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Compassionate Advice for Coping with Infertility

Infertility can be heartbreaking, isolating, and demoralizing. Mighty Mommy’s Cheryl Butler shares compassionate insights and practical tips from her five-year infertility journey.

By
Jade Wu, PhD
11-minute read
Episode #289
sad couple with negative pregnancy test result

A couple of years ago, I spent a year working as part of the psychological support team at a fertility center. I provided therapy to women and men who were on their journey to becoming parents, a journey that some of them had already been traveling for 10 or more years.

As a clinical psychologist, I've worked with patients struggling with a wide range of very real and very deep challenges. But never, not even at the cancer clinic, had I worked with people who were more heartbroken than the ones I met at the fertility center. They had a desire so deep, so existential, that everything turned into desperation and despair when the universe turned a cold shoulder. And nobody could tell them when their journey would end.

Research shows that the degree of distress people feel when experiencing infertility is comparable to the distress people feel when they have cancer or heart disease.

In fact, it wasn’t just my gut feeling. Research shows that the degree of distress people feel when experiencing infertility is comparable to the distress people feel when they have cancer or heart disease. Infertility not only affects a person’s mood and confidence, but it also strains relationships, makes people feel isolated, and often throws a wrench into a person’s whole life plan.

Even though infertility is common, occurring in about 13 percent of women and 10 percent of men, we don't often talk about it openly. Because of this taboo, infertility can be a lonely experience. People feel ashamed, or they don’t get helpful support even when they do share details about their experiences with others. Sometimes, even the people closest to them can inadvertently hurt more than help.

To help shed some light on this topic, and to offer some compassionate advice based on personal experience, I talked to Cheryl L. Butler about her years-long journey to becoming a parent and completing her family. Cheryl is the host of Quick and Dirty Tips' popular Mighty Mommy Podcast.

After five years of fertility treatments, one beautiful adoption, and seven trips to the delivery room, Cheryl's family was finally complete. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. She’s the author of Pregnant Women Don’t Eat Cabbage and a freelance writer contributing hundreds of articles on the subject of family and parenting. Today, Cheryl’s children range in age from 14 through 26, and she’s enjoying an even better role than parenting—she’s a new grandmother.

Here is a lightly paraphrased transcript of my interview with Cheryl:

Would you mind sharing a little bit about your fertility journey? When did you start, and what are the challenges you ran into?

Let me bring you back to when I was a little girl—because that really laid the foundation for my desire to become a mom. I am the oldest of five kids, all close in age, so I acted as the second mom for my siblings without even realizing it. I was mature for my age, and totally embraced being a mother’s helper quite easily. This experience paved the way for many babysitting gigs—a job that I absolutely loved! I knew before I entered high school that I wanted to be a mom.

I got married right out of college. I was a new bride at the young age of 23, and before we celebrated our first anniversary, I was totally ready to start trying for a family of my own. Although I loved my career working in a dental practice and freelance writing, I couldn’t wait to get pregnant and begin raising a family.

Not understanding anything about fertility, I assumed that once I was ready to get pregnant, it would just happen. We started trying to get pregnant about six months into our marriage. By month two, I was already concerned.

The biggest challenge was that I felt ashamed. My body was letting me down.

I immediately began reading articles, books—anything I could get my hands on to try and understand what was happening to my body and how I could take full advantage of ovulation. My first challenge was asking for help. Keep in mind that my infertility journey started in 1987—30 years ago!  It wasn’t a topic that was embraced as openly as it is today. The biggest challenge, which I’ll explain later in more detail, was that I felt ashamed. My body was letting me down. And I was always a high-achiever and felt I could achieve my goals with hard work. But now, being an achiever wasn’t paying off. This wasn’t something I had any control over. So, emotionally, I had to struggle with this on top of the infertility.

What were the most difficult aspects of your infertility journey?

Approximately a year into trying to conceive, I decided to make an appointment with a gynecologist. This was a big step for me, because although I’m outgoing, when it comes to my personal life—and my health—I’m very private. I ended up finding the most compassionate, caring, and clinically helpful doctor I could’ve asked for.  He immediately put me at ease. I felt embarrassed that I had to ask for help getting pregnant (looking back on that time, I realize I had nothing to feel ashamed about—but I wanted to get pregnant so badly, and I did feel a bit of shame that my body was failing me.) He helped to facilitate the beginning of the routine infertility tests, which kept us busy for a good six months.

