could help me have a sunnier outlook.

Blaming yourself for your infertility only perpetuates the shame. I was able to let go of some shame when I chose to focus on how to move forward. I adopted a mindset that said, “It is what it is, so let’s do what we can to work around it.”

couple holding handsYou and your husband aren’t a family unless you procreate.

I have a serious issue with how most people use the word “family” because they only apply it to couples who have children. When I married my husband, I felt like we were a newly-minted family. We didn’t have children yet, but we were a family. We had our own home, we combined our resources, and we aligned our priorities. The way we use the word family needs to evolve so that it encompasses couples without children. The shame comes from the implication that until you have children, you aren’t a real family, and that’s heartbreaking for couples trying to conceive their first child.

“Don’t you know there’s an easy fix for that?”

Every couple of weeks, a new blog post circulates on the interwebs with the top five phrases you should never say to your infertile friends. Yet, rarely do these articles get at the underlying implications of these phrases. Look, fertiles, you know you can’t say stuff like this: “You’ll increase your chances of getting pregnant if your husband wears boxers instead of briefs” and “You guys just need to stop trying so hard and go on a vacation.” Other than sounding like an idiot who obviously knows nothing about infertility, these people are using words that have a shame-inducing implication: if you’d only shape up and make these changes, you’d get what you want, and if you aren’t doing all these things, then it’s your fault you can’t get pregnant.

Recognize these hurtful words for what they are: a misguided attempt to offer advice. Just look at the person and think, “Bless their hearts, they have no clue.” Speaking of blessing…

If you’re blessed, you’ll have children.

If you come from a Judeo-Christian tradition, you probably have heard that children are a blessing from God. When you’re struggling with infertility, it’s easy to think you aren’t worthy of being blessed in this way. You may believe you’re lacking, and if only you could fix that part of your life that falls short of expectations, you’d be able to have children. I went down this rabbit hole on multiple occasions when we were trying to get pregnant, and it’s an issue my main character explores in INCONCEIVABLE. The fact that my religious beliefs equated having children with being blessed contributed to a sense of shame: somehow, I failed to measure up in a specific way that prevented me from getting pregnant. I know all the encouraging responses, and read a really wonderful book that helped combat these thoughts that crept up on me from time to time. (I know many other religious traditions equate fertility with divine blessing or approval, so please feel free to share in the comments. I’m writing here from personal experience.)

butterfly1Your body is broken because it can’t do something very basic.

The tiniest insects mate. Their very existence depends on it. Animals do it. They’re hardwired to procreate for survival of their species. So, if bugs and bears can get pregnant without the help of doctors, why can’t my husband and I do it? I remember thinking at one point that my body was simply defective. It was a heartbreaking way to frame my struggle, and one that I latched onto in a moment of despair. But, I knew my body wasn’t defective; it just wasn’t capable of doing this one (very important) thing. To combat this feeling, I trained and ran a half marathon. When I was on the course, I remember having extreme gratitude that my body was able to carry me so far so fast. Also, the race was a tangible metaphor of our long and arduous journey to parenthood. Could I finish a half marathon? Yes. Could I hang on until we’re parents? You bet.

I’m so grateful for every person who shares their experiences with me and my readers in the comment section. It takes courage to speak up. So, I look forward to reading your answer to these questions: What paradigms or perspectives have nurtured feelings of shame over your infertility? How do you work through it?

Top image via Flickr by Alkan Chipperfield

Shame image via Flickr by PinkMoose

Butterfly image via Flickr by Rene Mensen

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6 thoughts on “Infertility and Shame: The Body Broken

  1. My husband and I have struggled with infertility over four years now. We have a trip planned to do IVF in March in Greece. This is our last attempt at having a baby. The hardest part for me has been telling our parents that if this doesn’t work, we may not be giving them grandchildren. My brother does not want kids, and his brother and partner do not want children either. It’s up to me and my husband to provide grandchildren, and I’m worried that we won’t deliver. I have asked my husband if this didn’t work out, if he wanted to just part ways so he could go be with someone who could give him children. He told me that he didn’t marry me with the stipulation that I had to provide him children, and if I couldn’t have children, then we couldn’t have children. My husband is what makes all this bearable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erica: Thank you so much for sharing your story. I understand the feeling of having so much riding on one procedure. We had no insurance coverage for fertility treatments, and I knew if our one IVF cycle didn’t work, we were done with fertility procedures to get pregnant. I’m so sorry to hear that you feel so much extra pressure given the circumstances of your extended family. I’m sending you big hugs and wishes for much success in March (and beyond). It’s great to have a supportive husband, isn’t it? My husband also was my rock and comfort during our infertility struggle.
      *hugs*
      Tegan

      Like

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