When I was completing a research project examining the experiences of African American women who sought treatment for infertility, I interviewed 13 incredible women to learn more about their challenges and successes with infertility treatment. One challenge that I heard consistently from the group was that many had waited many years to make the first call to a fertility specialist despite having intense desires to get pregnant. As I tried to understand the reasons for these delays, I came across several reasons such as time commitments for work, financial barriers, and relationship challenges. However, most of the women I interviewed struggled with the stigma of feeling like they were ‘the only one’ with fertility issues. This intense shame led many of them to suffer in silence, delay treatment for infertility, and experience many depressive-like symptoms. When they finally sought treatment, many experienced regrets for waiting so long because they learned they were indeed not alone and gained so much support from family and friends when they finally disclosed issues they were experiencing.
What these women were experiencing was not an uncommon occurrence. Infertility is an issue affecting men and women worldwide. The experience of not being able to conceive or birth a live child is known to have many negative psychological and social consequences. Depression, anxiety, stress, regret and shame are known psychological effects. Social isolation, non-disclosure of infertility (secrecy), and avoidant behavior may also present because of not being able to fulfill one’s wishes and dreams of childbearing.
Ways to Overcome Stigma
Based on my conversations, I would offer three key steps for overcoming the negative effects of infertility related stigma:
Infertility has been known to affect millions of women and families worldwide without regard to race, ethnicity, or belief system. In the United States alone, infertility affects 1 in 6 (8) couples. Although in certain friend groups or family circles it may feel like you are alone, you are part of a huge network of men and women who are seeking out ways to build the families they desire. Resources such as this site, Resolve, ASRM, ESHRE provide a lot of information and guides for patients and their families to learn more about the incidence of infertility and the different types of infertility. Further, many of these websites offer personal accounts from real people across the globe. It was incredible how many of the women from my study shared that they were finally empowered to seek treatment when they did a simple Google search of their symptoms and realized they were not ‘crazy’ for thinking something was not right. After obtaining some baseline knowledge, they were ready to accept the realities of that they were not the only one with infertility.
Tell a trusted friend (…or two)
Secrecy and avoiding disclosure can often lead people to experience more of those negative effects of infertility. Although society has shifted throughout the years to accept individual’s decisions to not have children, the experience of not being able to conceive when it is desired can feel very isolating. The journey to seeking help can become more bearable if you have someone to walk the journey with you. Many of the women in my research study said when they finally opened up to a trusted sibling, friend, or even their spouse, they felt a sense of relief and improved mood. In some circumstances, the person they opened up to opened up about their own fertility challenges! The key in this step is finding someone you can trust with your feelings and tell them what you have been feeling. Some have found that a counselor, church leader, or coworker have also provided a sense of support during the difficult experience.
Finally, seeking help may provide the most reduction in the negative experiences of your infertility. Many countries and regions have varying processes and procedures to how to get an initial appointment with a fertility specialist. However, disclosing to your primary care provider may be a good first step. Whether you have been experiencing this inability to conceive for 2 months, 2 years, and 10 years, it is never too late to understand the options you have for building your family. Once a healthcare professional properly assesses you and/or your partner, you can have some understanding of what your options may be. Many women and couples in my study and in the literature had said they experienced more peace with knowing what was possible. Some realized they needed oral medications to boost ovulation while others understood the need for donor, nevertheless, knowing what options they had provided an opportunity to make decisions.
Although infertility can be a challenging experience with profound consequences, I believe taking these 3 first steps may help in overcoming initial barriers to this very real-life challenge. I hope this short list can help you or others you may know dealing with this stigma and infertility.