On Christmas Day, after an agonizing two-week wait following in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments in New York, I’ll find out whether or not I’m pregnant. I didn’t plan it this way, my heart palpitating with anxiety during an already tender time, and yet like so many things with infertility, it was outside my control.
For most of us the holidays are a magical time of connecting with family and consuming our body weight in delicious treats. But for those of us struggling with infertility, the holiday season is full triggers and the ache of one more Christmas without the precious baby we desperately long for. One in four couples worldwide, or 50 million people are going through infertility and this pain is amplified during a time that should be joyful.
We long to see excitement in our own children’s eyes as we dole out presents to nieces and nephews. We worry if we’ll be able to hold our cousin’s infant without breaking down. We skip the cocktail grasping tightly to the idea if we do everything right, we’ll be rewarded.
We put the gluten-full cookie down, another reminder of all we’ve given up for our shot at happiness. During the party we run to the bathroom to cry when someone asks us when we’re having kids. Our dogs wear the sequined party dresses of our mothering affections. We worry as we smuggle our injection syringes on ice like contraband through airport security.
Our mental health is hanging by a thread. So here are my 4 coping strategies for surviving infertility, or any chronic illness during the holidays:
1. Check in with yourself
Acknowledging this is a painful time, is a first step in releasing it. You can use fertility meditation and journaling, breathing and noticing the sensations in your body to validate your feelings. Allow the loneliness, grief, anger, jealousy, sadness to be there. You don’t have to pretend you are alright. This isn’t easy and yet you are doing it. What do you need to prioritize your mental health? Skip the party and take a bath. Develop your own holiday traditions you can get excited about. Avoid the mall and do gift cards. You’re allowed to be a healthy amount of selfish.
2. Let go of perfection
The holidays can be extra stressful during infertility because of all the things you aren’t supposed to do or eat. The reality is, you’re probably not going to be perfectly relaxed or avoid all inflammatory foods. That’s ok. Realize that some cheese and a glass of wine are not going to ruin your chances of getting pregnant. I usually follow an 80/20 rule and some holiday cheats are acceptable. If you’re on fertility hormones, you might lose your temper, but you can always repair. You might skip the acupuncture appointment. Don’t expect perfection. Be gentle with yourself and know you are doing a good job.
3. Say no when you need to
You don’t have to go to every function or play the hostess. Lower your expectations of yourself. It can also be helpful to run through a few scenarios you are worried about in your mind and pre-plan how you will handle them. For example, if someone asks you a sensitive question, have an automated response. “I’m glad that worked for them.” “I’d rather not talk about it right now, thanks.” Fertility hormones can have negative side effects so give yourself a free pass to cancel plans at the last minute if you’re just not feeling up to it and instead stay in bed with a good book.
4. Share with a trusted person
When going through infertility, it can feel like there are conversational landmines everywhere. Most people won’t get what you’re going through. Don’t feel you need to open up and share with everyone your deeper emotions if they don’t feel safe to you. Choose 1 or 2 people like your partner or someone in a similar situation as you to share how you’re feeling. During this time you need extra support so schedule a date with your partner or a shopping outing with your bestie.
You can still enjoy this holiday season even though it's different than you wanted. My husband and I have developed our own traditions through the years—we’ve spent it on a beach in Baja camping, in the Trinity mountains hiking, soaking in springs in the deserts of California, and curled up in front of a fire in Tahoe watching Just Friends. Spending Sunday evenings reading an Advent passage, our hearts uniting with all those who are longing and hoping.
No matter what, we are resilient. I still cherish that this season holds a kind of wonder, a hope for the miraculous, joy in the darkness. This year as I bend over the waxy glow of candles, I’ll be exhaling a prayer for the greatest gift I could receive, all the while believing for yours.