According to the Mayo Clinic, secondary infertility is the inability to become pregnant or to carry a baby to term after previously giving birth to a baby.
What’s not included in the above definition is that secondary infertility carries some equally difficult – but different – emotions to primary infertility.
Feelings like guilt and loneliness can make the struggle to have another baby its own sort of challenge. Often, women struggling with secondary infertility may also face unexpected confusion and grief because they easily got pregnant before. There may be lots of questions and hard discussions with a partner to sort through what their family looks like now, and how to get there.
If this sounds like you, you aren’t alone. While secondary infertility is hard and complex, the following stories may help make the emotions that come with it a little easier to manage.
I interviewed a few women who have experienced secondary infertility for this story. When I asked Brenna, a secondary infertility survivor what she learned from the experience she offered, “That it is extremely common. Neither of us are broken. It wasn’t a sign that we shouldn’t have more children. It was just the path that we needed to take to get THIS baby.”
It can seem like you’re alone in this struggle. Outwardly, you have a child so strangers may feel more comfortable commenting on your family plans (“When is Johnny going to have a little brother or sister?”). Your friends are often tied to your current child and thus every gathering is a sharp reminder of your struggle. Maybe your partner, friends, family, and even your doctor downplay your concerns because, after all, “You know you can get pregnant.” You’re confused and not sure of where to turn. There is a fear that you won’t be welcome in an infertility support group because you already have a child.
You are not alone. Secondary infertility is common; the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 11% of couples who already have a child go on to experience secondary infertility. That is estimated to be about 4 million families (about half of all infertility cases).
It is important that you build a support network during this time. You will benefit, your primary relationship will benefit and most likely your child will also benefit. The questions you have about the logistics of fertility treatment and the emotions you’re struggling with can all be helped by talking with others in a similar situation or a professional support person. Seek out a mentor who has also faced secondary infertility, find a support group, or talk with a therapist or coach.
Still nervous about what response you may receive when you share your struggle? These are a few comments from an online forum where the poster asked about secondary infertility: “Nothing to be guilty about, you want to grow your family and give your child a sibling.” “Don’t feel guilty. You have to do what is right for your family. I’m in the same boat.” “It’s so hard knowing I can get pregnant without having a reason why it’s not happening again.” “I had a lot of the same feelings wondering if we should move forward or if I was being ‘greedy.’ Currently pregnant and it was worth it!”
Sadness and Grief
Like many major disappointments in life, secondary infertility brings on feelings of sorrow. There’s a sadness to think that the family you planned for may not actually transpire, or that it may not be built in the way you expected. You may be dealing with feelings of grief over not being able to conceive the “old fashioned way” and, instead, are going down a route of medical treatment and procedures which you did not imagine would be part of your story. Or, if you’ve had a miscarriage, you may be grieving the loss of your child, yet feeling that no one else really knows he or she existed.
Jamie, who struggled with secondary infertility after conceiving her daughter without issue shared, “One of the hardest parts for me was the thought that I may not be able to give my daughter a sibling. While I felt grateful that I was able to have my first child relatively easily, I wanted nothing more than to give her a sibling and was reminded of that everyday. The emotions of having gone through so many miscarriages and still having to raise her was difficult, but ultimately worth it in the end.”
For Brenna, she worked through the sadness and grief by staying present and finding ways to move forward. She shares, “I had to keep going. I had to get out of bed every day. I had to still continue to raise my first born. I had to continue to be present in my life that was happening now and not drown in the life I wanted to have. I had to take one day at a time because that is all I could handle. Just keep going.”
These are all very natural emotions. Sadness and grief are common feelings after a major loss or unexpected change in our plans. You aren’t being selfish. Give yourself grace and time to heal.
It is confusing and defeating when something that once came easily and naturally is (out of the blue) now seemingly impossible. It’s as if the rules and the time of the game got changed but no one told you.
