Have you ever heard someone describe a very black-and-white situation by saying, “it’s like being pregnant - you either are or you aren’t”? Pregnancy is just one of those things: there’s no way to be only a little bit pregnant. If you’re like most people, you think of infertility in much the same way: you either are or you aren’t. Surely there’s no way to be only a little bit infertile, right? Wrong.


“Secondary infertility” can be a surprise to many women for this very reason. Medically speaking, secondary infertility refers to the inability to conceive or carry a pregnancy to term even after a woman has one or more children already. If you’ve already experienced one or more successful pregnancies but are struggling to conceive again, here are some things to bear in mind as you tackle this less well-known side of infertility.


It’s normal to feel frustrated. VERY frustrated


In some ways, secondary infertility can be more difficult to deal with than not being able to conceive from the outset. The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that almost 4 million American women have one biological child but can’t manage to fall pregnant again. That’s more than the number of women experiencing primary infertility! To make matters worse, doctors are often left scratching their heads as to why this happens.


TIP: it’s only natural to become curious about the reasons you can’t conceive. But be kind to yourself, and remain mindful of the language you use to talk about your situation. Gently stop yourself from asking, “what’s wrong with me?” and instead focus on trying to understand your situation a little better, without placing blame.


Your fertility is unique - and so are your emotions


Trying to learn more about your situation, however, can leave you with a keen sense that you don’t quite belong in any one category. You might find it difficult to identify with childless couples but also with other parents. Straddling two worlds, it may feel like your problems lack legitimacy. The feelings this realization can bring up are often powerful and confusing. For example:


  • People around you may subtly or not so subtly suggest that you stop complaining because you already have a child, leaving you with the impression that you’re not really allowed to want another, or that your pain isn’t “as bad” as that of a family with no children at all.
  • Your relationship may take a knock and you may find friends and family unsupportive or dismissive. After all, can’t you “just adopt”?
  • You might wonder if it’s God’s plan. In the absence of a medical explanation, you may be tempted to think that you’re fated somehow to not have another child, and even start to wonder if you’ve done something wrong to deserve what you’re going through.
  • You may feel resentful or bitter, even disbelieving at times.
  • If new health concerns are involved, for example a diagnosis of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, you may have to deal with compromised fertility on top of your feelings about that illness.
  • You used to think of yourself as a parent, and perhaps never doubted your ability to conceive again. Having to completely alter the life path you imagined for yourself can feel like the rug’s been pulled out from under you. You may all at once feel rudderless, confused about the future or even a little cheated.
  • You may feel sad and wistful, recalling how it felt to be pregnant in the past.
  • Lastly, because secondary infertility often comes down to age, many women experience guilt and a feeling of regret around their choices. Infertility may be an unwelcome reminder of time passing, and jealousy of other families may set in.Maybe you even start to play the dangerous game of, what if…?


TIP: in the face of all these challenging emotions, it can be hard to sort through the incongruence of the situation and find a way forward. But one thing is clear: your situation is yours and yours alone. No two families are alike. In fact, your vision of your own family might itself be changing!


So go easy on yourself. As much as possible, avoid beating yourself up with “shoulds”. Try to look at the situation with acceptance and compassion, and forgo comparison with others around you or with your own idealized picture of how your life should be. Now’s the time to let go of old hopes ...but also to fashion new ones. It may be painful, but slowly start to allow thoughts of an alternative future to develop in your mind.


Anchor yourself in the present


Something you may be surprised to discover is how differently you look at your life after a secondary infertility diagnosis. What seemed just fine yesterday suddenly feels all wrong today. And when it comes to the children you already have, this can leave you with a double whammy of guilt. Does wanting more children mean you don’t love the ones you have?


Of course not! Parenting while struggling for another child is a question of finding balance. Though your heart may be torn in two different directions, many parents actually find that their existing children can actually make the situation easier to bear.


TIP: separate out your feelings of disappointment from your feelings towards the family you already have. Allow yourself some “worry time” every day to think about your concerns, but use the children already in your life as an anchor back into reality. You’d be surprised how good children are at reminding you to stay aware in the present!


For many families, secondary infertility can feel like life has thrown a cold bucket of water over them. But your situation, no matter what it is, is far from hopeless. How you choose to move forward, how you edit the story of your family life and what you expected, how you deal with loss and disappointment ...these will be your own unique challenges.


It may be a long time before you either conceive or come to terms with not having another child. But take solace in the fact that every new morning, you can find fresh resolution. The future will unfold as it will, but we can always commit to being compassionate and mindful, today.