The holidays can be the most wonderful time of year… or the saddest. According to the National Institutes of Health, there is a high incidence of depression during December’s holiday season. Infertility patients often face added sadness during holiday season.
What makes the holidays more difficult than other times of the year?
Interactions with friends and family during this time of year can be difficult for several reasons. First, families and friends may announce, “We are pregnant.” Even infertility patients feel happy for a relative or friend. It is only natural that they would feel morose about their own misfortune.
Further, family members can be intrusive by asking too many questions, giving unsolicited advice, or criticizing the infertility patient. The holidays can also mark the end of another year without a baby.
What can infertility patients do to help themselves get through this tough season?
I advise my patients to make a plan. Understanding that the holidays may bring added stress can help patients either minimize their interactions with friends and family or to be prepared to be direct with them about their feelings. For some patients, this may mean deciding to miss a few holiday events. Some patients take this opportunity to travel with their partners and focus on their relationship; the holidays can be a great time for a trip to an adult-only resort.
If missing holiday celebrations would be intolerable for the patients’ friends and family, I ask them to consider this: special relationships are worth preserving. Infertility treatment doesn’t last forever but relationships with family and friends may last a lifetime.
What can family members say or do?
Friends and family need to understand that infertility is a medical condition and the pain of infertility can lead to depression, self-blame and diminished self-esteem. In fact, infertility patients who are unsuccessful at obtaining a pregnancy can experience levels of depression that are similar to chemotherapy patients. Phrases such as “just relax” and “look on the bright side” can leave one feeling criticized.
My advice is for friends and family to take cues from the patient. If it is unclear what the patient wants, ask them. It can be helpful to start the conversation with a statement such as, “I know you are going through a rough time. I’m not sure how to respond to you but I want you to know I care and I am here any time you want to lean on me. I won’t be intrusive and ask you questions but know that I always want to know how you are doing.”
It may be hard to imagine that one day all the pain of infertility will diminish and eventually fade. But it will, and if patients can take the time to care for themselves and plan for their interactions with others, the holiday season may not be the best time of year, but it will be the best it can be under the circumstances. Most importantly, emotional well-being and relationships will be kept intact so that future holidays can be truly wonderful.
Ms. Schuman, Director of Mental Health Services at Reproductive Medicine Associates of Connecticut (RMACT), has worked with infertility patients for almost two decades. She has received several awards for research at the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) and the Pacific Coast Reproductive Society’s annual meetings; her most recent award was presented at the 2014 ASRM Annual Meeting for her contributions to clinical studies about elective oocyte cryopreservation, commonly referred to as egg freezing. For more information about infertility counseling, please visit www.rmact.com.