Thirty-two-year-old Eva Li has always wanted to be a mom, so when she and her husband got married two years ago, they started trying for a baby right away. “At first, the anticipation each month was so exciting,” she recalls. But her excitement quickly turned to worry when the months of trying became a year without a positive pregnancy test. Li and her husband went to a fertility clinic, where they were diagnosed with “unexplained infertility”—in other words, standard testing couldn’t find a cause for why they weren’t getting pregnant. With this frustratingly vague label, Li couldn’t help but blame herself. “It’s like my body is broken, but there’s no way to fix it,” she says.
What is intrauterine insemination (IUI)? Li went through two rounds of intrauterine insemination (IUI) and after each failed, she lost more and more trust in her own body. It didn’t help that it seemed like all her friends were becoming pregnant effortlessly. “It’s devastating every time you open Facebook to another pregnancy announcement when your own body isn’t doing what you so desperately want it to do,” she says.
Jen Reddish, a counsellor at The Essence of You in Calgary who specializes in body image and the perinatal period, says that mistrusting your body after several failed pregnancy attempts is incredibly common. For women who are struggling to get pregnant or dealing with a miscarriage, she suggests spending time and energy reconnecting with their bodies to rebuild that trust. Here are some ways to do so.
Listen to your body’s cues for grieving
The battle of infertility involves grieving multiple losses: an unwelcome period, a failed IVF attempt or a devastating miscarriage. When grieving, listening to your body’s signals can help you reconnect with it. Feeling exhausted? This could mean taking some time off work to rest or waiting a few months before trying again. Fighting back tears? Just let yourself cry or express your emotions through writing or talking to your partner. Once you feel energized and strong, this will likely mean that you’re ready to move forward with another fertility treatment. Although grief looks different for everyone, tuning into and following your body’s cues will send the message that you trust your body’s wisdom about what it needs to grieve.
Take care of yourself
Infertility and miscarriage can be physical nightmares, filled with shifting hormones, bruising injections and nauseating drugs. Women often don’t share what they’re going through with others, and keeping up the facade of normalcy can be exhausting. When possible, it’s important to care for your body in gentle and supportive ways. Stay hydrated. Go for walks in nature. Take time for treats like a warm bath, a pedicure or a massage. “On the day after I get my period, I’ll go to the pool and sit in the steam room,” says Li, “and I usually treat myself to ice cream afterwards.” Finding small, well-deserved moments where the body feels cared for and nurtured can help you heal.
Relate to your body as a whole
A 2006 study published in Human Reproduction found that women may feel dehumanized while undergoing fertility treatments, like they are “reduced to the body parts associated with reproduction.” Practices like yoga and meditation, which incorporate mindful awareness of the body, can help women relate to their bodies as a whole. Thirty-four-year-old Katy Allen, who is currently undergoing fertility treatment in Toronto, does yoga regularly and follows an infertility meditation program. She says these practices have helped her listen to her body and “address the emotional side of things.” Similarly, Li does guided meditations from YouTube, which help her connect with her body like she used to, when she felt like “a whole person—not this stressed-out woman with a stubborn set of eggs.” For her, the meditations are like “little vacations” from all the worries swimming around in her brain. “It’s like 10 minutes where I get to just be,” she says.
Allen says she used to grasp at anything she could control about her fertility. “Changing your diet, getting on your head after sex, eating the core of a pineapple—there are a lot of old wives’ tales out there, and I’ve tried a lot of crazy stuff!” she says. However, Allen says she’s starting to realize that there’s nothing more she can do to make her fertility treatments more successful—she has done what she can, and the rest is out of her hands. In fact, she knows she’s already doing everything she can, so she doesn’t beat herself up over it. In not doing so, Allen is practising self-compassion, which a 2015 study in Psychology of Women Quarterly found was related to well-being among women struggling with infertility. Authors Trisha Raque-Bogdan and Mary Ann Hoffman suggest that self-compassion—which involves being kind to yourself and recognizing that you’re not alone in your suffering—can reduce self-blame. This seems to be the case for Allen. “I don’t blame myself, and I have trust in my body,” she says. “I just hope one day one of those embryos wants to hang out in it.”
Although treating yourself with kindness isn’t always easy, practice makes, well, if not perfect, at least a bit easier. One way to cultivate self-compassion is to treat yourself the way you’d treat a friend going through a similar situation. Even if it feels a bit silly, speak kindly to yourself (instead of “My body is a failure,” try “It’s doing the best it can”), address yourself with an endearing nickname (like “Sweetie”) or even give yourself a gentle hug.
Seek professional support
According to Reddish, the mistrust that women feel toward their bodies can sometimes escalate into hatred. “It can become overwhelming and cause symptoms of anxiety and depression,” she says. In these cases, it can be beneficial to work with a mental health professional, like a counsellor or psychologist. These practitioners might help you explore questions like “How do I feel about my body?” “What am I saying about my body inside my head?” and “Where are these feelings and messages coming from?” Voicing your answers in a non-judgemental environment can help you work through any challenging emotions that arise while feeling validated and supported. Practitioners can then help you connect with your body by using techniques like visualization (imagining your body as healthy and fertile), challenging unhelpful thoughts (“Just because this belief about my body feels real doesn’t mean it’s true”) and making behavioural changes (like managing triggers and implementing self-care strategies). When ready, you can be supported to forgive your body for all the disappointments, helping to create a clean-slate relationship with your body for moving forward.
Normalize and connect
“There’s this expectation that getting and staying pregnant should be easy, but for one in six couples, it’s not easy,” says Caitlin Dunne, an infertility specialist at the Pacific Centre for Reproductive Medicine in Vancouver. Despite this statistic, women often feel alone in their experiences. Dunne says she tries to normalize and destigmatize what her patients are going through. Both Dunne and Reddish also recommend that women connect with others who are going through similar struggles. Some find it helpful to read infertility blogs and commiserate with friends, while Li says that joining a support group has linked her with a community of non-judgemental women. “I definitely don’t think of them as failures, even though they’re also struggling with infertility,” she says.
Li and Allen are both still trying for a baby. Although the road ahead feels daunting, Li says that she isn’t giving up. “I’m doing everything I can to take care of my body and trying to trust that it will do what it’s meant to do,” says Li, as she and her husband prepare for another round of IUI. “I know I’ll be a mom someday—whatever that might look like.”