The Myth of Magical Thinking

(Trigger warnings: miscarriage and stillbirth)

April 19-23 is National Infertility Awareness Week in the U.S.A.

When you’re trying (and failing) to have a baby, people can say a lot of ridiculous things to you, some of them well-meaning, some of them not. To mark NIAW, I was originally planning to write a post about things not to say to an infertile friend, but the topic’s been extensively covered elsewhere on the internet (examples here, here, here, here, and here). The sheer plethora of such posts does suggest that perhaps we’re still having some trouble getting the message across.

I decided instead to focus on one particular area of “advice” that I think is particularly pernicious, even though it is almost always offered out of a true sense of compassion and a desire to be helpful.

Magical thinking.

A standard definition of magical thinking “is the attribution of causal relationships between actions and events which cannot be justified by reason and observation”. You hear two pieces of bad news and wait anxiously for the third because “bad things come in threes”. You bring an umbrella because that guarantees it will not rain. You wear lucky socks to a big job interview and give them the credit for landing the position.

Magical thinking abounds in the world of infertility. Proponents of it will say things to an infertile friend along the lines of:

“You need to stay positive and visualize a good outcome.”
“You need to imagine holding your baby in your arms.”
“You need to focus your positive energy and send it out into the universe.”
“You need to make a vision board.”
“You need to read The Secret.”

Here’s the problem: “advice” along these lines carries with it the erroneous assumption that if the friend just worked harder at positive visualization, she’d overcome her infertility and be able to build the family she wants. (I’m using ‘she’ here because, in my experience, the vast majority of unsolicited advice concerning infertility comes from women and is directed at women. I’d love for men to share examples they’ve had directed at them in the comments.)

The onus is on the patient.

That’s not just unfair and untrue: it’s a cruel thing to say to a friend.

I’m sure these comments partly arise because friends can see that this is a stressful and emotionally wrenching process, and they know that stress is detrimental to pregnancy outcomes.

The thing is, anyone undergoing infertility treatments knows that stress is detrimental to pregnancy outcomes too. There is a whole new level of stress created when you’re stressed about not getting pregnant and then stressed about being stressed because that might be the reason you’re not getting pregnant.

It is exceptionally difficult to be at a fertility clinic and undergoing invasive medical procedures and NOT feel stressed by this. It is stressful to load your body up with hormones. It is stressful to keep track of a complicated medical regime. It is stressful to have to take time off work for cycle monitoring. It is stressful to have your entire schedule (including your sex life) dictated to you by someone else. It is stressful to pour your heart and soul (and wallet) into something you want so desperately knowing all along that it might not work, despite everything.

Infertility patients know that stress is bad. They don’t need to be reminded of this.

One of the hardest things to cope with when it comes to infertility is the loss of control.

For many women, infertility is the first time in their life they haven’t succeeded at something.

And the cruel truth about infertility is you can do everything in your power to change the outcome, and you STILL might not succeed.

You can spend the entire two week wait before your blood test meditating and visualizing and sending out positive energy, and if the embryo(s) didn’t implant in your uterus, nothing you do is going to change that.

You can give yourself the best odds possible by following to the letter the instructions of your doctor, but ultimately you cannot control whether or not a particular cycle will work, or an embryo will implant, or a fetus will grow to term and be born alive.

So why do we persist in telling women struggling with infertility, “Stay positive! It’ll happen!”

I understand that we are trying to be supportive, but exhortations to “visualize the outcome you desire” or “make a vision board” do nothing but add to the illusion that we are somehow in control of our bodies.

And if we are in control, that means that we can heap guilt on ourselves and our bodies when the cycle fails, the pregnancy test is negative, the ultrasound shows there’s no longer a heartbeat.

If we are in control, it’s our fault when it doesn’t work.

Here’s the cold truth: magical thinking doesn’t work. Some much-wanted pregnancies don’t end with a healthy baby, and some people never get to have the family they planned for.

Staying positive and visualizing a good outcome didn’t prevent one of my friends from discovering at an ultrasound at eighteen weeks that her baby no longer had a heartbeat.

It didn’t erase the devastating results from another friend’s anatomy scan, which revealed that her baby would die at birth.

It didn’t stop my miscarriage, which was probably the closest I’ll ever get to a second child.

We cannot will a pregnancy into being, no matter how hard we try. If we could, we’d all have the families we so desperately desire.

Let’s stop lying to ourselves and to our friends.

