Coming to terms with infertility is challenging, especially when facing family events during the holiday season. Children, depictions of children, and references to children are everywhere, from greeting cards and holiday movies to the music playing in every store. Well-meaning relatives often ask awkward questions about when you plan to have your own, and the children of siblings, cousins, and other relatives are often in the spotlight. It can be tough, especially if your family doesn’t know about your infertility struggle.
The holidays can be a mixed bag, filled with both love and togetherness and sadness for what you don’t yet have. Here are five tips for making the best of the holiday season when you’re coping with infertility.
1. Plan Ahead
Preparing ahead of time won’t eliminate uncomfortable situations, but it can make them easier to navigate when they do happen. And simply prioritizing which get-togethers you’ll attend, when, and for how long can make a difference to your holiday stress level.
Decide Which Family Functions You’ll Attend
Be selective. If there are some that you feel will be particularly anxiety-inducing, give them a pass. It’s perfectly ok to say “no” if you feel that’s best for you and your partner.
Keep your appearance short. If you really don’t want to attend but feel obligated to attend the family function, plan to come a bit late and leave a bit early, minimizing your time in the situation.
Have Some Canned Responses Ready
Be prepared for the inevitable questions from unaware family or friends, like “So when are you going to have kids?” Family in the know may question how the treatment is going if they do. Have your response ready ahead of time so that you’re not caught off guard. You might even want to practice beforehand to reduce an emotional response when the question is posed.
Brace yourself for pregnancy announcements. Not surprisingly, family gatherings are a favorite place for announcing good news. That includes everything from work promotions to engagements and, yes, pregnancies. So prepare yourself in advance for this possibility, whether it comes as a formal announcement or a show of maternity clothes and a big tummy.
Have an Exit Strategy
No matter how prepared you are, you may find yourself in a simply overwhelming or triggering situation. Have an exit strategy in place so that you can take your leave gracefully if you need to. Having a secret signal that means "Let's get out of here" can help you communicate with your partner that you'd like to leave without it being too obvious to the family.
2. Take Control of the Flow of Information
There are pros and cons to both sharing your fertility journey and keeping silent. Being upfront about the topic can help avoid hurt feelings if you need to skip a family gathering or need to bail early, and it can avoid awkward questions and situations.
You may even find that you’re not the only person dealing with infertility. On the other hand, it can leave you open to unwanted advice and well-meaning but cloying sympathy. Take some time and consider what, if any, information you want to share, then set firm boundaries about how much you’re willing to discuss and with whom. You’re in control of your information, so don’t be afraid to say, “I know you mean well, but I really don’t want to discuss this right now.”
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Stand Up for Yourself
Even the most loving families can be overwhelming sometimes. People may take you for granted, overstep boundaries, and even bully you without realizing what they’re doing. So don’t be afraid to say “no” or to call out bad behavior — in the nicest possible way, of course.
You’re Not Obliged to Hold Babies
Family gatherings can be chaotic, and parents are likely to pass off babies and toddlers to the first pair of empty arms they see while they attend to other matters, such as cooking. If snuggling with little ones makes you happy, that’s great. But if you find holding little ones upsetting, as many people struggling to get pregnant do, don’t feel like you’re obligated. If you can be honest with your family about why you’re uncomfortable, do so. And if not, pass the child on to another willing set of arms.
You're Allowed to Walk Away from Uncomfortable Conversations
They happen at every family get-together. If you find yourself on the receiving end of unwanted advice, listening to stories about someone else’s pregnancy, or any other conversation that makes you squirm, change the subject. Be blunt if you must; “This conversation is upsetting for me” is a perfectly acceptable thing to say. If all else fails, excuse yourself and take a five-minute break.
4. Lean on Your Support Network
The holidays are a good time to make use of your support system. Touch base with your support group if you belong to one. Spend time with childless friends. And call on those close friends or family members who know your situation to deflect awkward questions and comments when you do go to gatherings.
5. Practice Self-Care
Practicing good self-care is the most important thing you can do for yourself this holiday. Spend quality time with your partner. Treat yourself to a massage or other relaxing activity — whatever helps you to de-stress. Eat well, and don’t overindulge. Most of all, focus on the positive aspects of family get-togethers and enjoy what you can — just don’t over schedule yourself to please everyone.
Yes, the holidays can be bittersweet when you’re struggling with infertility. But with some preparation, care, and a willingness to take care of yourself, you can maximize the sweetness this year.