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Tips for Coping During the Holidays from a Fertility Counsellor

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Dara Roth Edney, MSW, RSW, Fertility Counsellor at TRIO, reveals tips for coping during the holiday season while experiencing infertility.

Transcript (*Note this is an automated transcript, please excuse any errors):

“Hi, I’m Dara Dara Roth. I’m a reproductive counsellor and I’m one of the counsellors with TRIO. Today we’re having an opportunity to talk about how to manage through the holidays when you’re dealing with and living with infertility and reproductive loss.
People have sent in some questions to TRIO, which is terrific. I know this is a really, really hard time of year, so I’m glad to know people are kind of looking for that support and reaching out for help.

1. How to say no to alcohol without people asking if you’re pregnant?

We got some really great questions. The first one is how to say no to offers of alcoholic beverages without everyone asking if you’re pregnant, great one.
There are a few options and the options really depend on where you are. So if you’re at a larger gathering, you can actually just say yes. People aren’t watching necessarily how much you’re drinking.

There’s sometimes people mention that there’s somebody in their family who keeps a close eye, but mostly, especially if you’re in a larger gathering, people don’t. And so it really isn’t the fact that people are watching everything that you’re doing. So my suggestion is if somebody says, oh, can I get you a drink? Just say, sure, and let them get you a drink. Then just don’t drink it. , if you’re there with a partner, you can have your partner take the drink and switch out drinks.

So, for example, let’s say you’re in a gathering where it’s people are sort of wandering around, milling about somebody offers you a drink, you take it, your partner has a drink, they drink their drink and then, or drink part of their drink and then switch drinks.

So it looks like you’ve drunk half your drink and you could just sort of like put your drink to your lips, if you’re somewhere where you are making a drink yourself, you can, for example, put soda in a put soda water in a glass, put a lime in, looks like a G and tonic. So sort of doing things like that where it looks as though you’re having a drink, , that’s always really helpful. If you have a drink in your hand, people won’t really say much about it. So that tends to be a fairly good strategy. If people are asking you, , if it’s later in an evening, you can say, oh, thanks, I just had one. Or, oh yeah, I’ve got one. I put it down over there. I’ll, I’ll go grab it in a minute. So those kinds of things can be really helpful.

It’s obviously more awkward at dinner because if you’re all sitting at a table, let’s say at a Christmas dinner, you’re sitting at the table, somebody comes to pour you a glass of wine, they’ll see if you don’t take it or not. So you could say, no thanks, like, I’ll get one, you know, with like later in the meal, later with dinner.

Or you could say, thank you, take one. And then put the drink to your lips so it looks like you’re taking a drink, but don’t put it down. And then at some point, you can get up to go do something. I don’t know, check something, let the dog out the backyard, or see if you can come up with a reason to get up with your drink. And then even like if you can get into a sink and pour a little bit down your drink. , so really sort of looking for ways that you can make it appear as though you do have that drink when you’re really not. Sometimes those strategies can help.

2. How do I go to the in-laws with my sister bragging about her kids?

I’ve got a second question here. How do I go to the in-laws with my sister-in-law bragging about her three kids and everyone being insensitive?

It’s always really, really hard to be around people who are, who have a lot of kids. It’s very difficult to be around people who are pregnant, particularly for any of you who’ve experienced losses, being able to do that or having the experience of doing that math where you realize how far along you’d be in your own pregnancy right now, or how old your baby would be right now, or if this time of year coincides with a loss that you had last year, all of that makes it so much more difficult.

I mean, I think one of the things I would say, which isn’t a direct answer to this question, but one of the things I always say is really think carefully about what it is that you actually have to do. So I think the first question to ask in that scenario isn’t how do I deal with my sister-in-law at Christmas bragging about her three kids, but do I actually need to go to Christmas dinner with my sister-in-law and three children?

Obviously, a lot of the time people feel like they do, and certainly, I don’t know everybody out. There are personal circumstances and there may absolutely be families and scenarios where you do have to go. I also know from my own experience with infertility, and my, my years of struggling before I had children, that often the things I thought I had to do, were customs that I did.

They were things that I had always done, and I felt pressure from people around me to do those things, but I didn’t actually have to. , and that took a long time for me to give myself permission to not do those things. It wasn’t without complications. People’s feelings were hurt, if people didn’t understand. But I do think it’s worth saying to yourself, who is being hurt the most when I do this thing that is hard for me to do?

