A Therapist's Tips for Dealing with Reproductive Trauma
By Cathie Quillet, LMFT
Travel back with me if you will, all the way to the beginning of you. Well, almost.
Picture this: little five-year-old you, sitting at the kitchen counter watching your mama stir, knead, and juggle it all. Perhaps you had another perch out by dad’s workbench, watching him fix, create, and inspire.
Where were you playing? On the floor with GI Joe’s fighting for freedom or at your Barbie Dream House trying to imagine how grown-up-you would run a home? Were you playing cops and robbers or teaching at the front of your make-believe classroom?
We don't know it during those years, but in those moments we’re watching the men and women we admire and practicing what we want to be when we grow up. We’re observing, learning, rehearsing.
I fondly remember a babysitter of mine. She was kind, mature, and I wanted to be her! Her name was Krista. K-R-I-S-T-A. Six letters. My name was spelled C-A-T-H-Y. Five letters. Bless my parents, because one day in the second grade I approached my mama and asked her if I could have six letters, too. My legal name is Catherine, so spelling Cathy differently wasn’t the end of the world.
There mama and I sat, trying to figure out new ways to spell Cathy, so I could be like Krista. I decided on C-A-T-H-I-E, and mama gave it her seal of approval. I marched into second grade the next day and told my teacher, Mrs. Fisher, that I had a six-letter name now and was no longer Cathy.
Maybe you didn’t change the spelling of your name, but my question to you is this: Who were you watching? Mom? Dad? Your teacher or babysitter? Your coach? Your aunt? Your uncle?
Fast forward through your developmental years, and maybe you babysat or did yard work. Were you a camp counselor? Did you referee little kid’s soccer? Think back to junior high and early high school. How were your masculinity and femininity developing?
Experts in the field of Reproductive Psychology (based on the work of Janet Jaffee & Martha O. Diamond) are referring to this development in your early life as a reproductive narrative. We are writing this story about ourselves before we even know how to write. We are taking note of who we want to be when we grow up. We are watching successes and failures, trying out our masculinity and femininity, and figuring out who and what we want to be.
We get into college and perhaps start dating a little more seriously than in high school. Once we move past the stages of recreational dating, we start searching for the one that we want to spend til-death-do-you-part with. Let’s imagine that you want three kids because that is what your reproductive narrative says, and the girl you just took out on a third date doesn’t want any kids. That might be grounds for a breakup.
As we date a potential life partner more seriously, our reproductive narratives start to be written together. As my husband and I wrote ours together, it looked like this: we were going to wait two years to start trying, and we were going to have two children (because we only wanted to save for two colleges), with room for an “oopsie” (because we’re both from three children households). When people asked us on our wedding day when we were going to start trying (WHY!?!?), that is the answer that we gave them.
Now, for seven-out-of-eight people, their reproductive narrative yields the family and all of the children their hearts have long desired. The playground song, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage” actually comes true for these people.
If you’re reading this, I presume that you do not fall in that 7-in-8.
For 1-in-8 of us, our reproductive narrative becomes a reproductive trauma. That moment may have occurred for you when you realized your baby no longer had a heartbeat. Perhaps it was the moment your OBGYN mentioned a workup for infertility after twelve months of unsuccessful trying. Maybe it was in a hazy state, waking up from surgery when the doctor told your partner that you had endometriosis and that conception may be impossible. Maybe it was when your dad told you that your sperm had genetic mutations making the men in your family struggle with reproduction? Or perhaps it was when you were 16 years old and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome entered your vocabulary.
If you’re still reading, you have had one of those moments. What was that moment for you when all of the hope was sucked out of your reproductive story?
For many of you, that moment might be the first time that grief, trauma, or strife has entered your life. Perhaps that is also the moment when your mind started understanding what others had talked about for so long.
As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I treat only those struggling with infertility and pregnancy loss. All of my clients find themselves in their own reproductive trauma. In conjunction, some of them find themselves dealing with stress, anxiety, and/or depression that may be new to them.
If that’s you, allow me a few more minutes of your time to talk about some of the ways you can work through these emotions:
1. Find support.
Maybe that’s in a loyal network of friends and family around you or in a support group of people walking through this same season of life.
2. If you need additional support, find a good therapist or coach.
Hear me when I say, there are a lot of therapists that claim to know how to treat infertility and/or pregnancy loss but may end up triggering your trauma even more. If you are interested in going the coaching route, my company has support services here: www.themissingpeaceproject.com. I would be honored to work with you and help you live well while you wait for your baby.
3. Practice self-care.
Where is it that your soul comes alive? Where can you breathe? Go there. Do that. Some people say that taking time for self-care is selfish. On the contrary, I think that not participating in some sort of self-care is selfish. Find a way to implement it in your daily life.
4. Re-frame your emotions.
It is really easy to label yourself as broken, infertile, a failure, or a burden. It is damaging to our psyche to put that label on ourselves. You may be struggling through the season of infertility, but you are not infertile. Do you see the difference?
5. Live in a way that you seek out peace and joy.
It is an incredible burden to put all of your happiness into the idea of having a baby. Don’t wait until you have a newborn at home to work on your emotions. Work on them now so that you can be happy and whole when and if a baby comes!
Cathie Quillet is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in treating infertility and pregnancy loss. She is the author of the book, NOT PREGNANT: A Companion for the Emotional Journey of Infertility. Cathie is also the founder of The Missing Peace Project (www.themissingpeaceproject.com), where she offers Fertility Coaching and provides online therapeutic resources to help you and your partner live well during infertility. You can find Cathie on Instagram at @cathiequilletlmft or @themissingpeaceproject, or on Facebook @themissingpeaceproject.