Coping with the Holiday Season

Coping with the holiday season can be one of the most difficult challenges for couples and individuals struggling with infertility. Dr. Elizabeth Grill, Reproductive Psychologist shares her tips on making it through the next few weeks.

The holiday season emphasizes the celebration of birth (of Jesus and of the New Year), the celebration of miracles (like the oil of the temple which lasted eight days, in Hanukah), and the celebration of family. For those who are waiting for a birth that has yet to occur, waiting for a miracle of their own, and waiting for the creation of a family that has not yet materialized, this time of year may be particularly painful. Picture perfect scenes of blissful happy families, can further estrange couples coping with infertility, merely reminding them of what they desire more than anything but do not yet have.

Coping at Family Gatherings
Dealing with family can be one of the most difficult parts of the holiday season. Well-intended family members feel entitled to touch on private and painful areas with intrusive questions and “professional” advice. Family gatherings almost always involve children and/or the often-dreaded announcement of a new pregnancy.

Some suggestions:
• Limit your participation in family celebrations. If your family’s holiday traditions include children opening presents, you may want to come at the end of the gift-opening, or skip it altogether. If you want to limit the time and exposure to potential inquisitions from others, go for dessert but skip dinner.
• Give yourself protective space. If you plan to travel to spend the holidays with your family, consider staying in a hotel or with friends rather than with your parents or siblings in a home where all activities will focus on the needs, and interests of children.
• Consider some degree of openness about your infertility. If you think you might be ready to share your experiences with family members, this could be the right time. You might speak to one or two members ahead of time and let them spread the word, or simply answer probing questions honestly.
• Schedule time with children you really care about. Arrange to take the nieces and nephews that you are especially close with to a special movie or out to lunch so that you can enjoy them and your relationship away from the family and its "public" child-focused activities.

Prepare Yourself
• Talk with family and friends ahead of time. If you have told others about your experience with infertility, you may want to guide them by telling them what they can discuss openly and what you would prefer that they keep private. Explain to family and friends that you may leave early, come late, or go for a walk if things become too overwhelming.
• Set personal boundaries. Anticipate the questions that you will be asked and come up with one or two standard answers that you can provide family members that will hopefully make it clear that you do not wish to discuss the topic. For example, when someone asks, “When are you going to have children?” You can respond, “We’re working on it” or “When there is news to share you will know”.
• Choose family and friends wisely. Be aware of who is capable of being understanding and supportive, and increase your time with those people. Reduce your time with those who cannot provide the support that you need during this difficult time. You may be surprised to find that those you have always relied on for comfort may not be the same people that you turn to during this particular crisis in your life.
• Take this year off. If you don’t feel that there are any constructive ways to prepare yourself or others to make the events more enjoyable then ask yourself if it is really necessary for you to be there. If you are feeling particularly depleted or vulnerable, give yourself permission to protect and take care of yourself and say, "No, we really can't make it this year."

Change Your Focus
• Change the focus of the celebration. If you have a birthday or anniversary during the winter, spend time planning to make that the high point of the season. Or, plan a special celebration of a different public holiday such as an adults-only New Year's party, brunch or a Valentine's getaway weekend.
• Create new and personal rituals. Consider establishing a personal and private ritual or tradition that enhances your relationship and allows you to give to each other. It can be a special present, dinner at a restaurant inappropriate for children, a night with childless or single friends, a weekend away or simply a romantic night at home.
• Pick and choose your holiday "fun". You don't have to go to every party. Consider skipping the office party that features a clown, juggler, and a hundred toddlers.
• Pamper yourself. Do what makes you happy. Spend an evening in front of the fire, take a long bubble bath, get a massage, read, hike. Whatever lifts your spirits, do it, as a gift to yourself.
• Do something nice for someone else. Helping others often gives respite from your own troubles. Volunteer in a soup kitchen or shelter, take cookies to a nursing home, buy presents for a child whose holiday would otherwise be bleak, or invite a lonely neighbor for your holiday meal.

Remember, you and your partner are on the same team. It is very common for one member of a couple, typically the male, to want to do the usual holiday activities as a couple while the other partner, typically the female finds this prospect painful. If you find that the two of you are having difficulties communicating, you may also consider professional counseling. Create a language or signal for just the two of you so that when you are with others, you can signal to your partner when you need to leave or take a break. Most importantly, use Communication and Empathy. Don't lock your feelings inside. Share with your partner how these holidays are affecting you.

About the Author
Dr. Elizabeth Grill is Director of Psychological Services at the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility, and is Associate Professor of Psychology in the Departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Reproductive Medicine, and Psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

Dr. Grill lectures worldwide to patient and medical audiences and has published articles and participated in media interviews related to the emotional aspects of reproductive medicine. Most recently, she co-founded FertiCalm, a free mobile phone app that provides more than 500 custom coping options for over 50 specific situations which have the potential to cause distress throughout the family building journey.

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