Infertility testing and treatments are invasive and basically ... not fun at all.

For those who don’t know, infertility testing and treatments are invasive and basically ... not fun at all. Some are physically painful. Not to mention, you feel vulnerable during these procedures. And there's also a lot of waiting! When you’re trying to get pregnant, you live from cycle to cycle. When you realize you’re not pregnant (again), you have to gear up for another month of trying and waiting. It’s an emotional roller coaster.

How did infertility affect your life and relationships?  

Infertility is something that is with you 24/7. As I mentioned, you live cycle to cycle, so wondering if “this could be the month I finally get pregnant” is always in the back of your mind.

Trying to conceive can definitely take a toll on your relationships and marriage. I was lucky in that respect because my husband was a true optimist. No matter how many times we had a negative pregnancy test, he stayed supportive and positive that it was going to happen eventually. I can’t tell you how much that helped me throughout the five years we endured this journey.

To be quite blunt—trying to get pregnant can really put a crimp on your sex life! I’ll be equally as candid by saying for me ... it became a chore. The spontaneity was a challenge because we were so focused on maximizing my fertile time.

The minute you want to become pregnant and can’t, you see pregnant women everywhere!

Beside the physical and emotional letdowns you face when trying to conceive, another aspect is trying not to fall apart every time you learn that a friend, family member, or co-worker is pregnant. And the minute you want to become pregnant and can’t, you see pregnant women everywhere!

We kept our quest to get pregnant very private for the first four years. As I mentioned earlier, I’m very private when it comes to my health. I had seen other couples who were openly struggling with infertility, and they were constantly bombarded with well-intentioned questions, such as, “How’s it going?” “Any news yet?” “What’s wrong?”

In my opinion, one of the worst pieces of advice is to relax and “stop trying so hard.” I wanted no part of that. So, only our immediate family members and my very best friends knew. It’s definitely helpful if you can surround yourself with cheerleaders, not inquisitive minds that are merely curious about what’s going on in this very delicate part of your life.

What was the most helpful coping strategy for you?

I had a few coping strategies that I relied on. They were instrumental in helping me stay as positive as possible when I journeyed through infertility. As difficult as it was for me to ask for help, I finally got a referral to a therapist that had a lot of experience helping infertile couples. 

Our [medical] diagnosis was “unexplained infertility.” After months of testing, doctors could find nothing wrong with either me or my husband. This was actually even more frustrating than finding out what could possibly be wrong because there was nothing to fix. In part, that gave me a lot of hope because medically, there was no reason I couldn’t conceive and have a baby. On the other hand, there was no treatment other than intrauterine insemination (IUI) and in vitro fertilization (IVF).

Keep in mind that, 30 years ago, insurance wouldn’t even touch infertility treatments, so they were quite costly. Not to mention, the procedures themselves were quite involved, physically uncomfortable, and super inconvenient because you had to schedule your life around all the hormonal components to these treatment plans each month. I met with this therapist twice a month for a couple of years, and she armed me with some wonderful tools that kept me grounded.

Visualization

One of the tools I learned was visualization. Just by quieting my mind and focusing on the result I was trying to achieve—having a baby—I was able to put myself in a positive state rather quickly. I would simply close my eyes and picture myself sitting in a nursery rocking my new baby. Or I would jump ahead to watching myself in the park pushing my child on a swing. I envisioned all the details—how the baby would smell, what those sweet baby coos would sound like, even how my husband would look at me when I was feeding the baby. These visualization moments always lifted my spirits and kept me moving forward.

I would simply close my eyes, and picture myself sitting in a nursery rocking my new baby.

Consider your goal

The therapy also uncovered a very pivotal acknowledgment for me. Though I longed to conceive and become pregnant, my ultimate goal was motherhood. This was a game-changer for me because, after three miscarriages, I wasn’t sure I wanted to endure that type of loss again. So, my husband and I started investigating adoption.

We found an amazing agency in Colorado and started all the preliminary steps to adopt. During this time, we decided to sell our house and move across our small state. We found a great home in a neighborhood that we just loved. And guess what? Our new neighbors had also been through years of infertility! They adopted and then got pregnant and had another baby. Talk about the universe at work putting the right people in your life at the right time!

