In my experience, most people dealing with infertility would say that their longing for a child brings sadness year-round. Still, there are times and seasons when the pain intensifies.
This may be in spring or early summer when the world is in bloom, winter coats are off and pregnant bellies are out, when greeting card companies and florists ambush airwaves to promote Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
Similarly, the winter holidays present an ever-lengthening stretch during which many women and men who are struggling with infertility feel pummeled. Bookended by Thanksgiving and New Year’s, this has become a season of holiday cards spotlighting happy children, and loud messages of merriment in stores and public places. Short days, dark nights, cold, snow, and clouds further conspire to tell those who are struggling with infertility that ‘tis hardly the season to be jolly.
Approaches to coping with infertility
So, how best to get through the holidays when you are enduring infertility? You might wish to set sail for an island paradise and remain there until the January blizzards take everyone’s focus off babies and young children. An escape could be sweet, but for many, the desire to share holidays with loved ones coexists with the pain of being infertile.
Rather than isolating yourself or disconnecting from those you love, you may simply want to hurt less. One way to do so is to find ways to claim some modicum of control during the winter holidays. Here are some ideas that have worked for people I’ve counseled over the years.
Develop a strategy for opening holiday cards. For anyone going through infertility, the contents of each envelope may bring pain. While you have endured a year — or yet another year — of longing and disappointment, other people’s children have grown. Some cards hurt more: announcements of a new baby entering the world. One coping strategy is collecting the cards and opening a batch with a partner or a close friend who “gets it.” It can help a lot to feel that you are doing this as a team, letting fly with dark humor or sarcasm to fortify you in the process. Celebrate when the last envelope has been opened. For some, a bottle of wine or a nice dinner to enjoy afterwards eases sadness.
Host a holiday gathering? Or just make a cameo? No one going through infertility wants to feel trapped in a holiday gathering with no way to escape. But how to avoid this? Surprisingly, one way is to host the party. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but you set the timing and format, and can shape content for the occasion to focus guests on something other than family chatter. A Yankee swap? A wine, cheese, or olive oil tasting?
Alternatively, leave the heavy lifting to others and participate in their events on your terms. Agree on an escape clause — a reason to depart from a gathering early. That way, you know you can leave if someone announces a new pregnancy or is gushing about his children — or worse, grumbling about them and seemingly oblivious to her good fortune in having children. If you like, you can share your strategy with your host. The key, as with opening holiday cards, is to find pathways to control.
Decide what to share. One way to claim some control at family holiday gatherings — and in general during infertility — is to manage information and communication. What do you want people to know? What is too much information? For example, you may feel it’s important that people you care about know you want to have a baby and are seeking medical help. Yet they need not know exact treatments, timing and outcomes of treatments, or the doctors you are seeing. Providing basic information protects you from being misunderstood, or the subject of queries. Offering detailed information invites commentary and advice.
Consider how it might feel to acknowledge pain without showing it. Acknowledging pain might sound like this: “This has been a hard year. We’ve had some disappointing fertility treatments and gone through tough times, but we’re so happy to be here welcoming a new year with all of you.” Showing pain might sound like this: “It’s too hard for me to be here with all the children. I need to leave now.”
Infertility draws us inward, prompting us to focus on our bodies, our sadness, our longings, and our helplessness. It blurs time and strains relationships, even when we do our best to stay connected. The holiday season, for all its commercial fanfare, is also a time when we remember those in need and those whose suffering eclipses ours.
Think perhaps of the holiday lights: Hanukah, the festival of lights, Kwanzaa, with seven glowing candles in the kinara, and Christmas, with its illuminated trees and homes, remind us that light in darkness is far more beautiful than light in light. At the risk of sounding preachy — which is not my intent — I think that doing good in dark times alleviates some of the seasonal pain of infertility. It reminds us that we do have some control, that the holidays are not simply a time to escape from, and that in helping others, we help ourselves.
Are you counting down the days until you find yourself face-to-face with certain family members or friends who know exactly where your buttons lie and push them, repeatedly? While we all long for an abundance of good cheer, an overflow of ready affection, and easy conversations, handling challenging relationships during the holidays can trip up even the best-intentioned. So, how to navigate the gatherings ahead?
Simple tips to help you navigate
Here are some simple tips to keep in mind:
Prepare. Sometimes we can avoid what we fear by anticipating and accepting what is. Why would Aunt Bertha be any different this year than last? Why set yourself up for disappointment or frustration? Identifying one or two traits that you appreciate about her (okay, one) can help you adopt an attitude of tolerance in your interactions.
Let awareness and acceptance lead to useful action. What kind of time are you willing to spend with those you find most challenging? Do you get along best with one sibling while doing the dishes together at the end of the meal? Is an after-dinner walk the best way to engage with another? Group versus one-on-one time? Think ahead about when and how you want to engage with others, then look for those opportunities.
Be curious. We can’t always control the conversations that arise, especially around the dinner table. Uh-oh, who just brought up politics? If there’s genuine curiosity about others’ points of view, the conversation may be terrific. But being curious takes a willingness to not be right and to listen simply to understand. Listening takes the discipline and desire to stay in the moment without formulating your rebuttal while another person is talking. It also takes a kind of humility to recognize that you might learn something new. And if you don’t think that’s possible — for you or for others — sometimes a simple “no politics” (or “no whatever-is-too-controversial”) rule is helpful with challenging relationships.
Redirect. And what about the 27th retelling of a hackneyed family story, maybe even one where you — or someone else — come out looking a little worse for wear? Intentional, light-hearted interruption and redirection may be just what’s needed. Keep the focus on the speaker to minimize the potential that they will feel slighted. “That was a horrid day at the beach. Did I hear you’re planning a trip to Spain in February?”
Time for a difficult conversation?
Carpe diem. When we live far from others, we sometimes need to seize the rare in-person moment to talk about challenging matters. A few words of guidance:
Give your intended recipient advance notice. “When we get together, I’d really like to talk about the argument we had at Thanksgiving so that we can do better in the future.”
Find the right time and place for your conversation. Try to ensure you’ll have enough time to talk things through.
Take responsibility for your contributions to a problem. An apology, when sincere, can go a long way.
Frame your concerns in neutral, non-blaming language. Try leading with “I” instead of what often sounds like an accusatory “you.” “I felt really betrayed when I found out you told Joe I lost my job,” versus “You are so untrustworthy, telling Joe I lost my job when you promised to keep it confidential.”
You’ve got two ears and one mouth. Reflect that ratio in how you use them. Listen twice as hard for feelings and concerns, and speak to acknowledge what the other person shared.
Stay focused on your goals. If you’re clear that your goals are mutual understanding, resolution, and harmony, your intentions will help guide your actions and keep you on track.
Be the light
As much as you might wish to choreograph a perfect holiday gathering — who doesn’t? — you probably know deep down that the only person you can control is yourself. With awareness, preparation, and discipline, you can, in fact, be the light no matter what else is swirling around you. And when all else fails, there’s always refuge behind the locked bathroom door on the second floor.