When One Isn’t Enough (Tips for coping with secondary infertility)

Secondary infertility can be a lonely road to travel.  Don’t get me wrong; I know first hand that primary infertility is lonely as well.  But the second time around was lonely in a much different way.

I was ambushed with emotions that were difficult to share without hearing, “count your blessings” or “you’re lucky you have one” in response.  I knew that to be true.  I was one of the lucky ones.  I battled infertility and survived.

But I desperately wanted a sibling for my little girl. I wanted another small voice in the house.  I wanted another baby to hold.  I was lucky once again.  I did get my second chance.  But the third time?  Not so lucky.  Again, count those blessings.

3 million Americans are currently battling secondary infertility.  3 million.  That’s a lot of couples walking this road, but not necessarily together.  That’s a lot of, “count your blessings” and “you’re lucky to have one”.  That’s a lot of loneliness.

Women struggling with secondary infertility experience a range of emotions and feelings, including (but not limited to):  Disappointment, shock (it wasn’t so hard the first time), guilt (I already have one; I don’t want this to affect my existing child), isolation (I can’t talk to people about it without be minimized), depression, anxiety, and anger.

It can be hard to cope with these emotions when one or more children need your love and attention at all times (it often feels this way).  It can be hard to keep a marriage strong when young children zap most of your energy and infertility treatments and/or stress zap the rest.  It can be hard to feel heard and understood when people are quick to respond with clichés and point out what you have.  It can be hard to find support when you know that others are still battling primary infertility, and you already have one or more.  It can just be hard.

There are steps you can take to help reduce the stress and isolation associated with secondary infertility:

1.    Label it:  The best way to understand what you’re going through is to call it what it is.  Acknowledge that you are experiencing secondary infertility.  Label the feelings that you are experiencing.  This is not to say that you should tell everyone you know (unless you want to).  Labeling it makes it real. Labeling it makes it a diagnosis versus a secret.  Labeling it might help you begin to confront it head on.

2.    Grieve:  Sometimes secondary infertility comes in the form of multiple miscarriages, other times it means months and months of trying with no results.  Either way, it’s sad and overwhelming at best.  Give yourself permission to grieve the losses and/or the loss of the family that you are trying to create.  Grieving the current circumstances does not mean that you are giving up on adding to your family, it simply means that you are allowing yourself to experience the feelings associated with the infertility.  Often times, couples experiencing secondary infertility try to avoid the stress by focusing on what they have.  While this might help them to get through the day and enjoy the small moments, it doesn’t take away the stress, anxiety, and depression that often result from infertility.  Give yourself permission to confront and cope with those feelings.

3.    Focus on your marriage:  Infertility affects the whole family; it is not an individual battle.  Often parents go to great lengths to protect their existing children, sometimes at the expense of their own relationship.  Plan date nights and time to reconnect with your partner.  Talk about your struggle and how it’s affecting your marriage, but be sure to make room for discussions that do not revolve around family expansion and monthly cycles.  It can be hard to step away from infertility once you’re in it, but it’s very necessary to keep your relationship thriving.  Try to tap into the reasons that you fell in love in the first place.  Get away if you can, or plan a staycation if you can’t.  The best thing I ever did the first time around was to take a leave of absence from my job and go on tour with my husband.  We found each other again during those six weeks and were stronger for it.  Make room for couple time.

4.    Routine:  Children pick up on stress quickly and will respond with behavioral changes, sleep issues, potty training issues, and eating issues.  The best way to help your child during this time is to develop and stick to a structured routine.  Take the guesswork out of each day to reduce the stress for your child.  Plan special outings and make an effort to focus on your child during playtime.  Sometimes a daily tea party is all it takes to help your child know that everything is ok.  Find those small moments and take a break from the infertility thoughts to just be in the moment.

5.    Exercise:  Less stress improves fertility.  That’s a fact.  Daily exercise can help reduce stress and anxiety and improve symptoms of depression.  That’s another fact.  Find a way to work in at least twenty minutes of daily exercise to help reduce your stress.  If you’re trying to get pregnant you are not worrying about weight loss, but you should be thinking about stress reduction and good health.  Choose an activity that you enjoy.  If it’s a chore, it won’t seem worth it and you might avoid it.  Find a friend, join a class, or start a group…just get some exercise.

6.    Increase your support network:  Although secondary infertility is mentioned on occasion, primary infertility takes up most of the media coverage on the subject (not that there’s that much to begin with).  This can make it hard to discuss the subject with others.  Reach out to close friends and family members.  Consider joining a group (many hospitals and religious organizations now have groups for women battling infertility).  Consider individual or couples counseling.  The fact is that secondary infertility is extremely stressful, and it’s very difficult to go through it alone.  There are many therapists trained to work with couples and individuals living with infertility.  Ask your OB/Infertility Specialist or check with your local hospital for a referral.  Talking about it helps.

7.    Be honest:  Infertility remains a secret society, which makes it hard to get the support that you need.  Break the silence.  Tell family and friends what you need.  People don’t always know what to say, but they can learn.  Describe your feelings, the treatments you are undergoing, and specifics about how people can help.  If you can’t make it to yet another birthday party because it’s too overwhelming…say that.  If you need a night out with a friend, ask for it.  Your support system can only be as supportive as you allow it to be.  Ask for help and be specific.

8.    Find an outlet:  Everybody needs an escape once in a while, and the TV will only get you so far.  Write, read, take a cooking class, take up photography…you get the point.  Find another outlet that allows for some “me time” and helps you focus your attention elsewhere for a while.  I read a lot the first time around, I baked a lot the second, and now I can’t stop writing.  If you do choose a TV break each day, I truly recommend the Ellen Show.  Ellen DeGeneres helped me through many long, lonely nights before Riley finally arrived, and for that I am eternally grateful.

How has infertility touched your life?     

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)


  1. […] offers the premier academic and travel summer program in Florence, Italy for college students.Practical Parenting var wpdstat_id='30107-19169'; document.write(unescape("%3Cscript […]

  2. […] This post originally appeared on my other site, Practical Parenting, on November 4, 2011. Filed Under: Infertility, Secondary Infertility Tagged With: coping with […]