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 hopeful because we now knew what the issue was and the steps we needed to take to manage it. The medication was really, really taxing. I had huge hormonal swings. I was 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 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 supportive throughout the whole process. Unfortunately, the first IVF didn't go well at all. I felt shattered. 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. My husband and my doctor gave me hope and suggested we do another round of IVF. 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 healthy, started taking supplements, exercised consistently, and even did acupuncture. In fact, my husband did all these things with me to support me in my journey the only way he knew how to at the time. I went into the second round of IVF feeling 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, it’s 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 while I still wasn't pregnant. I felt really happy for her but felt 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 I started feeling very sad, and my feelings of depression became worse. For the first time, I 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 he did everything with me to support me. I had 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. 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. In retrospect, he might have tried to connect with me but I pushed him away. I closed off in the relationship and became an angry person. 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 it didn’t help. It only made me feel worse and more irritable towards him. After the second IVF it hit me that this is not going to work - it really demotivated me. I didn't know what to do after this. I felt lost at that point. 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. The anger was about my body failing me. I also felt helpless and guilty for not being able to conceive when I knew how badly my husband wanted children. And it didn’t help not having too many people to talk to since a lot of my friends started having kids around that time. When my husband would try to make me feel better by telling me to stop worrying and not to feel a certain way, my anger would turn into rage. Through the anger, disappointment, guilt, and helplessness, I finally developed the courage to prepare for a third round of IVF in 2019. However, our appointments with the fertility specialist got pushed back by over a year due to the start of the pandemic in 2020. I started stressing because I was losing time. On top of that, I lost the usual outlets I had - the distractions, the change of scenery, going to the gym - because of the pandemic. My stress and anger eventually turned into bitterness. I decided to shut things off and take time out. I visited my family and spent a few weeks with them. I have been fortunate to have my family to lean on for emotional support because that is an area my husband has struggled with. He knows how to provide physical and intellectual support, but not emotional support. And to be fair, I didn’t know what I needed at the time, and how to ask for it from him. Since visiting my family, I have started feeling a little better about myself. I am no longer bitter, but I'm still sad. At the same time, I'm hopeful again because I have something to look forward to - we have decided to try another round of IVF!
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.