Despite the fact that infertility affects more than 10 percent of women in the United States, it continues to be an issue that causes intense feelings of shame and embarrassment in women, who often at least emotionally, assume the burden of responsibility when they fail to get or stay pregnant. It seems that it’s almost always the woman in a relationship who undergoes testing for infertility first and it’s even not totally uncommon for women to be treated for infertility before their partners have even been extensively tested as well. The onus nearly always falls on the woman until definitively proven otherwise, which inevitably takes a mental toll.
To be clear, the World Health Organization defines infertility as, “the failure to achieve a clinical pregnancy after 12 months or more of regular unprotected sexual intercourse.” Along with affecting over one-tenth of women in America, it affects about nine percent of men as well. Of course, when both partners in the same couple have a health issue that contributes to infertility, it may make it nearly twice as challenging for that couple to get pregnant. For individuals dreaming of growing their families, learning they are infertile is often devastating.
Although I haven’t personally experienced infertility, several women very close to me have. Watching them navigate their diagnoses and figure out how to address any underlying health conditions affecting their fertility is heartbreaking. There are especially painful and little talked about diagnoses like “unexplained infertility,” which means that diagnostic and laboratory tests are not able to confirm a specific reason for their infertility. Infertility of course, can be even more emotionally taxing for women who have no recourse once they are diagnosed and are either ineligible for fertility treatments or can’t afford them. None of this is to even mention that it isn’t uncommon for infertile couples to actually get pregnant—perhaps even multiple times—only to lose those pregnancies to miscarriage, which is a physical trauma that only the mother endures and often speaks little of for fear of being judged or pitied or even blamed.
Model, TV host, and entrepreneur Chrissy Teigen openly struggled with infertility and eventually had her first two children via in-vitro fertilization, she then got pregnant a third time without treatment and ended up losing the baby more than halfway through her pregnancy. When she later opened up about the experience on social media, she was called out for being inappropriate and shamed for sharing photos of herself and her husband musician John Legend holding their stillborn baby, all while she was mourning a tragic loss.
She of course also received many notes of sympathy and support, but it’s truly astonishing and should not go without mentioning that there were literally hundreds if not thousands of people commenting negatively about how she chose to handle her battle with infertility and pregnancy loss. In light of instances like this one, it’s not at all surprising that women continue to feel ashamed or scared to speak up about their struggles with infertility.
Any discussions of sexual and reproductive health or even just women’s bodies have historically been taboo, so infertility is still a topic that many women approach lightly if they do so at all. There are likely millions of women who are going through the experience alone when there’s actually an entire community of women out there they can rely on. Not to say that they can’t or shouldn’t turn to their partners for support, but the reality is we as women need to support each other no matter how personal or painful the topic is.
We need to make an effort not to react with shock or pity when we hear of another woman’s struggle with infertility and pregnancy loss, but rather to find supportive and authentic ways to lift each other up. The reality is, if more of us were willing to speak openly about topics like infertility there would be far less of a stigma around it and consequently much less shame mixed in with the already difficult feelings of pain and heartache that comes along with infertility.
It starts with listening instead of offering unsolicited advice, assessments, or solutions for the situation. It also calls for a bit more bravery from all of us. So very many women experience infertility and pregnancy loss and if we were more transparent with each other about those experiences they would feel far less isolating. Beyond that, it takes is a commitment to be present with the women in our lives so that when they are facing something difficult like infertility they will know who to turn to.
So next time you learn that a friend or family member is facing infertility or has experienced pregnancy loss, don’t clam up, don’t shy away, look her in the eye and comfort her, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. In the end, being bold in the face of such challenges will only make us all stronger and allow other women to feel emboldened to speak their truth.