Stephen Levine, American author and expert on coping with death and grief, defines loss in a unique way. Loss, he says, is felt as "the absence of something we were once attached to – a person, a place, a way of being, a plan, a belief, an expectation, a dream."
This definition could not be more applicable to the loss we feel when we face infertility. Throughout our entire lives we become attached to the plan, the belief, the expectation and dream of having a biological child. The attachment only becomes stronger throughout bouts of treatment as we work to fulfill our expectations.
It only makes sense that once that attachment is pulled away, we face an emotional loss, one that brings on grief just as any other type of loss. This grief takes time to really be felt and understood, and time to ease away. That's why, once partners make the choice to stop treatment and begin to consider adoption, it's essential to work through and accept the loss involved with infertility.
The aspects of loss in infertility
Experiencing infertility includes multiple layers of loss, and depending on our individual personalities, some aspects will hit harder than others.
- Control – we know longer have control over our physical being in the way we have been accustomed.
- Privacy – often, infertility involves intimate sharing between partners, but sometimes between friends and family who are concerned about your journey.
- A biological child – The idea of conceiving with the person we love is can be difficult to let go.
- Pregnancy – We have grown up expecting to be pregnant one day, and as we get old we build expectations about what experiencing pregnancy and birth would be like with our partners.
- Genetic continuity – It can be extremely difficult to accept the fact that you won't be continuing your family's biological line.
- Opportunity to parent – Before deciding to parent through adoption, there is a loss involved with not parenting in the way you expected.
Adoption and infertility
The adoption journey is, in some ways, the opposite of an infertility journey. There is no medical process and there is some level of certainty. However, in many, sometimes painful ways it can be very similar. Though you know there will be a child at the end of the road, that road can be long and unpredictable, not unlike infertility treatment. There again, will be feelings of doubt and loss of control.
It also involves a shift in thinking. Infertility, though it is the pursuit of a child, is very adult-focused. At its core, adoption is child-centered. Often, family members don't understand this shift, and they treat adoption as the second-best option, which can be harmful not just for you, but for your future child.
Working through loss involved with infertility
Because of the connection between adoption and infertility, and shifts in thinking involved, it is important to have accepted infertility before entering the adoption process. This is no easy task, as the loss involved with infertility can be complex and felt differently by each partner. Adoptive Parent Counselors at The Cradle recommend seeing a therapist, to start. Speaking to someone trained in helping others cope with this type of loss can be extremely helpful in understanding and acknowledging it.
Online resources are also helpful, and can be essential sources of support and education outside of therapy. The Infertility & Adoption Counseling Center provides great information, and so do many adoption-focused education organizations, like Creating a Family and Adoption Learning Partners.
Consider joining a support group. Infertility can be an isolating and lonely experience, and it helps to realize that many others are experiencing the same thing. Hearing someone else's perspective on infertility struggles can help you reframe your own. Chicago' Jewish Child & Family Services' Project Esther provides infertility support groups and resources, and there are many other support groups located in the Chicago-area. In addition to a tool for finding support groups in your area, the Resolve National Infertility Association provides numerous online and in-person resources.
Knowing when you are ready
For some families, working through infertility happens quickly. Others need years to accept it. There is no right or wrong way to approach the grief process, and every couple will be different. Author and adoptive mother Pat Irwin Johnston says you will know you are ready when:
- You recognize the road ahead is still a difficult one
- You are prepared to leap enthusiastically into adoption expectancy
- You are aware of the loss involved in adoption
- You are ready to build a family, not “get a baby"
- You are prepared to be patient and flexible
- And, most importantly, you have come to the realization that you want to parent more than anything else, and are prepared to achieve that in a way you may have not envisioned before.
These realizations don't come easily, and it's okay to take as much time as you need after ending infertility treatments.
It's okay to hold on to your loss
Infertility loss is something we carry with us forever. It doesn't go away once it has been accepted and understood. It's okay to feel it crop up, even as you are parenting your adopted child. Being prepared for difficult and challenging thoughts is important. Sometimes adopted children were exposed to substances in-utero, making a parent resentful knowing they would have not exposed their biological child to substances. Other times, the "what if" questions begin to come up. Maybe your adopted child is nothing like you, and you find yourself thinking, "what would my biological child be like?" Don't vilify these feelings, as they are natural parts of the infertility and adoption experience. However, making sure you have come to terms with your loss before entering the adoption process can mitigate these feelings, and prepare you to be more accepting of them.