Childless at Christmas
Christmas is coming … soon enough
The nights are getting darker. Once Halloween is out of
the way it’s a straight run up to Christmas. Shops will be festooned in TinselTown sparkling lights. Citrus, treacle, nutmeg, spice, the rich aromas of the snowy season will infuse us in a warm musky brew. For many who are lucky Christmas like no other time conjures deep memories of childhood delights. The festive season grips and Disney-fies imagination, through Santa’s twinkling eyes and webs of white beard, and his reindeers carrying toys and gifts tumbling from lofty skies above. For clients who are trying to have their own child or children, Christmas can be an especially difficult time. Maybe next year they will have a baby to take to Santa’s grotto?
Childless, or child-free
The psychological impacts of not being able to have a child or children after years of trying are traumatic. Couples may undergo different ‘phases’ in their search for a baby of their own, sometimes finding new problems along the way. Many couples are of course finally successful, and achieve their goal of having a healthy baby or two. Counsellors may not tend to hear from those couples once their pregnancyis well on its way, as they have other priorities. Counsellors are more likely to support clients who have not managed to conceive after years of trying, whilst having spent long hours and thousands of pounds on treatments.
Not being able to conceive can be experienced as a deep ‘failing’, and can result in almost indescribable emptiness. Where can you take those feelings of distress, and who can bear them with you?
A key part of any infertility counselling is to identify feelings, thoughts or behaviours that express grieving for the child or children that one has not been able to produce. Clients may also experience powerful feelings of rage and envy of others who have been more able than themselves to have children. Isolation can result when family members or friends seem to run out of patience or are simply unable to empathise. What may also be apparent is that whilst in varying states of grief, in-mixed with hope for the next treatment, or next phase, all manner of decisions have to be made along the way.
A conception that ends in miscarriage can raise issues of intense grieving for the baby or babies that can apparently not be ‘held’ safely in the woman’s body. Her husband or partner can feel on the side-lines, powerless and hurting too. Treatments including IUI, IVF, ICSI, donor conception, introduce what is often and accurately described as ‘roller coaster’ feelings. Each cycle raises hope that this one will be successful, but it may descend into pitiful disappointment if unsuccessful.
A couple, but feeling alone
Couples undergoing these intensely personal experiences together may feel a terrible burden, as they attempt to negotiate ways forward. For example, a woman with premature ovarian failure, where her natural eggs have ‘aged’ early, may feel profound guilt towards her husband for not being able to provide a baby. A man with incapacity to produce sperm may equally feel a huge loss for denying his partner the chance to have his own biological child. When a couple is facing ‘sub-fertility’ or infertility problems, there can be immense pressure on their relationship, to keep going and even survive. Counselling can help in these situations by allowing powerful thoughts and feelings of guilt and loss to be expressed, and so worked through.
Beyond one’s own genetic baby
Eventually for some couples comes a decision to give up
the search for their own children, and so draw to a close their plans to have a family. Instead they embark upon re-building their lives by creating new dreams or goals to aim for together, and this decision is rarely arrived at without great soul searching, and acceptance of loss. Other couples go beyond the bounds of pursuing their own fully genetic baby by opting to adopt, or by trying for more fertility treatment involving egg or sperm donation. These treatments also raise issues of having to let go of the hope of having an often much desired biological baby, in order to try alternative ways of becoming parents.
The search for new ways of forming families is not restricted to the activities of Western couples. Increasing numbers of clients from all continents and cultures are seeking fertility treatments. Fertility treatments may not be accepted by a particular culture or religious group, and therefore some clients need space and time to unravel their thoughts and feelings, knowing that their families may be in disagreement with their decisions to embark upon treatment, rather than accept apparent infertility. Also, going beyond the heterosexual couple, single women increasingly engage in fertility treatments, as do same-sex couples. An experienced and specialist infertility counsellor will be open to listening to clients from diverse backgrounds. This becomes increasingly important as new fertility treatments allow for greater inclusion of people wishing to become parents.
The work of infertility counselling is often challenging and humbling. For most of us, the Christmas season is all too soon over, but for clients living through the ups and downs of treatments, they face a process that seems to consume large amounts of extended time and energy. The counsellor can never know if a client or couple will achieve their desire, and have a family of their own. Allowing space to express all of the uncertainties and hopes along the way is vitally important, until such time as a resolution is found.
Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.
About Helen Swords
Helen is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and specialist counsellor, supervisor and tutor. Licensed by the UK Council for psychotherapy, for over 15 years she has worked in the NHS, schools, for commercial business, the voluntary sector and in private practice. Previous careers in broadcasting, arts journalism and teaching.