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Fertility stress & the holidays: How to protect your mental health

A reported 61 million women (and 1 in 6 couples) will have difficulty trying to conceive. But behind that incredible — and for those of us who struggle with infertility, somewhat comforting — statistics are countless stories… including mine.

For four years I struggled with secondary infertility, experiencing three miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy before having my second child. And in those four years it was the holiday season that proved to be the most difficult to endure, especially when it came to maintaining my mental health. From well-meaning family members who just couldn’t help but ask intrusive questions, to being around pregnant friends and scrolling past baby announcements, the holiday season was a minefield of potential pitfalls that would send me spiraling towards anxiety and depression.

Thankfully, there are ways to check in with yourself during this notoriously busy time of year, and even more ways to deal with fertility stress during the numerous (and often obligatory) holiday family gatherings this season requires.

Infertility isn’t the only source of stress when surrounded by family. From navigating the aftermath of pregnancy loss to being pressured to have more children, how fertility stress impacts your mental health is “incredibly person specific,” Dr. Carly Snyder, M.D., a reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist, tells me. But Snyder does notice an increase in stress during the holiday season.

“I think there’s an increase in anxiety around the holidays because of family discussions,” she says. “Very obviously well-meaning but misplaced questions like, ‘Oh, when are you going to have a baby?’ and, ‘Haven’t you guys been trying for a long time?’ are common.” And of course, there’s always that one know-it-all family member who just can’t help but give you unsolicited advice, sharing “fertility diets”  or giving you the name of that so-called guru. “It just leads to a lot of anticipatory anxiety before family events because women and couples are anxious about what they’re going to have to face.”

Whether you’re trying to get pregnant for the first time, navigating the disappointment of another pregnancy loss, cringing at the thought of someone asking when you’re going to give the family their first grandchild, or, like me, dreading the moment someone begs you to give your child a sibling, it’s important to remember that you matter. Outside of any reproductive outcome, fertility struggle, or pregnancy experience, you are a person worthy of love, space, and grace who deserves, above all else, to maintain their mental health. Here’s how you can do that.

Don’t go at it alone

“Lean on your partner, and allow him or her to lean on you,” Snyder says. “Remember that if you keep everything inside, it makes it harder. You have support [people] if you look for them. People really do want to help, and people have been there.”

When necessary, my partner would run interference with his nosy family members, and when my loved ones asked one too many questions my mom would often change the subject, sometimes on cue.

“Allow your partner, if he or she is willing to, to be kind of your bodyguard,” Snyder explains. “So, if you know that there’s a certain family member who has a little bit of a disinhibition for example, or doesn’t know better, have you partner be there and just, you know, block.”

While it’s common for those of us with uteruses to feel isolated and alone in the midst of fertility stress – like it all falls on our shoulders – there are people who are willing and able to help. Let them.

“Remember that if you keep everything inside, it makes it harder. You have support [people] if you look for them. People really do want to help, and people have been there.”

Be direct

If you feel comfortable, establish what is on and off limits before the festivities. “If you feel comfortable talking about it, the best way to go about it is to say, ‘Listen, here’s where we’re at. We’re on top of it. We’re not looking for anymore advice. We’re in the best hands.’” Snyder says. “You set up, from the get-go, what you feel comfortable discussing.”

Modern Community member ShaKira "Vee" Bailey, 35, used a video to let friends and family know that she didn’t want to talk about her pregnancy loss. “Eventually I got to the point where when they would start talking about babies, I would walk away,” she tells me. “I also sent a link to a video I'd made just after the miscarriage where I said: I'm hurting. I don't want to talk about it. Don't mention it.”

Whatever way works best for you, establish boundaries that ensure your mental health doesn’t suffer and then hold your friends and family to them.

“If you feel comfortable talking about it, the best way to go about it is to say, ‘Listen, here’s where we’re at. We’re on top of it. We’re not looking for anymore advice. We’re in the best hands.’”

Spend time away from family

If you have a partner, Snyder encourages you to take some time away from the loud family gatherings and spend time with just the two of you.

