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Tips from 1 Latter-day Saint therapist about coping with infertility after she was unable to have children

Editor’s Note: Shelly Johnson-Choong is a social worker and therapist who specializes in helping women who experience infertility. She has also experienced infertility in her own life. In the following letter, she shares some of her personal experiences on this topic and gives insight on how to cope when unable to bear children.

Dearest Sister,

This is one of the hardest letters I’ve ever written. It taps into one of my deepest sorrows and most difficult life trials. If you, as a wife, have longed for children, I suspect your feelings are similar. In writing this letter, I hope to assist those who might be striving to cope with infertility as well as those who know someone who’s dealing with this pain.

If you’re able to have a child in the future, I offer you my heartfelt congratulations. But if you are in that minority of women who, for whatever reason, can’t have children, I offer you the comfort that you are not alone—even though you may often feel isolated. I also submit a few supportive tips that I’ve learned as a Latter-day Saint woman who has been unable to have children. These are things that I wish someone would’ve told me when I was in my 20s and 30s and trying so hard to have a baby.  

1) Please recognize that you and your husband are already a family. President Russell M. Nelson has stated, “There is great power in a strong partnership. True partners can achieve more than the sum of each acting alone. With true partners, one plus one is much more than two.”  

Often in the church, we equate children with family. But children alone do not make a family. Love does that. If you’re working on creating love within the walls of your home, you are a family. This may be a hard thing to internalize when we receive so many messages that can make us feel as if we’re incomplete without children. But your ability to reproduce doesn’t determine your worth or the love the Lord has for you. His love and the love you have to offer is part of your personal and sacred legacy. 

2) At your own pace, consider exploring and grieving your current loss. Because of the cyclic nature of infertility, our emotions are often a roller coaster of anxiety, anger, disappointment, sadness, uncertainty, and fragile hope. These tender feelings can often be accompanied by grief.

Sometimes, we try to resist grief and mourning because it’s a complicated experience, often associated with death and dying, and it can be scary. To grieve may feel like giving up.

Being willing to grieve your current ordeal surrounding infertility isn’t about resignation or closure. Instead, it’s about learning to tune into and acknowledge what is painful right now, in the present moment, so it can be appropriately recognized and treated with gentle self-compassion and kindness.

This doesn’t mean you will always have cause to grieve but be willing to make space within yourself when those feelings come calling. Grief and mourning are healthy ways to open yourself to comfort (Matthew 5:4), which is imperative to healing and discovering joy. If you’re having a normal grief experience—where your feelings are raw and painful but you’re not living in constant despair—you’ll find that by making room for your sadness you are actually clearing a space for emotional healing.   

The opposite is true if we try to resist or deny our difficult emotions in the effort to avoid feeling them. We can’t find true joy if we’re spending our energy trying to block our challenging emotions. This action closes us off and trades all our emotional experiences, including joy, for becoming numb.

When we try to cherry pick our feelings, we make our world smaller, and we decrease our ability to be feel desirable emotions, including joy. Even love can be diminished. As Lehi described, there must be opposition in all things (2 Nephi 2:11). This includes emotion. Let yourself feel.

3) Remind yourself that infertility is not your fault. Often, when faced with the denial of a righteous desire, we can wonder what sin or misdeed we have perpetrated to close the heavens. Sometimes, we’re even asked this question by well-meaning but thoughtless family or ward members. But infertility is not a punishment for wrongdoing. Heaven doesn’t work this way.   

The Lord loves you. His only interest is to have you home with Him after this earthly schooling. Your Father in Heaven knows how best to serve you, which He manifests by offering the gift of His only Begotten Son. Christ’s Atonement is our best chance for healing from the suffering and pain that comes from infertility, and the Lord fully desires us to utilize it (Alma 7:11–13). He is infinite in His love and in His vision, and He knows the goodness of your soul and the strength of your spirit. We can help Him in this effort by dismantling the shame and faultfinding that comes with infertility.

4) Find a purpose outside of children. I was in my 20s when I learned my condition was “unexplained infertility,” which is basically a diagnosis without a diagnosis. The doctors had no idea why I couldn’t get pregnant. Because my infertility condition was unexplained, I held on to the hope that I could get pregnant . . . someday. I had never thought beyond becoming a mother, and I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out my life while waiting for that hoped-for pregnancy. I put off the idea of applying myself toward other worthy goals and desires, such as education, fostering worthwhile talents, or finding fulfilling work. I didn’t want to commit to something meaningful and then have to quit if I became pregnant. This kept me from starting my education until I was 47 years old and I had completely given up any hope of having a child. Looking back, I see the shortsightedness of this approach. My life wouldn’t “begin” with pregnancy. My life was unfolding every day and becoming a mom didn’t require other worthwhile goals to be abandoned.  

Regardless of what your personal situation or diagnosis may be, don’t put off other life goals or pursuits. Move forward with your education. Find your dream job. Take on that new hobby. The Lord has a purpose designed for you right now! Take Him up on it, and you might discover that in spite of this trial, you’ll be surprised by moments of peace.  

