The invisible disability: When Mother’s Day hurts

The invisible disability: When Mother’s Day hurts


“I think of infertility as the invisible disability,” said Constance Shapiro, professor of Family Studies at the University of Illinois.

“Infertile couples are everywhere, and nobody knows unless they share it. Sadly, one of the most painful experiences for infertile women occurs in places of worship when the minister, priest, or rabbi singles mothers out for special recognition on Mother’s Day.” Mother’s Day isn’t the only rough holiday to get through, said Shapiro. Many holidays are child-centered. Christmas has as its center the birth of a baby, and the sight of nieces and nephews rushing to open their stockings on Christmas morning can be very difficult for childless uncles and aunts to bear. Even Halloween with its hordes of trick-or-treaters can be painful,” Shapiro said.

Holidays also mark the passing of another year. “Many couples say to themselves, ‘Maybe next year at this time we’ll have a baby to love,’ and as the holiday passes without a pregnancy or a birth, feelings of defeat flood in,” said Shapiro in her book Infertility and Pregnancy Loss.

Infertility is a loss that couples share, but women mourn it differently. “It’s the woman’s body that sustains the pregnancy, delivers the baby, nurses the baby, and little girls are socialized from their youngest years to anticipate motherhood as an integral part of their lives.”

Shapiro said it’s especially difficult for would-be mothers in their 20s and 30s not to be part of the “Club” that passes around sonograms, has baby showers at work, and talks, almost constantly, it seems, about everything from Lamaze classes to toilet training.

“It’s really a life crisis,” said Shapiro, who added that it’s easier for men to distract themselves because they haven’t been socialized in quite the same way, and they are often able to absorb themselves in their work lives.

That is, until they get home and notice that their wife has been crying again. “Men, even though they may be hurting, have been socialized not to cry and to believe that problems can be fixed,” said Shapiro. “Women want to talk about their feelings as a way of working through them, and they find it infuriating when their partners try to jolly them out of their unhappiness.”

In 20 years of counseling infertile couples, one of Shapiro’s first tasks was to get couples to talk about what they needed from each other. “By the time they came in, they were often unable to talk to each other at all. The man would begin by saying, ‘I don’t know how to help her,’ and she’d say, ‘Can’t you just hold me while I cry instead of trying to cheer me up?’”

And the man would be flabbergasted. “I always figured, when I could see you’d been crying, that what you really needed was for me to pop a funny tape in the VCR and we’d spend the evening laughing together,” he’d say.

Instead, couples must move through the stages of grief, although they often do it at different paces. By the time they seek counseling, couples have usually been through denial and are well into the anger stage. “Something they thought would happen easily just isn’t happening, and they’ve been subjected to invasive and sometimes humiliating medical procedures,” she said.

After that, couples may bargain with God, and when reality sets in, move into real depression and sadness, which can be exacerbated by the hormones the woman may be taking to conceive, Shapiro said.

“At this time, couples may engage in some sort of ritual, such as turning the nursery into an office, actively grieving the baby that isn’t going to live there,” she said.

Finally, the last stage of grief work, acceptance, is reached, and couples decide where their lives are going to go from there. Some couples accept childfree living, others adopt, and still others pour their energy into community work or surrogate parenting of nieces and nephews.

Families and friends can help by being sensitive. “Let your infertile friends know you’re open to talking about this, and repeat the offer from time to time so they know you are genuinely concerned about their sadness,” she said.

“But don’t push. Some women already feel as if they’re wearing a scarlet ‘I’ on their chest, and they would love to be able, in the company of good friends, not to be expected to talk about it except when they want to.”

Relatives should recognize that holiday gatherings and christenings “necessitate good performances,” said Shapiro, and should allow the grieving couple to take themselves out of the family mix at toxic times.

It’s best if families can talk openly about these feelings, Shapiro said. “Infertility is a curve ball that nobody expected, and there aren’t any rules. Couples will be much more receptive to a family member’s saying ‘We don’t want to make things worse when you’re already feeling sad, but you’re a part of our family and we want you to be here if you can.’ If they can talk, families won’t feel as deserted by this couple they care about.”

And, Shapiro said, it won’t last forever. Couples will probably need to absent themselves from child-centered family gatherings only when the grief is freshest. In almost all cases, couples will work through their grief and be able to be a part of the family again.

“Until then,” she said, “be aware this Mother’s Day that many couples would love to be celebrating who cannot.”

Shapiro also advises would-be parents who are still waiting for next year to be good to themselves, to take care of themselves. “Try to find some activity to do on Mother’s Day that will make you feel loved and cared for.”


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