I watched my best friend struggle with infertility for years before experiencing it myself. I thought I knew what she was going through and empathized with her. I would say things like, “I know your time will come” or “I heard going on vacation can help” with the best of intentions. I thought it would make her feel better. But infertility is one of those beasts that you can’t truly understand without experience. As much as I wanted to help, I didn’t recognize what she was really going through.
Fast forward to several years later, and my husband and I had been trying to get pregnant on our own unsuccessfully for over a year. We were referred to an infertility specialist who was able to diagnose me relatively quickly with Stage 4 Endometriosis.
Not only was this an explanation as to why we were struggling to get pregnant, it was also the answer to the years of extremely painful periods I had experienced. All of my previous complaints had either been blatantly ignored by doctors or I was told to go on the pill to manage my symptoms (insert eye roll here).
In some ways, my diagnosis was a relief because at least it was an answer. But it also meant that due to resulting damage to my fallopian tubes, fertility treatments were our only option for pregnancy.
I will say this: IVF is not for the faint of heart. You often hear about the financial burden of IVF, which is, of course, substantial, but what about everything else?
I have a bit of a weak stomach when it comes to needles—they have always made me woozy. Yet, I had to learn to give them to myself daily as my husband wasn’t always around at the scheduled time to help. The medication made me feel like a different person, but I had to learn to ‘act normal’ at work and around friends and family. I had a terrible reaction to a medication given at the time of my egg retrieval, but we were also in the midst of a loss in our family and I had to pull myself together before I was physically ready. We went through all of this, and then our first transfer resulted in a miscarriage.
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It wasn’t until all of this transpired that I realized what my best friend had really gone through, and the mistakes and shortfalls I had made in my support of her without realizing it. I hadn’t understood how heartbroken she was, how all-consuming infertility treatments are, how deeply pregnancy loss cuts. I didn’t realize just how worn down she really was from the journey.
When a new mom has a baby, she is often offered lots of help and support by those closest to her. She is reminded to take it easy when she can, to rest. If she is feeling worn down, exhausted and drained, she is understood by all the mothers who have gone through it before her. Most likely, she will be offered help and not told some variation of “just relax.” As a society we understand new parent burnout and career burnout, but we don’t seem to understand fertility burnout quite as well.
Instead of offering support, the struggling couple is often given a laundry list of “advice” by well-meaning people. They are told stories about couples who conceived after going on vacation or after they decided to adopt. They are told to “stop worrying” and “just let it happen.” They are offered all sorts of platitudes with the intention of offering hope and making them feel better. But as someone who has been there, I promise that if someone opens up to you about their infertility, telling them to relax or go on vacation is far from helpful.
Infertility is hard—so, so hard. I cannot begin to put into words how much I struggled with the process. It overshadowed every aspect of my life. Mentally and emotionally I was a wreck, between hormone-induced mood swings to stress about whether or not this would even work. It was all I could think about. It was also an extremely isolating and lonely journey. And, of course, it wasn’t easy on our bank account either. This process left me with nothing left to give—it was all-consuming.
If you’ve been through infertility, or are currently going through it, you know this feeling all too well. Infertility burnout is real. Please take the time to acknowledge what a warrior you are—how strong and capable you are—and that no matter the outcome, you will be okay.
Don’t lose yourself in the process. Find time to do things that bring you joy and peace. Remember to laugh. Spend quality time with your partner, your family, and friends. Look after your health. If you feel like it’s becoming too much and you need a break, take one! Whether it’s for a month or a year, take the time to remember who you are and why you are doing this.
If you’re feeling lonely, reach out to someone. Don’t suffer in silence. I know that not a lot of people are openly sharing their struggles with infertility, but I promise you there are so many of us out there. I know it can feel like the clock is against you, but I promise you will thank yourself later for making sure that your mental and physical health, your marriage, and your relationships were looked after, too.
If you haven’t been through infertility, but know someone who is currently in the thick of it, please recognize how heavy this is for them to carry. Don’t shrug it off as not a big deal. Don’t tell them it will all be fine if they stop obsessing over it. I have made this mistake. Instead, offer a sympathetic ear. They don’t need advice. I promise you they have researched everything they can from every possible angle.
What someone going through infertility needs is someone who is willing to listen and acknowledge their feelings when things get hard. They need to be given some grace when they cancel a social engagement at the last minute or forget to acknowledge an important occasion. They need to laugh. They need someone to help them remember all of the funny and joyous things in life. Most of all, they just need a friend to say, “I’m sorry you’re going through this. Is there anything I can do to help?”
Elizabeth Garkowski is a registered holistic nutritionist and online health coach supporting both hopeful moms and new parents on their health journeys. She started on this career path after rounds of fertility treatments took a toll on her mental and physical health. What started as a way to help herself quickly became a desire to help others in the same situation. She is now a mama to 3 through the miracle of IVF and living her version of happily-ever-after with her husband in Toronto, Canada.