9 Emotional Triggers When You Have Secondary Infertility
Secondary infertility affects approximately 11 percent of couples in the United States, which means it occurs at nearly the same rate as primary infertility. Secondary infertility is defined as the inability to conceive or carry a baby to term after previously giving birth, while primary infertility means a pregnancy has never been achieved by a person.
People dealing with secondary infertility don't necessarily receive the same level of support—and may keep their journey under wraps.
The reasons for silence are many. Triggers for grief and negative emotions often appear in surprising places. As someone dealing with secondary infertility, it may help to get to know these common triggers so you are better prepared to handle them.
Why are so many parents quiet about secondary infertility? According to Linda Kondilis, Ph.D., a reproductive health psychologist in Atlanta, the reason for their silence is that there are fewer spaces in which they can grieve. Seeing other people having children can be very triggering, and couples with secondary infertility might opt out of primary infertility support groups.
However, she stated that these couples struggle with shame and guilt just like primary infertility patients. But they often internalize society's idea that they "should" be happy and thankful because they already have a child.
The result is that many couples don't feel safe enough to share their diagnosis due to disenfranchised grief. Tack on burnout, relationship challenges and mental health challenges on top of raising a child and it's clear many factors keep people from speaking up and seeking help.
My secondary infertility experience
Roughly six months after the birth of our son, I discovered I had a brain aneurysm and needed surgery. After a successful surgery, I had to wait almost two years before we were allowed to try to conceive. We had to make sure the brain aneurysm completely disappeared, that my scans were clear and that I could stop taking medication.
Finally, we received the go-ahead from my neurosurgeon. But months passed. After many procedures, analyses and bloodwork, we discovered we suffered from secondary infertility.
'I never expected secondary infertility to affect me as much as it does. I felt bad for feeling the way I did but I had never been part of a secondary infertility discussion.'
Now, after a visit to a fertility specialist, we know that our ability to conceive looks bleak even with fertility treatment. I never expected secondary infertility to affect me as much as it does. I felt bad for feeling the way I did but I had never been part of a secondary infertility discussion.
My infertility journey may appear different from others', but there are triggers common to anyone who has secondary infertility. Here are nine triggers than can bring on negative thoughts and emotions:
1. Pregnancy announcements
For most people, pregnancy announcements are wonderful news. But for people who have infertility, including secondary infertility, they can be crushing. Counting the number of babies your friend has had since you've had your child can feel devastating.
While individuals with secondary infertility are typically genuinely happy for the person making the announcement, the occasion can also cause sadness or anger. But these seemingly conflicting emotions can be valid and true, according to Becky Kennedy, Ph.D., a mom of three, a clinical psychologist in New York City and the founder of Good Inside, a platform for parents. Someone with secondary infertility may view the pregnancy announcement and feel happiness for the couple but also sadness for their situation.
Fertility specialists caution couples with secondary infertility to set limits on social media and communicate with friends and family about their struggles. Ask for pregnancy announcements to reach you by text, not in a public setting, while you work through the pain.
2. Hospital photos
Just like pregnancy announcements, birth announcements from the hospital prove triggering for the same reasons. It can be difficult to see smiling faces and a new baby—along with a happy big brother or sister.
As we explore other options to have a second child, I realize our birth announcement might look different than the typical hospital picture of the birthing parent in bed while the partner beams with pride.
When the time comes, I'm sure I'll be ecstatic at our unexpected journey to having a second child, but right now, I mourn that hospital picture I might never get again.
3. The reminder of siblings
The mention or discussion of siblings can bring waves of grief to people experiencing secondary infertility. Siblings playing. Siblings fighting. Sibling similarities and differences. Sibling photos. All of it can be a painful reminder that their child may never have a brother or a sister.
I would have loved to have seen my son with a sibling at the age of 3. As the age of 4 looms, I am sadly seeing that age slip away from us. Kondilis explained that her patients are often overwhelmed by a timeline because they do not want to have a large gap between their children's ages for fear that the siblings will not be close.
'I don't know whether these people believe those thoughts or not (more than likely, they are just curious individuals). But my brain sometimes interprets it as an example of the ways my body has failed me.'
Likewise, Melanie Landay, M.D., FACOG, reproductive endocrinologist with Reproductive Medicine Associates Southern California, shared how patients with secondary infertility often feel guilt for wanting more children when they are so grateful for the child or children they already have.
