How to heal

When I read on-line fertility forums, I am sometimes dismayed to see how much pain is out there and how few lifelines are thrown to the drowning person….

I wrote this post today on one such forum:
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A lot of suffering is shared on this thread.

I want to underline that healing fully from infertility IS possible. You do not have to move through the rest of life feeling a failure or feeling that there is a raw, weeping scar running across your heart.

That pain may be one phase of the journey but it is not the end point. However people can become stuck in that dark place and in writing this, I hope to hold up a lantern for those who feel they are stuck.

Issues like infertility, pregnancy loss and many other challenging life issues are calls for us to develop deeper inner qualities that are already within–waiting to be BORN. These qualities can be things like courage, compassion, insight, love or understanding. Everyone’s journey is uniquely their own–but certain paths are more helpful than others and sometimes there are tools that help us move forward.

To move forward we have to understand WHAT our losses REALLY ARE and GRIEVE them fully.

However sometimes the pain of fertility losses is mixed up with other earlier wounds
that have not been resolved. For example, women might have older losses associated with traumas such as sexual abuse, rape, abandonment, terminations, even difficult relationships with their own mothers that are not worked through and which may need attention.

The feelings from those events can get mixed up into the pain of infertility–so the healing path may be more complex than it first appears. It’s like sorting out several colors of yarn that have gotten snarled together.

Sometimes the story is simpler and only related to fertility issues.

One reason the fertility loss service was developed and run in London & Scotland for years was to give an appropriate place & structure to honour and mourn the hidden losses around infertility and unwanted childlessness. The next service is Sunday, April 26th and you are invited to attend. It’s free and you can read more about it elsewhere on this thread.

Sometimes group work with others facing the same issues is deeply healing. In the safety of a well-run group where there are confidentiality agreements and good boundaries, participants benefit from sharing their stories on a deep level and hearing from others in the same room. The sense of isolation is alleviated. Often lasting relationships emerge from such groups that provide mutual support for years. Certain exercises can help find solutions to moving forward in appropriate ways.

Therapy with a counsellor skilled in fertility issues can be hugely helpful too (for those who can afford it). Couple therapy can also be vital–though sometimes the partner is not willing.

For those who cannot afford therapy of any kind, here are some books that are particularly good.

Infertility—Old Myths, New Meanings by Jan Rehner
(1989) Second Story Press

Never to Be a Mother by L.H. Anton (1992) Harper

A Mother in My Heart; How to overcome the pain of
involuntary childlessness by Ginny Fraser (2001)
Nightlight Publishing (available at a discount directly from
the author for £6.95 plus £1 p&p) email: ginnyf@tiscali.co.uk

Beyond Childlessness: For every woman who ever wanted
to have a child—and didn’t by Rachel Black & Louise
Scull (2005) Rodale

Male infertility—Men talking by M. Mason (1993)
Routledge

Most of these books are available via Amazon, some
very inexpensively (second-hand). Local libraries should be able to obtain them too.

If you have books that you’ve found particularly helpful, please share them.

As wonderful as on-line forums are for sharing issues with others on similar paths, there are limits to internet forums. Fertility touches some of our most delicate regions: the intimate, private part of our bodies, our relationships and our sexual dimension. On-line forums are too public for most people to go deeply into their painful feelings on these matters–so certain difficult material is rarely, if ever, shared in this format. Some people may be sitting with that kind of material feeling lost, confused, ashamed and alone.

One example: In workshops where the group has come to trust one another, we have explored the sexual wound from infertility. (Strict confidentiality rules are agreed for this.) I ask everyone to rate (anonymously) the depth of the wound to their sexual relationship caused by their fertility issues. They are given identical pens and paper–no way to know who wrote what–so everyone feels able to be honest. People are asked to rate the depth of their wound from 1 to 5. Number 1 is unwounded–feeling healthy & good; number 5 is profoundly wounded–perhaps no sexual relations with the partner for years. The slips of paper are put into a bowl and tabulated.

Every time I’ve done this almost everyone is at 4 or 5–and hugely relieved to hear that they are not alone.

I share this in the hope that those who feel bereft & lost realize that there are several pathways out of this maze and many useful tools to help you if you look around.


Coming to Terms - What Does it Mean?

No doubt, there is ‘more to life’ than having children–and the greatest challenge for those of us who find ourselves unwillingly childless is to discover exactly what that ‘more’ is….A key part of that journey of discovery includes coming to terms with the disappointments, pain and sadness of having certain life goals frustrated.

If we are able to truly ‘come to terms’ with our losses, we can move on. If we just fake it–pretending we’re okay to ourselves or to others–we remain, to some extent, stuck.

