Infertility: The Forbidden Subject

By Michael R. Welch, Holt Social Worker

Infertility is a common reason why couples turn to adoption. Yet, it is a subject about which we hear very little and a subject that most infertile couples do not wish to discuss, even between themselves. Thus, “closet infertility,” like out of date fashions, is put away on the back shelf and ignored.

A chairperson from a local level of “RESOLVE” discussed how sharing her feelings and experiences can help other infertile couples who for one reason or another, have not dealt realistically with their infertility.

In resolving their infertility, it was noted that most couples go through a series of stages.


Stage one is called denial and isolation

The couple first denies the fact that they are infertile. It is difficult for them to face because they see friends their own age having babies. Many infertile couples may say they are opposed to having families in order to deal with their own infertility publicly. Many others avoid going to the home of friends who have children. The infertile couples tend to isolate themselves from people with children.

Others may rush to adoption as a compensatory action for their own infertility.

Stage two is called anger

During this stage the couple is angry at each other, angry at themselves as individuals, angry at doctors for being too clinical and for giving them a “one foot in the door” attitude and treatment. Couples often describe treatments for infertility as cold and unfeeling on the part of the clinicians involved and their approach and interaction with the couple.

Furthermore, the couple often becomes angry even at God because everyone else they know says they would make good parents and they wonder why God does not agree.

They also become angry at adoption agencies because of policies, such as requirements that they work with one agency at a time, only one adoption allowed per couple, and for not having Caucasian children available for the couple to consider. They are equally angry with their friends for their insensitivity to the problem.

Most couples seem to resent the societal conditioning to “be cool,” to “maintain” and to “stay in charge” of their feeling about infertility. This further antagonizes infertile couples as they perceive society as being insensitive to them.

In addition, the couple may be angry because society does not recognize infertility as a life crisis. If the couple suffered from alcoholism or drug addiction, the crisis could be faced as a crisis and resolved in a socially acceptable manner. However, there is no avenue provided by our society for a couple to mourn openly about infertility.

Stage three is depression

This is perhaps the most difficult stage for the infertile couple and is primarily a product of guilt. The individuals feel guilty about past transgressions in their life such as love affairs, abortions, poor church attendance and other real or imagined situations. This causes them to feel as though being made infertile is punishing them.

They are depressed about the fact that their friends who are having children by birth do not have to prove their parental fitness to anyone, but the infertile couple finds that everyone to whom they turn for children is questioning them. One panel member felt that even when adopting, the process is difficult to compare to the biological aspects of pregnancy. Mothers giving birth to children biologically are experiencing first heartbeats and first baby movements, while adoption applicants experience the accumulation of bank statements, triplicate copies of their financial records, location of their marriage certificates and so on.

The infertile couple may find themselves very depressed about the loss of their “dream child.” Yet society does not recognize this type of loss. It just doesn’t seem real enough to fertile couples. In fact, the couple may have spent the past several years in discussion in which they speculate about the characteristics of their dream child whom they always believed they could conceive biologically in the marriage. This dream is very difficult to let go of and requires a great deal of work before infertility can be accepted. One of the more important aspects of resolving infertility is, once faced, for the couple to let the pregnancy dream die and let the dream child die as well, similar to the manner of grieving over death as described in the book Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

Many times the couples are anxious to talk to someone about the problem but become very upset because of the lack of understanding at every turn, including professional counselors according to the panel members.

Stage four of resolving of infertility is called acceptance

Once having accepted the fact that they are infertile, the couple may choose to focus on their careers, or go into foster care programs or adoption. The panel felt unanimously that any infertile couple who has not yet reached the stage of talking about the problem freely between themselves, just isn’t ready to pursue adoption. Most couples will feel resolved about their infertility after they have adopted. However, it is vital that the couple is allowed to grieve first and feel relief toward the loss of the dream child. In addition, adoption waiting periods are considered therapeutic for infertile couples and the resolution of the loss of the dream child does take time.

Relief is often felt by both members of the couple if they are able to admit readily to one another that they are infertile. This overcomes the tendency to deny infertility and brings an end to “closed infertility.”

Dealing with an adoption agency may create additional problems for the infertile couple. Many feel guilty if they find themselves unable or unwilling to parent an older child, a handicapped youngster or an international child, because they see around them so many couples who are able to parent these children. This causes further problems for them as they feel that since they can’t have their own children, they should not be fussy about the children they can parent.

It is difficult for these couples to choose an agency because they are anxious to receive a child very quickly and rumors are persistent about speedier placements being handled at “other” agencies. Others apply for adoption as a last desperate hope to become pregnant. They feel that if they begin the adoption…(they will relax)… and this will permit the wife to conceive. As the adoption process draws to a close and the actual placement of a child is near, many become depressed again because pregnancy has not occurred. The home study process reawakens the grief of the previous stages of the resolution of infertility as social workers tend to rehash the mechanics used in resolving the matter. Because most couples consider their infertility a very private matter. It would help most infertile couples to be told at the outset that probing home study questions are for the child’s sake and not intended to invade the couple’s privacy.

Social workers should look for red flags in working with unresolved infertile couples. They should be on the lookout for “how long” questions in perseverance and an overemphasis on skin color in international adoptions as the couple may be indicating they are still comparing the adopted child to their dream child.

In summation, the truth of infertility for a couple may never be resolved as such, but is only put into a healthy perspective.

Recommended reading is a book called Infertility – A Guide For The Childless Couple, published by Prentice-Hall and written by Barbara Eck Menning.

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