“Especially around the holidays, if you can find time to go away together, have time just the two of you, take it,” she says. “And, you know, have fun! You’re allowed to have fun. It’s OK. Sometimes there’s a sense of, ‘This is all I should be focusing on.’ And that doesn’t have to be.” These breaks don’t have to be substantial, either. “Go out for a walk,” Snyder says. “Just sort of say you need a few minutes. A lot of times, we’re so worried about what other people are going to say or how people are going to feel about our actions that we don’t try. But that’s, you know, that’s a mistake, frankly.”

Bailey encourages people experiencing fertility stress during the holiday season to “take a day. Take a week. Hell, if you have to, take a month. Sometimes the best thing you can do is walk away from those putting pressure on you, so that your body can do what it does naturally. Breathe. It's all going to be OK.”

"Sometimes the best thing you can do is walk away from those putting pressure on you, so that your body can do what it does naturally. Breathe. It's all going to be OK."

Ask for help

“If there’s a question about whether or not you’re doing OK, there’s no harm in asking for help,” Snyder tells me. “There’s never a downside to speaking to someone.” Snyder says that therapy can also be beneficial.

Kat, 28, another Modern Community member, says that therapy has helped her since experiencing a miscarriage after 13 cycles of actively trying to conceive. “I have a great therapist who's been walking me through how to ask for what I need at this time,” she tells me. “I think I'm probably not the only woman who tries not to take up too much space or be too much work for people or demand anything from the people in their lives, but I'm working on realizing that right now, it's OK to be selfish.”

ShaRonda, 40, also encourages people to reach out to people who aren’t necessarily part of their family or immediate friend group. “Joining a support group helps, where it’s online or in person,” she tells me. “Talk with others like you is helpful, at least it is for me.” If you’re in the need of an online support system, Modern Community is a welcoming space for people to connect with each other and talk about fertility and life.

Check in on yourself

It’s important to notice any potential signs that the holiday season is negatively impacting your mental health. “If you find that much of your day is spent focused on the fertility process in a negative way,” Snyder says, it’s time to establish some boundaries, ask for help, and perhaps remove yourself from the situation. “If your anxiety or your sadness is the most prominent thing, where you can’t turn it off, where all of your interactions or the majority of them are being colored by this fertility journey, where, for example, your sleep is impacted or your appetite,” Snyder continues, it’s time to make a change.  

It can be difficult to notice, among the chaos of the holiday season, if you’re struggling, so take some time to ask yourself how you’re doing and what steps you can take to make sure your mental health doesn’t deteriorate.

Write down your attributes

When you’re feeling fertility stress, it can be easy to tie your sense of self-worth to your reproductive experiences. Snyder encourages people to remember that they’re more than their ability or choice to reproduce. “Remind yourself that you’re more than your fertility status,” she says. “Literally write it down. I think the visual reminder is important. Write it out, ‘I am more. I am and whatever phrase will help you remember your value.”

"Remind yourself that you’re more than your fertility status."

Do your own thing

Yes, the holiday season is usually reserved for family time… but it doesn’t have to be. “If you find that anything is making you more anxious, anything is making you upset, don’t persist,” Snyder says. “If it turns out that being around your family is incredibly hard, then give yourself grace and say, ‘You know, this year maybe we’re going to do our own thing.’ You deserve to feel as good as possible and if this is too hard...it’s OK. You’re going through a lot and you deserve to protect yourself.”

"You deserve to feel as good as possible and if this is too hard...it’s OK. You’re going through a lot and you deserve to protect yourself."

Remember, the family members who love you – the ones who are not toxic or potentially harmful – are going to understand. Your mental health deserves to remain a top priority, so whether it’s traveling somewhere remote for the holidays or staying at home with your partner and your partner only, do what works best for you this season. You’re worth prioritizing.

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Danielle Campoamor

Danielle Campoamor is a reproductive justice and abortion rights advocate & writer published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, CNN, NBC, Newsweek, Teen Vogue, and others.

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