I had just emerged from a dark massage room, feeling very floaty and calm, when my post-treatment bliss took an unexpected turn. Before my session, I’d asked my massage practitioner to be extra gentle with me, as I’m currently going through my fourth round of IVF and everything hurts. She’d succeeded on the physical front, but what she said next basically destroyed me: “Your muscles were really tense….Maybe if you just relax a bit more moving forward, you’ll have an easier time getting pregnant.”
I’m sorry, what? Come again?
I was instantly filled with rage. Immediately unhinged. Standing there in my fluffy massage robe, I simply could not believe she would say something so inconsiderate and insulting—not least because we were in a very fancy wellness space quite literally *designed* to make people feel good.
Yet there it was, lingering in the air, the line no one struggling with infertility—no one who has exhausted every last mental and material resource trying to get pregnant—ever wants to hear. Just relax and it’ll happen, they love to tell us, as if that’s the sole reason we haven’t gotten a positive test yet. As if the very brutal nature of IVF, with its hormones and its needles and its monumental expense, is not enough to make us go mad.
Two and a half years ago, my husband and I finally saw a reproductive endocrinologist after many frustrating months of trying (and failing) to get pregnant naturally. At that point, we were still feeling somewhat chill about the medical “assist,” thinking that maybe it would just work for us, because it’s science and that’s how it’s supposed to go. We’d be in and out of the fertility clinic in record time, baby in tow. LOL.
Once we learned I have both a low ovarian reserve, meaning I produce fewer eggs than most people my age (I was 36 at the time), and a less than ideal uterine lining, meaning it’s harder for an embryo to stick around in my body, we went right into treatments. And now, three failed rounds of IVF later, we’ve learned I have a couple more issues that make it tricky to get pregnant, including a high autoimmune response (i.e., my body tends to attack the embryos we put in), and endometriosis, which I didn’t even know I had. (A fun surprise!)
It’s been a long, winding, and difficult road. And to make matters worse, a slew of well-meaning friends and family members have offered up similar versions of my massage practitioner’s casual, flippant, and completely unhelpful “just relax” advice along the way. One acquaintance, for example, told me to “just enjoy my husband’s company with a bottle of wine” to get pregnant in a “fun state of mind,” as she did. Why, thank you! I didn’t think of that!
This “advice” is not only insulting to my intelligence—it also disregards the sad truth that infertility is an actual disease, not a simple byproduct of stress. If relaxing music and a glass of Malbec could cure it, you’d think all the most renowned and expensive specialists in the world would’ve figured that out by now. And yet! Bystanders still feel free to comment on my ~situation~ with wild abandon and don’t seem to register how off-tone their comments sound. Maybe it’s because people tend to short-circuit when women are not “fulfilling their biological function,” or maybe it’s because they simply freeze and say the wrong thing out of transparent panic. (It’s not like we learn how to support our infertile friends in school!) Whatever the root rationale may be, people continue to tell me to “just relax” without acknowledging the million other real medical factors that could be (and are) at play.
The worst part? I AM TRYING TO RELAX, if not to make a baby, then to hold onto my very last scrap of sanity throughout this roller coaster of a process. I do it all, from weekly acupuncture sessions to yoga to morning meditations. I even saw a fertility hypnotist who promised to help me “call in the baby spirits” and “unblock” any limiting beliefs from my past. Unfortunate spoiler alert: The baby spirits have yet to arrive.
I keep doing all these zen things anyway, though, because not doing them would make things so much worse. The IVF process itself is inherently crazy-making, especially when you’ve gone through it multiple times and know what it feels like to fail. Even if you start a new cycle with all the hope, optimism, and chillness of an overworked boss on edibles, the myriad steps involved are enough to rock the most grounded of people. (And I would know because I used to be one of them.)
First there are all the hormone injections that leave you bloated beyond belief and need to be taken at the same time each day, which often involves racing home and bursting through the door in a pool of sweat and nerves. Then there are the frequent 7 to 9 a.m. “morning monitoring” appointments at the fertility clinic, where you start the day off with a bloodwork session and a side of transvaginal ultrasound (hold the home fries). And finally, there’s the most tortuous part of all: waiting for the results. Each round of IVF involves two major procedures that need to go your way—an egg retrieval and an embryo transfer. Nurses call you with live results as they roll in, from how many eggs got fertilized with sperm (“we got five!”) to how many of those fertilized eggs turned into embryos (“we got two!”) to how many embryos made it through genetic testing (“we got one”). It’s kind of like watching CNN on Election Night as the states turn red and blue but harrowing for different reasons. Then the final, ultimate call comes after an unbearable 14-day wait, when you find out if the transfer actually worked (I have yet to hear good news on that one).
Alice Domar, MD, a Boston-based psychologist and researcher who’s studied the connection between infertility and stress for her whole career, led a widely-cited study back in the ’90s that found that IVF patients have the same stress levels as people going through cancer, cardiac rehabilitation, and hypertension. Though I’ve (fortunately) never endured any of those things myself, the results make sense to me in a visceral way. On a stress-level scale of 1 to 10, I’m definitely in the double digits.
So when I’m told—yet again— to “just stop thinking about it,” to stop actively trying because so-and-so’s cousin did and that’s when it finally worked, what I actually hear is an accusation: This must be my fault. I must be the one to blame. I must be the problem. After all, if the key to getting pregnant is as simple as relaxing and trusting the process and I have done all the relaxing and process-trusting one can do, then something must be wrong with me. I must be the one doing it wrong.
This victim blaming is not okay. And trust me, those of us going through IVF are likely doing enough self-blame on our own already. When my third embryo transfer failed, I became completely convinced that I’d messed it up by not cooking a piece of salmon all the way through, therefore poisoning my embryo (this is definitely not what happened). And I’m not the only one who’s entertained such irrational thoughts. A woman at my clinic told me she’d also convinced herself her embryo transfer failed because she *cooked dinner* the night after her procedure instead of staying on the couch and ordering takeout. “I think I stood up too much when I should have sat and rested,” she told me with tears in her eyes. Under other circumstances, I may have tried to comfort her with something like, “Don’t worry, I’m sure that’s not true,” but instead I just nodded in sympathy and said, “I relate.”
There is a good amount of science behind the stress and infertility connection, but it’s not as simple as people make it out to be (and I doubt the commenters have read the peer-reviewed research). Most of the studies done on this topic are murky at best, according to Dr. Domar, as they rely on self-reported data. What the data does show conclusively, however, is that women who do psychological “mind-body interventions” while going through IVF (like psychotherapy, yoga, and meditation) have anywhere from double to quadruple the successful pregnancy rates than those who don’t do any interventions at all.
So, yes, doing what you can to unwind certainly helps move things along in the IVF department. I get and support that, and I do think that my weekly acupuncture sessions and meditation rituals have helped me feel less stressed than I would otherwise. But in the end, I’m still a ball of nerves. I’m still ready to crack at any point. And it’s still really, really hard. So next time you think about giving an unsolicited tip to someone struggling to get pregnant, just…don’t. We already know where to get the advice we need—from our fertility doctors and trusted resources—and all we need from everyone else is love and support. Perhaps even a soothing massage from time to time too…minus the rage-inducing commentary, please.
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