Most of the time, when discussing my own fertility journey, I focus on my success in conceiving my son despite some major odds against me. I share my story of my miscarriages. My crappy fertility test results. My Diminished Ovarian Reserve diagnosis. Getting the donor egg speech from the fertility doctor. Then, my ultimate triumph in getting pregnant after just a year, and without major medical intervention.
I don’t often share this, but in 2015 I tried unsuccessfully to have another baby. After 8 months of trying with no luck, we’re now a family of 3 (5, including our cats).
After getting pregnant once, many people assume that it will be just as easy the second time. This isn’t always the case.
Secondary infertility, where couples struggle to conceive after having at least one child, is more common that you might think. The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that 3 million women of childbearing age in the United States who have a biological child have difficulty getting pregnant or carrying another pregnancy to term.
These are women who end up in the reproductive endocrinologist’s office who probably never dreamed they’d be there.
Just as with primary infertility, we don’t really know what causes someone to easily conceive a child and then have difficulties doing so. There are so many unanswered questions. Age is one factor; the second time around the couple is a few years older, and the woman’s egg quality may have declined as it often does as women age. Sperm quality can change over time as well. Also, if a couple has had major lifestyle changes in the intervening time, such as gaining a lot of weight or stressful life-changing events, this can be a factor too.
But more often than not, secondary infertility falls into the “unexplained” category.
In my case, I didn’t actually have secondary infertility, as I’d already been diagnosed with infertility and needed medical treatment to get pregnant the first time. However, I definitely noticed a marked deterioration in my response to medication the second time around.
I had 3 IUI cycles; for one of them my response was so poor that I blew through 3 months’ worth of injectable medication just to stimulate ovarian function. I took clomid for 5 days and injected myself with FSH for 10 days straight, upping the dosage twice.
My response during the 3rd IUI was even worse, and the cycle was cancelled. At that point I officially declared myself out of the TTC game.
Those 2 ½ years had made a big difference, even though my fertility test results had been the same as before and physically I looked and felt the same.
Even though I didn’t have secondary infertility, I got a taste of the feelings and emotions that it can bring. I had to process what it meant to come to the end of the road without meeting the goal, and grieve the loss of the expanded family that wasn’t to be.
Here are some key things you can do to help you cope with secondary infertility:
Reach out for help. Yes, you might have gotten pregnant on the first try, or may have even had an unplanned pregnancy, the first time around. It can be very difficult to accept that your circumstances might be different now, and that your or your partner’s fertility may be more compromised. If it’s been several months since you started trying to conceive again, it’s probably time to consult with a fertility specialist.
Know that your feelings of sadness aren’t wrong. Regardless of how many children you have, the pain of feeling like your family is incomplete is very real. All too often, people with secondary infertility feel guilty for being sad that they’re having trouble conceiving another child. You might also feel like you’re being selfish for wanting more children, and that you should be grateful for what you do have.
Feeling sad for not being able to give your child a sibling is real and palpable, and it doesn’t diminish the immense love you have for the child that you already have.
There is no right or wrong way to feel. Your feelings are yours; you own them.
Seek out emotional support if you need. Just as with primary fertility, building a safe support system for ourselves is essential. All too often we feel isolated and like we don’t have anyone to talk to who understands what we’re going through. We can tap into many of the usual sources of infertility support – friends, family members, therapists, support groups. If you go the support group route, just make sure that it’s a group specifically for those suffering from secondary infertility.
Remember that families come in all shapes and sizes. A family of 3 isn’t any less of a family simply because it’s smaller. It took me a while to stop saying that I had “just” one child, but I can see lots of benefits to being part of a sweet family of 3. My husband and I can devote time to our own relationship than we could if we had two children to raise. Our income goes further. And, I just love that when we travel, we can all fit in a single airplane row!
Be gentle with yourself. In many ways, dealing emotionally with secondary infertility is the same as with primary infertility. It’s devastating to struggle with something as natural to the human condition as procreating. Even if you already have a child, having trouble having another can shake you at your very core.
This is when all that self-care is most important. Making sure you’re nourishing your physical body through food and movement, and your emotional self through seeking out support and doing the things you love, can really help you deal with secondary infertility.
It’s not a case of, you tried to conceive “right” the first time and now you’re doing it wrong. You’re not being punished, and you’re not less of a person.