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.