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Bittersweet Joy: Post-Infertility Parenting

Laura Bencivenga gets livid when her husband grumbles about their toddler waking them in the night. "He'll mutter something under his breath, and I'll say, 'How can you say that? We worked so hard for this,'" she says. "I guess I don't feel we have the right to complain."

Infertility is a heartache shared by over five million couples in this country. Thanks to advances in technology, however, pregnancy and parenthood are now possible for more than half of these families.

Possible, perhaps, but seldom easy. Infertility treatment can involve years of powerful drugs, hormone injections, and an alphabet soup of such invasive procedures as IVF (in vitro fertilization), GIFT (gamete intrafallopian transfer), and ZIFT (zygote intrafallopian transfer). Many couples also grapple with difficult decisions about whether to use donor sperm or eggs, or even a surrogate mother.

These high tech routes to parenthood, collectively known as assisted reproductive technology (ART), often don't work, but they do result in more than 16,000 babies each year in the U.S. alone. Studies show that ART babies are as healthy as those conceived "the easy way." It's their parents who have the experts concerned.

"Infertility and years of aggressive treatment can leave wounds that don't entirely heal," says therapist Ellen Glazer, coauthor of Choosing Assisted Reproduction: Social, Emotional, and Ethical Considerations, and the mother of two daughters, 14 and 17, one through adoption and the other with the help of fertility treatments. "You make promises to yourself like, If I'm ever a parent, I'll never complain, I'll always be patient, I'll never take my child for granted."

Such unrealistic expectations aren't restricted to the previously infertile, of course; nor are separation anxiety or worries about a baby's health or one's competence as a parent. But years of fertility treatments can dramatically inflate not only expectations but also insecurities and fears.

Midnight grumblings aside, Barrett Bencivenga, of Short Hills, NJ, admits to a painfully intense protectiveness for his 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Caroline: "We're so lucky to have her, I feel I have to make sure nothing happens to her." When Caroline was learning to walk, Daddy became her shadow, his outstretched arms trying to keep gravity at bay. "At work, I find myself worrying about where she is and what she's doing," he says. Not just once in a while, but many times throughout the day. "I don't want to be stifling," he says. "I know she needs to explore her world."

Acknowledging such feelings can be tremendously helpful, according to infertility and adoption educator Patricia Irwin-Johnston, author of Taking Charge of Infertility. "Parents who have worked through the medical as well as emotional ramifications of infertility, and who understand how their losses can continue to play a role in their lives, are among the best parents I know," she says.

Contributing editor Jessica Snyder Sachs is a science and health writer and the former editor of Science Digest.