Most anyone who has struggled with secondary infertility knows that it is an incredibly lonely experience. You may be blessed with one or two children — possibly more — but struggling to expand or complete your family. Surrounded by families with young children, you find yourself alone and in pain.
If you are a veteran of primary infertility, you may remember strategies you developed for shielding yourself from the pregnancies of others. Not so this second time around: pregnant women and moms with babies and toddlers surround you at preschool.
If you had your first child with ease and are new to infertility, you may feel even less equipped to deal with seemingly limitless fecundity. Primary infertility prepared your fellow travelers for the envy, anger, sadness, isolation, and awkwardness it brings. For you these feelings are new, and along with them comes the guilt of secondary infertility: “Why can’t I be happy with the child I have?” Today we’ll focus on ways you can cope with secondary infertility.
The first few steps to coping with secondary infertility
Seek good medical care. If you went through primary infertility, you know the ropes of the world of reproductive medicine. However, if this is all new to you, do not delay in seeking expert help. There is a lot to learn in reproductive medicine. Beginning to understand it may help you feel that you have some control of your situation. Don’t be reluctant to seek a second and even a third opinion — you will learn from each consult, and talking with a few physicians can help land you in the right place.
Try to avoid self-blame. It is tempting to blame yourself. You are a likely target if you feel you waited too long to have a second child, or perhaps blame yourself for not having your first child sooner. If you have two or more children and are struggling to complete your family, you may accuse yourself of greed. Another form of self-blame comes when parents feel they are being punished for not fully appreciating or enjoying the child they have, or worse still, being “bad” parents.
Take charge of the message. Although many people choose to have one child and feel confident with “one and done,” there is often the assumption that a family means two or more children. As a parent of one child, you are likely to frequently encounter the following questions: “Is she your only child?” or “Are you going to have more?”
It helps to figure out a short, direct, and containable message to give anyone who asks about family size. Something like, “We’re hoping to have a larger family, but it’s not been easy for us.” Or “___ is our first child, but we are hoping he/she will have a sibling before too long.”
Additional ways to cope with secondary infertility
Try not to focus on age. Many parents think a lot about the spacing of their children. Secondary infertility derails plans for ideal spacing — whatever that may mean to you. My advice to people is blunt: let it go. I remind clients that close or distant relationships with siblings are not defined by spacing. All of us know adults who cherish their sister or brother 10 or 15 years their junior, but argue constantly with the sibling who is within two years of their age.
Parents in their 40s worry also about their advancing age. Many will say, “I need to have a second child by the time I am X or it will be too late.” Here I remind people that they already have a child. Their future child will have an older sibling (or more than one) to share the challenges that may come from having older parents. One can’t turn back the clock. If you are worried about age, all you can do is avoid unnecessary delays.
Explore other paths to parenthood. More people are becoming parents in their late 30s or early 40s. Many will face age-related infertility for a second child. Egg donation, and sometimes embryo donation or adoption, are options for expanding their families. It never hurts to look ahead to familiarize yourself with other paths to parenthood. Learning about them doesn’t mean you will end up pursuing them, but it enables you to be proactive and to feel some control over your situation.
Enjoy your child. At the risk of sounding preachy, I think it is important for you to take time to enjoy your child. Chances are that he or she will have a sibling at some point. And when that child arrives you will be busy with an infant. While another child (or more) may be your ultimate goal, certain pleasures come from having one child. Seize the sweetness of being with your little person without the distractions that are inevitable with a larger family.
Secondary infertility doesn’t just impact parents with young children; it also challenges people in second or third marriages or relationships, who had children earlier and now want to have a child with a new partner. And it affects those who had one or two children several years ago and decide, as adolescence — or even a departure for college — looms on the horizon, that they want to expand their family. As you make your way, best you can, to a larger family, remember that you have many fellow travelers. It may just be hard to recognize them.