What is a fertility story?
Healing comes when a person identifies the narrative that they created about themselves as they went through their reproductive process. This narrative becomes supported in consciously choosing which beliefs they hold on to and which ones do not serve them now that their journey is behind them. Left unexplored, narratives can lead to internalized emotions such as feelings of isolation, self-blame or grief. For example, a woman who took months to conceive may feel like a failure or tell herself she is not fulfilling her most basic role as a woman. If she internalizes this narrative and does not express it to others, she starts believing this sense of failure to be true; yet if she verbalizes her experience, she can begin to make sense of it for herself and eventually move towards acceptance and healing.
When helping clients explore their reproductive story, I focus on helping them identify their personal story. This includes the emotions and decisions that shaped the process ofb planning for, trying and/or achieving pregnancy as well as those who ultimately do not have biological children. Each woman’s story is as unique and nuanced as she is. In the telling of her story in session in a linear fashion, or by journaling to document her experience, a woman can often tap into the underlying emotions and narratives that were crafted. For example, a woman facing significant distress during a failed IVF attempt may eventually understand that she felt pressure to conceive not only for herself but also to provide a grandchild to the family, and as such, feels like a failure when the infertility treatment was unsuccessful. When we explore her journey with her, through inquiry and attentive listening, a woman can make sense of the complexity of emotions she likely experienced during her reproductive journey.
How to write your fertility story
It is very common for people who have had complicated reproductive journeys to feel uncomfortable sharing with others about their challenging pregnancy losses, infertility experiences or complicated parenting decisions. Feelings of shame, isolation or fear of losing emotional control (e.g. “if I talked about it, I might fall apart”) are extremely common. Yet, when these painful hidden spaces are explored in a therapeutic space, women can explore what they have not been able to do elsewhere. Once the story has been looked at from this safe, supportive vantage point, she is more likely to make meaning of her story and minimize the pain from the unconscious narrative. With the story less emotionally charged, she now has the opportunity to share it with others in an emotionally safe and meaningful way. Some questions a woman can explore with her therapist, a friend, or through journaling may help guide the emotional process:
- Did you always want children? Did you feel resolute in this decision or were there times of indecisiveness or trepidation?
- Are you feeling more firm now on your decision, and if so, what helped you to make a decision?
- Were you and your partner ever on different pages, and if so, how did you manage that?
- Were there any experiences along the way that surprised you?
- How did those experiences make you feel? Were you ever surprised by your emotional reactions?
- Was there anything you started telling yourself about what you went through?
- Were there ever any feelings of shame, self-blame or guilt?
Potential barriers and solutions to writing your fertility story
Another way to support women in working through their own reproductive story is to help them identify the “safe” people with whom they can openly discuss their journey. Of course, this would be someone with whom they would not feel judged, advised, or unaccepted. When uncomfortable with emotion, people often reply with advice-giving or platitudes to ease their own discomfort. How many women, when attempting to share their own reproductive experience, are left feeling further isolated when others respond with such advice as “have you looked into adoption yet?” or platitudes of “God only gives you what you can handle”.
By tapping into the complex decisions and fears we faced, and fully exploring our experiences and the internal narratives that were created, we can find commonalities with others and meaning in our own path. A woman can express her needs to a loved one simply by saying “I want to tell you about going through infertility, can you be there for me?” I invite you to explore your reproductive journey for yourself – what is your fertility story?
Bethany Warren, Postpartum Health Alliance President, is a psychotherapist specializing in women’s health and reproductive psychiatry in the San Diego area. She services clients who are facing infertility, perinatal mood disorders and pregnancy loss.