Editor’s Note: The beauty of womanhood is twofold: our diversity and unity. Each woman’s mind, soul, and body is unique and at the same time we all yearn for the connection to know we are not alone. Our In Her Shoes column hopes to give some transparency to personal life experiences and perspectives that you or friends may be living with.
Her Story: About 10 percent of women in the United States has difficulty getting pregnant or staying pregnant. Most of us know these women—sisters, friends, co-workers, those living closest to us. Yet the conversation surrounding infertility is so hushed. Nicole shared with Verily her four-year struggle with infertility and what she has learned along the way.
Verily: Tell us about this hidden burden you and your husband have had to carry. Do you usually share it openly or are you more private about it?
Nicole: I think that the expression “hidden burden” is very appropriate. My husband and I have been walking through infertility for about four years. The first year of our marriage, I was terrified of getting pregnant before I was ready. Then when we felt like the time was right, it didn’t happen the first month. Or the second. Or the third, fourth, or fifth, and over time, our hope grew into questions which turned into despair. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. And so the months passed into years, and we continue to carry the infertility burden. At this point, I imagine that many people in our lives suspect that something could be wrong, but in general it’s not something that we share openly.
Many times, it feels like sharing would make the other person uncomfortable, and it often ends with unsolicited and untactful advice: “You just need to relax!” “I know a couple that tried for years and finally adopted, and then they got pregnant!” “Have you tried…?” While well-intended, comments like that only hurt.
Infertility is an extremely personal experience. I have to constantly battle against intense feelings of shame, guilt, and fear, as if I am less of a woman because I haven’t been able to conceive, but I know it is a cruel trick our minds play on us. As women, we must learn to speak honestly, to listen sincerely, and to withhold our judgments on others.
The common saying is so true—you can never really know what someone else is going through. So, I do try to push myself to share our experience with those I feel will be empathetic and sincerely interested in knowing how I am doing, not only in this, but in all areas of life. And I try to always offer the same friendship and understanding back, knowing that most of us, if not all, carry a hidden burden.
Verily: Beautifully said! In that vein of thought, what questions would you like others to ask you with regard to your family?
Nicole: I like simply being asked, “How are you doing?” with regard to it. I’ve found that friends usually don’t know what to say, and so they shy away from asking. But, I often wish that my friends who do know that we are going through infertility would bring it up more.
By asking it simply, I can help set the tone for how much I want to talk about it. Everyone wants to feel known, and often a simple but sincere question is all it takes.
Verily: Yes, exactly--we all want to be know. If a friend senses you’re not wanting to talk about it, are there things in your life you would like friends to ask about?
Nicole: Asking about our travel adventures, favorite new restaurants, and exciting new projects at work mean more than friends may realize.
When my husband and I are having a bad day, feeling particularly blue about infertility, we may run out for dinner at a trendy restaurant or crack open a bottle of wine—simple indulgences that help us to appreciate the spontaneity that we have in this stage of life without kids.
At thirty, most of my married friends are having or have young children. Because of that, talking about the kids is frequently the subject of conversations, and sometimes the only topic of conversation. One of the most difficult effects of infertility is the feeling of isolation that comes in situations like that. I personally try really hard to take a sincere interest in the well-being of all of my friend’s children, and I love when they do the same and recognize that without children, there are other aspects of my life I’d like to share.
Friends asking about those simple indulgences helps me to feel like they see us and our struggle, even if we’re not talking directly about it.
Verily: So true! I think we all can relate to those times when we need simple indulgences to distract us from something we’re struggling with. I imagine this experience has taught you a lot about yourself, and how to be kind with yourself. Can you tell us about it?
Nicole: Where to start? I have learned that I am not in control at all! For someone with a type-A personality, this has been a very difficult realization. Many people take their fertility for granted. Our on-demand society teaches us to be self-centered, choosing what we want, when we want it, and that carries over into family planning.
Luckily throughout this journey I have had very sweet, supportive family and friends to remind me to be kind to myself and not to dwell in the darkness. I try to always avoid negative, hateful thoughts towards myself and my body, but it’s a real temptation to be self-depreciating. It is in those moments that you have to choose between hope and despair, allowing yourself to feel sadness but also striving to find the positive.
For me, being kind to myself also means giving myself permission to avoid situations that may be particularly challenging, like baby showers or social events where I’ll be the only one who doesn’t have children. At the beginning, I felt like I just had to be stronger, and that I needed to force myself to cope. Now, I know my boundaries and look for a healthy balance with what works for me.
Verily: One of the hardest part about infertility, it seems, can be the uncertainty about the future—the question of “will we ever be able to have our own biological child?” How do you try to fight or manage the doubt that accompanies this burden month to month?
Nicole: A lot of trust, and a lot of wine (in moderate amounts, of course)!
With each passing month of disappointment, my husband and I also look for what makes this time special and things to be thankful for. We really struggled at the beginning of this journey with the uncertainty of the future, and it’s still extremely difficult. Like many women, I dream about my future family with the beautiful house, but I can’t even predict what next month will bring.
One thing that I have learned is to not let life stop around the uncertainty. We need to readjust our dreams, lovingly accepting children if and when we are able to have them, but pursuing other ambitions as well that make us well-rounded people. I am not defined by whether or not I am a mother; if it happens, it will be an incredible piece of who I am, but just that—one piece. I am also a wife, a sister, a daughter, an employee, a manager, and a friend.
Verily: Here at Verily, we love our Daily Doses—quotes or phrases that motivate or inspire us. Do you have a mantra or phrase that helps you to have hope in the hard days?
Nicole: My favorite one right now is simply, “Be Present.” I think it’s a beautiful reminder to make the best out of every situation, to focus on the good in the moment, and to just enjoy this season of life—because it will not last forever.