Recently, I was telling a friend how wonderful it is that there is so much free support available to infertile men and women online now. Back when my husband and I were confused, ignored, restricted and misinformed, we could have used more extensive glossaries of fertility terms, knowledge of research and medical practice going on in the UK and elsewhere, independent ratings of fertility clinics, price comparisons for fertility treatment and emotional support. It's all changed, thank goodness. Technology now allows access to infertility websites and their forums whether you are in America or India, independent blogging and the exchange of information on social media networking sites Twitter and Facebook. The IF community and those that serve it, have embraced the internet wholeheartedly and it works because it brings it all to you, whenever and wherever you are, as long as you have access to a computer or a Smart phone.
I must have been preaching like one of the converted, naming my favourite sites, describing my networks, relating some of the comments I have received on this blog and proudly tallying up my Twitter followers for my Your Great Life page (877 today!). When I stopped to draw in air, my friend asked if I wasn't kicking myself in the pants by making so much of my support and resources available online for free. Not only that but, she wanted to know, why should someone hire a fertility coach at all, when you can get so much support online from so many sources? I have to admit that I felt hugely disappointed. Not that I haven't asked myself similar questions when assessing where my service fits in and its value. I suppose I believed that, by now, most people understand the difference between customized, personal coaching and general support.
I have great confidence that fertility coaching isn't an either/or proposition. In fact, I routinely provide lists of online resources to infertile people as part of my coaching, to get them moving in the right direction. I was able to explain to my friend why fertility coaching is an unparalleled method of information and support, and share with you here why I believe it is so worthwhile.
Isolation - Whether you are just starting to think you may have a problem conceiving or have already begun investigations of your fertility, chances are that you are already hiding from people. It starts with not wanting anyone to know you are trying so they won't keep asking "when." As time goes on, and friends, colleagues, sisters and neighbours announce their pregnancies, what do you do? I remember ducking into supermarket aisles, making excuses for refusing invitations and dodging a ringing telephone at my parents' house. It's worse now; we are all so in-touch that it's hard to keep our movements confidential and privacy lines have blurred. It's tempting to widthdraw, but what starts as self-protection can easily turn into excessive secrecy, covering up with lies and the loss of valuable friendships and contacts.
It's tempting to withdraw from people entirely, rather than face the discomfort of having to talk to others about your infertility, but isolation will work against you. Even if they aren't asking intrusive questions, you may imagine that they are thinking about you and why you aren't pregnant. Instead of building up paranoia, suspicion, embarrassment or shame, a good coaching relationship allows you to air those thoughts and feelings with someone who isn't judging you. If there are people from whom you must take a break, a coach will help you decide how to manage those relationships so you don't lose them entirely. It puts you back in control; instead of dodging old school pals or friends of your mother, you effectively communicate only what you want to be known.
The compare and contrast exercise - I won't lie. Inevitably, there will be people out there who wonder why you aren't a mother yet. They may be basing their curiosity on your age, the length of time you have been involved with your partner, the level of your career or how often they have heard your mother moan about wanting grandchildren. However, I guarantee you that you are doing more comparing and contrasting of yourself to others than is being done about you. The prevailing response on internet forums, blog replies and Twitter seems to be "I understand. I have experienced that too. Isn't it (or she) a bitch?" Occasionally, the voice of reason will be heard, giving you another perspective on an upsetting situation. They all help, because it feels good to know that you aren't alone. The strength of the online community is in the sisterhood and its value is undeniable.
However, sometimes your self-esteem needs actual change for the better, rather than just propping up. Negativity affects your wellbeing, whether it has an internal or external origin. Having to deal with negative, or even cruel, comments from others will certainly upset and stress your system. Self-talk like "I'm not one of them," "They're talking about me," or "I'm not good enough." will do just as much damage, as you are conjuring up your own negativity and will eventually believe it. Coaching tools can turn this around: CBT helps you re-program your thoughts with more self-belief and positivity; while NLP visualisations can banish your negative images and replace them with ones that imprint the mindset you want to have: hopeful, focused and committed.
A Support Network - I encourage infertile clients to actively seek a good fit within the online communities. Each has its own personality, its own rules. Some forums have moderators or resident experts who will respond to your posts, while others are known for its loyal cheerleaders who will do everything they can to lift your spirits if you care to have a moan. If you are obsessed with the numbers...days, temperatures, test results... there are applications that can help you log them and blog templates where you can list them all in chronological order in the sidebar. Blogging may give you the opportunity to use writing as a means of stress-relief and healing. If you crave a conversation in real-time, Twitter or Facebook may provide you the immediacy you need. Joining a conversation can help you feel less separate and lacking and more connected, which will aid your sense of wellbeing.
Not everyone has the confidence to launch themselves and the intimate details of their infertility or the fall-out in their relationship online. For those of us familiar with the daily flow of online conversations between recognized users, it can seem almost cosy. For the person who is suddenly faced with the worst news they could possibly imagine regarding their health and their dreams of a family, it can seem exclusive, with a language and etiquette all its own. I help clients find the right sites for them, find a comfortable balance between complete anonymity and their true identity, and keep their use of the internet from eclipsing their real life.
It's especially important that you don't replace (and shut out) your partner and long-term friends completely with online friends who seem more understanding. You have to remember that the dynamics of your relationship will have changed as your focus has shifted to your infertility. You may feel you aren't getting everything youneed from the,; remember, that you may not be giving as much now either. I help clients achieve clarity about their needs and maintain worthwhile relationships in a healthy way that is mutually satisfying.