A good test of our progress is how we react when a friend becomes pregnant or when we’re invited to a christening or baby-naming ceremony. Those situations may trigger a pang–like the ache of old wound to ache when the weather changes–but there is a big difference between a wound that has healed–even if it leaves a scar–and one that is raw and open.

So how do we heal such profound losses authentically? As a psychotherapist specialising in fertility problems, this is a crucial for me–not just for my clients but for myself too, as I am unwillingly childless.

Over years of running groups and workshops, listening to the stories of people with fertility problems, I realised how hugely helpful it is to explore our motivations. WHY do we want a child in the first place? (Yes, I know, fertile couples don’t have to think about this–but it may help us if we do!)

Often there are hidden agendas. Our task is to disentangle them. While this won’t fully resolve the sadness of unwanted childlessness, it can release some of the urgency and anguish.

One exercise we sometimes do in the workshops is imagining our lives WITH a child. What do we envision doing with the child?

One woman saw herself sauntering through a park in a relaxed, open way, following her toddler who was discovering a leaf, a puddle, the bark of a tree for the first time. In discussing her image, this woman, who was busy and deeply engaged in running a chain of shops, realised she was longing to spend more time in nature, to relax and just ‘be’, without pressure to achieve. This was something she could rectify immediately–she saw that she didn’t need the pretext of a child to take time off.

There are many reasons, conscious and unconscious, why we decide to have a child, besides the social pressures to conform to the norm and the biological imperative to procreate. Here are the top nine:

1) To prove our femininity and mark our maturity–joining that sorority of mothers pushing strollers in the park or waiting for children at the school gate;

2) To prop up or revitalise a faltering marriage or relationship;

3) To please our own parents or in-laws, who are longing to become grandparents or to ‘keep up’ with siblings and friends who are having babies;

4) Conversely, we may urgently need to separate from over-demanding parents or in-laws. If a woman is busy with her own infant, she has a good excuse for not going to Sunday lunch at her parent’s home each week or phone her mother every day;

5) Working women may be looking for an honourable way to opt out of exhausting or unrewarding jobs. The baby is a legitimate passport to stop professional work altogether or shift to a part-time schedule;

6) To have somebody who (we imagine) will look after us in our own old age or failing health;

7) To have somebody (a child) whom we can love fully, without reservation and who will love us (initially, at least) without reservation–to experience that unconditional love that most of us want and some of us feel we didn’t get in childhood;

8) To give life renewed meaning. When the limits of material success become clear, there may come a deeper search for meaning–an existential or mid-life crisis. Men and women who have achieved much in the outer world may gradually begin to feel empty inside. Where is true meaning to be found? Perhaps, the thinking goes, a child is the answer….

9) To give a child everything we think was missing or insufficient in our own childhood–more love, attention, kindness, understanding. (This is one of the most subtle and powerful motivators–and usually the least conscious.) We hope to heal the wounds of our own inner child through the agency of a NEW baby/child.

In the last case, dealing with our wounded inner child may be what is really required. An entire field of psychotherapy and scores of books are devoted to healing the inner child–and this is a more appropriate and straightforward way to address this particular issue.

In most of these situations listed above, we are loading onto the child our own agendas–the child has become a means to some end. Most of these needs can be met in other ways–more directly too. In fact some of these goals may not be resolved by parenthood–their resolution will simply be postponed.

If these underlying issues are never consciously explored or addressed, any new baby–including adopted children–may be lumbered with unrealistic parental expectations, leading to disillusionment and unhappiness, both for parent and child.

Exploring our motivations to become parents will make us more conscious, thoughtful parents–or adoptive parents– than people who simply sleepwalk into it. For those of us who never have a child, it may be crucial to making peace with that disappointment. The ‘grit-your-teeth and get-on-with-it’ style of coping is a short-term tactic that often exacts a high price in the end–in the form of depression, addictive or obsessive disorders (like over-eating, drinking excessively, smoking, over-exercising, perfectionism or workaholism–all behaviours aimed at blotting out or controlling painful feelings).

We will be able to tolerate our losses with less pain and more grace after we have met some of these valid and appropriate desires and goals through other, less circuitous avenues than having a child.

To sum up, three keys steps to healing and moving forward are:

1) Facing the losses and grieving them appropriately (ritual is often helpful here);

2) Exploring our motivations, hopes and expectations of parenthood. Perhaps some of these needs/desires can be met in other ways–and indeed should be met in other ways!

3) Finding authentic meaning in life–outside being the parent of our own biological child. This may become a quest to discover what is sacred, spiritual, transcendent in life.

For help in finding a local counsellor in the UK, contact the Information Officer at the British Infertility Counselling Association (BICA) at info@bica.net or visit the website: www.bica.net