Navigating the holidays can be difficult and experiencing fertility challenges can heighten these dynamics. We sat down with Dr. Georgia Witkin, Regina Townsend, and Khaled Kteily to talk about how to approach the festivities and what you can do to preserve your well-being during this time.
Preparation for Before You Go
Family gatherings can make others more comfortable asking personal questions. These may be a trigger if it’s around questions you’d like to avoid or not share in front of a group of people. The best way to prepare yourself for some of the potential triggers or off-color questions is to plan ahead. Your pre-holiday or pre-family gathering list might look like this:
- Communicate and remove the self-blame – If building a family is a challenge, make sure to tell loved ones that you’re not to blame for what’s happening. If Aunt Fannie tells you to “just relax” and you’ll get pregnant, explain that infertility causes stress, and not the other way around. Communicate that you did not create infertility by working hard, worrying, or feeling tense. Hopefully, they will take the ‘hint’ and agree.
- Practice your answers to difficult and/or insensitive questions – Try this for questions around your family building goals and current situation before going to the event. Your answers can be self-protective or self-revealing, humorous or serious, original, or borrowed. It doesn’t matter as long as you feel ready and not taken by surprise.
- Give yourself permission to tell others only what you want to share – This should only be when and if you decide to share it. You can always tell, you can never un-tell.
There is nothing wrong if your current situation doesn’t look like a Hallmark movie. Infertility is a disease affecting 1 in 8 couples, so even if you feel alone at holiday events, there is a large community ready to support and validate you. If you do not want to engage with support groups, online or otherwise, try finding things about the holiday that you love and focus on those. For example, if you look forward to catching up with a cousin, focus on those moments.
For those supporting their partners, communicating you are both a “team” can be so helpful. Practicing who takes what questions, or even delegating the responses can lessen the pressure on both parties. When both partners are on the same page and unified, it can also re-emphasize the message that you both do not feel comfortable talking about family building at the dinner table. Having a code word between partners can also be helpful, and a reminder that you are both in this together.
Tips for Being at the Event
When you’re actually at the event, there’s going to be things you can’t avoid, and the only thing you can change is your reaction to them. Practicing responses ahead of time and having a game plan is helpful, but relatives often know how to push things, even if it is unintentional. Here are some tips to help navigate this:
- Manage your expectations – Expect to be more irritable or sensitive if you are taking hormones as part of fertility treatment, dealing with pregnancy loss, or waiting for test or procedure results. And expect to also be at least a little bit jealous and angry when you’re around anyone with a family already – particularly during the ‘family’ parties. You are human. Don’t expect yourself to be anything else.
- Turn the conversation around – Do this by turning the question they asked you back on them. For example, if Cousin Greg asks, “What are you waiting for?” you can respond with “What have you been waiting for? I thought you were hoping for a new job by now.” This avoids you answering the question and calls your relative out for overstepping a boundary. You can also be direct and say, “That hurt”, “We’ve been trying” or “It’s been difficult and it’s not something I want to talk about.” There is nothing wrong with being assertive. You are allowed to protect yourself.
- Try getting some psychological distance – Instead of focusing on the moment, take a step back and try looking at your family and friends as if you’ve never met them before. Pretend you’re writing a book or movie about them. That should make you more of an observer than a participant and help you laugh instead of getting annoyed.
- Remove yourself when needed – If a relative is announcing their own family building process, you can remove yourself. Watch something in a different room, go to the bathroom, or sit with an elder relative who can’t hear from that distance anyway.
New Traditions and Moving Forward
If you do not want to face the family for the holidays, you can always make your own tradition. Just because you’ve been to all the Thanksgivings in the past and bring the best pecan pie, it doesn’t matter. When thinking about how to celebrate the holiday in a new way, try surrounding yourself with your support network, especially if they are also struggling to build their family. For example,
- Try to make some dates with friends who don’t have children – Play games that would be too hard for kids, watch movies kids wouldn’t understand or appreciate, and eat food you wouldn’t want kids to have. In other words, take the opportunity to enjoy your freedom for a night before focusing on fertility treatment again in the morning.
- Create upbeat traditions – If holidays traditions are making you nostalgic, just when your hormone injections are making you melancholy, create some new upbeat traditions of your own. For example, volunteer one night to remind yourself the feeling of giving back.
- Stay in touch with others in a similar position – If you have friends who are also going through the holidays with fertility challenges, stay in touch. You will see that your reactions are not unusual and when they say, “I understand”, you will know that they really do!
The Impact of Holidays on Relationships
As we’ve emphasized today, being in a familial context can bring up lots of emotions, and relationships can feel strained. For those supporting partners, show yourself and your partner as much as care and compassion as possible. Little acts of service and kindness – a back rub, a bath bomb, or chocolate – can go a long way. Being able to match your partner’s vulnerabilities and energy is also a form of care and making sure they feel heard and supported is key.
Make sure you take opportunities to play and laugh during the holidays because they are nature’s stress relievers. Try competitive games, watching a comedy, reading funny emails, or sending them to a friend – they all release mood-elevating brain chemicals, and according to researchers at Harvard, 20 minutes a day of laughter or play can decrease stress symptoms by 50%.
And finally, remember to be your own best friend. Treat yourself with the same supportiveness, consideration, and respect you give to others you love.
Progyny is always here to support you in your path to parenthood. If you are a Progyny member, your Patient Care Advocate is always available for emotional support or fertility advice. Please don’t hesitate to reach out. For additional information and resources, check out Progyny’s education page.