One of the most difficult things about living with fertility problems is the loneliness and isolation you can feel as everyone around you seems to be getting pregnant effortlessly. If you don’t tell other people what you are going through, you get questions about when you are going to have children and warnings that you don’t want to leave it too late. If you do tell people, you can end up with lots of advice you could do without (“why don’t you just relax/get a dog/go on holiday…”).
Last night, I facilitated a fertility group for the charity Fertility Network UK in South East London and it really struck me, as it does every time we meet, how beneficial it can be to spend some time with other people who really understand how you are feeling and who know what it is like. Fertility Network has groups meeting across the UK, mainly run by volunteers like me, which offer a haven for anyone experiencing fertility problems. It’s a unique opportunity to be with people who share similar experiences and to be able to talk openly and honestly about how you are feeling.
It’s National Fertility Week and there’s lots of work going on to raise awareness about many important fertility-related issues, but one of the most important messages for me is that you don’t need to go through this alone. There are opportunities to meet other people who can offer support, and the groups aren’t miserable or depressing, but rather an opportunity to help yourself to feel less lonely. There are 3.5 million people living with fertility problems in the UK and meeting some of the others may be just what you need.
One of the worst things about infertility is the isolation that it brings – if your friends and colleagues all seem to be getting pregnant and having babies, you may feel you are part of a shrinking circle of people without children. You may start to find that when you go out with a group of your friends, the conversation soon turns to birth plans or weaning – not only do you not have anything to say, it’s also yet another reminder that you don’t have what you most want.
How to combat isolation
One of the best ways to deal with this sense of loneliness is to get together with other people who are going through similar experiences and who will understand exactly how you feel. You may want to do this through an online forum, such as Infertility Network UK‘s Health Unlocked or Fertility Friends, or you may want to actually meet up with other people – and again Infertility Network UK can help with get-togethers across the country.
You may be surprised how much difference it can make to talk to other people and share experiences – and this kind of support can give you strength and resolve as you go through tests and treatment. There’s nothing to lose by giving it a try, and everything to gain. You can find a list of free get-togethers around the UK here
I’m off to run the Central London get-together for Infertility Network UK tonight (and it’s not too late to come along – you can just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for details if you’d like to join us), and it made me think about how helpful it can be to meet up with others who really understand what you are going through and to share experiences.
We tend to call the meetings “support groups” which I think is slightly off-putting, and conjures up images of a rather depressing event. In fact, our groups are far from depressing, and there’s usually far more laughter than tears. It is always rewarding to see people leaving some of their anxieties behind after a meeting and gaining emotional strength from being together.
How fertility support groups can help
I wrote an article recently for Fertility Road magazine about this subject, looking at how groups can be beneficial. So often in our groups, people end up taking email addresses and keeping in touch with one another in between meetings. They build up a network or real friends rather than online ones who are there for them during the ups and downs, and that is invaluable. It really can help you to get through the emotional ups and downs of tests and treatment more smoothly.
Infertility Network UK’s groups meet across the country and are free of charge – you can find details here – there’s nothing to lose by giving one a try!
Don’t forget, Infertility Network UK also runs groups right across the UK from Scotland and Northern Ireland to the Channel Isles – you can check out your local groups on the Infertility Network UK website.
Earlier this week, I found myself talking to an audience of mainly middle-aged (and above) men about living with fertility problems and the fabulous work Infertility Network UK carries out to support people who are having trouble conceiving. I wasn’t sure how the talk would go down, but they seemed genuinely interested – although when it came to the questions afterwards they admitted it wasn’t a topic most of them had ever talked about or would know how to talk about. There was a definite element of embarrassment at one point when I started to waffle on about sperm donation!
One of them asked about men and fertility problems and specifically whether I thought men found it difficult not to be able to have children. They were quite surprised when I said I thought that men found it just as hard as women not to be able to have children, but that it was often more difficult for men to talk about it. For most women, talking to close and empathetic friends about fertility problems can be a real source of support but for men, discussing a fertility problem with their friends is just something most don’t do.
I’ve often wondered how best to offer more support to men as the existing support networks women use don’t seem to work for men. In all my years running support groups, I’ve seen dozens of women who’ve come along without their partners, but you don’t get men coming by themselves – although those who are there with their partners can find it really beneficial. Online forums for men don’t get used much either.
I’ve asked men what sort of support they’d like, and usually get a shrug of the shoulders – but I’ve come across a few men recently who are writing about the subject in books and blogs – like Glenn Barden who wrote a guest blog for Fertility Matters a while back. I’ve just been in touch with another guy who has written a new book about fertility problems from the male perspective which I’ll review here once I’ve read it – but in the meantime if anyone has any other useful links or suggestions, do post them below!
The London Fertility Centre will be launching their Fertility Circle on November 14 – a group which is open to everyone, not just those having treatment at the centre.
And finally, a new group will be starting on November 20 at St George’s Campden Hill in Kensington. The St George’s West London Group is based in the church, but is a secular group open to all with an optional meditation and prayer session before the group begins.
I’m a great fan of fertility support groups. I know the idea can seem a bit daunting, I know you may be thinking you’re simply not the type to go to a support group – but in my experience, most people who pluck up the courage to go along to one find it helpful and most end up coming back again.
There’s nothing like the feeling of being in a whole roomful of others who know exactly how it feels to be trying unsuccessfully to conceive, who you know aren’t going to ask you those painful questions about when you’re going to get round to having a baby and who you can even laugh with about some of the experiences you’ve shared along the way. People are forever telling me that online support has completely taken over from the traditional support group – but I’m far from convinced. When you’re talking to people online you have no idea who they are, and although it can be helpful, it’s never quite the same as sharing the same space with someone else.
I was delighted when I heard from Charlotte that she was keen to set up a new support group in Reading, and she’s now set dates for her first two meetings on September 10 and November 12. All it needs is one dedicated person like Charlotte to make a huge difference to the lives of dozens of others and to help provide the kind of support that can be most helpful. If you want to find out more about Charlotte’s group, you can find details here and details of other support groups across the country are listed on the Fertility Matters events page. You may think it’s not for you – but why not give a support group a try – it may be just what you need and it’s certainly not a decision you will regret.