Fear, failure and fertility: should we really continue to stay silent about these emotions?

March 28, 2011 | By:

I am getting over a pretty nasty bought of pneumonia.  And as a result, I have had a lot of time to think.

To think about everything that I should be doing in the office but can’t.  To think about everything that I need to be writing:  my e-book on egg donation is pretty much finished but I haven’t had time to input the final edits or to speak with my design and production team about getting it ready for the marketplace; I have an article on egg donation and surrogacy contracts that is due to the American Bar Association in a matter of days; I have to talk to my publisher about revising The Infertility Survival Handbook; I want to write a blog about a RESOLVE event I co-hosted on March 24th at Bis.Co.Latte Cafe in NYC regarding the legal issues egg and embryo donation; and oh yeah I am supposed to be teaching a class on third-party assisted reproduction at a law school and I have to prepare the syllabus (that one may not happen).

To think about all the contracts that I need to draft and edit for clients.

To think about the new series of blogs I am working on (perhaps it too will become an e-book?) on the mind-body connection in dealing with and resolving infertility.  Thanks to a Facebook friend, I discovered a wealth of information on something called “Conscious Conception.”  I have a ton of research to do on Conscious Conception, it is a seed germinating in my mind and something I very much want to talk about.   Just this morning I was staffing out work in the office and we got into a long conversation about how much I believe faith plays in people’s ability to deal with and overcome fertility.

And yet, all I am capable of on this gorgeous sunny day is to THINK about the overwhelming amount of things that are filling my proverbial plate.  I am utterly and completely without the ability to deal with any of it today.  For today my goal is to be able to breathe.  One of the fundamental things in life which I must attend to if I am going to get back to these things, yes?  Yet, instead of recognizing the very important need to take care of my own health, I have been beating myself up for my inability to do my work.  I feel like I am drowning, literally and figuratively.

It was only upon stumbling across an issue of the Wellesley Alumnae Magazine and its cover article about “When Life Doesn’t Measure Up” and reading about how, when and why so many of my fellow Wellesley sisters feel like failures, that I realized that I feel like a failure for having pneumonia and not being able to do my work.  And with that thought, I was off and running on a journey of self-analysis that of course brought me right back to the world of fertility and the feelings of failure that come with it.

Apparently, my college magazine conducted some kind of a poll asking graduates to discuss their feelings about their satisfaction with their life and feelings of inadequacy, failure, or success in a variety of different contexts.  I don’t recall receiving a questionnaire in the mail or an email like this — must have missed out on contributing my own thoughts to this very profound poll.  The reasons women gave for feeling like a failure were incredibly diverse.  And yet, despite the very diverse reasons or situations my Wellesley sisters gave when describing their own issues with failure, including dealing with chronic illness, the article did not mention infertility or an inability to have children (or the choice not to have children) as raising issues of failure.  Certainly, someone among the thousands of Wellesley graduates has experienced difficulties conceiving and must have felt like a failure.  I did.  I do.  Why didn’t someone else talk about it?  The Dixie Chicks talk about it in their song “So Hard” . . . a ballad that haunts me every time I hear it.  It’s all about the feelings of failure and loss we have when we can’t conceive.  One out of every 8 Americans is dealing with infertility.  Why didn’t the Wellesley College Alumnae Magazine talk about it?  Especially at an all women’s college, you would think that a topic like infertility and failure related to something so integral to being a woman would be recognized and not continue to be shrouded in secrecy. The article talked about the shame my sisters felt about their various failures, the secrecy that surrounded them but infertility was not among them.  What gives?

The secrecy and shame surrounding infertility is pervasive.  Just as for my sisters who are wrestling with their own failures of a different nature, the article pointed out that all of them felt better by talking openly in the article about failure and its impact on their self-perception.

Indeed, the magazine itself was often a cause for Wellesley alumnae to feel failure.  By hearing about the success stories profiled in the magazine many women admitted that they felt that they had let down the school or that they failed to measure up to the “Wellesley standard” of being or becoming another Hillary Clinton.  The article concluded with the following statement:

“But maybe what we don’t know is what failures happened to those women before they became household names that eventually brought them to the point of celebration.  And until we hear those stories, too, we can’t begin to make new templates for success that acknowledge the inclusion of failure as part of a life well-lived.”

And this leads me to the following conclusions:

Until we hear stories about our feelings of failure and inadequacy arising from our infertility, and our subsequent success at overcoming them, we cannot begin to make those new templates for success that acknowledge how much stronger or sensitive we have become as a result of our infertility.

