The Guilt + Shame of Infertility
Prior to becoming a maternal mental health therapist, I worked with new moms in NICU and Birth Center settings as a social worker. I helped women through loss, premature births, pregnancy complications, and all of life’s messes that don’t stop just because you are pregnant or had a new baby.
Now as a psychotherapist I work with the same population of women, including those experiencing infertility. I find that for the vast majority of my patients – whether they are going through infertility or perinatal challenges – guilt, and sometimes shame, underlies most of these experiences.
As a woman who has experienced infertility, I have some lived experience with guilt. I joke to myself that my own experience of guilt and self-doubt helps me relate to my patients: What did I do wrong that I can’t get pregnant? The guilt around finally getting pregnant but leaving behind, my infertile support system. And as a mom, worrying about screwing up my kids.
Guilt goes with being human, and perhaps comes more naturally for mothers. It’s been helpful for me to find acceptance around my own self-doubting thoughts in order to help other women with theirs.
TTC After Terminating a Pregnancy
In a recent therapy session with a new mom, my patient shared that she had terminated a pregnancy when she was younger. She experienced infertility later in life and was about to undergo her second IVF transfer in the hopes of another pregnancy. She shared her feelings of “unworthiness.”
Having had an abortion made her feel ashamed, guilty, and unworthy of another pregnancy. She wondered if one baby should be enough and that she should feel grateful and happy. She wondered if her infertility was punishment for her abortion. I desperately hope I was able to convey to her that she is worthy! That she is so, so worthy. Worthy of having another baby, and also of love, peace and acceptance. We all are worthy of this. I thanked her for sharing this painful secret she’s held for so long, for trusting me with her story and for taking this courageous step towards healing.
How to Cope with the Feelings of “Unworthiness”
My patient’s story is not unique; I know there are many other women out there who share a similar story and have lived a similar pain. What helps? What helps the guilt and shame and feelings of unworthiness?
Well…a few things. And as with all advice, please take what helps and leave what doesn’t. You might not be ready to take some of these steps and that is okay.
Recognize Your Feelings as Normal
Whatever those feelings happen to be, they are normal and they are OK. My patient knew that her abortion had nothing to do with her infertility, as is the case for most women with a similar situation-a quick Google search will confirm this.
But it is normal for women to feel guilt and shame around this decision. Perhaps you feel relief and at ease about your abortion and this is normal too.
Confide in Your Partner or a Friend
Confide in your partner, or if you are going through this solo, then with another trusted person. It may be hard to feel vulnerable or to even say the words out loud, but likely you are experiencing shame and that is contributing to your difficulties.
I love what shame researcher, Brené Brown, says: I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.
You are worthy of connection and of healing, saying the words out loud can be a step in this direction.
Consider Working with a Mental Health Expert
My patient had already found me but finding a therapist can be tremendously helpful. It’s ideal if the therapist has a background in infertility or women’s reproductive health issues. The therapist should provide a safe and judgement-free space for you to talk about your experiences, as well as name and sort through feelings. It’s okay to find a new therapist if you don’t mesh with the first one you try, it happens and your therapist likely won’t be offended.
What is self-compassion? It is generally thought of to be comprised of three things:
- Self-kindness– Extend some kindness in your own direction, how you might talk to a friend is exactly the way you should be talking to yourself-with love, warmth and gentleness
- Common humanity – Recognize that we all go through pain and suffering at some point in our life and this is part of our common humanity
- Mindfulness- the art of being aware of one’s thoughts and emotions without judgement
I often recommend using guided imagery to help cope with difficult emotions and experiences. One that I particularly like is the Loving Kindness meditation. If you’ve never done guided imagery or meditation, be patient with yourself-it can take time to get used to quieting the mind. You can find the loving kindness meditation on YouTube or through an app such as Headspace or Insight Timer.