You might think that if there were an epidemic that impacted 1 in 6 couples, that it couldn’t possibly be invisible. Yet every day people who struggle with infertility are asked when they’re going to have children or told to be patient or urged to listen to advice from people who got pregnant without any medical intervention.
Society is very fertility-normative. Everyone, including medical professionals, interact in a way that assumes that everyone can get pregnant. The reminders that everyone is supposed to be able to do this thing are relentless: from the initial doctor’s appointment where the obstetrician chirps “You’ll be back in just a few months!” to family who mindlessly repeat, “You’ll be pregnant soon,” to a best friend who every single time you call her blurts, “Are you pregnant? Every time you call me I think you’re pregnant.”
Unsung Lullabies: Understanding and Coping with Infertility by Janet Jaffe and Martha and David Diamond, clinical psychologists all, makes the argument that infertility is reproductive trauma. They say ,“One of the most fundamental aspects of our physical selves is our reproductive capability. When that does not function properly, we doubt everything else.” (Ch 1)
This is certainly true. There are many things not accessible to everyone: college education, a car, travel. But reproduction is available to anyone who engages in heterosexual sex. A number of religions, an important source of support for many people, argue that procreation is essential to fulfilling the purpose of our existence.. The Catholic church, for example, states that “fertility is an inherent part of the human person…one cannot give oneself totally and completely while withholding one’s fertility.” It would be difficult to feel supported by one’s religion while told that one is lacking “an inherent part” of personhood.
The authors continue in Unsung Lullabies, “Infertility is a trauma because it attacks both the physical and emotional sense of self, it presents us with multiple, complicated losses, it affects our most important relationships and it shifts our sense of belonging in the world.” Infertility is a lot like other medical conditions where the sufferer feels their body has betrayed them. A review of the literature on infertility and psychological distress found that while people with infertility problems don’t have more serious mental health diagnoses, they do have a great deal more stress and self-esteem issues. Women are more impacted than men, and qualitative studies, the ones that collect stories, note the devastation reported by couples who cannot conceive.
Another challenge with infertility is that it’s also not a cut and dry definition. For most people, a diagnosis of infertility is an entry point to a rather dizzying world of tests and procedures. The interventions, at best, are expensive and invasive, and at worst, complete failures that are emotionally and financially devastating.
Trauma recovery is only truly possible once the trauma event has ended. Then it can be processed and the survivor can move on. If the individual is experiencing the trauma ongoing, then only resiliency and coping can be achieved. So until a couple has produced or adopted a child, or there is certainty that they have forsaken parenthood, it’s not a matter of moving on but learning to live in limbo. And living in limbo in a fertile society is no easy task.
Resolve is the U.S. National Infertility Association. Their website has a wealth of information, including a hotline.