Until we hear stories about our feelings of failure and inadequacy arising from our infertility, we cannot begin to find faith that our own journey will end in success.  We need to be inspired by the success of our sisters (and brothers) who have gone before us and achieved that which we long for — a baby — even if that success means embracing an alternate route to parenthood such as surrogacy, egg or embryo donation, or adoption.

It is, as my Wellesley sisters say, in embracing the loss in which we gain the faith to succeed.  I wish there was no stigma to being infertile but I must confess that the lack of mention of infertility in this article really drove home for me the sense of the overwhelming stigma with which we live.  I have a serious issue with the Wellesley Alumnae Magazine for not bringing to light a discussion of how failing at something as intrinsic as becoming a mother can be so devastating to our sense of self-esteem, to our marriages, and to our sense of failure as a woman.  (I cannot fathom that not one woman responded to that poll and didn’t mention infertility and if that was the case, I am even more troubled by the statement that makes regarding how much we hide about our infertility).

Learning from others who share their own shame or other sense of failure about something with which we are all supposed to be able to do — conceive, carry and give birth to our children — is what will carry us through.  For others it is not necessarily biological or medical failure but a sense of frustration at being unable to conceive because we lack the essential components — we are socially infertile.  And learning from others who find ways beyond our social infertility will give us ideas and strength for achieving that which our sexual orientation precludes us from obtaining.

And as the wheels started turning and hit overdrive as I considered the article and my own sense of failure because I have pneumonia and am unable to work (and am thus letting down my clients to whom I truly want nothing more than to help have a child), and considered once again the stigma with which we live, I couldn’t stay silent.  I pulled out my laptop and curled up in bed to “think through” this article and my situation and put together the pieces of this puzzle.  My blog will now not only be devoted to discussing the concepts behind Conscious Conception, but it will be devoted to de-stigmatizing this disease.  I know there is a Wellesley sister out there somewhere who is struggling to defeat the NOvary™ or endometriosis, to locate a birth mother, to navigate the increasingly complicated red tape of Ethiopian adoption, or to find a way to establish the fact that she and her partner are both the legal mothers of the child one of them delivered and which they intend to parent together.

So in my failure of having pneumonia, new ideas and inspiration have been born for my blog and thus my day has turned into one of celebration.  And I ask you to please not be silent.  I took the pledge with RESOLVE not to remain silent and today my failure in being human and having pneumonia has given me an idea of how I can fulfill my pledge to RESOLVE.  My blog is a safe place where I hope to support people walking with me on this path, and to provide the occasional nugget of legal or medical information to move us another step forward on the path to parenthood.  And thus I ask you to talk about your shame.  Talk about your sense of failure.  Talk about your frustration, your anger or confusion. (And if you are a Wellesley alumnae, help me convince them to let me write an article about infertility).  Share your story here wherever you may be in your journey.  And I will try and find people to share with you how they conquered the NOvary, endometriosis, found birth mothers, survived the red tape of Ethiopian adoptions, or proven their joint parentage.

Because I know that if we continue to be silent and give in to this crazy stigma, we will never know what failures happened to those women (and men) among us before they became mothers (and fathers), and that eventually brought them to the point of celebration.  And until we hear those stories we can’t begin to make new templates for success that acknowledge the inclusion of infertility as part of a life with children.

And now for some random FAQ’s and reminders:

Yes, you can establish your parentage if you are a same-sex couple and one of you has a baby.  Depending on where you live the mechanisms for doing this will vary.  In some states you can file a legal action to have your parental rights established, in other states you may need or want to adopt (even if you are not married).  In some States and in some circumstances you may need or want to do both.

If you have a functioning uterus, egg donation is perhaps the most successful route to pregnancy for women who have issues with the NOvary™.  At many clinics, with a properly screened egg donor, live birth rates per egg donation are in the 60% range.  Yes, you read that correctly, you could have a 60% chance of conceiving a baby using an egg donor.  And among those that conceive using an egg donor, the rate of twin conceptions is in the 40% range (making a strong case for single embryo transfer).