4. The 'When are you going to have another child?' question
This question is complicated. I don't mind friends inquiring about the status of my next child, but not when it comes from a stranger. I don't always know how to respond without going into a lengthy explanation of my health history and infertility struggles.
Kondilis said this question is sometimes another reminder of society's paradoxical expectation that although women should be happy with the child they already have, they also are expected to have more than one child. It's as though having one child isn't good enough.
I don't know whether these people believe those thoughts or not (more than likely, they are just curious individuals). But my brain sometimes interprets it as an example of the ways my body has failed me.
5. Menstruating is emotionally difficult
Getting your period can be hard enough. Add on getting your period when you're trying to conceive and it feels like something closer to brutal. Hormones are heightened, and emotions may feel out of control.
What's worse is that premenstrual symptoms can mimic pregnancy symptoms. Sometimes I don't know if I'm pregnant or not. The symptoms are so similar. On top of that, periods can start anytime and anywhere—and women are expected to carry on as normal.
It's not always easy to carry on as though everything is normal. The arrival of your period is another reminder that your conception goals aren't yet in reach. Learning to successfully cope with that monthly reminder takes time and plenty of self-care.
6. Being offered an alcoholic drink
The location or the season doesn't matter. Drinking alcoholic beverages is common in many activities. Most of the time, I'm unfazed by this offering because I'm sure the person offering it is just being nice or polite.
But other times, I read more into it. I find myself becoming hyperaware. I wonder if the person is trying to figure out if I'm pregnant. Being able to drink an adult beverage is another reminder that, sadly, I'm not pregnant.
'When I share my sadness, I'm not looking for other people to try to put a positive spin on it or remind me that it could be worse. I want to feel heard and validated.'
It may help to recognize what else is happening. Are there other triggers, such as reminders that other people have multiple kids and you don't? If it's not a toxic environment, remind yourself that you're with friends, and don't get caught up in unnecessary analysis.
7. Only-child stereotypes are false and damaging
According to several studies on single children, the stereotypes and myths of being an only child have long since been debunked. Only children aren't necessarily more selfish, aggressive, bossy, spoiled and dependent than children from families with multiple children.
Only children can have higher IQs than those with siblings, may reach higher academic rankings and can be more sociable.
As a mom of one child, I know this. But when I hear persistent only-child stereotypes, I still cringe.
8. Most recommendations from non-experts are not helpful
Since going through secondary infertility, I've learned that everyone is connected to someone who has gone through it, too, but then tried this thing or that thing and conceived.
This well-intentioned advice can include comments like:
- Once my friend started the adoption process, she got pregnant.
- You should take a vacation. I know a couple who got pregnant when they finally took a trip.
- My friend tried intrauterine insemination and got pregnant on the first try.
- Don't stress about it and it will happen.
Don't give recommendations to anyone going through infertility unless they specifically ask for your advice. Every struggle with infertility is different.
My preexisting conditions, a history of brain aneurysms and an autoimmune disease make fertility treatments and medicines complicated. If you're going through a similar experience, take the advice with a grain of salt.
9. 'Silver linings' make my feelings feel invalid
When I share my sadness, I'm not looking for other people to try to put a positive spin on it or remind me that it could be worse. I want to feel heard and validated.
These comments might include:
- At least you already have a child.
- I know someone who tried for over 10 years to get pregnant. At least that's not you.
- You're lucky you only have one child. I'm going crazy in my house. Want to take some of mine?
I consider myself a pretty positive person who regularly practices gratitude. I'm extremely blessed for the child I do have and the life that I live. I've learned that it's OK to allow myself to sit with my grief and just be sad for a bit.
Dealing with triggers during secondary infertility
Infertility is tough. Landay advised everyone who is on a fertility journey to advocate for themselves. If your family and friends are being insensitive, then speak up and tell them so.
Join a support group for individuals who are dealing with infertility. Their path won't be exactly the same, but they will have empathy and understanding.
Lastly, find your advocate. Identify a fertility specialist you connect with who understands you. There are many paths to becoming a parent, whether for the first time or the fifth. You may not travel the path you thought you would, but if you are willing and open, an advocate will be there for you and hold your hand every step of the way.
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