Globally, one in six people are affected by infertility in their lifetime, according to a World Health Organization report, with women traditionally bearing the brunt of the physical and psychological pain tied to troubles with having children.
“I’m so grateful for the beautiful kids we have, but boy has it been a traumatic journey to get there,” said Aubrey Phelps, a mom of four.
Her first two kids, now 8-years-old and 6-years-olds, were born by emergency cesarean section. The second child was born prematurely.
After taking some time to regroup, Phelps and her husband tried for another child.
“When they found out we were going for a third, people were like, ‘You guys just gluttons for punishment? Whatcha doing here?’” Phelps said. “Because it was just, you know, we had been through a lot. It had not been easy.”
And things didn’t get any easier.
The couple experienced secondary infertility, the inability to conceive or carry a baby to term after previously giving birth. They lost three pregnancies in a row, dumbfounding doctors.
“On the one hand, it’s nice to hear, ‘No, your tests are great! Everything’s come back great,’” Phelps said. “But then, on the other hand, you’re like, ‘So, then what’s wrong? What can we fix?’ And there was nothing to fix.”
As a nutritionist, Phelps said she and her husband were eating right and taking additional supplements at the suggestions of her doctor. But the problem persisted, leaving Phelps feeling guilty and grieving the losses.
“I couldn’t help but think that I was not supposed to be a mom,” she said. “This is karma. This is my fault.”
She eventually conceived and gave birth to her now 3-year-old daughter. Phelps said because of the care and compassion they received from her health care provider, she and her husband decided to complete their family with a fourth child.
The couple had another miscarriage.
“At that point, I had lost more babies than I had met,” she said. “And so, it was a question of, like, how many more am I willing to potentially lose to try to have one more?”
She agreed to one last try, which resulted in their infant son. Thankful for a healthy baby boy, but still struggling with feelings of inadequacy on top of all the loss.
“Your world is crumbing, and yet you’re supposed to continue functioning in the world that’s going on,” Phelps said. “I still had to make dinner. I still had to get the kids up. Like, all these things, and I all wanted to do was hide in bed and be left alone for a week.”
She said she had internal pressure to make the most of every second with the kids.
“And, well, as any mother will probably tell you, not all the moments are all that awesome,” she said. “And so you feel this guilt that you’re not enjoying every moment.”
Brianna Sheridan, therapist and regional clinic director for Thriveworks, said trying to fit a perfect motherhood mold is unrealistic.
“Bodies change, things happen, this is the reality,” she said.
But societal pressures and the feelings of anxiety and depression infertility can bring are real and valid.
“The fact that we don’t talk about it doesn’t mean it’s not there,” Sheridan said. “And I think that’s what leads people to feeling like they’re defective or they’re the only one.”
She said keeping up with self care and finding a safe space to share, either with a professional or trusted friend, can be a huge help.
“I don’t think it’s ever good to push anybody, just cause it makes, as we all know, when you’re pushed, you’re less likely to want to give and it’s really uncomfortable,” Sheridan said.
Phelps said finding someone to confide in relieved some of the isolation and loneliness.
“That made a huge difference,” she said. “Having someone that was ‘in’ on what was going on.”
She said each day that goes by gets better, and she’s now sharing her experience with others as a part of processing her journey into motherhood and caring for herself to keep caring for her family.