Please, stop with the positive vibes only. We need to talk about toxic positivity.
When I was diagnosed as infertile, it seemed like the logical option for me to tell people. I didn’t want to keep it as a secret; I wanted everyone to know what we were going through, if only to stop people asking us when we were having children. When I had my laparoscopy, I had not been on any form of contraception for 3 and a half years; we were newly married, and it seemed like everyone’s favourite question to ask when we were going to start ‘popping one out’, like it was so simple. I had found myself getting to the point of chuntering “not through lack of trying”, under my breath, and getting increasingly frustrated at family parties or social events when the topic became conversation. For me, making our struggle known was a form of control; it was a way I could make sure that people stopped asking me questions that made me go home, sink into bed, and cry at the fact it still hadn’t worked.
What I didn’t realise was that by telling people we were struggling, it made people uncomfortable. This was something that always confused me; my misfortune made them feel uncomfortable. However, with time I have come to learn that it is human nature. When someone is hearing about a situation that is alien to them, they don’t always know how to react, and when a person doesn’t know how they should react, they try to offer a solution. When they can’t do that, they become uncomfortable. It isn’t in our nature to immediately say “I’m here for you if you want someone to talk to”, “I don’t understand but I’ll listen”, instead, we offer methods of repair. We have now progressed into a time where we see Instagram and Facebook posts using the hashtags #PositiveVibesOnly, we see post after post claiming that if we read The Secret, if we manifest our perfect life, we will attract it, and we should only ever have a positive outlook. Where is the line? Of course, a positive mind, a clear vision, being upbeat and determined is so important and is often the thing that keeps us going every day, but we need to stop pushing that it’s the only way to live our lives. It is both okay, and so important, to feel to negative emotions. It’s okay to also acknowledge that things might not go to plan and things might not work out the way we want them to.
Toxic positivity makes reference to the ideology that the only way to live your life is through positivity, keeping your head up all of the time and keeping those negative thoughts at bay. It means rejecting the thoughts of disappointing outcomes, of any negative emotion, and focussing only on the positive. You might be reading this and thinking, ‘what’s wrong with that?’, but let me explain.
In the world of infertility and IVF, things don’t always work out the way we plan. We can keep trying, we can keep tracking our ovulation, we can fund as many cycles of IVF as we can afford to, but the fact of the matter is that it does not always work.
Unprotected sex does not guarantee a baby.
IVF does not guarantee a baby, and that is the sad fact that many people have to face.
It doesn’t mean they were not hopeful. It doesn’t mean they were not positive it would work. It doesn’t mean they didn’t put everything they have into trying. It means they had to stop. They had to stop for their own sanity; they had to stop because money wouldn’t allow it; they had to stop because it consumed every second of their day; they had to stop because Mother Nature decided it was over.
For every cycle of IVF I have had, I have had someone tell me that they just know it’s going to work for us; they can feel it in their bones. They tell us never to give up, or that it will work for us because it worked for their friend’s cousin who had been trying for 20 years without a penis or a uterus, and it was just a miracle. They tell me to stay positive. When we had our first cycle, I used to tell them “but it might not”, and still they would protest and tell me I was being negative, that it will work and the phrases repeat. It could be worse… look on the bright side… at least it’s not x, y, z… but the fact of the matter was, I was protecting myself.
When you avoid a difficult situation, you lose the ability to deal with it. You lose the ability to process what is in front of you. You might not know how you will react if the worst case scenario becomes a reality, but you’ve given yourself time to prepare. When people tell us that they just know it will work, when they tell us to simply stay positive and it will work, frankly, it comes across as ignorant. It builds a barrier and breaks down the rapport, making it hard to connect with the person dismissing your reality. It is increasingly hard to have a meaningful conversation with someone about how you feel, about your biggest fear and possibly the hardest thing you’ve ever had to endure with someone who is seemingly ignoring your emotions. They are delegitimising the trauma and the grief that comes with infertility.
We encourage people to talk. We live in a world where #BeKind trends whenever mental health occurs in the media, yet only when things have gone too far. We encourage people to talk and we retweet strangers telling the world to talk, telling the world that someone will always be there to listen, and yet when someone is talking about the lining that isn’t silver, people struggle to offer anything except a false sense of positivity. It’s as important to acknowledge those darker emotions as it is the brighter ones. It is not being negative. It is coming to terms with a very real possibility, and it’s allowing yourself to prepare.
By shutting the door on the fear, on the “negative” emotions, you are not stopping it from growing. You are allowing it to fester, you are allowing it to grow, and whilst of course it is not unwise to hope you never have to open that door, if and when you do – it’s so much bigger than it could have been. You can be hopeful that you will fall pregnant, you can go through fertility treatment feeling positive and optimistic, but you can also be aware of the fact it might not work.
It’s caring and it’s healthier to acknowledge the fear and to resign to our truth; the cautious optimism is so much kinder.
Find TTC and infertility support at Innovation Fertility.