Let’s acknowledge (as scary as it may be) that we cannot control the outcome of this process.

Let’s stop spreading the myth of magical thinking.

Featured Image Credit: ~dgies, via flickr.


Angela spent her early thirties trying to keep her head above water while raising her son and finishing her doctorate. With the PhD in hand and her son about to head off to school, she now has to figure out what comes next. She lives in a southern part of the Great White North with her husband, her son, and two Antipodean cats.

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  1. First let me say that I am so sorry for your struggles. I am sorry for your friends who have also had issues with infertility, miscarriage, and stillbirth.

    My son died 33 days after he was born. We were lucky to get to take him home for a couple weeks of hospice care before he passed.

    There is a lot of magical thinking that goes on, and for me it’s a struggle to balance pragmatism with hope. For now, I’ve landed on a “one day closer” mantra. Whether it’s a child conceived naturally, with medical intervention, adoption, or foster care, every day I’m one day closer.

    1. Elizabeth, I’m so sorry. I admire your strength in continuing to move forwards. The trouble with hope, I’ve found, is that it’s addictive. It makes it very hard to walk away.

      1. Thank you. And yes, hope does make it hard to walk away – but it’s hard to walk away anyway! Where I seem to be right now (which changes, and changes for everyone), is I’m trying to be hopeful and somewhat happy when I can be, because I’m sad / anxious / depressed enough as it is. While being hopeful doesn’t mean I’ll get pregnant any sooner (or ever), it’s a more comfortable way to be than my other current alternatives (pissed, frustrated, reclusive, etc.). That being said, when anyone external to me and my husband says things like, “I just know it will work out”, I want to punch them. Hope is my choice. Assumptions that everything will be fine and the story will automatically “work out” are not helpful from others. It feels minimizing.

  2. M yfirst pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, as so many do. The crap I got to hear afterwards was incredible. It wasn’t only people with good intentions, but also people who didn’t know I had a miscarriage who simply voiced their opinions on “not meant to live” “better not to live” and basically how this was usually the best outcome. Their biology was crap (hey, totally healthy fetuses can get miscarried because the pregnant person sufferes from a thyroid condition), their reasoning was worse.
    What those people don’t understand is that their words don’t only hurt, they kill. After the miscarriage I was on a support forum. We held each others hands because basically, we were the only people who understood. One day, the husband of one of the women came online to tell us that his wife was dead. She had lost another pregnancy and had killed herself.
    You tell women that their main goal in life is to have children, that a woman who doesn’t have children is incomplete and when it doesn’t work you also tell her it’s her fault for not having been positive enough. When I got pregnant again after the miscarriage, I was of course very nervous. I never experienced “happy pregnancy” after the miscarriage again because unless I was at the doc’s and they were telling me that “hey, everything is fine” I was worried and anxious.
    My mother thought it was helpful to inform me that I needed to be more positive and less stressed because I was hurting the baby.

    Elizabeth, I’m sorry for what you had to go through. My best wishes are with you on your way.

    1. Giliell, I sympathize. I don’t think I’m likely to be pregnant again, but if it happened, I can’t see how I would be able to relax until that baby was in my arms- alive and healthy. And that’s knowing that stress is bad for pregnancy! I’m so sorry, too, for the loss of your friend. My new f/s just had a conversation with me about how we would move forward (if we do) and he took very seriously how I had coped (or not) with the miscarriage and what I thought would happen to me if it happened again.

  3. The Magical Thinking imperative permeates healthcare issues. My husband (who is in his early 30’s) recently suffered a heart attack due to a rare and previously undiagnosed condition. People – I assume they were well meaning – kept telling me to stay positive, even while he was still in the ICU. It was maddening and everything I could do not to claw their eyes out. There’s not much to be positive about when you don’t know if your spouse will get to see his kids graduate from high school. I cannot WILL his condition away no matter what energy I send out in the universe and I reserve the right to be as sad as I effing want, thank you. I think people are just really uncomfortable with tragedy. They want you to tell a story where you overcome the odds and triumph in the end. Of course, that’s not how the world works – sometimes the odds kick your ass.

    1. I’m very sorry to hear about your husband. That must be terrifying.

      I think you are right that people struggle with knowing how to cope with tragedy. One thing my long history with infertility has taught me is: the universe is random. It’s not fair. Life’s not fair. And sometimes you get a really shitty hand dealt to you.

      I really hate the “God/Fate doesn’t give you more than you can handle” line. People become overwhelmed by their lives every day.

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