Fertility and Setting Boundaries During the Holiday Period

As the year starts to wind down, the festivities of the holiday season take hold. This period is full of excitement and beautiful things to celebrate. Yet, it can be a stressful and sad time too. Although you experience the longing for motherhood throughout the year, something about the holiday period can intensify that longing and the sadness around it. For many people, December means lots of demands on your energy, all kinds of family dynamics and social events to navigate and the pressure of either hosting or attending various engagements. Dealing with subfertility adds another layer of stress to the mix, even more so if you are grieving a loss or happen to be going through a cycle of fertility treatment and your hormones are all over the place at the time.

It’s natural to feel extra triggered during a time when everything seems centred around children and celebrating the gift of family, especially when you are made acutely aware of what’s missing in your life and just how much you want kids of your own. And of course, many family and social gatherings make the prospect of being surrounded by lively kids, pregnant family members or friends and getting loads of intrusive questions about why you don’t have any kids or comments about your advancing age and the ever-present biological clock that is just ticking away inevitable. You’re bound to be faced with a whole host of unsolicited advice about what you should be doing to get pregnant or why you should be considering adoption. This sort of thing tends to make you feel judged and unsupported in something that is extremely personal to you. Most people are kind and well meaning, but not everyone will be sensitive to your emotional state or how their words and actions affect you. It is important to take care of your own wellbeing, something that may very well mean examining how you can set boundaries and manage your energy in a way that nurtures you.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve felt the need to simply my life around the holiday period. So, I’ve made it my priority to protect my space and keep things as stress free as possible. Instead of big family gatherings and social activities that often can feel busy, chaotic and stressful, my husband and I have taken to keeping things simple by doing small gatherings with just immediate family. It’s been a significant change for the ‘people-pleaser’ in me who in the past spent a lot of time trying to find the perfect gifts, making amazing dinner spreads and taking on a lot of work to make everyone else happy – things that left me drained and depleted. It’s been a relief to give ourselves breathing space and to just move through life at a calmer pace knowing that in doing so we are supporting our fertility as well.

If you’ve been pondering how best to navigate the holiday season in the context of your fertility journey, then take some time to think about how you can make this period of the year a little easier for yourself. Here are a few guiding points to explore as you do:

Set Boundaries around Social and Family Engagements

Try not to overextend yourself. Do an inventory of all your invitations to holiday social events and family gatherings. Which of those feel like fun engagements to look forward to? And which of them are you dreading? Knowing what to anticipate will inform your decisions around how you manage your social engagements, time and energy. You don’t have to say yes to every invitation. You may feel the need to decline certain ones when things feel too overwhelming. Allow yourself to take time out for you without feeling pressured to do what you don’t feel up to.

Ask yourself: How can I set firm and healthy boundaries in order to minimize holiday stress and foster a supportive environment that nourishes me and my fertility?

Make the most of the festive celebrations you’re looking forward to. And in cases where you can’t avoid certain events, then prepare for inevitable situations and work on reframing your thinking about them. Decide how much you are willing to discuss about your fertility experiences when probing or somewhat insensitive questions or unsolicited advice arise. Maybe you want to prepare a standard answer or simply let people know that you’d appreciate them respecting your privacy to reinforce boundaries if it’s something that you prefer to keep discrete.

Healthy boundaries empower you to protect your right to your own space. Shield yourself from harsh attitudes or judgement. You don’t owe anyone explanations or details about things that are personal to you.

Manage Demands on Your Time and Energy

If there are any draining or time-consuming activities that you could do without for the meantime because they don’t add much value to your life right now, activities that you are willing to let go of in order to create more space for you, then do so. A simple step like drawing up an “Absolute-No List” of things to take off your plate could be a great supportive tool to help you eliminate whatever diminishes you inner joy and peace of mind. Again, consider what would make your life easier at the moment. Shop online to avoid busy malls, plan a simple stress-free menu and mute your social media for the holiday period if necessary, especially if you feel affected by the loads of pregnancy announcements or baby pictures that seem to peak around this time. Free up your time for activities that make you happy and for people who lift your spirit.

Consider a Holiday Getaway: Perhaps you may even decide to skip all the holiday activities altogether and go away on vacation just the two of you instead. A change of scene is always wonderful for the soul. It may also give you and your partner the opportunity to relax and reconnect with one another. Facing fertility challenges leads to various levels of stress and emotional turmoil that is likely to put strain on your relationship as well. This makes it important to create a supportive environment in which your love and marriage can continue to thrive despite the testing time you may be living through together.

Create Your Own Traditions

This is one of the beautiful ideas that my husband introduced a couple of years ago. He has always stressed that we are our own family whether we have children or not. So when we set the intention to disconnect and create space for ourselves, we made a point of starting our own nourishing traditions that we hope to eventually share with our future children.

Are there any holiday traditions that you’ve dreamed of doing with a little family of your own?

Then why not start creating meaningful holiday traditions with your partner in the meantime. Discuss what kinds of family traditions are important to the both of you. What would you like to introduce your future child to? Then decide on how you can begin incorporating them into your life together this holiday. This will help you lay a beautiful foundation for togetherness and family, something that your children will fit into perfectly when they arrive.

