During the years in which I underwent fertility treatments (while perpetually dreading Mother’s Day), I looked forward to a week in April dedicated to those of us struggling to have a child. For those seven days, I wrote on my public blog, discussing the ins and outs of my fertility journey and why we need to keep the conversation around infertility going. National Infertility Awareness Week was started by RESOLVE, a non-profit organization dedicated to infertility advocacy and support, in 1989. Infertility affects 1 in 8 couples, according to RESOLVE, and it’s likely that we all know someone who’s experienced it. We spoke with Rebecca Flick, Vice President of Communications and Programs for RESOLVE on the history of NIAW, along with several women on how NIAW has impacted their own journeys and sharing their stories to bring about understanding from friends, family, and the public.
What is NIAW all about?
Each year, a theme is chosen based around empowering people struggling with infertility. This year, NIAW’s theme, #InfertilityUncovered, is centered around bringing awareness to the lack of access to family-building options and emotional support. This lack of access can be due to not having insurance coverage or the financial means to pay for treatments out-of-pocket.
Infertility doesn’t discriminate based on gender, sexuality, race, religion, or economic status, says Flick, and infertility is addressed and resolved in many different ways. All of this is taken into consideration when a theme is chosen every year.
“People in the infertility community feel empowered by NIAW," Flick says. "When they share their story or even just update their profile picture to show support of the movement, it helps their friends and family understand more of what they are going through.”
The real women behind the NIAW movement
Heather Earl was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, in 2006 and she spent the next year undergoing fertility treatments. Failed cycle after failed cycle of treatment brought an end to her marriage and she’s now figuring out life without the child she dreamed of. She recently heard about NIAW through a Facebook post and this is the first year she’s felt empowered to share her story with and for others.
“Every story I’ve seen on infertility, the women eventually get pregnant,” she says, “I didn’t get pregnant. I’ve had to figure out how to go on with my life without kids, and with my marriage ending, I’ve had to start over completely. And I’ve had to deal with the emotions of inferiority to women who have children.”
NIAW veteran Elena Ridley has participated in NIAW since she started publicly sharing her struggles in 2012. A parenting and infertility blogger Ridley underwent numerous fertility treatments, including several rounds of IVF, before turning to donor eggs to get pregnant. She welcomed a daughter in 2017 and is currently in the process of having a second child.
“I feel as though I celebrate NIAW every day of the year because I continually share and advocate for infertility awareness and education about this disease,” Ridley explains. “The response from friends and family and the public have been overwhelmingly positive for me since the inception of my blog and our diagnosis of infertility. We have had very little negative feedback over the years and I consider us very lucky to have such a supportive tribe.”
Writer Megan Zander can relate. After a diagnosis of premature ovarian insufficiency (POI) and IVF treatment, she is a mother to twin boys. Each year, she uses the NIAW hashtag when sharing her own story or others that move her. She’s written about NIAW for parenting outlets and has published personal essays on her own infertility journey. She says NIAW is a time to acknowledge that no one should be alone in this.
“Obviously, there’s a feeling of being vulnerable,” Zander explains. “I've had a couple of strangers over the years call me selfish for choosing IVF over adoption, which never feels good. But I also believe it's so important to talk about it and to normalize the conversation around infertility. There's no stigma to having heart issues or lung issues or any other organ system that doesn't work like it's meant to. Yet with infertility so many women (myself included when I was first diagnosed) have this feeling of being 'less than.’”
Zander continues to receive messages from other young women with POI looking for someone to talk to. She wants them to know that the disease is manageable and motherhood is still possible.
“I think bringing infertility out of the shadows helps society to view it like any other medical issue rather than a moral failing,” she says, “My friends and family will ‘like’ my posts, but at this point, I'm sure they're sick of hearing me talk about it! For me, it's a week to acknowledge that we're not alone. It's always surprising to me to see how many people have infertility struggles.”
The Future of NIAW
NIAW has changed how we view infertility and the real people dealing with it. Having a baby sometimes involves a team of medical professionals, and countless injections. Normalizing the different ways babies can be brought into the world helps to bring about advocacy, compassion, and social change---hello, infertility insurance coverage! And since millennials have reached reproductive age, they will have a big role to play in the direction of NIAW.
“[Millennials] have access to reproductive health information at their fingertips,” says Flick, “and we hope they use that information to their advantage and help continue the movement to increase access to all family building options and to reduce the stigma around infertility.”
Modern Fertility is here for you now, with hormone test kits that can provide you with crucial information. Making health care decisions for yourself is empowering, and you can start gathering information now about your fertility to help you in your family-building journey along the way.