It was Christmas 2013 and I had a secret. This would be our last Christmas without a baby. We were going to be parents by this time next year. We needed to soak up this year because there would never be another like it.

Next year, we would have a little bundle of joy to dress up in festive holiday clothes and hang the cutest little “my first Christmas” ornament on the tree. Next year was going to be different, and I smiled all day, sharing my little secret with no one but my husband. I guess I should mention, we weren’t pregnant. Well, not yet, at least. But we would be soon—I just knew we would be pregnant really soon.

person putting ornaments on a christmas tree

You see, everything in our relationship had happened fast. We had a whirlwind romance and went from friends to dating to engaged to married in less than a year. A few months after that we decided to move across the country, and in a matter of weeks had already started packing. A year later we decided to buy a house. It was October when we started looking. Andrew talked about how great it would be to be in the new house for the holidays, but I told him we should be more realistic and that buying a house takes time. But wouldn’t you know it, we put our Christmas tree up in our new house that year. 

In the past, when things happened to us, they happened quickly, so there was no doubt in my mind that getting pregnant would be a quick 1-3 month exercise. Though, let’s be honest, I was pretty certain it would happen on our very first try.

Fast forward to 2019. It’s officially our 6th last Christmas without a baby. And to be honest, the “last Christmas without a baby” bit lost its charm about 5 Christmases ago. 

woman and man kissing in front of holiday lights

No matter what holidays you’re celebrating this time of year, the winter season can be really, really tough for those of us going through infertility and loss. Over the past few years of infertility, I’ve had holiday moments that range from a dull ache to excruciating pain.  I know what it’s like to face “the most wonderful time of the year” with heartache and longing. I wish I could wave a magic wand (or use a holiday wish) to make it all better. Since I can’t, I hope these tips for surviving (and thriving) during the holidays will help:

1. Realize that your feelings are very, very valid.

The holiday season brings good tidings of great joy, but it also brings with it lots of triggers. These triggers bring up painful places that we so often try to ignore. 

Family-centered activities take the main stage. Holiday-themed pregnancy announcements light up social media. Kids become the primary focus. What are intended to be sweet moments of the holiday season for everyone else can feel like a knife in the heart for someone struggling with infertility. 

Listen, you’re not selfish and you’re not petty for feeling this way. It isn’t that you can’t or don’t want to be happy for other people. It’s that you’ve suffered a loss. And whether that was a loss of a child, a pregnancy, or the dream of parenthood, a loss is a loss.

The family focus surrounding the holidays pushes that grief button in a really painful way. When you see a sweet family headed off to meet Santa, it’s hard not to imagine what your family would have looked like if things had gone your way, and that is a super crummy emotion to process through. 

Spending more time with family members who may or may not be supportive and considerate of your current season of life can also be a big trigger. The holidays can be stressful for anyone (traveling, gift-giving expenses, shorter days, crappy weather, etc.) Add in Aunt Marta rubbing your belly and asking when you‘re going to make her a GREAT aunt is just the icing on the cake in a season that already feels quite draining (to put it mildly.)  

Even if your friends or family aren’t quite as inappropriately straightforward as dear Aunt Marta, there are still plenty of opportunities to be triggered by innocent and even well-meaning questions. Being around people who don’t quite understand your journey is challenging, particularly during such a sensitive season. 

Finally, the end of the calendar year can feel demoralizing. It seems like just yesterday we were kicking off January and confidently saying “This is MY year.” And now, there are just a few weeks left before we realize we were wrong, yet again. It wasn’t our year. You may feel extra pressure to get one last cycle in, for one last chance to get your 2019 miracle. (I’m not saying you should feel that pressure, just that if you are feeling that pressure, you aren’t the only one.)

I say all of this not to rub the challenges of the holiday season in your face or to tell you that you should dread the final weeks of the year. You may love the holidays, and that’s just great! But if the holiday season has you feeling ambivalent at best, I just want you to know you’re not alone. The feelings you’re feeling are real, they are valid, and you’re certainly not alone in them. 

plaza and trees decorated with christmas lights

2. Make a plan for radical self-care.

Since we know how legitimately challenging the holidays can be, it’s time to make a plan for radical self-care.

This season may be tough, but so are you. With some proper planning, you can set yourself up to have a better holiday season than if you didn’t prepare at all.

We already know you are going to be faced with triggers. We know you may feel extra emotional (or hormotional, or both). We know working through all of those feelings can be incredibly draining.