[First published on ConceiveIVF.com’s Slow Swimmers and Fried Eggs blog November 2019]

Dealing with the Due Date After Loss

[Post originally written for and posted on ConceiveIVF.com’s SS&FE blog, August 2020: https://tinyurl.com/stuznbam ]

“I wanted to find a way to remember her, to celebrate her short life, and to tell the world that she had been here and that she was loved. After all, isn’t this what we all want for our babies gone-too-soon?” ~ Liz Mannegren

The baby that we lost because of an ectopic pregnancy would have been due on my husband’s 40th birthday. This left me deeply conflicted and confused about how to deal with it all. For one, I’d wanted to do something to commemorate and honour our angel baby. At the same time, the last thing I wanted was for our loss to overshadow this significant milestone in his life. I’d planned to throw a big party to celebrate him and for him to spend the day surrounded by friends and family. I wanted him to know just how much we all loved and appreciated him. My husband had refused. He didn’t want a party. He wanted a simple beach gateway, just the two of us. 

I felt guilty about it for a long time. It was hard not to feel responsible for the situation. So, initially I resisted his request. I tried my best to convince him that we needed to have a big celebration. Still, he refused. In the end I accepted defeat and we booked a week long gateway at one of his favourite coastal cottages. Strangely, from the moment we arrived there, it became increasingly clear that it was actually precisely what we both needed. As my body relaxed and my breath synchronized with the calming rhythm of the waves, I quickly came to appreciate my husband’s wisdom and foresight. We didn’t know how we would feel on the day, but this was our happy place and was bound to offer us both some kind of healing and refuge.

When the day arrived, we did our best to find a healthy balance between celebrating my husband’s life and honouring that of the baby we’d lost. We accepted that even though we were enjoying our happy moments, there was a thread of sadness too. Our day began with a surprise sunrise picnic that I’d planned. We got to watch the sun ascend over the ocean as we enjoyed some good coffee, some fruit, cocktail snacks, and of course, a slice of birthday cake. After enjoying our little breakfast picnic alongside the stunning display that the morning sky offered, we headed down to the beach for the day. 

We could not have asked for better weather. It turned out to be a spectacularly sunny day. The late spring weather whispered to us that a sweltering summer was on its way. Down at the beach, I felt like a child again, frolicking in the waves and surrounded by a vast expanses of blue. The tide was in, so we took full advantage of the salt water pools, swimming and floating about. When we’d tired ourselves out, my husband and I found a nice quiet spot on the shore to settle down and soak up some sun. The beads of seawater speckled across my arms evaporated quickly. My heart was calm and every muscle was at ease. We sat in silence for a while, just watching the waves and sipping on the cathartic essence of the sea. Settled in our spot with sand between our toes, my husband and I spoke for a long time about the baby that we’d lost and how our ectopic pregnancy loss affected us. Then, we gathered two gull feathers that were close by. We each held a feather in our hand and set the intention to release whatever we felt most shackled by. The feather represented the things we felt ready to let go of. I focused on releasing the hurt, the guilt, the self-blame and the emotional weight that kept me stuck. When we were ready, we set our feathers free into the wind. We watched as they blew off into the mid-morning sky, carrying with them the things that we no longer needed. It was a lovely symbolic exercise that somehow felt like a positive step forward.

In addition to our private little beach ceremony, just before we left for our trip, we had had a tree planted in an indigenous forest in remembrance of the precious baby soul that we didn’t get to meet. The tree planting was part of a reforestation programme to restore certain parts of a 10,000-year-old forest landscape near the coast, so it seemed like a nice way to honour their memory. The thought of this tree growing and living for years to come gave me comfort. It satisfied the strong need we had to make sure that our baby’s presence wasn’t forgotten.

In an article by Bettina Rae, yoga instructor and author of ‘Watering the flowers: A guide to find healing and hope after losing a baby’, she says that “You definitely won’t feel like celebrating this date, but it’s important to find a way to honour your baby in some way. Every mother will be different in what she thinks is the way to commemorate her baby.” It is a very personal thing that needs to resonate with and feel right to you. Very importantly, remember to be kind to yourself. It isn’t an easy time, so allow yourself to practice self-care, as well as self-compassion. 

What helped you deal with a due date or anniversary of a pregnancy loss? How did you decide to honour your baby? The grieving process is different for everyone, so if you’re feeling uncertain about how to approach this difficult day, here are some ideas on how to honour your baby: 

  1. Light a candle. Take some time to reflect, grieve and process your loss. Write a letter to your baby. Talk about it with your partner, and give yourself the space to acknowledge and release whatever you need to.    
  1. Release a balloon. You can plan a small ceremony to release a balloon (or a few balloons) together with your partner or a close friend/family member. If you like, you can read a poem or say a few heartfelt words and then release the balloon.
  1. Get a piece of jewellery. You can get a special necklace, pendant, a charm or bracelet as a way to remember you baby. Some people choose an angel wing or a heart shaped pendant, others choose a gemstone for their particular birth month. If you like, you could also get a piece of personalised jewellery made in memory of your lost baby. 
  1. Plant a perennial plant or tree. Plant a tree or plant in your garden or have one planted at a nature park depending on what works best for you. Certain plants have specific meanings, some flower at particular times of the year. For instance, amaryllis where my grandfather’s favourite flowers. Shortly before he passed away, he got a few amaryllis bulbs for my grandmother to plant. She gave me a few of her bulbs to plant in my garden. These bulbs always bloom in September. September happens to be my grandfather’s birthday month, and the same month when he passed away. So whenever my amaryllis bloom, I think of and feel close to him.  