If you are considering adoption but have financial concerns or are worried about wait times, relinquishment risks, or red tape, embryo donation is a rapidly growing path to parenthood.  Using embryos donated from another family who has cryopreserved embryos which they no longer wish to use to build their own family, you may have a 40% chance of conceiving a child.  In addition to the affordability of embryo donation and the high success rates, you have the opportunity to carry the child, control the uterine environment, and may have the ability to conceive more than one child (this will depend on the type of embryo donation you enter into, as well as the number and quality of the embryos donated to you).

If you don’t have a functioning uterus, gestational surrogacy is another option for becoming a parent.  Using either your own gametes (genetic material), or an embryo created from egg or sperm donation (or sometimes both), another woman can carry a child for you and you will have all legal and parental rights upon that child’s birth.  Surrogacy laws vary by State, and it’s far from inexpensive, but when done correctly, surrogacy is a wonderful means of building a family.

And let’s not forget what is now almost considered boring: IVF.  If you have a viable uterus, eggs and/or sperm but for other reasons have difficulty conceiving on your own, with the assistance of In Vitro Fertilization, your chances of conceiving get better every day.  With the improvement of the culture medium used to nourish embryos, together with advances in reproductive medicine, some families will have as high as a 70% chance of conceiving.  Although the vast majority of families using IVF will need more than one attempt before conceiving, this is a technology that should not be ignored.

Other things to consider are:

PGD, (Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis).  This enables you to select only those embryos that appear chromosomally normal for embryo transfer in an IVF cycle.  For older infertility patients, those with a family history of hereditary illness, or those with recurrent pregnancy loss, PGD can increase your chances of conceiving a healthy baby.

ICSI, (Intracytoplasmic sperm injection).  This is where doctors inject the sperm into the egg to help facilitate fertilization.  For families with male factor infertility this can help side-step problems with sperm that might prevent it from fertilizing an egg.

DNA Fragmentation Assay.  This is a test performed on sperm to determine whether the sperm are chromosomally normal.  Although there is a large range of “grey area” where it is unclear whether the sperm are going to cause problems with conception or pregnancy loss, this is proving to be a very important aspect in solving cases of recurrent pregnancy loss, IVF failure, or otherwise diagnosing “hidden” infertility issues.

Blood Clotting Disorders and other immune issues.  Do you have unexplained pregnancy loss or IVF failure (with an egg donor)?  Go get a work-up from a hematologist or other doctor specializing in diagnosing harder to find infertility issues.  Sadly many physicians routinely overlook or discredit the influence or impact of blood clotting and/or immune issues on the ability of an embryo to implant in the uterus, or to the ongoing development of a baby.

Are you going to stay silent, or are you going to talk with me here about what you are feeling, what you are trying to do to overcome your infertility, or what you did that helped you overcome it?  Speak.  If not here, then find somewhere.  Please.



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  1. Kat says:

    Most do not openly share because they fear the LACK of acknowledgment from whomever they told. They also fear a not so understanding ear….that may make only offers ill or misguided tips/information despite how well intentioned they think they maybe to the infertile. Sometimes it is not worth it, having to correct the misguided or ill-informed as they only hear what they want to hear. I have found that most people are uncomfortable with when I talk about it. They try to change the subject. Perhaps it is not we who are silent but those around us who suffer in the silence of ignorance and lack of wanting to understand or a willngness to listen.

  2. Amy says:

    I love this post, and agree about the Wellesley Magazine article… I also was not contacted, and I wish they had mentioned the infertility problems which are indeed such a secret and yet are widespread. Some of my relatives don’t want to talk about them with me at all, possibly because I am (at the moment) pursuing motherhood as a single woman. I’ve been told to “find another hobby.” I have been thinking about an article idea to submit to the magazine, in fact, but have been waiting for my story to have some sort of resolution — as I once heard a writer say, it’s hard to tell a story when you don’t know the end. Thanks, Elizabeth, for such an informative post. I now intend to follow your blog!

  3. Amy FItzgerald says:

    Another Amy here, Wellesley ’91, and I did not receive the questionnaire either. My “failure” is one that I’ve shared with a number of other women from our class, many of whom, like me, successfully bore one child, but then found “secondary infertility” to be a new phrase to add to my conversations. At our 15th (?) reunion, when I had – I thought – adjusted to the idea of having only one child, all I saw were babies and pregnant women! I mentioned this on a couple of occasions and found that there were a number of women in my situation, some pursuing “next steps”, like fertility shots, Intra-Uterine Insemination or IVF. One of our class-mates surprised me by telling me that all four of her children were the result of IVF, something I would never had known had not a mutual friend mentioned to her my difficulties (impossibilities) in conceiving a second child. Infertility is simply not discussed UNLESS you bring it up. So, bring it up! You’ll probably find at least a sympathetic ear, if not a kindred soul.

