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After years of experiencing infertility, finally becoming a parent can feel like a dream come true. The baby coos and cuddles were worth the pain and patience it took to get to this place. Yet, whether you’re currently still trying to start your family, or you’ve previously walked through infertility and have come out the other side as a new parent, you may not realize that the trauma of infertility doesn’t go off like a light switch once a baby arrives. Let’s address some of the surprising and unexpected ways trauma can manifest through parenting after infertility, and how you can cope when these feelings arise.

Mom Guilt

Mom guilt is real. Yet, ask anyone who parented young kids forty, thirty, or even twenty years ago, and the concept of ‘mom guilt’ wasn’t really a thing. There was no ‘mom guilt’ until social media really, not the way moms experience it today. We are constantly comparing our experiences to the easy breezy, picture-perfect mom content we see on Instagram. While it’s still typical for a lot of this emotional burden to fall on the mom (hence the term ‘mom guilt’), all parents are susceptible to this today. It happens to the best of us, no matter how awesome of a parent you are, and this immense pressure both moms and dads put on themselves today is a new phenomenon. So it’s fair to say that wanting a break, feeling burnt out, or even coming to a breaking point is not uncommon. And craving any form of self-care or time apart from your kids is definitely when mom guilt likes to make its presence known. Parents are pressured to be their kids’ everything. Yet we forget that not only is self-care necessary, but when our own parents were kids, they were often left to their own devices and were expected to come home when the street lights turned on, and for the most part, grew up just fine. As for the moms who battled infertility? The mom guilt is often amplified. You may feel guilty for feeling guilty – as if gratitude and happiness are the only feelings you’re worthy of expressing after infertility. The reality is that parents are allowed to complain and feel overwhelmed and frustrated, regardless of how their children came into this world. Dr. Julia Sen is a counseling psychologist in Ontario who has a special interest in parenting and infertility work. She says that parents who have gone through infertility often feel pressure to enjoy every single minute of parenthood because they went through hell and back to get there. And are surprised and guilt ridden when that’s not the case. “Parents often ask themselves, ‘do I even deserve these kids?’ And this questioning starts before they become parents, sometimes wondering if a higher power dictated their inability to conceive naturally because for some reason, they don’t deserve to have children. So when these parents feel the everyday normal frustrations of parenthood, they feel even guilty for not feeling gratitude every second of the day.” In fact, women who have gone through infertility have a higher chance of postpartum depression (yes, even women who’ve welcomed children through surrogacy!)1. But it’s easy to deny because the common sentiment for women who’ve endured infertility is, ‘after crying and praying for years for kids, why would I feel any kind of depression?’ New parents are exhausted and are trying to bond with their new child. Add coming off of a long and emotional journey to parenthood whether it be through surrogacy, IVF, etc, and it actually isn’t surprising at all to feel depression in the early days. Parenting is HARD, no matter if your children came into this world the old fashioned way, through IVF, surrogacy, or adoption. The gratitude of finally becoming a parent doesn’t absolve this fact. Allow yourself to feel frustrated and overwhelmed. Ask and accept help. Take time when possible to fill up your cup, so you can overflow theirs.

Imposter Syndrome

You’re suddenly a member of the coveted mom club. You start joining mommy and me circle times at your local library, or stroller walk groups in the park.
group of children and parents at a playdate
Everyone is glad to be out of the house and eager to compare notes on formula brands and bedtime routines. And that’s when it hits you. The voice in your head that says…. “You’re not like the other moms. You don’t belong here.”  Yup – that’s the imposter syndrome monster sneaking up on you when you least expect it. In your darkest hour, you probably thought that you would never be a parent. You may be reading this and are still in that place. Hence, it’s natural that when emerging from the trauma of infertility, that actually accepting your happy ending isn’t a linear road. Feeling like a fraud amidst all these other moms and babies, might be thoughts like… “They all look so fertile! Babies came so easily for them!” “I didn’t go about parenthood the traditional way, so do I really belong here?” You may also feel Imposter Syndrome creeping up on you when asked about your child’s pregnancy and birth story. If your child was born via IVF or surrogacy, telling your story can sometimes feel frustrating or tiresome. Sometimes those innocently seeming questions can bring up unresolved trauma, in particular around those who you don’t know well (especially those seemingly fertile moms). “My child’s birth story isn’t the same as theirs.” But it’s also your prerogative to share whatever you want to share. For example, just because Harper’s mommy asked you at circle time how long you laboured for, doesn’t mean you need to provide her your surrogacy story if you aren’t up for it. Ask yourself this; Are you a caring parent who provides unconditional love to your child? Then yes, you belong in the mom club. Tell that imposter syndrome monster to take a hike, because acknowledging its presence is already a huge feat in defeating those feelings. You don’t know anyone’s backstory. And the beautiful thing about parenthood today, is that families are made in many unique and wonderful ways. While parenting can be tougher these days, there are certainly benefits to living in the age of reproductive technology and embracing the non-traditional family. Remember, 1 in 6 couples struggle to conceive. So next time you’re at Mommy and Me, look around because the odds are, you’re not the only one who has gone through hell and back to EARN your spot more than anyone else on that rainbow parachute. Own it.

