This post was updated on December 20th, 2021
I’m sure that like me, you have many friends and family members that have fallen pregnant shortly after trying, and you may know even more that have happily gotten pregnant by accident? You can probably also relate to the fact that while I’m genuinely happy for these people that I care deeply about, I find their stories hard to reconcile after four years (almost five now) of failure to grow a baby bump of my own.
This blog post is not for these women. It’s for women like you and me, who understand the stress, anxiety and depression that sometimes grows in the place where your child should be when you are dealing with infertility. While I’d never claim to be hard done by in comparison to so many of the unfortunate women I hear from daily, I do understand the pain of infertility, and my number one strategy to combat suffering is truly applicable to everyone who knows what it’s like to be upset by the onset of spotting.
When you first start trying to get pregnant
As I have written about before stress can unfortunately have a negative effect on our fertility. I started stressing about my fertility about five minutes after “trying” for the first time – no doubt I can be more neurotic than most… I immediately started learning about “timing it” and it wasn’t long before I was using an Ovacue Monitor with military precision and demanding that my husband make his contribution to the cause regardless of how unsexy either of us were feeling. While this is good practice it you want to get pregnant, rather than alleviate my negative feelings, trying to take control of my fertility in this way only exacerbated my worry. I was thinking about it daily, and it made me miserable.
Thankfully my restlessness led me to seek medical attention when 6 months was up and I experienced the joy of a positive pregnancy test.
Needless to say my first miscarriage was awful. It took me weeks to get over it. Now I’m sure a lot of other women are braver than I am, but I just couldn’t help how hopeless I felt. It’s a strange feeling being both depressed and stressed at the same time…
From depression to anxiety and back again
I eventually managed to replace depression with its close cousin anxiety, but the stress never went away. In fact, because I had learned that stress can affect fertility, I began feeling stressed about being stressed! I was a perfect knot of dynamite charged emotions when my second pregnancy, which I had achieved through ovulation induction, ended early and sent me back down to the bottom of the emotional well.
How do so many women tolerate these experiences? I’m sure they do it better than me. Am I not tough? Am I being oversensitive here? Do I have unrealistic expectations that life will be fair? That if I work hard and think smart that I will get what I want?
Wisdom arrives the hard way
Fertility is one of the great teachers in life. It’s Mother Nature at her worse; like a blizzard on a mountain, a flooding river, a coastal tsunami, or a raging bushfire in a populated area. While on most days she can be appreciated for all her beauty, at times she shows no mercy, or any understanding of fairness. Some people are lucky; and others get burned. Sometimes you might rebuild after a fire, only to be burned again. That’s how it goes. If you want to participate in having children, having to deal with infertility is just something that many of us will have to face along the way.
I have experienced this again and again during miscarriages, failed IVF cycles, and during my most recent failed embryo transfer. And if you are reading this I bet you have had the unfortunate experience of dealing with fertility disappointments too.
The most powerful weapon against suffering – radical acceptance
If you have ever been lucky enough to meet a woman who is at peace with her infertility then what you will notice is that she has learned and accepted that while you can put luck on your side by timing baby making, eating well, exercising, and seeking fertility treatment, Mother Nature will always be the one to decide if and when you fall pregnant. Truly knowing this is what clinical psychologists would describe as radical acceptance.
Radical acceptance is exactly what it says it is. It’s the ability to embrace life the way it is. Exactly the way it is right here and right now, warts and all. While this may sound ridiculous, I have found radical acceptance to be one of the most powerful strategies of all when fighting the emotional suffering of my infertility. I am definitely not perfect at practicing radical acceptance and it is a daily battle but when I do manage it, it can bring me such a sweet release.
The difference between pain and suffering
To understand how this works, you need to appreciate the difference between pain and suffering. With regards to infertility, pain is the acute consequences of getting our period when we don’t want it, or the physiological sadness we experience in our chest the moment we find out our pregnancy is no longer viable. Pain hurts, and it can be one of the things that really sucks about being alive.
Suffering however is something different that can persist well after the pain has passed. In the way I’m using the word here, suffering occurs entirely within our minds and is the consequence of the thoughts that we have following a painful event. Let me illustrate with an example you might be able to relate to:
In 2014 during my second pregnancy I found out that the heart of my 10 week old foetus was no longer beating. I felt an incredible amount of pain in that moment when my hopes and dreams came tumbling down; and I felt pain when I needed a D & C to remove him or her. I cried and I grieved and I tried to process the painful feelings. It totally sucked and it was awful.
Suffering however is the process where I began to feel sorry for myself and began wondering what I did wrong. I completely lost my temper at my husband, and any other unfortunate who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Suffering was my post pain wallowing and the unhappiness I felt afterwards despite guiltily knowing that other people actually have it a lot worse than me.
Radical acceptance sets us free from infertility
Here’s were radical acceptance comes into a league of its own. Suffering is caused by a desire for things to be different to how they are. So if we can learn to embrace our reality the way it really is, and can let go of our natural, but unhelpful, desire for the world to be different, then suffering has nothing to hold on to and it instantly evaporates.
Pain is mandatory at times, but suffering is totally optional.
Radical acceptance is a medically endorsed cure for suffering
This isn’t some alternative idea of a meditating space-cadet (although I am a BIG fan of meditation).
Radical acceptance is a foundational concept of cognitive behavioural therapy and is a cornerstone of the help offered by many counsellors and psychologists for people suffering from depression and anxiety.
Build resilience by practicing radical acceptance during infertility
To get really good at radical acceptance, we need to practice it, and fortunately life gives us endless opportunities to do this.
If you make a habit of accepting those small inconveniences where you have no control of the situation, you can build up your mental resilience so that you’ll be better equipped to accept a significant misfortune next time you’re unlucky enough to encounter one.
You might start by accepting that you’re stuck in traffic and you’re late for an appointment. Maybe you spilled spaghetti sauce on your shirt, or burned your last piece of toast this morning? You might try to radically accept that your friend let you down, or your partner wasn’t supportive enough when all you needed was a little sympathy.
Acceptance is not the same thing as positive thinking
When you practice acceptance, you may still be sad, disappointed, or fearful. You don’t have to LIKE the situation you’re in and you don’t need to “try and look on the bright side”. You just need to welcome the experience and treat it with respect, like the way a diplomate would offer tea to an enemy during peace negotiations.
The sort of thing I tell myself when I am intentionally practicing radical acceptance goes something like this:
“I don’t like this situation, it hurts, it makes me angry, and it’s unfair. But I understand that this is how things are for now and I can’t change it. I’m bigger than this pain so I’m just going to let it be and will roll with the consequences whatever they may be”.
Sometimes acceptance is all we have when we are dealing with infertility
Life throws us many curve balls. Sometimes we’ll get a base hit while other times we’ll strike out.
Even baseball’s greatest legends strike out sometimes during critical points in a game, and for them like us, all that’s left is acceptance.
It is not something anyone can learn overnight and, I for one, am still working on it daily but it sure is a good tool to add to your tool kit if you, like me, are dealing with infertility.
Since 2010, Kym Campbell has used evidence-based diet and lifestyle interventions to manage her PCOS. After getting her symptoms under control and falling pregnant naturally, Kym now advocates for dietary change as part of any PCOS treatment plan. Combining rigorous science and clinical advice with a pragmatic approach to habit change, Kym is on a mission to show other women how to take back control of their health and fertility. Read more about Kym and her team here.
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