Creating Space to Grieve After Early Pregnancy Loss

Grief Releasing Ceremony

There was something about the rumbling thunder and the gloomy grey rain-soaked days that seemed to mirror the heaviness in my heart. Hurt and an overwhelming sadness permeated everything. As much as we’d tried to comfort one another, we just didn’t know how to move through the grief. I realised that I needed emotional assistance, so I began taking steps to get support.  In doing so, I came across a book by Zoe Clark-Coates called ‘The Baby Loss Guide’. In this book, Clark-Coates suggests having a ‘grief release ceremony’ or private memorial of sorts to honour the life of the baby that would have been as a way to bring closure and acceptance for you and your partner. Open to any advice that could guide us through the mourning process I discussed the idea with my husband. We decided that a release ceremony seemed like a worthwhile exercise for us to do.

So, one night we sat down together at our dining table. He held my hand as we took a few deep breaths to get centred. Doing our best to navigate the waves of emotions that seemed to be rising to the surface, we took turns to share what we were feeling. When we were ready, we each put pen to paper and individually wrote a letter to our baby. It was a pretty emotional experience. I poured my heart out, expressing how much I loved, wanted and missed my baby. I wrote about both my hurt and my gratitude for the few weeks of joy this pregnancy gave me before it all fell apart. Once we’d written the letters, we then went out onto the veranda where my husband and I lit some floating candles. We placed the candles in a bird bath full of cool water before gathering a few beautiful rose and orchid flowers.  We held each flower with the intention to release our grief and honour the life of our baby as we set them down into the water amidst the floating candles. 

It was moving and sad all at once, yet we both noticed how therapeutic having this ceremony was for us. In the days that followed my husband and I discussed the shift we felt in ourselves since that evening. It gave us closure and we’d felt a little lighter. 

The whole thing made me realise something. When you experience an early pregnancy loss, whether a miscarriage or an ectopic loss, you don’t always know how to process the pain and resultant grief. Couples usually don’t share the exciting news about their pregnancy until they’ve passed the 12 week mark. So, when a pregnancy loss happens, they go through it alone, uncertain of how to give context to the devastation they may feel. 

Writer, Lauren Patterson, discusses this in a poignant article titled Miscarriage and the 12 Week Rule: Carrying grief alone (https://www.scarymommy.com/miscarriage-12-week-rule-carrying-grief-alone/) where she highlights that there is a general protocol followed when a loved one dies – condolences are offered and there is a funeral service where respects are paid and the life of the deceased is celebrated. Unfortunately, we don’t have a process like this when it comes to early pregnancy loss. When no one knows that you were pregnant, your loss goes virtually unacknowledged and as a consequence you may even struggle to give yourself permission to grieve. In the end, you’re left bereft and carrying unresolved sorrow. This isn’t made any easier by the fact that topics like miscarriage and ectopic pregnancies are not spoken about much, something that contributes to the shroud of secrecy, shame and feelings of isolation for couples going through a loss.   

Miscarriage is death before life. Often times, it is death that only one person feels or even knows about, and carries alone.”

 ~ Lauren Patterson

Coming to this understanding motivates me to keep sharing my experiences. For one, talking about the tough things creates awareness and understanding so that people feel less isolated in their struggles. In addition to this, raising the sensitivity around what women go through when they experience early pregnancy loss also ensures that they are better able to access the kind of support that they need to move through it all.  

Give Yourself Space to Grieve and Release

Have you experienced an early pregnancy loss? How did you create space for your own healing? What helped you process your grief?

Going through such a traumatic experience will naturally have a significant emotional impact on you. The initial days and weeks are the hardest. On some days, the grief of your loss is completely debilitating. Other days you may find it easier to breathe. Don’t hesitate to seek out counseling if need be. Give yourself permission to take it one day at a time, moment to moment, bearing in mind that you’re grieving the loss of your baby, and perhaps the trauma of a loss of certain physical aspects which represent a part of your fertility too (a fallopian tube, or ovary, or both tubes) in the case of an ectopic pregnancy loss. Healing is a gradual process where your need to allow yourself room to process your experiences and work through the various stages of grief as they surface. 

As I found in my own case, a closure or grief release ceremony as suggested by Zoe Clark-Coates is a worthwhile and therapeutic exercise to help bring some level of emotional relief. 

And when the going gets tough and you can’t see a way forward, ask yourself: 

‘What is the most healing or nurturing thing that I can do for myself right now?’ 

Then focus on taking that small step for the moment until you have the strength and presence of mind to move forward.

[Post was originally written for and posted on the ConceiveIVF.com’s SS&FE blog October 2019: https://tinyurl.com/ebcb4b6 ]