Infertility Trauma Triggers

Your toddler is napping, all is well, and you decide instead of doing that sink full of dishes, to have a little Instagram scroll. BAM! An adorable pregnancy announcement is front and centre on your feed. Instead of feeling happy for your friend, you feel….. triggered. It may have been years since you stepped foot into your fertility clinic for the last time, but the pain of seeing your friend’s cute little bun in the oven announcement is fresh and brings up old wounds. Pregnancy announcements were difficult to see when you were in the thick of struggling to start your family. So why do you still feel so icky? The simple answer is that trauma lingers. Those announcements when you were trying so hard for a baby were like salt in wounds. Our biology dictates the desire to reproduce, to grow, love, and raise a small human. If it doesn’t happen as it should, constant reminders hurt like knives. When you come out the other side, seeing couples who you assume baby-making came naturally can bring back those emotions. Being ‘infertile’, as ugly and awful as that word is, is also the root of some of this lingering trauma. No one should be defined by this word, yet having a baby doesn’t cure infertility. Hence why we may feel triggered from time to time. In fact, Dr. Sen prefers to refer to one’s path to pregnancy as a “fertility journey” instead of “infertility journey” in an effort to condition her patients away from the negative connotations that the words “infertile” and “infertility” carry. “Saying to yourself, ‘this is/was my fertility journey’ as opposed to ‘I have/had a difficult infertility journey’, not only takes away the labeling, but it’s a small step in practicing positive self-compassion.” Feeling triggered by a pregnancy announcement doesn’t mean you’re the jealous, green-eyed monster. It means you’re human, who went through a traumatic experience and you deserve to give yourself grace.

Helicopter Parenting after Infertility Trauma

You’ve likely heard this term used before and there are tons of articles on the topic, but there isn’t so much about helicopter parenting after infertility. So, what is ‘Helicopter Parenting ‘? Like a hovering helicopter low in the sky, a helicopter parent is in layman’s terms an overprotective parent on steroids. While the intentions are good, the results can be negative. A helicopter parent can disrupt the important development of curiosity and independence. For example, preventing a toddler from engaging in age-appropriate play to lower the risks of tumbles and falls. Or, enrolling a child into extracurriculars without their input, or not allowing a teenager to make age appropriate choices. While typical causes of helicopter parenting can be overcompensation from a parent’s own childhood issues or insecurities, unaddressed trauma post-infertility can also unintentionally lead to this style of parenting. According to Dr. Julia Sen, “after multiple disappointments ranging from period arrivals to failed embryo transfers, your brain becomes wired to anticipate disappointment, and you start to expect things to go wrong.” So parents might hover over their children unnecessarily in an effort to avoid risk of harm to not only their kids, but to their own emotional well-being. “Helicopter parents subconsciously end up disconnecting from their kids due to an inability to stay present, and instead are always waiting for the shoe to drop.” Dr. Sen also explains that the fear of losing a child is also rooted in the need to adapt helicopter parenting tactics. “The parents have invested so much time, energy, and emotion into this miracle child, that they can’t let anything happen to them. The parents justify their overbearing parenting style as an effort to keep them safe from harm. This may sound noble, but unfortunately it can have long-lasting negative effects on the child.” So what can one do to overcome this? Dr. Sen says that seeking help and community during the infertility process can prevent the need to helicopter parent. Yet if that’s not possible and children are presently in the picture, she says that practicing self-compassion, along with learning how to be present and mindful will go a long way. “You need to pause; take in the good. Acknowledging this over time will help you navigate away from the ‘what next?’ fears. We typically blame ourselves throughout the infertility process when we should be gentle and kind to ourselves instead.”

The Takeaway

It is never too early or too late to start addressing your trauma. If you’ve read through until now and have nodded “YES” to all of the above emotions, there are indeed sources for addressing your post-infertility trauma. Dr. Sen not only counsels patients throughout their fertility journeys, she also will be starting group therapy sessions for new mothers in Ontario of children aged 3-24 months who have experienced infertility called, ‘The Renewed Parent After Infertility Newborn Sessions’. It is an intimate setting that navigates the turbulent emotions of parenthood while acknowledging the grief of infertility trauma. For more information on this, check it out here. Likewise, if you’re still trying to start your family, know that none of this information is meant to scare intended parents or be foreboding. The intent is to set realistic expectations. The sooner that trauma can be acknowledged, the better one can cope with it in the aftermath. Working through unresolved grief or trauma throughout the infertility journey might help to minimize the baggage you carry into parenthood. The joys of raising kids will hopefully outweigh the lingering post-infertility trauma. Acknowledging that your mind, heart, and soul need time to process the journey and heal from it are the first steps. Giving yourself permission to seek help is crucial, because trauma is trauma. Infertility trauma isn’t any less important, and it is worthy of being discussed. Becoming a parent also doesn’t mean your pain is no longer validated, or that you can’t rejoice in, or complain about the ups and downs of parenthood. By the way, the perks to parenthood post-infertility? With every cuddle and tender moment, you may feel like you take less for granted, more so than your fertile friends. And that’s a pretty awesome perk. Sources: Dr. Julia Sen: https://drjuliasen.com/ For more information on her upcoming group sessions for new moms (please scroll for : https://drjuliasenopenofficehour.lpages.co/newborn-sessions-after-infertility/
  1. https://www.americansurrogacy.com/blog/can-intended-parents-experience-postpartum-depression/
  2. https://www.healthline.com/health/parenting/helicopter-parenting#causes

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