By: Lisa Schuman, LCSW
The holidays can be the happiest time of the year… or the saddest. According to the National Institutes of Health, there is a high incidence of depression during December’s holiday season. Hospitals report an increase in the number of suicides or attempted suicides during this time of year. Mental health professionals report a significant increase in their patients’ symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Managing meaningful relationships.
If you are undergoing fertility treatment, interactions with friends and family during a time of year that is supposed to be joyous can be difficult for several reasons. First, it may be a time when announcements are made, such as “we are pregnant.” Even if you feel happy for a relative or friend who makes such an announcement, it is only natural that you would also feel badly about your own misfortune. Second, family members can be intrusive. They may ask too many questions or share unsolicited advice. Finally, the holidays can mark the end of another year without a baby. The resulting pain for the infertility patient can be enormous. For people who are trying to conceive and have had a loss the pain can be even greater.
It is commonly known that infertility can be a clinically depressing experience. We know that unsuccessful fertility patients can experience varying levels of depression similar to chemotherapy patients. Friends and family rarely understand this, and therefore cannot be expected say or do “the right thing.” It’s unlikely that baby announcements will be postponed, that sweet aunt Elizabeth will restrain herself from asking, “so when will you two have children?” or that a sister-in-law will stop herself from sharing how easy it was to get pregnant
Make self-care a priority.
Therefore, it is wise to remember how upsetting these interactions can be and to prepare for the holidays. While the pain cannot be eliminated, it can be minimized and it is possible to practice self-care. Understanding that the holidays may bring added stress provides you with the option to minimize your interactions with friends and family or to be direct with them about your feelings. A friend or family member may not always understand if their beloved relative doesn’t attend every family event, but missing a few events can usually be tolerated. If being direct is an option, friends and family often respond well to hearing that while the pain of infertility or a loss makes attending a particular event painful, attending future events will be a pleasure and that you plan to be at Janie’s second, third, and every birthday party afterwards.
If you are struggling with infertility or are recovering from a loss, it may seem unfair, or too strenuous, to make the effort to have these discussions with loved ones. However, it is also important to remember that special relationships may be worth preserving. This particular pain won’t last forever, and neither do the holidays, but relationships with family and friends may last a lifetime.
It’s about what works for you.
It may not be possible to control the outcome of your journey, but it is possible to take control over your health and well-being. Acupuncture, psychotherapy, massage, yoga or just taking some time off can be rejuvenating, and finding ways to have more control over pleasurable activities can help return a sense of balance to a life that has felt out of control for too long. If your road to family building has been bumpy, it is natural to want to hide under a rock. However, activities such as taking a cooking class or learning how to knit can serve as evidence to your body that when you put effort into something, you can see a direct benefit. Experiencing this sense of control can feel very stabilizing.
The rule of 20.
To help maintain a good relationship and give patients something positive to look forward to, I encourage them to plan time together with loved ones. The holidays can be a good time for a trip to an adults-only resort. For patients who plan to stay in town, I encourage them to find something that they enjoy doing together, such as a movie or a show. Thoughts about the treatment may persist, but if the show is focused upon 20 percent of the evening, that is 20 percent not focused on treatment. It’s also good to get out of the house, even if you are not always “in the mood”.
There may be a lot to discuss, but it is important not to allow fertility treatment to consume every discussion. I suggest patients limit infertility discussions to 20 minutes per day, and then simply put it to rest. If other issues arise, write it down for later. Tomorrow will come.
It may be hard to imagine that one day fertility treatment will be over. If you have experienced a loss, it is important to grieve and appreciate that the grief is a testament to your love. Although the memory may always be with you, the pain will also eventually fade. If you can take the time to care for yourself and plan your interactions with others, then the holiday season will be the best it can be under the circumstances, even if it may not be the most wonderful time of the year. Most importantly, you emotional well-being and relationships will be kept intact so future holidays can be truly wonderful.
If you feel your pain is too great it is important to seek help. Specialists in fertility understand your experience and can guide you to a better place in your relationships and within yourself.