If the answer is me, I’m not the one that’s hurt the most. It’s worth asking yourself if that’s okay. There is no path here, unfortunately, that will be without pain if you decide not to go to a Christmas dinner, at your sister-in-law’s, they may cause, that may cause pain and sadness and complicated feelings for your partner, for his family, for you if you also love your nieces and nephews and feel bad about not going.

But the question to ask yourself is, will it be more painful to go or will it be more painful not to go? So I, I do think that at its core, it’s a really important question to ask yourself. There are not a whole lot of benefits of COVID, but one of them is that it does present a fairly easy way out of a scenario this year.
If you don’t want to go to be able to say that you woke up with a sniffle and you just don’t wanna take a chance that it’s [a virus], to come up with a reason like that, there is a new variant out there.

The idea of gathering in a big group this year, as last, is not the greatest idea. So from a safety perspective, you certainly, you do have an argument that you could make in terms of that, so that’s sort of around like the precursor to the question, which is really asking yourself if it truly is something that you want to do that you feel like you can do to go.

The follow-up to that would be if actually, you do feel like you have to go and that it isn’t just like pressure or an expectation, but it’s something that you feel like is the right thing for you to do, my suggestion is to make sure you’ve got some protections in place around you. So for example, don’t go from let’s say your partner’s family Christmas dinner to your family Christmas dinner with no room in there to take a break for yourself, plan for whatever event you have that will be around somebody who’s pregnant or that will be around somebody who may be making a pregnancy announcement or somebody who has children that you have a follow up plan that is about your own self-care time to yourself or with your partner or with a close friend or something that will kind of nourish you a little bit instead of deplete you.

So you do have time to recover from what might be upsetting. And now finally, the question itself, which is how do you handle it? So if it’s possible for you to have an ally at the table with you, that can be really helpful so that an ally can be your partner. It can be a friend or a family member who knows that you’re struggling and they can, they can help move the conversation in [another] direction. So it isn’t always you sitting there feeling trapped and somewhat attacked and not able to switch the conversation. So that could be, for example, if it’s, the question was about a sister-in-law, so that could be, you know, if she’s talking about whatever, what great thing you know her kid did, that your partner can, after giving her a minute, switch the conversation by saying, oh, the funniest thing happened. Or, if it’s your mother-in-law that you feel comfortable with, she can say, oh, can you just come and help me in the kitchen for a minute?

Seeing if there’s somebody else that can jump in and kind of advocate, not in an obvious way, but by steering the conversation in a different direction, sometimes it’s not possible to steer a conversation in a different, in a different direction.

For example, if there are a few people in the room talking about it and it doesn’t, it feels too awkward or obvious to change the subject, even having somebody from across the room be able to look at you with a glance that shows you that you’re not alone, that somebody is with you, they have your back, they know that this is hard for you, your partner to kind of give your hand a squeeze, and even some discussion if you have a partner in advance about a plan.

For example, if it’s a scenario where you’re going somewhere and there’s gonna be a few people who are pregnant or a few people who have children, that you have had a discussion with, again, that ally, your partner or friend to actually help get you out of that situation. , and an excuse to leave early.

So I always think that’s really important to be able to set it up from the beginning. So, for example, I mean Christmas is harder because nobody is working, or I shouldn’t say nobody is working, lots of people aren’t working boxing day, but to have something in advance where you say, you know what, like, you know, you started having a headache earlier in the afternoon and you came and you’re hoping it’s good, but you know, you’re really hoping it doesn’t turn into a migraine. And then at some point to be able to say, you know what, I’m so sorry.

Like I thought I’d be able to stay for the night, but actually, my headache is getting a lot worse. So that kind of thing can be really helpful in timing your visit if you feel like you need to go. You don’t have to go for the whole thing. Can you show up late? Can you leave early? You know, how can you navigate the event so you don’t feel like you are at somebody else’s mercy in terms of your emotions for that entire time?

There’s so many good strategies, and I think they’ll apply to a lot of the next questions, but I’ll still read them out.

3. What’s the best way to deal or cope with pregnancy announcements?

So what’s the best way to deal or cope with pregnancy announcements from others and how do you manage your emotions when you see family members or friends who are expecting?

