‘Graduating’ From an Infertility Support Group?

Expect a mix of happiness and resentment.

Credit...Cornelia Li

This story was originally published on Dec. 4, 2019 in NYT Parenting.

Andrea Syrtash, a dating and relationship writer who lives in New York, was diagnosed with endometriosis at age 14, so she’d always known that getting pregnant would be difficult. When she and her husband first started trying about a decade ago, she told him it might take a year, even two. She had no idea her struggle to conceive would include 18 fertility treatments over a seven-year period, stomach surgery to remove a fibroid tumor covering her fallopian tubes and ovaries, and several miscarriages — or that she’d ultimately find herself unable to carry a pregnancy to term.

Two and a half years ago, in year six of her treatment, Syrtash started a blog called Pregnantish. Syrtash strove for a frank and accessible tone, aiming to build what she describes as a credible lifestyle site that publishes diverse voices documenting extraordinary paths to parenthood.

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The blog grew quickly into a hub for people struggling with infertility where they could talk honestly and openly about their struggles. Pregnantish also organizes live events around the country, which routinely sell out. Between her work on Pregnantish — which now reaches between 200,000 and 300,000 people a month — and her active presence in various Facebook infertility groups, Syrtash’s identity became intimately bound up with a circumstance she was trying desperately to change.

“I never wanted to be an infertility spokesperson,” she said. Yet infertility is now “part of my identity and my public voice. It has been my story. I was open about the fact that I didn’t have answers and I didn’t know how I’d meet my baby, if I ever met my baby. And that was part of, frankly, my brand.”

This is the strange paradox of infertility support groups: Unlike other kinds of support groups — for example, groups for grieving spouses or former alcoholics — fertility groups exist to help their members cope with a difficult circumstance that they’re also actively trying to change. If you’re in a group of sober alcoholics and you relapse, it’s cause for additional support and concern. If you’re in a group for infertility and you get pregnant, it’s theoretically cause for celebration — but it can be emotionally difficult for those members who are left behind.

“We are very careful on how we construct our conversations,” said Jen Soch, who has run a peer-led infertility support group in New York City for a decade. “If someone has had a positive, or is graduating, we talk to them beforehand and we always wait until the end of the meeting to announce it.”

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As a result, belonging to an infertility support group can be both sanity-preserving and crazy-making. Amy Klein, who wrote the forthcoming book “The Trying Game: How to Get Pregnant and Get Through Fertility Treatment Without Losing Your Mind,” joined several infertility support groups on Facebook while trying to get pregnant with her now 4-year-old daughter. She found the groups both offered emotional consolation and served as a place to vent your feelings about people who got pregnant easily or family members who were insensitive about making their own pregnancy announcements. But Klein also found it hard to be happy for a friend announcing a pregnancy.

“My husband was like, ‘Why can’t you be happy for her? It doesn’t take away anything from you.’ And I was like, ‘I’m not that good of a person,’” Klein said. To that end, many online fertility forums have a separate tag for posts called “‘Ments,” Klein explained, which is short for “announcements.” A post labeled “Good ‘Ments” — typically someone announcing she’s gotten pregnant — signals that it contains news that might be difficult for some members to read.

When good news happens, resentment can creep in for other members — as well as guilt for the person making the happy announcement. Dorothy Nelson, a university lecturer in Arizona, had difficulty with her first pregnancy, so when she decided to try for No. 2, she joined a Facebook support group. But the second time around she got pregnant without difficulty. “You feel a bit guilty,” she said. “But then, I’ve been on the other side, where you’re seeing people that started out at the same time as you, and theirs works out, and you want to be happy for them but you’re also just sad for yourself.” Some online groups institute rules against staying in the group after your first ultrasound at around six weeks. “If they’re past that mark, some members get really angry,” Nelson said. “They report you to the administration, or just get really snarky.”

Syrtash learned firsthand what it’s like to leave a community that you’ve helped define — and which has come to define you. When her first cousin agreed to carry an embryo for Syrtash and her husband, Syrtash had to face the difficult task of telling her online community that she was finally expecting. “I said, ‘I feel funny sharing this with you guys, but I also need to share it with you first.’ I didn’t want my audience to hear about it somewhere else,” she recalled, describing the process of revealing the news as “coming out.” “I’ll never forget when I shared on Pregnantish that I was expecting,” she said. “I was bawling when I was writing the posts. I was like, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I feel for so many of you.’”

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Word spread, and soon the news of her pregnancy launched a dedicated Reddit thread. A Google alert kept her apprised of all the things people who were still struggling through their own infertility posted online about her news. “They were upset. It was ‘Oh, it just proves everyone in the world is pregnant but me,’ or ‘Oh, I want to kill myself.’ It was hard for people because they didn’t think I’d leave. They thought I would never be on ‘the other side.’”

Even the arrival of her daughter hasn’t severed her identification with the movement. “I’m still infertile,” Syrtash said. “You always hear these phrases like, ‘You beat infertility.’ But I still physically cannot carry an embryo to term. So I’m still infertile. That’s one thing that I wanted to say back to the message boards: ‘I’m not on the other side. I’m still with you guys.’”

Carina Chocano is the author of “You Play the Girl” and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.