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.
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.