It’s always so hard and there are so many emotions that go into this. I mean, I think the first thing that I wanna say to anybody who’s struggling with this, which is I would imagine most people who are listening and watching this right now because it is a very common thing. You are not a bad person for having these feelings.

A lot of the time, the people that I speak to in my counselling sessions feel overwhelmed by these emotions. They feel like they’re not the person they used to be, that they used to identify as somebody who is kind and empathetic and generous and joyous for their friends. , and now they feel terrible for feeling jealous or bitter or angry. , and it makes them doubt the kind of person they always thought they are. And so, I really actually wanna start by saying that you are not a bad person.

Jealousy, anger, bitterness, they’re actually hard emotions like any other emotion. There’s nothing bad about having those emotions. It’s a totally normal reaction to what is an unbelievably devastating time in your life. So I think the first thing I would say is to be kind to yourself for having these feelings which are really normal and natural to have. There’s a big difference between finding it painful to hear about somebody else’s pregnancy, to find it unbelievably heartbreaking, to see somebody else’s child or pregnancy.

That is, that is not the same thing as wishing harm on somebody else. That’s not the same as wishing somebody else couldn’t get pregnant or something bad happened to their pregnancy or to their child. So again, t the first step is being kind and gentle with yourself in terms of the feelings that you’re having.

The second is a bit of proactive planning. So really anticipating like, is it possible that there is going to be a pregnancy announcement? You can’t always anticipate that it’s true, but it’s also true for example, that if you know, you’re getting together with somebody that you haven’t seen in a little while and they’ve been married for two years, it’s possible that they’re gonna have a pregnancy announcement. If you have a friend who has a child and you know, has always wanted a second child and her first child is about a year and a half, it’s certainly reasonable to think that at some point over the next six months or so, there might be a second pregnancy announcement.

So being a bit strategic in terms of who you’re going to see, and that also fits well with people who are asking questions about when you’re gonna have a child, is really kind of being strategic about what you imagine is going to be who you imagine is gonna be there, the questions you might get, and the announcements that might come if people in your life know that you’re struggling, even if they don’t know the details, if they know that you’ve been trying and haven’t had a pregnancy or they know that you’ve had a loss, sometimes it can be helpful to let people know what would help you.

This doesn’t always work, but people think that the best and the most respectful thing to do is to tell people face to face that there’s a pregnancy because they understand it might be painful to you and they wanna be respectful. For most of us who have been through infertility or loss, it’s actually the worst thing because, as was suggested in this question, the last thing you want is to burst into tears when somebody you love tells you that they’re pregnant. So it can be helpful if you think this is appropriate with the people in your life to actually send them a message in advance of the holidays or events of when you’re gonna be seeing people. And just say, you know, this year is, it’s a hard year, and this actually works this time of year. It doesn’t have to be just, you know, sort of holiday based.

If there is gonna be an announcement, you would really appreciate it if you can be, if they could let you know first. If they can send you an email and just let you know, so you’re prepared. And that the reason why that’s helpful is that when you hear their happy news, you really wanna be happy for them and you want the focus to be on them, and you want them to get the attention that they deserve from that happy moment. And if people are willing to do that for you, then instead of, you know, at Christmas dinner, somebody’s standing up and saying, you know, clink, clink, clink on their glass, they have an announcement to make an announcing a pregnancy, and then you’re there and everybody sees your reaction, then maybe, you know, that sister-in-law or sister or cousin or whoever it is, can send you that message beforehand and just say, listen, this is a heads up. I’m gonna be making this announcement tonight. And then you can decide either to sort of have your emotions and deal with them before you go, or if you decide you’re not gonna go, or if you decide you’re gonna go after the announcement is made, it, it gives you a bit more power in that. So I would say that just a bit of pre-planning and a bit of communication sometimes can be helpful.

4. What if people ask when I’m going to have kids?

The one thing you mentioned was, people asking when you’re gonna have kids, or how it’s going, or things like that. What would you recommend people say when they’re faced with those questions? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So again, I think a bit of pre-planning. So sometimes people tell me that they were just sort of really just taken aback by that question. And so again, sort of thinking about who is gonna be at the event that you’re going to.