Filling empty spaces - For those whose family, peer group or cultural community makes living publicly with infertility seem an impossibility, I work with clients to create online networks that will provide them with the support they need. I believe that the creative outlet provided by blogging can re-establish feelings of self-worth, however, it may not be immediately obvious to those who are not naturally expressive or who have limited their expression to a private journal. I work with blogging as a means of helping clients communicate their emotions, find positive feedback amidst their own negativity and heal through helping others with their words.
It's easy to forget that you need support in real-time too. Support can come in the form of a kind word, a welcome night out, an alibi when you don't want to attend a function, a listening ear or even a referral to the right doctor, pharmacy or support group. I help clients identify those around them who may otherwise be overlooked, teach them how to ask for help and how to graciously accept it when offered.
Effective Communication - A common theme running throughout the conversations of many infertile people is the inability to make themselves heard. You may not feel you are on the same page as your partner, which can be devastating if you previously shared a vision of the life you wanted. You may feel you are treated as an anonymous number on a medical chart when you go to your fertility clinic. In trying to lay down boundaries with your parents, in-laws and other relatives about what you would like them to refrain from discussing with you, in your presence or about you, you may feel like you are banging your head against a brick wall. In fact, on this last note, infertile people are often made to feel they are in the wrong for wanting to keep details private, for being overly sensitive and for refusing invitations to parties and family dos.
If you want to lay down new rules, while not alienating anyone involved, its essential that you communicate them effectively. You can't expect everyone to understand exactly where to draw the line between pretending that your problem doesn't exist and continously showing an interest in your welfare. You have a right to your privacy, but keep in mind that you will need support and that comes in all shapes and sizes. Shutting down, pushing people away, having tantrums or snapping people's heads off with sharp words won't bring that good karma toward you. Instead, I help my clients create several statements they can rehearse and have at the ready for every situation they may face.
There is some danger in having a good bitch or moan on the internet, because well-meaning supporters are apt to echo your sentiments: your sister-in-law is a bitch for getting pregnant first, your old school friend has made an unforgivable faux-pas by posting her baby shower photos on Facebook, your Other Half has betrayed you by suggesting that you stop treatment. It's so easy to build up resentment and easier than ever to purge it. However, unconditional validation isn't always what you need. You don't want to harbour hateful thoughts and the turmoil that goes with them when you are trying to conceive your baby. Yes, stand up for yourself, but in a way that allows you to retain your dignity, self-respect and inner calm.
Additionally, some IFs have been lulled by the freedom of expression on the internet. If you have been criticized for something you have written, had an overture of kindness rebuffed or been the target of a backlash for your opinions, I can help you explore individual incidents, allowing you to reveal the players' relative responsibilities for the way they played out, including your own. The idea is not to let upsetting incidents take on a life of their own, disrupting your focus, peace of mind and health.
Decision-making - At every stage of your infertility, from those first inklings of a problem, through the medical investigations and during fertility treatment, there will be decisions you may not feel properly equipped to make on your own. The beauty of the internet's reach is that you will undoubtedly be able to find other people who have stood in your shoes. It will give you ideas, options, perspectives, successes and failures to consider that may have some bearing on what you eventually decide.
It's essential to remember that what is right for someone else isn't necessarily the answer for you. What infertile people have in common most is the inability to conceive and give birth to a child of their own. Beyond that, although you my have a similar condition to someone else, your circumstances taken as a whole are unique. The presence of one factor, whether an incurable condition, your access to quality medical treatment, your age, finances, the unconditional support of your parents or a friend, being single, religious values or an unsteady relationship, can make a huge impact on your attempt to conceive and your sense of wellbeing.
By and large, the biggest factor influencing your decisions is that for m ost people, those decisions are made with a life-partner or spouse. Automatically, the process becomes more complex, necessitating some discussion, negotiation, compromise and agreement. The process of decision-making has the power to solidify the bond between a couple or break it apart. What happens when you are unsure of what to do, but your partner has a strong opinion? In times of vulnerability, the pressure can be intense. An imbalance can cause decisions to be yielded to the person with the stronger voice. Being persuaded to do something that is uncomfortable can cause problems later on, bringing up emotions such as resentment, anger and guilt. It's my job as a coach to ensure that the values of both partners are considered, even if I am only coaching one of them, and that the reasoning is valid. Whatever you are going to do has to work for both of you, or it won't work at all.
Stress-relief - Everyone knows that the stress of infertility can be damaging in itself. If you didn't feel particularly stressed before you tried to conceive, you will surely make its acquaintance once you perceive a problem. This is one area in which the online community really delivers: post a comment about how you are feeling and you will undoubtedly get a soothing reply. Be specific about the source of your stress and someone will share their own experiences with you and offer practical suggestions. Post an anguished cry for help and you could be answered by an empathetic follower, a seasoned member of the IF community, or a professional.
The immediate relief from stress can be realized from the online activities discussed here. A funny comment, a comforting word or a meaningful connection will all help. Coaching reaches below the surface to find the source of your stress, then gives you the tools to eliminate it. This distinction, as much as any other, illustrates the benefits of fertility coaching, if you find you need more personalized understanding and support, as well as more lasting change, than you can get from the internet. If you would like to explore it further, please feel free to contact me by email or phone to arrange coaching.