I’m handing over the newsletter this week to Regina Townsend, the founder of The Broken Brown Egg, an infertility website and community centered on the experiences of women of color. She’s writing about the intersection of infertility and mental health.
I recently came across a quotation by Vincent van Gogh, and it triggered something in me. “There may be a great fire in our soul, but no one ever comes to warm himself by it, all that passers-by can see is a little smoke,” van Gogh wrote, in an 1880 letter to his brother, Theo. The line haunted me for days; I was struck by this concept of the fire within. How many people do we pass every single day who are carrying around raging fires — who have a passion or a pain inside that is so great they can barely contain it?
For me, and for thousands of other people, infertility is that raging fire.
We kind of know that cousin or aunt who loves kids, and we kind of see the sadness in her eyes at baby showers, but we don’t really know the depth of her pain. We see how our co-worker lights up whenever other people talk about their children, but we don’t really know why he and his wife never had any. We read something once upon a time about recurrent miscarriage, and we felt sorry or sad, but we couldn’t picture anyone we knew who had lost multiple consecutive pregnancies.
Fire can leave serious damage behind. Because it can be hard to fully grasp what infertility involves unless you’ve dealt with it personally, many people believe that it’s all about the end game, a baby — that if you could just get to that prize, the pain of infertility would fade away. But infertility is bigger than babies. I say this often, because I want people to get it. It truly is. It can affect our physical and mental health in insidious — and sometimes enduring — ways.
I founded The Broken Brown Egg, an online community and awareness organization, in 2009, because I wanted to support women of color who are battling infertility. In the years since, hundreds of women have reached out to me to share their stories — about their struggles to conceive, and about the feelings of isolation and stress they often face, too. Research has shown that women dealing with infertility have depression and anxiety levels similar to those with cancer, H.I.V. and heart disease, and — through my advocacy work as well as my personal experiences — I have become intimately familiar with infertility’s psychological toll. Yet it took me a long time to acknowledge that infertility can be a form of trauma. It didn’t feel worthy of the term. I mean, infertility isn’t life-threatening, right?
Some researchers argue that the definition of trauma should be expanded to include the psychological and emotional response to not only physical threats, but threats to deeply held expectations of life. According to Allyson Bradow, a psychologist who wrote a paper on infertility, people affected by infertility must adjust to a major shift in life expectations while being exposed to constant reminders of their condition, through questions from family members, medical treatments or interactions with pregnant women.
“Psychologists must understand that infertility is a trauma, and often a complex trauma,” Bradow writes. “While anxiety, depression, and grief and loss are all a part of the psychological impact of infertility, there is much more to the experience which is defined by the individual.”
Infertility changes how you see yourself and the world. Somewhere along the journey, many of us stop feeling as though it is something that is happening to us, but instead begin to believe that it is a part of who we are. You become used to living in a constant state of fluctuating despair and hope. And this doesn’t turn off when and if you get pregnant. It doesn’t turn off when you hear or see the heartbeat. My son is 3. I’m still trying to turn it off.
Six months into motherhood, I felt as if I was in quicksand. I’d gotten through infertility, gotten past a failed adoption, braced my way through I.V.F. and a C-section. I should have felt invincible, but instead, I was numb. I felt as if the other shoe would drop at any moment. I had to pay for the victory that was my son, didn’t I? That was the routine of the roller coaster infertility had been for us. No success without swift defeat.
My therapist helped me to understand that I was dealing with postpartum depression, and explained that the stress of undergoing treatment for infertility has been shown to make some women more susceptible to postpartum depression. Some fertility clinics have even added counseling to their services, in the hopes of helping individuals and couples prepare for the mental effects of treatment.
Our public conversations surrounding infertility and mental health have separately been gaining traction in recent years and, thankfully, they are beginning to intersect. If you have struggled with both issues, as I have, know that you are not alone.