If it’s a party where you’re meeting new people, they’re gonna ask you, do you have kids? If it’s somebody you haven’t seen in a long time, they’re gonna ask you what your plans are. If it’s somebody who’s newly pregnant, they may ask, when’s your turn? If it’s an older relative, you know, so sometimes you’re able to say, okay, based on where I’m going, I know I’m gonna get this question tonight. Other times it just, it does cast you off guard and there’s nothing you can do about that. I like again, and as a sort of maybe from my other answers, people are getting a sense that I do like to be prepared for these situations.

So coming up either on your own or with an ally, with a partner, somebody in your life. But mostly for yourself, come up with three levels of answers that you can give. The first level of an answer is a kind of non-answer that doesn’t give anything away about what you’re doing personally and doesn’t reveal any of your emotions. So that would be like, oh, we’re not ready yet. I’m focusing on my career now. You’ll be the first to know.

So sort of like a lighthearted, not really saying anything. Those work actually for a lot of people, I could say that for, for me personally, that answer stopped working very quickly because for me, I’m actually fairly an open person and I found I was too superstitious to say, we’re not ready yet, or we don’t want kids yet. That didn’t feel right to me.
I didn’t wanna say I was focusing on something else because I wasn’t. So that, that quickly sort of didn’t, didn’t work for me, but I also didn’t wanna spill everything to some random person who said that. So the middle level is where you acknowledge what’s happening in a very, very minimal surface way. So you say, actually, we love kids.

It’s not always so easy, but hopefully sometime soon or you say, actually, we’ve been struggling for a little while, but we’re with a clinic. It’s a great clinic and we’re really hopeful. Part of the trick with this strategy is if you don’t want to talk about it, which I imagine none of you do in these kinds of scenarios, you say your piece and then you turn the conversation.

So, for example, if somebody says to you, you know, how about you like, what’s happening with you? I thought you wanted kids. You thought you guys have been married a while. What’s going on? For you to say, actually it hasn’t been so easy. We really do want kids, but it hasn’t happened as quickly as we had hoped. But we’re still hopeful and we’re still, you know, we’re working with a clinic. How about you?

I thought I overheard you guys talking about going somewhere fantastic in the Spring. Like, what’s that about? Where are you going? So you kind of say your piece and then you pivot the conversation to something else, because otherwise when you say that the person then will otherwise if you don’t do that, the person will be like, oh no, I had no idea. I’m so sorry. Or they’ll ask you questions. So you say just that kind of minimal piece, but you’re giving them enough that they know something is going on.

The third option is what I call the nuclear option. It is not an option for the fainthearted and it is not an option that people will generally use. But it is one that I felt gave me, what felt like a bit of power in the conversation. I know that when I was going through this, what ended up happening was I felt, for lack of a better word, I just felt sort of paralyzed. Like people would ask me these questions and then I would answer however I answered and they would walk away from these interactions kind of like they had this lovely interaction with me and I would be like gutted from these questions. And so having this answer that, this sounds terrible, but having this answer that I knew would make them feel terrible, made me feel a little more in control of the situation.

I very rarely used it, but knowing that I could, and so a nuclear thing would be, you know, if somebody says very casually, and I don’t mean that this is a stranger at like a cocktail party, I mean, you know somebody that knows you, that knows you well and that really shouldn’t be asking you these questions says, so how about you guys? Like what about you? When are you gonna have a kid? And for you to say, actually, I just had a miscarriage, and then just like leave it like that. Knowing that actually you could say that you don’t have to, you’re not obligated to, but that does put it back on the person.
Like maybe that’s not a question you should ask. So I had my own version of that, and I often find that if people go into events with like three kinds of answers that like non-committal, lighthearted, kind of none of your business, not giving any information, the middle ground where you are acknowledging that there’s something going on that’s hard and you’re getting help. And then the nuclear, which will just shut them down, shut down the conversation, shut down the party, not one to use often <laugh>, but it, it can be helpful to know that you, you have the right to do that. It is not your job to always protect other people’s feelings at the cost of your own.
5. How to remain positive and present when others share pregnancy news?
So one last question: how do we remain positive and present when others share pregnancy news and just positive and present over the holidays? In general, staying positive is something that is so hard and it’s especially hard when you’ve been up and down through a roller coaster of a variety of losses and losses and fertility are not always reproductive losses in terms of miscarriages, , or perinatal losses. There’s all of the other losses, the losses of connection with friends and the losses of money and dreams and trips and there, there’s so much, it’s so, so hard to stay positive.

