Its one thing to hear about infertility issues and statistics, its another to live through it. In an effort to understand a woman’s lived experience through infertility, I conversed with someone who has been struggling with it for six years. To protect her privacy, we will call her Natalie for the purpose of this article. I asked Natalie about her and her husband’s experience with infertility, her mental health, the impact on their relationship, and what she needs from her husband. With her permission, I share with you Natalie’s story:
We began trying six years ago. After a few months of trying and not conceiving, we went to an infertility specialist and learnt I have PCOS [Polycystic Ovary Syndrome]. Because I don't ovulate every month, he gave me medication to help with ovulation and increase my chances of conceiving. At this time, my husband and I were both hopeful because we now knew what the issue was and the steps we needed to take to manage it like work on balancing my hormones, eat healthier, manage my weight, and start taking the medication prescribed. The medication was really, really taxing. I had huge hormonal swings. I was very sensitive and grumpy. We tried that for six months and it didn't work. While I knew growing up my menstrual cycle isn't regular, I didn't realize at the time what this could have meant. Unfortunately, a lot of women don't realize something is wrong until they actually start trying to have a baby. We decided to do a round of IVF [In Vitro Fertilization] treatment a year into trying because I wanted to move things fast. I went into it feeling hopeful and my husband was very supportive throughout the whole process. The first IVF didn't go well at all. That's the first time I felt really shattered - I felt really disappointed. My husband is all about the numbers, so his response was to tell me not to be worried because if it didn't work this time, there's 50 percent chance it will work next time with another round of IVF. While I understood that logically, I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that out of the 30 eggs they were able to retrieve, only one survived and was able to form an embryo. That's when I realized something isn't right. My husband gave me hope and suggested we do another round of IVF and so did my doctor. But first, I wanted to give my body a year to heal and address any factors that could be causing bad quality eggs. I managed my stress levels by reducing the number of hours I worked, I continued eating very healthy, started taking supplements, exercised consistently, and even did acupuncture. I went into the second round of IVF feeling very hopeful again because my husband and I did everything possible to set ourselves up for success this time. But the second round of IVF was worse than the first time - and it didn't work, again. IVF puts your body through a lot. Your hormones are all over the place; you're feeling depressed and lonely. Even though you have your partner with you, its a very lonely feeling because you are going through all these hormonal changes alone. I don't think anyone got how I was feeling. I don't think anyone can understand what a woman goes through unless they've gone through IVF too. During this time, it helped to talk to my colleague who was going through IVF treatment herself. I was going through my second round and she was going through her first and she got pregnant. That hit me, and I lost the one friend who understood how I was feeling because she was now in a different phase and I still wasn't pregnant. I felt really happy for her but felt really sad for myself because I didn't understand why my body was failing me. We were both going through exactly the same thing and then her body was able to conceive and mine wasn't. That's when it started getting really, really depressing and really sad for me. For the first time, I really felt my husband's disappointment too because the second time both of us put a lot of effort into it. He didn't need to, but even he did acupuncture, took supplements, exercised, ate healthy- all to support me. It was mixed feelings to see someone support you so much and then seeing them disappointed. I was feeling guilt, I was feeling miserable, I felt like a failure. I felt like I failed myself and I failed him. At this time, I was able to lean on my family for support but not my husband. When it came to taking action to prepare for the IVF treatment, we did everything together. He supported me every single step of the way. But when it came to processing the IVF not working the second time around, I think that's when we disconnected. I think he might have tried to connect with me but I pushed him away. I closed off in the relationship and started becoming really angry. And I would take my anger out on him. He would try to make me feel better by saying things like, "It doesn't matter if we can't have kids...we have each other...we can adopt kids," but that was only irritating me more. After the second IVF it really hit me that there is something very wrong with my eggs and I don't think this is going to work - it really demotivated me. I didn't know what to do after this. I felt very lost at that point. I felt really closed off and upset about it. I felt stressed. I felt I was running out of time. I put on a lot of weight and neglected my health. I was feeling pathetic. I felt crazy. It was a very hard time. I decided to speak to my husband and tell him how I was feeling, and with his help I got back on track. We started exercising, taking supplements, and eating healthy again. We found another fertility specialist who gave us hope. But throughout this whole process I was feeling very down and I think that's what turned into anger. The anger was about my body failing me. I felt really helpless. And a lot of my friends started having kids around that time too. I was angry at myself for failing and felt really bad for my husband. It was anger, it was guilt, and not having too many people to talk to about it. When my husband would try to make me feel better by telling me to stop worrying and not feel a certain way, I would get ten times more mad at him. The anger eventually turned into bitterness in 2020 as I lost the usual outlets I had - the distractions, the change of scenery, going to the gym - because of the pandemic. Even our appointments with our fertility specialist and the third round of IVF that we worked so hard to prepare for all got pushed back by almost a year. That's when I started getting bitter and feeling stressed that I'm losing time. When I realized all the things I was feeling, I decided to shut things off and take a time out. I visited my family and spent time with them. I started feeling a little better about myself when I came back home to my husband. I am now no longer in the bitter phase but I'm still sad. At the same time, I'm hopeful again because we are going to try for another round of IVF now. I feel like I have something to look forward to.
When I asked Natalie how her struggles with infertility have impacted her relationship with her husband, she responded saying, “It’s affected us quite a bit in the sense that we have never argued as much as we have because of infertility. And while we are still very close and always like to be around each other, our emotional connection has been affected because theres a disconnect between us when it comes to infertility.” I went on to ask Natalie what she needed from her husband all those times she felt defeated, sad, and stressed. At first, she wasn’t able to identify what she needed from him. However, as we continued to converse, Natalie realized what she needed from her husband was to be validated in what she was feeling. She needed him to acknowledge her struggles with herself and how she was feeling. She also needed him to tell her she is not a failure. She wanted to hear him say that he is not upset with her, that he still loves her, and she is not a failure to him.
As Natalie looks forward to her third round of IVF, she is now working on finding a psychotherapist who specializes in women’s health and infertility issues to help her heal from her past experiences and provide her the mental health support she needs to continue on her journey towards hope and fertility. As for her relationship, she has started to become more open and vulnerable with her husband and plans to seek a couple’s therapist for additional support as needed. She hopes her story helps women realize they are not alone in what they are going through and to inspire women and couples to seek mental health support earlier on so they can manage their mental health, learn how to cope, and maintain a healthy connection with each other.