5) Counsel with the Lord in everything (Alma 37:37) and rely on His wisdom (Alma 29:8).  After my initial diagnosis, I began infertility treatments, which required the use of a well-known fertility drug. I took this medication for three months, becoming severely ill with every possible side effect without getting pregnant. I was discouraged when my physician told me we needed to double the dose of this medication. In that moment, something whispered to me that I shouldn’t continue treatment, so I told the doctor to wait before writing the prescription.

I spent quite a bit of time in contemplation and prayer and received the inspiration that I was to discontinue all infertility treatments. I was shocked and heartbroken. This was my best chance at getting pregnant, and I didn’t understand why the Lord wanted me to stop working toward having children. It had taken me months to get into this program, and my insurance was paying for it. None of it made sense. It took a great deal of faith to listen to that still small voice, but I dropped out of the program. 

Several weeks later, a new medical study came out stating that women who had taken this drug for over three months without a pregnancy had a greater risk of ovarian cancer. In that moment, I understood that the Lord knew all things, and because of this, He knew what was best for me. Even though this was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, and there was still a high degree of heartache and uncertainty, I found comfort in knowing the Lord was always on my side, even if a desired blessing was being denied.

There are more choices for infertile couples today. Prayerfully discuss all options with your spouse and the Lord, including fostering, adoption, infertility treatments, or doing nothing. Let the Lord guide and direct your path (Proverbs 3:5–6). As our Counselor, He can help us consider all options, including children, when it comes to our eternal family.

► You may also like: How facing infertility helped this mother see unexpected blessings in her own life 

6) Advocate for yourself and what you need. If you have friends or family who are also trying to get pregnant but have not struggled with infertility, consider having a conversation with them to let them know that your journey will be different from theirs. Communicate with them about how you’d like to hear the news if they become pregnant. Do you want a private text? Would you like to chat face-to-face online or have a phone call? Do you want an invitation to their baby shower or other celebrations? Hearing about a friend’s pregnancy in a group setting or on social media can be excruciating. You want to be happy for your friends, but there can be a rush of difficult emotions that maybe you’d prefer to process in a different setting. By tailoring the news to fit your circumstance, you can lessen the impact that can come from a friend’s announcement and celebration. This is just one example but consider having an honest and heartfelt discussion with your friends and family about what you need.

7) Find a way to talk about your experience—but choose wisely. Not everyone can be helpful in these circumstances. It’s the same with other trials. Some folks have a hard time understanding depression, anxiety, illness, loss, or a host of other difficulties. So, carefully consider who will be a good fit for what you want to share. If you’re not comfortable talking about it, you may want to start processing your experience by writing about your feelings in a journal.   

Another option when it comes to talking with others may include joining a community for women who are dealing with infertility. In the Church, we can often feel alone with this burden. Everywhere we turn, we’re faced with conversations, lessons, talks, and activities that revolve around children and parenting.

As Latter-day Saint women, we are taught that motherhood is the pinnacle of womanhood. For those of us who can’t have children, we’re often left feeling alone, incomplete, and inadequate, as if we’re not a woman in the fullest sense of the word. These experiences can make attending church difficult, as well as strain marriages and other family relationships.

Finding other women who are dealing with infertility can give us a place to gather and remind us that we’re not alone. It can help us create connections that offer a protective factor against depression. Start with social media or associate with others who live near you. If you can’t find something that fits your needs, consider starting your own group.

If your feelings are morphing from sadness into despair or depression, or you’re having a hard time managing the day-to-day tasks of your life, then it might be time to talk with a therapist. Please, seek help if you’re overwhelmed, if your marriage or family life is under pressure, if you are having a difficult time coping with the stress of infertility, if you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, or if you just need a safe space to unload.

These are some of the things I wish someone would’ve offered me in my 20s and 30s as I struggled with feelings of anger, isolation, confusion, and heartbreaking loss that comes with not being able to have children.

When we recognize that love completes a family, it can help us remember that we are enough in the eyes of the Lord. As we stretch ourselves to find a purpose and live in the present moment, shake off faultfinding, and learn to rely on the Lord, we’re stepping closer to creating the life we’re meant to live now. Finding the courage to ask for what we need and reaching out to others who might also be suffering expands our ability to both cope and to feel empathy for the experiences of others. When we partner with the Lord in all our endeavors, He will lead us toward confidence in the choices we make around our eternal families. That effort can help us create some peace as we discover our unique path toward our personal legacy of joy.

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Shelly Johnson-Choong, Contributor

Shelly Johnson-Choong, MSW, is a therapist with a private practice in Washington State. Shelly specializes in helping clients through anxiety, depression, and women's issues (including infertility), caregiving, and other challenges facing Latter-day Saints. You can learn more about Shelly at mentalandmindfulhealth.com.

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