Here’s the thing about infertility: It isn’t just about the painful, physically draining tests and treatments. It isn’t even just about the emotional aspect — the longing for something your body won’t give you. It’s also about the culture we live in, and how that culture views and speaks about family-building.
We’re still living in a world in which people ask things like “are you pregnant?” and “so when are you having kids?”. We’re still being told that topics like fertility and miscarriage are taboo. And we still have a culture of toxic positivity where infertility is concerned.
That culture is what allows people to say things like “just relax and it will happen!” when someone expresses fertility struggles. Toxic positivity around infertility can be annoying at best, and cruel and heartbreaking at worst. Imagine having a miscarriage and having someone say “well, everything happens for a reason!” or “at least you know you can get pregnant.” It sounds absurd, but it’s something so many people have experienced — and it’s incredibly damaging.
Toxic Positivity and Infertility
Infertility is already an intense emotional experience, and research indicates that it can affect a person’s mental health. When you add toxic positivity into the mix, it can add to that load, according to Michelle Byrd, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist who works with people experiencing infertility.
Byrd explains what toxic positivity is, what it looks like in the context of infertility, and how this affects people on the receiving end of it.
“Toxic positivity, in my opinion, is our way of rushing to the solution,” says Byrd. “It’s like we want to fix the problem and focus on the positive only.”
It sounds innocuous enough, but the effect is often invalidating.
“What happens along the way is that we feel emotions. Humans are wired through our nervous systems to have emotions through experiences,” Byrd adds. “So toxic positivity seems to not have a space for that emotion. Some people can really benefit from toxic positivity, but what I find is that most are having emotional experiences that they want to be validated. They want to know…Can you see my pain? Do I matter? Can you be there for me?”
In the context of infertility, toxic positivity can take the form of statements like “everything will work out just fine”, according to Byrd. The people sharing these comments typically mean well, but infertility is already such an isolating experience, even if you intellectually know that it’s a common one. Statements like these often just make people who are navigating fertility challenges feel even more alone.
“What I find that we want the most as a human experience is to be seen and heard,” says Byrd, who adds that when faced with toxic positivity, many people feel as if they have to skip over the real emotions they’re experiencing and get right to the solution. As any who has fertility challenges knows, skipping ahead to a solution is…well, impossible.
If you’re struggling with toxic positivity and are feeling guilty about your negative feelings towards well-intentioned people and actions, remember: Toxic positivity has a real negative effect on many people, and what your feeling is valid.
It isn’t just people who are struggling to conceive: Toxic positivity affects people who have experienced midcarriage too. It’s important to remember that pregnancy losses are losses, and it’s natural to grieve them. Toxic positivity can make people feel as though they aren’t given the space to mourn those losses.
We live with a culture of toxic positivity surrounding death in general (see: Statements like “they’re in a better place now”), but when it comes to a pregnancy loss, we’re already receiving so many messages that minimize the grief that can accompany the loss of someone you never got to meet. It’s important that we remove the toxic positivity around pregnancy loss and allow people to feel what they’re feeling — even if those feelings are dark.
“Pregnancy loss is also such a personal and isolating experience. Grief is something that is not to be rushed and needs to be acknowledged,” says Byrd. “Grief needs to be allowed time in space to be acknowledged, and processed. That’s hard to do when the emotion associated with grief is not given space.”
Part of why there’s so much toxic positivity in the world of infertility is because so many people have no idea of what infertility really feels like, according to Byrd.
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“While there are millions of people impacted by infertility, there still are many who will never know the experiences that one who faces infertility or loss may feel,” says Byrd, who acknowledges that in many cases, people truly don’t want to add to a person navigating infertility’s load. “It’s very easy to fall into the cycle of wanting your loved one to not feel the pain,” she adds.
With that in mind, the best way to combat toxic positivity around infertility is to keep talking about it, and make it clear that it can add to the pain of infertility. People who face infertility should speak about their experiences if they feel comfortable doing so. It helps that so many public figures are speaking out about their own fertility journeys as well. The more we normalize these issues, the more awareness people will have surrounding them — and hopefully that will shift the culture of how we talk about fertility and family building.
If you’re dealing with toxic positivity surrounding your fertility challenges, it might be helpful to find a support system for this particular part of your life. That may mean joining an infertility community, talking to a friend who understands the experience, or speaking with a therapist.
“My advice for anyone who feels invalidated by their support system, is to know that this is not something that is their fault,” says Byrd. “This may be the time that they will seek out help from a therapist or someone who has gone through infertility. Your support system may look differently to adequately provide what you may need at this season of your life.
Zara Hanawalt is a freelance journalist and mom of twins. She's written for outlets like Parents, MarieClaire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Motherly, and many others. In her (admittedly limited!) free time, she enjoys cooking, reading, trying new restaurants, and traveling with her family.