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The Conundrum of Secondary Infertility

What’s wrong with me? It worked before!

This and so many other questions run through the mind of someone experiencing secondary infertility.

When a couple struggles to have a child after a previous pregnancy and birth, that’s called secondary infertility. Our human biology includes a strong drive to reproduce. The chance to pass on our genes, nurture a child, and have a family of your own is a strong, natural and healthy force. One mom told me that the desire to have her second child was at least as strong, if not stronger than with the first. She felt consumed by her desire even though she knew she would have to utilize assisted reproductive technology (ART).

Conflicting feelings around secondary infertility are completely normal. You love and are grateful for the child(ren) you have AND want another. Innocent loved ones can compound conflicting emotions by saying things like, “you should feel grateful for the child you have!” Well, you are, but is it greedy to want more? No! Other families with two or more children are not greedy so why is that thought even a possibility for families experiencing secondary infertility? Another conflicting feeling is around where you fit. You may not feel like you fit into the infertility community because you have a child, yet, you are experiencing infertility.

When the desire to grow your family is unrealized, the loss is equally as strong. The grief associated with this struggle is real. In our society, when a person experiences a loss, for example, a death, the community knows what to do. We hold a ceremony, a funeral, and talk about the person who died. We console the family that is left without their loved one. We bring flowers and food. We talk, we sing, we hug, we cry. But when the loss is something longed for, planned for, expected, but not realized, our community doesn’t have a plan for that. We say things like, “when are you going to have another baby?” And the person feels the sting and puts on a brave face and often responds with a half-joking answer to get out of saying how broken-hearted they feel. Where do you belong in a society that values…expects families?

Here are some steps you can take to put you in the driver's seat.

First, find a great medical team. Infertility is a medical problem (not a moral one) and there are many causes including impaired sperm or eggs, complications from a previous pregnancy, and age. There’s no shame in finding out what the medical issues are and getting a proper diagnosis. This will help you determine the appropriate treatment options. As with primary infertility, about one third of cases are due to female biology, one third to male biology, and the remaining one third is linked to both or the cause is unknown. Secondary infertility is slightly less common than primary infertility affecting about 11% of the US population. That's more than 30 million people!

Second, or maybe first, find a tribe. Surround yourself with people who support and care for your wellbeing. Even if they don’t fully understand what you are going through, find people who understand you. These can be relatives, friends or even a formal infertility support group. Here in Utah, there are support groups in different locations around the state as well as virtual groups you can join via zoom, even one specifically for secondary infertility. These are people you can let it all hang out with because they get it.

Third, find a good therapist. This is a person skilled in issues of infertility, loss and possibly trauma, that can help you navigate this lonely journey. When interviewing a potential therapist be sure to ask if they have experience with the topic of infertility and loss.

And finally, recognize that you might be experiencing complicated grief and practice lots of self-compassion and self-care. I love Kristin Neff’s work around self-compassion. She recommends regular meditation and practices that turn your heart toward yourself. I find that when people (myself included) can find compassion, forgiveness, and love for themselves, they are able to practice those same qualities toward others in a much more fluid and authentic way. One day I found myself stroking my own hand with the fingertips of my other hand. I focused on the felt sense of the experience: the softness of my fingertips, the gentle touch, the simplicity of that moment, and then I noticed how my nervous system was settling into a calm rhythm with the back and forth motion. I felt a kind of ‘reset’ and groundedness and actually, joy that I carried into the next moments of my day.

Finding professional help, building your support system and enhancing your own inner resources will make the journey easier to travel. Remember, you are not alone! Your many and sometimes conflicting feelings are normal. You are not a failure and haven’t done anything wrong to ‘deserve’ this condition.

You belong, can contribute and have meaning!

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