Survivors Guilt: We Made It to the Other Side of Infertility

Photo: Rachel Vanoven

I’m personally well versed in overcoming infertility and, before I go any further, want to be explicitly clear that I am incredibly grateful for our outcome. The reality is that not everyone reaches the happy ending we all strive for when first staring up at the giant mountain that is infertility. Couples run out of resources, they exhaust all clinical options, or they may need to walk away to preserve their own wellbeing. Whatever the case may be, it is not lost on me how tough the decision to suspend treatment efforts must be, or how fortunate I am. 

A brief backstory, (which grossly downplays the depth of heartache that we endured) my husband and I met in high school, started dating in 2004, married in 2010, immediately began trying to have a family (to no avail), were referred to a reproductive endocrinologist at the end of 2011, and walked through the doors of Midwest Fertility Specialists on leap day 2012.

By the middle of 2012, we were faced with my standing diagnosis of polycystic ovarian syndrome, and added an unexplained male infertility diagnosis, azoospermia. Double. Whammy. In vitro fertilization (IVF) with intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) was our only chance at biological children, and it came with a giant price tag. We were 25 years old, making entry-level money. Swallowing that pill was difficult, so we spent the next several months drowning our discouragement in cheap beer. Hey, at least we did it together! In the summer of 2013, we finally pulled ourselves together, borrowed against our home, and ponied up.

We overcame infertility (the first time) in November of 2014 when our daughters were delivered happy and healthy. Frankly, I was in total disbelief that they were here, and they were ours. But, amongst the bliss of finally having our babies earth-side, I experienced an emotion I honestly wasn’t expecting – guilt. It was everywhere I turned. I couldn’t shake thoughts like:

‘Why did this happen for me, but not for them?’

‘Am I embracing and cherishing each moment enough?’

‘Those still waiting for a baby would cut off their arm to be in my shoes right now.’

‘I cannot take any moment for granted. This was a gift.’

I refused to cut myself any slack. I was embracing (or so I thought) even the most difficult moments, pep-talking myself through them because I knew there were women out there who would give anything to be where I was. I wouldn’t allow myself to relate to other new moms commiserating about lack of sleep, or being covered in spit-up. I was lucky to be sleep-deprived and vomit-covered. I found myself isolated and exhausted.

The guilt followed me after my son was born in June of 2017. There was absolutely no complaining allowed, no matter how hard it got. I found success with assisted reproduction not once, but twice, how could I complain? I strived to continue cheering on my fellow infertility warriors, but it never felt quite right. I assumed they would now resent me. I didn’t fit in with them anymore, but still couldn’t fully relate to my mom friends. I was lost somewhere in the middle.

Now I find myself days away from the arrival of our fourth and fifth IVF miracles and, low and behold, the guilt is returning. Just the other morning, after another night of very minimal sleep and the exhaustion setting in hard, I leaned into my husband, and the tears fell. Through the sobs, I conveyed that I so desperately wanted these babies out of my body, but that I instantly felt guilty for feeling that way. I told him that I wasn’t embracing these final days like I should be, despite a fundal height nearing 50 weeks, excessive swelling, and all of the other not-so-glamorous end of pregnancy symptoms. My husband, the saint that he is, gently reminded me that it is very okay to feel how I feel and to want to be done.

So in these final days, I am trying to nurture the following thoughts:

  • Everyone faces challenges in life – they are not to be compared as greater or lesser.
  • Allow realistic expectations. Enjoying every single moment is not realistic.
  • It is truly okay not to be okay.
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Elle is a wife, mother, and business owner. A Hoosier by way of Northern California, she has now called central Indiana home for over two decades. She and her husband, Matt, met at Westfield High School. After graduating from Purdue they settled in Carmel where Elle spends her days with the couple's five year old twin daughters, Lauren and Grace, their three year old son, Patrick, and their six month old twins, Elizabeth and John. After a difficult infertility diagnosis in 2012, and the subsequent efforts to build their family, she considers motherhood to be a tremendous gift, and something she never takes for granted. In between the welcomed chaos of five kids under six, Elle co-owns and operates an equestrian facility in Westfield.