Stigma – a mark of shame or disgrace – comes in today’s world with different circumstances, from bankruptcy to mental illness to infertility. Infertility affects 6 million Americans (and about 8-9% of couples worldwide), and yet many women feel quite alone when trying to emotionally cope with involuntary childlessness.
While the number of treatment options and assisted reproductive technologies have been steadily increasing in recent years, it does not do anyone good if the woman who would benefit does not seek treatment due to stigma. In fact, in one study, stigma was a more often cited reason for not seeking treatment than was cost.
Four steps to help you to overcome the barrier of infertility stigma
Keep in mind that these suggestions may be followed in a different order or steps skipped in specific cases.
Step #1 – Learn the source of the stigma
Part of the source of some of this stigma relates to the origins of infertility. Back in the 1950s, the cause of infertility was thought to be a woman’s psychological insufficiency. It was not until decades later, with medical advances, that the true causes were elucidated. Yet in at least 10-15% today, there is not an identified cause and the diagnosis is relegated to the category of “unexplained infertility.”
Another part of the source of this stigma relates to society’s value of fertility itself. This can even be traced all the way back to ancient times. For example, one of the primary Roman deities was Juno, the goddess of fertility. In ancient Hebrew culture, a man was allowed to swap his wife out if she did not bear children. Genesis 30:1 states, “Give me children or I shall die.” Even today, many cultures have festivals celebrating fertility, such as Japan’s Kanamara Matsuri. All this societal pressure can be overwhelming to a couple struggling with infertility.
Step #2 – Understand how the stigma affects you personally
In today’s society, there is often an expectation that a couple will reproduce. There is a large difference between a woman who chooses childlessness for her own reasons, and one upon whom the condition is thrust.
If you are going through infertility, you might be feeling anger towards your body for not performing the way you expect it to. You might be feeling guilt and shame. You might be feeling that you are letting your partner down. You might be feeling that you are not “a real woman,” as fertility and womanhood are frequently interwoven in today’s world. You might feel jealous when seeing pregnant women or sorrow when you see children. You might even develop a state of depression or anxiety (For more on this, see: Coping with Infertility and its Emotional Toll)
Step #3 – Reach out for support
Many women tell me that they felt very alone with their involuntary childlessness because they found themselves surrounded by siblings, cousins, and friends all having children. Yet, when delving deeper and sharing their own stories, they found that quite a few of those same individuals also shared stories of difficulties with conception. They also found comfort outside of their usual social circle by reaching out to women online and in person through infertility support groups. Consider posting your story below to join the MBP network of support.
Step #4 – Empower yourself
One of the ways to overcome stigma, shame, and low self-esteem is to do that which makes you feel more in control and less uncertain. For some, this may mean on an individual level – seeking treatment for infertility itself (with assisted reproductive technologies) or seeking treatment for the mental health consequences of the chronic stress of infertility. For others, this may mean on a more global level: providing education to friends, family, and beyond and sharing your story with others to decrease the stigma created by our society.
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Palha, A.P., Lourenco, M.F. Psychological and cross-cultural aspects of infertility and human sexuality. Baron R (ed): Sexual Dysfunction: Beyond the Brain-Body Connection. Adv Psychosom Med. Basel, Karger, 2011, vol 31, 164-183.