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Bittersweet Joy: Post-Infertility Parenting

"A" Is for Anxiety

Infertility can shake a person's self-confidence to the core. "Many of the couples I see had been very successful in their lives," says Judith Kottick, counseling coordinator for the department of reproductive medicine at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, in Livingston, NJ. "Then infertility hit them and shattered their rosy view. Many struggle with feelings that they're somehow incapable and that they were never meant to be parents." Admits Laura Bencivenga: "The experience of infertility has never left me. I still second-guess myself on everything that has to do with being a parent."

Some parents who've been through a series of infertility treatments become overanxious about their baby's health. Janet Moller (not her real name), of Boston, confesses to steering her 9-month-old son clear of playgroups and crowded restaurants, where germs may abound. "The prospect of anything happening to this baby is too terrible to imagine," she says. After eight years of trying, Moller and her husband had a child with the help of a surrogate, who donated her egg and also carried the baby to term. "It's as if years of miscarriages and failed attempts at pregnancy have robbed these parents of their naivete that things will be okay," says Judith Lewis, Ph.D., a nurse researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University. "They expect things to go wrong."

It may be no surprise, then, that midnight finds more than a few such parents checking to make sure their baby is still breathing. "I know all parents do it occasionally," says Margo Rush, of Shelton, CT. "But I do it a lot more than most." Rush's son, Jonathan (now 20 months), was born after five miscarriages and four years of infertility treatment. "I think it's still in the back of my mind that I might lose him, that this is too good to be true."

After two years of infertility treatment and a heart-wrenching experience with fetal reduction, Michael Stevinson found himself afraid to hold his newborn twins, Douglas and Michelle. "He never talked about it," says his wife, Pamela. "But I know he was scared to get attached, afraid that they might die too."

In a recent study of previously infertile mothers, Lewis found that 90 percent brought babies home to nurseries so sparsely furnished, some didn't even have a crib. She calls it "vulnerable parent syndrome." It's as if these parents fear they'd be tempting fate if they let themselves embrace the reality of pregnancy and birth.

In many cases, feelings of fear and denial begin to subside in the first days or weeks after birth. Occasionally, Lewis says, they linger longer.

For some, a feeling of impending doom magnifies separation anxiety. "Other parents tend to look back on their childless days with an easy fondness," says Glazer. "They look forward to having time to themselves again, if only for an occasional night out. But for infertile couples, revisiting the feeling of being 'without child' can be terribly painful."

Glazer encourages such parents to be patient with themselves. "There will be times when it will feel easier to let go and others when you'll need to hold on," she says. "It's part of a process that will go on for years."