What can be incredibly frustrating about infertility, primary or secondary, is the lack of control we have over the process and the very few clear answers we get despite lots of options for medical tests and treatments. As Jamie shares, “It is so frustrating because I went through so many test and procedures, and the cause of my secondary infertility remained ‘unknown.’ I am a person who wants answers and reasons, so it was difficult for me to accept that there was no straight answer, and therefore nothing I could do to ‘fix’ the problem.”
What can help here is to seek out ways to empower yourself in this process while also surrendering to the parts that you aren’t able to control. Oftentimes, empowerment comes from knowledge, organization, and confidence in your plan.
Learn about your condition and treatment. Understand it at the level of detail you need to feel comfortable. Supplement your treatment with a healthy lifestyle, focusing on nutritious food, exercise, and good sleep (as much as you can). Organize your time and treatment plan in a way that makes sense for you and brings a sense of calmness and readiness to the process. When your partner or family members ask what they can do to help, ask for support with childcare, meals, household tasks and the like.
For Brenna, this was a “three ring binder that held everything…my calendar of shots and of appointments. Instructions for every single shot. A place for all papers that came home from the doctor. A track sheet of all things insurance related. Staying organized made me feel like I had a little control in an uncontrollable situation.”
Be realistic. You know your life, level of tolerance, and time and money available to you. Stay true to what needs to be done but keep these parameters in mind so that you maintain your sense of control over your fertility plan.
As Jamie explains, “While going through fertility treatments, I made some changes to my diet and attempted to exercise more, but it was difficult to find time with raising a toddler and having so many appointments! Otherwise I did not make many changes, I tried to live my life as ‘normal’ as was possible throughout everything.”
Support from others and self-care in the form of quiet moments, boundary-setting, and stress relief can help build your confidence that you’re doing all you can. These tools will also be helpful as you learn to recognize and surrender what is beyond your ability to control.
One of the most common emotions I hear about (and experienced myself) in secondary infertility is guilt. Guilt that wanting another child means you aren’t grateful for what you have. Guilt that you already have a baby and there are so many others who don’t. Are you being greedy? Guilt that you are spending time, money, effort, and emotional energy to further build your family when you have a child at home. Guilt that your child or partner wants a sibling or another baby and they aren’t getting one (at least not yet).
There’s no quick fix to turning these emotions “off” and maybe you won’t really ever be able to. It is important, though, to recognize that each family is different. If you are feeling a strong pull toward more children, it will be critical for you to explore that fully – whether through treatments, counseling, or support from your partner and friends and family (or all of the above).
Brenna shares, “One thing I started to do each day is wake up and BELIEVE. Believe it could happen. Believe I was worth it. Believe our family was worth it.”
You and your family are important and unique. You are each “worth it.”
Despite these challenging emotions, a common theme among the women I encounter with secondary infertility is gratitude. Of course, gratitude for their current family and whatever means were required to build it. But, also, gratitude for supportive partners, empathetic and expert medical practitioners, and the tribe of women who surround them. In talking with women for this article, they all shared stories of having someone to talk to about their struggle or people who stepped in at low points to help build them back up.
The psychological back-and-forth we play when it comes to wanting more of what we have but also constantly questioning how far to push for it can easily drag us down in the emotions of secondary infertility.
Pausing to seek out what is good, what is going well or right, what we are learning along the way can shift our mindset and put us back on a hopeful, more peaceful, and more empowered road to our family.
A simple note each day listing 3-5 things you are grateful for can help make this way of thinking a regular practice for you. If you’re struggling to get started, think about some basic things like having air to breathe or a warm bed. You might be surprised at what you discover you’re truly grateful for in the midst of this struggle.
To sum it up, you aren’t alone in your secondary infertility struggle. While the emotions you experience aren’t pleasant, they are normal. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support, whether its logistical help with your child, home, or at work or emotional support as you struggle with the ups and downs of the process of infertility. There are people who understand and are willing to step in and help carry you through. You and your family are worth it.