What was the most helpful thing someone else did to support you?

Other than how supportive my husband was throughout our infertility saga, the best support we received was from close friends who were able to listen and not ask a lot of questions. It was comforting to know that if we wanted to share our disappointment or frustration, we could do so without being grilled about what was happening in the infertility lab.

The best support we received was from close friends who were able to listen and not ask a lot of questions.

The most special story that I love to share about being supported happened on the Mother’s Day before I became a mother. We were very involved in our church and were close with many of the families who had young children. Some knew we were trying to get pregnant and yet others weren’t sure of our circumstances but always made us feel welcome at their family gatherings, etc.

About a year before I became a mom, I opened up to the Pastor at our church about our infertility struggle. He was an older man and was so kind. He listened with a full heart and told me to trust in my faith. A few months later, I was at mass on Mother’s Day (an extremely painful day to endure when you’re trying so hard to have a family.) All the moms were given a pink carnation. As I was leaving the church, the Pastor came over and handed me a pink carnation. He said that it was a symbol of my impending motherhood. Three weeks later, we adopted our daughter.

Was there any coping strategy you tried that was unhelpful or unhealthy for you? Did other people say or do unhelpful things?

Two painful reminders come to mind. I’d like to share them in hopes that it will help other couples who are on their own infertility journey.

Choose support groups wisely

I mentioned I sought therapy with a counselor who had a lot of experience with infertility and adoption. I had such a great experience with her that we decided to join an infertility support group in our area. Unfortunately, that didn’t prove to be as good an experience as seeing the therapist. There was a lot of negative energy in our particular group. I was hoping to find kindred spirits who would be supportive of one another, but instead, we found the opposite.

I was hoping to find kindred spirits who would be supportive of one another, but instead, we found the opposite.

We heard comments such as “Oh, that treatment never works” and “Chances are if you haven’t gotten pregnant by now, it’s not going to happen.” Those types of comments were definitely not helpful, and in fact, quite hurtful. We lasted less than a month with that group. However, there are other ways to get support. For example, infertility groups on Facebook and other social media platforms and there are some wonderful Ted Talks and YouTube channels that deal with infertility that are poignant and really helpful.

Prepare for unintentionally hurtful comments

The other incident was when we shared the news that we were probably going to adopt with my in-laws. They were a bit old-fashioned and were very curious as to when we’d be announcing a pregnancy. They knew of my miscarriages, so they knew we were trying. By the time we were really involved in the adoption process, we were so excited and focused on becoming parents, regardless of how it happened, that we could think of nothing else.

The first thing my mother-in-law said was, 'So, does this mean there’s no chance you’ll have any of your own?' Ouch!

The first thing my mother-in-law said was, “So, does this mean there’s no chance you’ll have any of your own?” Ouch! Looking back, I don’t think she realized how hurtful that comment was. She was just searching for a way to express herself.  I will say this—she was practically knocking everyone over at the airport when we arrived home with our new baby, so clearly she just didn’t know how to express her feelings when we announced our exciting news to adopt.

What advice would you give women and men who are dealing with infertility or pregnancy loss? Was there anything you wish you had known while going through it all?

  • Learn to lean on your partner and support each other. My husband was my biggest support system, but in all honesty, I was struggling so much to keep it all together, he was the person I would lash out at first. Thankfully, he was very patient and understanding.
     
  • If at all possible, try to live in the moment and enjoy the time you have as a couple. That is my biggest regret. I was so consumed with getting pregnant that I lost so many special times that the two of us could’ve been doing couple things. One of our best couple-friends decided not to have children, so we spent a lot of time with them because we could do things and talk about things that didn’t relate to children. We had a very special bond with them throughout those trying years, and when we did finally become parents, they were still there for us.
     
  • Let yourself be in tune to your feelings. When I first realized that getting pregnant wasn’t going to be easy for me, I tried to ignore my feelings, basically because I was in so much pain. If I had to do it over again, I would’ve let myself just be and feel those feelings rather than temporarily running from them.
     
  • Look for a way to self-soothe so you can stay positive. For me, it was the visualization exercises I learned through my therapy sessions. Those instantly lifted my spirits. I also took up power walking and started (still do) each day with a brisk 30-minute walk in my neighborhood or at a local park that is right near the water. This was always my time to reflect, re-energize and keep my mind and body healthy.
Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show.