How The Stigma Of Infertility Creates A Culture Of Silence That Burdens Hopeful Mothers

couple waiting outside hospital room for fertility results
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When Sasha tried to conceive two years ago, the 36-year-old dance instructor and mommy vlogger from New Jersey merely attributed the silence surrounding her attempts to get pregnant to her family’s cultural attitude about the fragility of fertility and pregnancy.

“In Russia, you don’t talk about trying to conceive," she said. "Even if you get pregnant, you don’t talk about it ... no baby shower ... no gifts. It’s like, you don’t want to jinx it.”

But when she didn’t get pregnant after two months of trying, “I didn’t feel like a real woman,” Sasha admitted. Shame set in so quickly that it was if “self-hate was just waiting to be triggered,” she said.

With 6.1 million women in the U.S. ages 15 to 44 having difficulty conceiving, it’s not like fertility struggles are all that uncommon. The question remains, then: Why aren’t we more communicative about trying to get pregnant, and why is there such a stigma surrounding infertility?

* * *

According to the World Health Organization, infertility is “a disease of the reproductive system defined by the failure to achieve a clinical pregnancy after 12 months or more of regular unprotected sexual intercourse.”

But the desire to have children certainly transcends the heterosexual, married couple dynamic — and even sex, for that matter. Therein lies something called “situational infertility," a term that describes "a person who may be biologically fertile but, due to their situation, are unable to have children in a typical way." It often applies to partners in same-sex relationships who may be ready to start a family but are met with challenges related to surrogacy and adoption.

Situational infertility can also be rooted in one’s financial health: Just one round of IVF can cost an estimated $12,000, and two or more rounds of treatment are often required for a successful pregnancy. And unless you live in Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, or New Jersey, insurance coverage for IVF, fertility specialists, and fertility support groups may be hard to come by.

And let’s not forget challenges such as obesity, addiction, poverty, physical disabilities and mental health issues, all of which can foster situational infertility.

* * *

Situational or otherwise, an infertility diagnosis has been linked to “depression, anxiety and other psychological problems” and can “trigger feelings of shame and failure to live up to traditional gender expectations and strain relationships,” experts told the Monitor on Psychology.

The concept of womanhood, in particular, is inextricably tied to the idea of fertility. When our bodies don’t do what they are “supposed” to do, an overwhelming sense of fear, lack of self-control, and stress can begin to take a toll on our mental health; and as a result, the subject of infertility is associated with shame and self-blame.

“Individuals and couples can struggle with complex decisions about how far to take the quest for children,” writes the Monitor — a struggle they often face in silence, but shouldn’t have to.

* * *

Jasmin, a New Jersey accountant, was diagnosed with endometriosis when she was 22 years old. Despite the fact that doctors told her the condition would make conceiving difficult, she and her husband tried anyway, as they had always envisioned children in their lives.

In addition to trying via natural conception, Jasmin underwent in vitro fertilization treatments — a grueling process that involved injecting herself with hormones, undergoing countless ultrasounds, and bringing home bags full of medication — over the course of her four-year attempt to conceive.

But even after her second failed round of IVF, Jasmin kept quiet about her fertility struggles — and so did her husband.

“I was ashamed and embarrassed and he didn’t want to add to it," she told me. "People would ask us when we were going to have a baby and he would just say we’re not ready. He was very protective of me.”

When our bodies don’t do what they are “supposed” to do, an overwhelming sense of fear, lack of self-control, and stress can begin to take a toll on our mental health.

Jasmin had talked to her mother and her sisters about what she was going through throughout her fertility journey, but spared them the details of her spiraling emotions because she didn’t want to be a burden. It wasn’t until she met Jennifer — a 39-year-old from Toronto who creates affirmations, manifestations, oracle card readings and vision boards for her clients — through an online chat group run by RESOLVE, the National Infertility Association, that she was able to open up about it.

Jennifer is an open book when it comes to her own challenges with fertility, which she’s been living with for over a decade and a half. Just recently, for instance, she revealed that she lost over one hundred pounds and ovulated for the first time — but when she was finally able to conceive, she lost the pregnancy just days later because of an abscess that nearly took her own life as well.

Besides sharing her story in a few online support groups, Jennifer is also writing a novel about her journey in order to erase the stigma associated with infertility.

“I believe we should all be very open with our struggles to become pregnant and stay pregnant," she told me, adding: “I want women and couples to know that there is hope.”

Some would argue that humans are hardwired to procreate, but we are more than our bodies. By sparking difficult conversations about our intimate infertility struggles and their commonality, we can begin to normalize those experiences and, in turn, end a culture of silence that places a mental and emotional burden on those who wish to bring children into the world.

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