Infertility isn’t limited to a person’s first pregnancy. About 14% of individuals struggle with getting pregnant or bringing a pregnancy to full term after already having had one pregnancy or birth, according to the CDC.
For couples who have a more difficult time trying to get pregnant the second time around, secondary infertility carries some equally difficult — but different — emotions to primary infertility (infertility associated with a first-time pregnancy).
The Emotional Toll of Secondary Infertility
Feelings like guilt and loneliness can make the struggle to have another baby its own sort of challenge. Often, women struggling with secondary infertility may also face unexpected confusion and grief because of their past experiences with pregnancy and childbirth.
While secondary infertility is tough and complex, the following stories may help make the emotions that come with it a little easier to manage. Below I interviewed a few women who have experienced secondary infertility.
When I asked Brenna, a secondary infertility survivor, what she learned from the experience she said, “That it is extremely common. Neither of us is broken. It wasn’t a sign that we shouldn’t have more children. It was just the path that we needed to take to get this baby.”
Navigating secondary infertility can feel isolating. Outwardly, you have a child so strangers may feel more comfortable commenting on your family plans (“When is Johnny going to have a little brother or sister?”). Maybe your partner, friends, family, and even your doctor downplay your concerns because, after all, “You know you can get pregnant.” The world’s reactions to your struggle may make it harder for you to seek out a support group, for instance, for fear that you’ll be dismissed there, too.
Finding others who validate and understand your lived experience is a helpful first step toward getting support. Not only will you benefit, but your relationship with your partner and even your child will, too. Seek a mentor who has also faced secondary infertility, find a support group, or talk with a therapist or coach.
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Sadness and Grief
Like many major disappointments in life, secondary infertility brings on intense feelings of sorrow. There’s a sadness to think that the family you planned for may not actually transpire, or that it may not be built in the way you expected.
Jamie, who struggled with secondary infertility after conceiving her daughter without issue, shared, “One of the hardest parts for me was the thought that I may not be able to give my daughter a sibling. While I felt grateful that I was able to have my first child relatively easily, I wanted nothing more than to give her a sibling and was reminded of that every day. The emotions of having gone through so many miscarriages and still having to raise her was difficult, but ultimately worth it in the end.”
For Brenna, she worked through the sadness and grief by staying present and finding ways to move forward. She shares, “I had to keep going. I had to get out of bed every day. I had to still continue to raise my firstborn. I had to continue to be present in my life that was happening now and not drown in the life I wanted to have. I had to take it one day at a time because that was all I could handle. Just keep going.”
These are all very natural emotions. Sadness and grief are common feelings after a major loss or unexpected change in our plans. You aren’t being selfish. Give yourself grace and time to heal.
It can be confusing and defeating when something that once came easily and naturally now seems so hard to come by.
What can be incredibly frustrating about infertility, primary or secondary, is the lack of control we have over the process and the very few clear answers we get despite lots of options for medical tests and treatments.
As Jamie shares, “It is so frustrating because I went through so many tests and procedures, and the cause of my secondary infertility remained ‘unknown.’ I am a person who wants answers and reasons, so it was difficult for me to accept that there was no straight answer, and therefore nothing I could do to ‘fix’ the problem.”
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What can help here is to seek out ways to empower yourself in this process while also surrendering to the parts that you aren’t able to control. For example, learn what you need to about your condition or treatment for you to feel comfortable, but try to set boundaries so you don't overwhelm yourself. You can also find ways to supplement your treatment with a healthy lifestyle, focusing on nutritious food, exercise, and good sleep (as much as you can).
For Brenna, this was a “three-ring binder that held everything: my calendar of shots and of appointments, instructions for every single shot, a place for all papers that came home from the doctor, and a tracking sheet of all things insurance-related. Staying organized made me feel like I had a little control in an uncontrollable situation.”
Despite these challenging emotions, a common theme among the women I encounter with secondary infertility is gratitude. Of course, gratitude for their current family and whatever means were required to build it. But, also, gratitude for supportive partners, empathetic and expert medical practitioners, and the group of women who surround them. In talking with women for this article, they all shared stories of having someone to talk to about their struggles or people who stepped in at low points to help build them back up.
The psychological back-and-forth we play when it comes to wanting more of what we have but also constantly questioning how far to push for it can easily drag us down in the emotions of secondary infertility.
Pausing to seek out what is good, what is going well or right, and what we are learning along the way can shift our mindset. A simple note each day listing three to five things you are grateful for can help make this way of thinking a regular practice for you. You aren’t alone in your secondary infertility struggle.
While the emotions you experience aren’t pleasant, they are normal. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support, whether it's logistical help with your child, at home, at work, or emotional support as you struggle with the ups and downs of the process of infertility. There are people who understand and are willing to step in and help carry you through. You and your family are worth it.
Erin McDaniel is a six-time IVF “survivor” and now mom to two boys.