Infertility and Toxic Positivity: Please Don't Tell Me to Stay Positive

This article was written by Tilly's co-founder Anna Sane for The IVF Warrior.

The belief that a positive mindset can solve most situations was deeply rooted in me early on. I was taught that focusing on challenges rather than possibilities will get you nowhere and that positive people are simply more fun. 

I still don’t believe this to be entirely untrue. Our mindset is a powerful tool and staying positive can help us in everyday life when we get challenged at work or miss a flight. But, if there’s one thing infertility taught me, it’s that when it comes to profound crisis and traumas, it’s just not that simple. In fact, telling someone who’s struggling to stay positive or that you’re sure things will work out, can be more harmful than helpful. 

I know - people mean well. I’ve probably thrown one or two encouraging comments at someone myself not realizing it just made them feel like the loneliest person alive. 

Over the four years that I suffered two early miscarriages, lost two babies post week 20, went through IVF and had to give up my genes, the feeling that no one understood was one of the most recurring ones, and by sharing my story and creating Tilly I hope to change that. 

In the beginning of my journey, I tried to apply my normal way of coping with challenges - accept it, move on, look forward. I told people I was hopeful, that all I could do was continue to live and that things could be much worse. I was ok, I said - I wanted no body’s pity. The truth is that with each day and with each loss and failure, I lost my sense of self. I didn’t want to attend dinners and listen to friends’ issues with putting their kids to sleep, much better to stay at home and google for eight hours. When pregnancy announcements dropped in, I don’t know what hurt the most - the fact that I still wasn’t pregnant or the fact that I just couldn’t be the supportive, engaged friend that I would have liked to be. When I think back to my sister’s wedding, the strongest memory is that I knew that my transfer had failed but I wasn’t 100% sure so I was still sober and took shots in the bathroom in between speeches. And the same goes for every party I attended, vacation I was on and holiday that passed during those years - I can tell you exactly which “fertility task” I was up to then because that’s what life was all about - the rest was just background music. 

Online communities and therapy helped me realize that my reactions were not a sign of me being weaker than anyone else.

I wasn’t overreacting, apparently everyone felt this way to some extent. That helped a lot, but I still struggled with the people close to me. When I tried to let others into the darker side of infertility, some kind of tips or reassurance always came right back at me. 

“Hang in there. It will all be worth it when you have that baby of yours.” 

“At least you’re getting help now, that must feel like a step in the right direction.”

“I’m sure it will work out; you will have the baby you’re meant to have.”

These comments didn’t help. Not because I didn’t agree in some ways. Of course, it would be worth it, otherwise I’d given up a long time ago. Of course, I was so thankful that we were one of the lucky ones that were able to afford treatment. And my god d*mn mantra was “Trust the process”. 

It’s just that when others told me this, they basically told me I wasn’t allowed to feel sad, drained and angry at the same time as I was feeling hopeful (yes, humans are capable of feeling many things at the same time). And after a while of being told what I should be feeling (positive and hopeful), I just stopped telling people how I was actually feeling (hopeful but lost) - it was much less triggering to just cry alone on a park bench. 

What I needed to hear? “That really sucks. I’m here to listen no matter how you feel.” No more, no less. 

My best tips:

  1. Use someone else’s words to explain to people around you. When I was in the midst of the storm, I didn’t have the energy to explain and instead sent podcasts or articles that I felt said what I wanted.
  2. Practice on validating your own emotions because no matter how much you educate people, it’s also impossible for them to completely understand. So, if you can convince yourself that your emotions are real and ok even if others don’t say the right thing, that’s a huge win. Tilly just launched an 8-week course filled with activities and tools that can help you with this. 

Some last words…

If you ever feel like a crazy person, remember that there is so much research proving that infertility patients show the same stress levels as cancer patients, that a majority report anxiety and even depression. You’re not alone. 


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