  4. Maya '95 says:

    Thank you for sharing your post and blog, Elizabeth. After years of struggle, I had a baby via IVF/gestational surrogacy last year. In the end, I was beyond lucky, yet that Wellesley Magazine article about failure still made me weepy.

  5. Suzanne '98 says:

    I also wasn’t contacted for that survey, or I would have certainly mentioned infertility. Having dealt with both primary and secondary infertility has had a huge impact on who I am. My daughter was conceived in Israel through months of treatment and many agonizing feelings of failure finally followed by a successful IUI. That experience led me to begin work on my still in-progress book about infertility in the Bible.
    Then, I felt failed by my body again when it didn’t “reset” as I had been told many people’s bodies do after pregnancy, and I went through all the feelings and treatments again here in the US. When our money for treatments ran out, we were in the middle of the process of being liscenced for a domestic adoption through the fost/adopt system in CA. After our home studies, classes, and reams of paperwork were complete, I miraculously discovered that I was pregnant with my son! But, what I went through changed me, and that failure still sits in the back of my mind, lurking.

  6. Margie '83 says:

    You have an inspirational blog, Elizabeth, and the comments about the Wellesley Mag article not mentioning infertility were quite on point. I wish blogs and similar support had existed when I was going through the infertility journey in the mid-90’s; I found a terrific online group in Internet infancy days (think dial-up connections), but other than that, no one really talked about infertility much then either. Because ours was secondary infertility, two local RESOLVE chapters would not let me participate, which was another blow. My husband is a great guy and very supportive in his own way, but not much into the “talking stuff”. I was and am very thankful for my mom, who had experienced secondary infertility in the Stone Ages of the 1960s, then miraculously had my brother and sister nearly a decade after me, and my best friend, who went through infertility and miscarriage hell before having her only child at 41.

    I’d had arthritis since my early 20s and other autoimmune issues, but nothing “female” and our daughter was born within a year of getting married in my early 30s. After that, we were unable to conceive another child for several years. I ended up quitting my high-stress job a year into the journey, partly “just in case” the stress and travel were contributing to the problem and partly because of the time-consuming tests and processes. My OB/Gyn thankfully did not blow off my certainty that something was wrong, despite clear tests of all kinds–including hysterosalpingrams and ultrasounds aplenty–and regular periods. We were lucky in that after 3 years and failed IUIs, etc, the second RE laparoscopically discovered Stage 3 endometriosis (totally asymptomatic) and cleared it. We got pregnant immediately on Clomid and IUI, but I miscarried twice within 8 months.

    We’d begun the adoption process right after my second miscarriage when I found out I was pregnant–no interventions, no drugs, but I began bleeding almost immediately. I’m not sure how you “prepare” yourself for a miscarriage, but I can honestly say that I was both despairing and resigned at the same time. Somehow, I spent the next 36 weeks flat on my back when I wasn’t hospitalized with all kinds of complications, pretty much a babbling idiot when my daughter was in school to compensate for trying to act like a normal mom when she was home. My mom and mother-in-law kept flying in to help out in all ways, and our son was born 14 years ago yesterday. Even more miraculously, after both doctors said we had almost no chance of having more kids because of my health issues and all the fertility complications, our second son was born 17 months later. I was nursing and didn’t know I was pregnant until I was four months along with him.

    Wherever you are in this unwanted journey, really do try and take each step one at a time and find and stick with things that benefit you–activities, exercise, work, friends, anything that keeps you happy, healthy and grounded. Nothing convinced me more of that than my own journey and the end results: I was a total stressed-out wreck during my older son’s pregnancy and he had a severe case of colic for nearly a year. He also has some minor neurological issues. Our pediatrician and several specialists don’t discount the cortisol and other stress hormones that literally must have bathed him the whole pregnancy. By contrast, neither of his siblings have these issues and both were cheerful, calm babies onward.
    A final word of humor: my daughter, who is generally a great kid and waaaay too much of an overachiever, frequently criticizes me for “wasting my degrees” and staying home with her and her brothers. Even though I’ve been working part time in something I love for several years, she remains quite vocal that she’ll never follow in my footsteps. I actively have to bite my lip to not laugh, as we’ll be moving her into Wellesley in August to begin her freshman year!