So let’s start with the basics - taking care of your body. That means making sure you’re eating foods that make you feel good and energized, drinking lots of water, and getting a decent amount of sleep. This time of the year is so often “go, go, go,” but it’s ok (even necessary) to slow down sometimes. Take a deep breath. Go on a walk. Take care of your body. It will help carry you through the emotions of the season.

And what about when you are visiting family who knows just how to push your buttons? Here’s a very practical tip: intentionally pick an outfit to wear that you feel confident and comfortable in. I know it sounds a little silly, and yes,  I know that inner beauty is the most important. But when Aunt Marta gives you the stellar advice of “just relax,” you just might find the fact that you’re wearing your favorite, silky soft sweater or killer holiday dress strangely comforting.

Beyond the “look good, feel good” advice, setting healthy, appropriate boundaries is crucial. Radical self-care means that you have permission to say yes to the things you want to say yes to and no to the things you want to say no to.

I know there will probably be family events that feel “required,” but remember that you have a lot more say in what you do and don’t do than you might think. You can skip certain events or only stay for a limited amount of time. You can RSVP your regrets to a neighborhood holiday party and save your energy for a favorite family tradition instead. (Or the other way around, if that is what brings you joy!) 

Infertility can make you feel powerless over your body, but you are not powerless. You have the freedom to make choices that are right for you- to protect your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. You may not be able to control every emotional trigger that comes your way, but committing to intentional self-care can help those triggers sting just a little less. 

woman at disneyland during the holidays

3. Share the love.

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Now that you’ve established some solid self-care, it’s time to share the love.

It’s really easy to get sucked into a black hole of emotion during the holidays. And hey, there are times when I think it’s plenty appropriate to set up a good cry session and give yourself space to just grieve. I also know that pain and grief come in cycles. Some days are super challenging and other days you feel great. If you’re in a cycle that gives you any extra bandwidth at all, I recommend thinking about a way to share some holiday love with someone else. 

It doesn’t have to be a big, grand gesture or cost you a lot of time or money. Bake a holiday treat for your neighbor, sign up for the Secret Santa in your office, volunteer in your community (for something completely not holiday-related), or be intentional about picking out a gift for a friend. 

I know that so many of us dream of being moms. We have generous and nurturing hearts. We long to take care of our kids, and we have a lot of stored-up love to share. My advice for the season is to let some of that love out to the people around you. It’s already bubbling up to overflowing, and it’s not like you can ever run out. 

a castle decorated with holiday lights

4. My final tip: You do you.

For years, I wanted to avoid making holiday traditions with just the two of us. I wanted to wait to establish our traditions until we had kids, and I was (illogically) worried that if we started a tradition now without kids that it would somehow cement our fate as a childless couple for life. The result was that I avoided anything and everything fun about the holidays. If I couldn’t do it with kids, then I didn’t want to do it at all. I would say that the festivities made me too sad, and that was true, but I was also (consciously or subconsciously) avoiding things that could potentially make me feel happy. 

Maybe you feel like you don’t deserve to be happy. Maybe it feels like being happy would negate all of the (very valid) sad feelings you are currently experiencing.

But here’s the truth: you can hold two feelings in tension. You can be sad that you aren’t where you wanted to be in life while also enjoying the here and now. Being happy today doesn’t diminish the loss of yesterday. And yes, friend, you deserve every happiness that comes your way.

In a season of life where happy moments may feel few and far between, let’s enjoy the ones we have and cultivate more of them.

So here is your permission slip to make your own holiday traditions this year. They may not be the same traditions you continue when you have kids, and that’s okay. Things may change from year to year, but I implore you to do what makes you happy today. 

As for us, six years later the holidays are still a mixed bag of emotions. I don’t know what I’ll feel like sitting around the table for Thanksgiving or waking up on Christmas morning this year. What I do know is that taking care of myself, giving love to others, and being open to new traditions is my subtle protest against the gloom and doom of the looming holidays. It means that in the middle of a season that could easily leave me feeling crushed, I’m willing to engage with hope. Hope, not only for my dream of motherhood but for a life that keeps getting better and better. For joy, even amid sorrow. For peace and comfort. For love that lasts all year long.

No matter what your holidays are looking like this year, I’m hoping the same for you, too.

woman putting ornaments on a christmas tree

Lauren Citro and her husband Andrew live in San Diego, California, and have been married for 7 years. She feels a deep connection to other couples walking through a diagnosis of infertility and is passionate about sharing her story in hopes of building community and encouraging others in their journey. Lauren loves traveling and exploring just as much as she loves staying home with a good book, but her perfect day would always be spent at Disneyland. You can find Lauren sharing bits of her story, as well as encouragement for other infertility warriors, on her blog www.growmyfamily.com or Instagram @growmyfamily.