Expert's Perspective

Infertility and the Holidays: The Perfect Storm

The holiday season seems to start earlier every year. As soon as we put our white clothes away after Labor Day, the festivities, shopping, and travel, are upon us. At the surface, everyone seems to be filled with holiday cheer during the “most wonderful time of the year.” Yet, for many of us, infertility around this time brings a renewed sense of isolation and loneliness. It’s hard to feel consumed with your own loss, longing and grief, when it appears that the rest of the world is celebrating and filled with continual joy. Floods of holiday cards framing picture-perfect families arrive in our mailboxes daily, TV holiday specials depicting families with children giving thanks around the Thanksgiving dinner table, and songs of “to grandmother’s house we go” are painful reminders of what we want but don’t yet have. While all year round we know it, the holiday season amplifies that we are infertile in a fertile world. In fact, Christmas itself is a celebration of a miracle birth story.

Infertility is a life crisis; a roller coaster that no one chooses to ride, and no one knows when they can get off. Infertility is filled with sweet hope and longing, along with unbearably painful loss. The July 2016 issue of the journal Fertility and Sterility published a study that reported half of women, and one-third of men, have clinical-level depression symptoms at some point during their infertility treatment. Even more, 76 percent of women and 61 percent of men, have symptoms of clinical anxiety while going through infertility. In a 2014 online poll conducted by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly three-fourths of participants reported feeling more anxious or depressed during the holiday season. The holiday season is a stressful time. Pair the two together, and it can be the perfect storm. Isolation, despair and hopelessness can fill the many months leading up to the New Year.

The holidays season is a dramatic marker of time. “This time last Halloween…" or "this time last Hanukkah…" or "this time last New Year's…”. Just like anniversaries of losses, the holiday season is another marker of the loss of time. Oftentimes, before the years of infertility take its emotional toll, infertile people might embrace that notion of renewal in an impending New Year, and can find strength and perseverance with that hope. “A lot can happen in a year,” people tell themselves and imagine that the next holiday season will be different and their hoped for baby will be here “next year” or will be on the way. However, as soon as next October rolls around, the reminder that another year has passed is palpable. Our bodies hold memories; as soon as we feel the chill in the air, we are reminded that the holiday season is approaching yet again. And there is still no baby. The promise of hope in a new year comes to a close and it becomes increasingly hard to simultaneously hold the hope while feeling the grief of the previous year.

For better or for worse, the holiday season tends to bring families together. We all know the agony and the ecstasy that family gatherings can bring. We see relatives that we haven’t seen for a while and insensitive questions are often lurking. Aunt Lucy may innocently pat your belly, and say, “Anything I should know?”. Or people will offer unsolicited advice, like “Why don’t you just relax and take a vacation?”. Every one seems to be an infertility expert: “My friend's niece couldn’t get pregnant and she put her name on a list to adopt, and within a month she was pregnant.” Or people may stop asking about your infertility. This can trigger a fear that your friends and family may have given up on your fertility. You then can feel more alone and isolated in a room with wall-to-wall people.

The holidays welcome introductions to new babies and there are often child-centered holiday events. This can be hard for several reasons. Obviously, it can be a reminder of what we long for but don’t yet have. We can see a baby that may be the age of the child we would have had had we not had a miscarriage, which can magnify our loss. Another unspoken loss that is often highlighted during the holiday season is the “loss of ourselves or who we hoped we’d be.” Clients will often describe the jealous feelings they may have when they see a new baby at a holiday gathering. Then, they may feel subsequent shame about this jealousy. “I never wanted to be this bitter, jealous and angry person,” a woman in one of my infertility support groups once told me. Not only are we grieving the baby we don’t have, we are grieving the people we have become.

There is not just one right way to tackle the holiday season, just as there isn’t one right way to grieve. First and foremost, it’s important to remember that no suggestion, nor list, nor insight is going to take away the pain and loss of infertility. Infertility is a life crisis with compounded complex grief with no known end in sight. As stated above, the reasons why the holidays may be an unusually difficult time are multi-faceted and complex. In my personal and professional experience, I believe some relief can be provided when you understand why the holidays cast a sense of utter despair. And these painful feelings are universal for people going through infertility during the holidays.

Below are some suggestions that may bring you some comfort in your infertility journey during the holiday season.

Pre-Plan For Events


Take inventory on what holiday events are most difficult for you so that you can pick and choose purposefully. It is important to remember that what may have been tolerable one year, may be difficult in subsequent years. Try to pre-plan answers to statements that are insensitive or offensive and remember that you may freeze and forget what you planned to say (and forgive yourself if that happens). If possible, it would be good to find out ahead of time if there will be any pregnancy announcements at any holiday events. Find those that you enjoy having conversations with and stick with them throughout the evening.

Holiday Mail and Social Media


One woman revealed to me that she dreaded coming home to holiday cards in her mailbox. Instead of accepting this fate, she got a PO BOX during the holiday season so she could pace when she received and opened these cards. Social media could also be a trigger so be mindful of your emotional bandwidth when you open your Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram accounts. A couple I worked with decided to do a digital detox together during the holidays. One of my infertility groups started a Facebook page for people going through infertility and committed to one another that that was the only social media they would go on during the holidays. Again, no suggestion works for every infertile person. Whether it is snail mail, texts, social media, or emails, it is crucial that you find the balance of what feels most restorative to you at this point in your infertility journey.

Do The Travel You Want


Many people say they like to travel during the holiday season but can’t plan because infertility is unpredictable. I always advise to book the trip and buy really good travel insurance so your life doesn’t always feel like it is on hold.

Give your self permission to ditch your plan


As much planning and preparation as you may put into navigating your emotional world during the holiday season, it’s impossible to know how you will feel on any given day. Even if you RSVP’d yes, check in with yourself and see if you are in a solid enough emotional place to attend this event. Alternatively, you may find yourself sad that you are missing out on the festivities and decide that you would prefer to attend an event. What is most important is that you are honest with yourself and your inner world as your emotions and feelings unfold.

Create Your Own Rituals and Traditions


Often I hear people say that they want to wait to start their holiday traditions until they have children. It is important to create the traditions that feel right for you now. All traditions evolve over time.

I remind my infertility clients that all people going through infertility are grieving parents. It is important to grieve losses. If you have some time off during the holidays, it may be good to create a ritual to memorialize a lost pregnancy, failed cycle, or “hoped for” baby. You may want to light an extra candle at Hanukkah or perhaps hang an extra stocking to honor your losses.

Reach out to other people who may have recent losses. Collective grief with people you trust, and who love you, can provide strength and support, and can also reduce isolation during a particularly isolating time.

Practice Self-Compassion


Kristin Neff says, “With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we'd give to a good friend”. Remember that 1 in 8 couples suffer from infertility and you are not alone in your suffering. Finding self-compassion for yourself during the holiday season is integral to surviving any challenging time. Of course, you may feel despair, rage, bitterness and loss. It makes sense that you are suffering and may be in a painful place where the festive energy outside doesn’t match the internal darkness and fear. Grief of infertility is universal and you are not alone in this pain. Remember, “suffering is inevitable, suffering alone is intolerable”. To quote Leonard Cohen, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”. You will never be able to enjoy the literal and metaphorical holiday light, unless you recognize the inevitable, yet excruciating, darkness that infertility brings. It’s O.K. to be sad. It’s the only way a glimmer of holiday light can get in.