Mother’s and Father’s Day may be holidays invented by the Hallmark Card Company, but it doesn’t mean this commemoration of parenthood doesn’t still have meaning. For many of us, the attitudes we hold toward any holiday stem from childhood memories of the rituals and sentiments about the day that our parents have created or passed down from their own families. At the same time, current life circumstances add a layer of feeling about the holiday that may dictate whether you are dreading or looking forward to the day’s observation. So if your recollection of Mother’s Day is a warm family gathering with cousins, good food and laughter, it may be a holiday you would enjoy under other circumstances, but not while going through infertility and longing for parenthood. If, on the other hand, you remember Father’s Day as a period of tension between parents, step-parents or relatives that left you feeling forgotten or fought over, this may be a day you dreamed could be different with your own child, but is just as well skipped over this year, while going through infertility.
Many individuals and couples going through fertility treatment express a sense of dread leading into events that revolve around children or parenthood. Certainly Mother’s and Father’s Day fall into that category. It seems to be true that Mother’s and Father’s Day are about your own parents when you are growing up, but once you’re an adult and ready for a child, you’re meant to take center stage on this day. And when parenthood is elusive, forget it! The day is painful and an acute reminder of what is supposed to be. Restaurants, places of worship, department stores, garden centers, newspapers and chocolate stores are all in on the celebration. So what’s a wishing-to-be-a-parent to do?
Take care of yourself. There are many times when it makes sense to focus on the people in your life who you want to nurture and care for, but sometimes it’s okay to give yourself permission to put yourself first. When you’re going through infertility, this is one of those times. Consider skipping the Mother’s/Father’s Day festivities this year, or make a brief appearance. Give an excuse or explain to your family that you would appreciate their understanding that you need to skip the holiday this year.
Check in with your partner. If you are trying to conceive within the context of a marriage or relationship, you can’t necessarily assume your partner shares your views on the upcoming Mother’s or Father’s Day. While some people are able to compartmentalize the fertility struggle with little effect on their day-to-day lives, others find it consumes their every thought and decision, alienating them from the community and activities that were once so meaningful. Consequently some couples find they disagree on the importance of attending family functions, adding tension to their relationship at a time when they need each other for understanding and support. In this situation it is important to resist the urge to engage in a battle over the “right” or “wrong” approach, with each of you trying to force your beliefs and will over the other. Instead, commit to listening and acknowledging each other’s views, and brainstorm together on the best solution for both of you. Remember, it may take some ingenuity and patience to balance the needs of each partner, as well as the families of both.
Plan ahead. If you think you’ll want a reprieve from the holiday plans with your family, let them know ahead of time so they can adjust their expectations and you don’t spend weeks anticipating the confrontation. Even if they react with anger or disappointment, you can still maintain your ground knowing you will have saved yourself unnecessary stress on the day in question. There will be plenty of time to make it up to your family in the future.
Create your own occasion. Mark the day with your spouse or close friends doing non-child oriented activities. Walk in the woods, create an intimate day with your partner, go for a bike ride, take a weekend away at a spa or lock the doors and watch movies and order Chinese food. Try something new or settle on an activity that has been gratifying in the past. Whatever you choose, take comfort in knowing you may not be in control of your family building schedule, but you can still take charge of other parts of your life.
Reacquaint yourself with… yourself. When family building plans are delayed or derailed, it is often the case that life centers around medical treatment and baby making, while losing the parts of your identity that previously made you proud. Why not take Mother’s or Father’s Day as an opportunity to remember your accomplishments and the people in your life who have been a help to you during this difficult time. You haven’t lost your talents and abilities just because you’re struggling to have a baby, nor are you any less important to the people who love you. Take time to salute the functioning parts of your life and relationships.
Grieve. Lastly, there’s no shame in feeling sad. Sharon N. Covington and Linda Hammer Burns, in Infertility Counseling: A Comprehensive Handbook for Clinicians, remind us that “Infertility involves grief and loss whether it is a profound distinct loss at the onset of treatment or a gradual accumulation of losses over time.” Sometimes the best approach to this challenging time is to spend a day in mourning. Giving yourself the space to recognize these difficult feelings will ultimately give way to the resolve and energy necessary to continue your quest for parenthood.
However you spend Mother’s or Father’s day, take comfort in knowing you are not alone. You may feel invisible on this holiday but there are estimates that one out of ten couples trying to conceive in the U.S. are having the same experience. Remember, with a little planning, communicating and self-care, you can survive the day and look forward to what lies ahead.
Judith Kottick, LCSW, is a recognized expert in the field of reproductive counseling. She has developed the psychological services of numerous fertility centers in New Jersey and Connecticut and is currently the resident mental health professional at IVF NJ. She is known for her work in egg donation and gestational surrogacy and is invited to speak on these topics at conferences and workshops throughout the country. She maintains a private practice in Montclair, New Jersey and draws upon her postgraduate training as a psychotherapist and in behavioral medicine from the Mind/Body Institute at Harvard Medical School to provide a personalized approach to helping people cope with the challenges of fertility treatment, pregnancy loss, adoption and parenting. She has written articles for professional organizations and contributed a chapter to the book, “Frozen Dreams,” edited by Allison Rosen and Jay Rosen.