This week, in honor of “National Infertility Awareness Week,” bloggers are uniting to expose and bust myths about infertility. As I read through some of the suggestions on the RESOLVE website, I found myself shaking my head. No one really believes that infertility is only a woman’s issue, do they? I’ve never heard anyone say that children conceived through IVF are more likely to have defects or delays. But then one jumped out at me. One that I have not only heard many times, by many intelligent and compassionate people, but one that I actually believed myself until recently.
Stress causes infertility.
It seems to be a common theme in the infertility community. We hear this line (or some variation) over and over: If you just relax / stop trying / adopt, you’ll get pregnant. Everyone seems to know someone who went on a cruise or took a break or adopted a beautiful baby… only to go on to conceive seconds later. And people insist on telling you the story when they don’t know what else to say and are trying to offer up some hope. If you have said something along these lines to me, I forgive you. But the rest of this post will be about how hurtful these comments are and why. Think of it as an opportunity to educate yourself, and a chance to do better next time.
A woman who is trying and failing at the fertility game feels a lot of shame and a lot of guilt. She walks around questioning herself – her past mistakes, her current lifestyle, that glass of wine after ovulation, those last 5 pounds she can’t seem to lose. She is constantly fighting against all the many ways she can blame herself. She believes that if pregnancy is not achieved, then she must have done something to prevent it. She has been taught throughout her life that if you work hard enough at something, it will happen. She lives with an internal struggle – between stress brought on by the failure to conceive and the belief that stress is preventing her from doing so.
When people suggest that a woman “just relax,” they’re just guessing, and trying to help. In most cases, they haven’t experienced infertility in their own lives. I read an article that cited research showing that women suffering from infertility have the same level of stress as cancer patients. Yet no one would ever suggest to a cancer patient that if they just relaxed, their cancer would be cured. Yes, relieving stress can bring all sorts of benefits and should definitely be part of any disease treatment plan. But let’s be clear – infertility is a disease; it’s physical, not just mental. Suggesting otherwise minimizes our reality and our struggle. It places blame on the woman who wants so desperately to be fertile, to be pregnant, and to give life.
John and I struggled with this myth for a long time. For as loving and accepting and encouraging as he is, John believed our infertility had much to do with my stress level. He held to the idea that there was something we could do (or really, something I could do) to fix things “naturally.” We finally brought this concern to our doctor and here’s what he said: stress does not cause infertility. Think of women in primitive times. They might have been hiding out from a saber tooth tiger or unsure when their partner would return with food and they would be able to eat again. Now, that’s stress. And yet the species continued. Humans reproduced, and continue to do so, even under the most stressful of circumstances.
It was so relieving for me to hear it explained this way. I felt like a weight – or a burden – had been lifted from my shoulders. I continued to do yoga and acupuncture and meditation, but I did it for all the right reasons. Strength, clarity, peace. I realized that these exercises served an important purpose in my self care, but they were not meant to “cure” me. I try to relieve stress as much as possible in my life because it’s good for me, not because it’s one more thing I’m doing wrong and trying to correct. And knowing that, believing that I’m doing all I can for my future family, is the best stress relief there is.