I think one of the things I would say is trying to look at specific things instead of overall huge things. I’ll give you an example. People when they look at an IVF that didn’t result in a pregnancy often look at just the outcome, like it didn’t work, it was a failure. And that is so awful. It’s also true that within an IVF that didn’t work in terms of the outcome, there may have been things along the way that did work.

So not everybody’s eligible or a candidate for IVF. Not every egg is retrieved, not every egg is fertilized. Not every embryo grows, not everybody gets to transfer. There are, there are actually a lot of points along the way where things can go right or things can go wrong.

And so part of saying positive I think is not only looking at one thing, but looking at all of the things. And my analogy for that would be a bullseye. If you think about a bullseye in the red center or the bullseye, if that’s all that you’re looking at, that’s all you see, which is everything is terrible. And it’s true that when you’re going through fertility, there are some significant, profound things that truly are really heartbreaking and devastating and terrible. It’s also true that if you step back from the bullseye and you look at the entire bullseye target, you see other things as well.

And what’s interesting about that is that this isn’t about looking on the bright side, it’s not about looking for silver linings. No matter how many things there are, no matter how big your target is, that red center, it doesn’t get smaller. It is the exact same size, and it is the exact same amount of awful. It’s also true that if you focus a little bit beyond that middle red bullseye, it allows you to see and feel other things as well.

So, for example, there’s a great exercise that was taught to me where you say, I feel like because, and then I remember that, so it could be. I feel brokenhearted because it’s another Christmas without a baby. And then I remember that I have a partner who loves me and we’re gonna be trying again in the New Year. Or, I feel devastated because we had a recent miscarriage and then I remember that I have a new protocol I’m gonna be starting. And truthfully, even if this feels like it might be the end of your journey and that’s why this is painful, that’s also still true.

That this is the hardest time being in this kind of nowhere where you don’t know what’s happening. And to be able to say, I feel like this because, and then I remember, I remember that I’m strong, I remember that I have gotten through things before. I remember that I have good friends who support me. I remember that I’m not alone. I remember that a New Year gives fresh starts and new opportunities. So giving yourself an opportunity and a chance to consider those things. I also ironically think a good way of staying positive is not forcing yourself to always stay positive. I’m not a fan of that.

There is now that term toxic positivity. So I think part of giving yourself an opportunity to have positive emotions is giving yourself a chance to not, you have a right to spend a day in your pyjamas, you know, eating ice cream and crying and watching Netflix. , you have a right to skip events. You have a right to take care of yourself. And doing that actually is what gives you an opportunity to build up resilience. Like, just like people can’t do, they can’t lift arms, they can’t do weightlifting with their arms every day. They need to go to legs some days. You know, you need to trade-off. So the idea of saying, okay, you have this big thing where you have to put on a happy face and try to be positive. Okay, the next day be gentle with yourself.

Give yourself a space to feel some of your feelings. They’re powerful, they’re profound, and that can give you the space to say, okay, today I’m gonna get up and I’m gonna remember that it’s a gorgeous day outside. I’m gonna go for a walk.
That’s not gonna make your infertility or your loss better or easier. But what it will do is possibly give you some space to feel or to think of things other than what you’re going through. So you have an opportunity to build up some of that resilience that will make it all manageable as you move forward.

5. What fertility counselling services do you offer?

I offer different kinds of counselling support. I support people obviously through all of the emotions around infertility, and around loss, miscarriage, perinatal loss, etc. I speak to people to help with decision-making.

So as people are figuring out do they wanna do IVF, do they wanna do donation or surrogacy, do they wanna take a break? Like what, what do they need to do right now? Speaking with couples in terms of coming to decisions together and communication, and also when people do decide to move on to egg donation, sperm donation, surrogacy or any of those things, all the counselling that’s required as part of that and, and the IVF counselling.

So there’s lots of opportunities to connect, to get support and to help understand yourself and your circumstances better. I can be reached either by phone, (416) 697-3191 or by email at And I hope everybody really makes it a priority to take care of themselves this season. There’s always stuff going on. There’ll always be new holiday seasons and new family gatherings and opportunities for that. And this is really a year where it is appropriate to put your own mental health and well-being first and make choices that actually are about your comfort and your emotional health and safety.”