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Healing the Infertile Family:
Strengthening Your Relationship in the Search for Parenthood

by Gay Becker

Book review Copyright 1998 by Matt Chamberlain, CMFT


Gay Becker, Healing the Infertile Family: Strengthening Your Relationship in the Search for Parenthood. (University of California Press, 1997). Order on-line


Healing the Infertile Family: Strengthening Your Relationship in the Search for Parenthood
by Gay Becker
Order on-line

Have infertility issues taken over your life? So much so that you question your sense of self, the nature of your relationship with your partner, your families, your friends? Has infertility come to symbolize failure and caused you to reevaluate values and goals you previously felt to be intractable? Has it colored how you view the world and feel about life?

If you're like the 10% of couples who want to have children and can't, the answer to the above questions is probably yes. Whether the culprit is male infertility, female infertility or "unexplained infertility" this 1997 updated reprint of Gay Becker's Healing the Infertile Family can help. Written in fluid non-technical language and liberally enhanced with case examples, this University of California medical anthropologist brings perspective, insight and calm to a topic that can seem lacking in all three--especially when you and your partner are caught in the firestorm of infertility.

Once the dream of naturally creating your own family doesn't go according to plan and disrupts the natural order of your lives, where do you turn? Couched in the context of cultural and gender expectations and stereotypes, Becker walks us through the process of de-stigmatizing infertility, of reordering and redefining our values, goals and perspectives. She skillfully uses a frame borrowed from lifecycle developmental theory which suggests that it often takes a crisis in our normal course of socio/cultural/psychological development to help us grow. And often help us grow up!

For many couples the struggle with infertility is just such a crisis. Along with the expected and normal developmental tasks we face throughout the lifecycle (leaving home, marriage, birth of children, parenting, etc.) which often create enough stress to shake our sense of normalcy, infertility is an unexpected stress that rocks the foundation of our identity. And poses further questions: What does it mean to be a childless woman or man? Who will we be without children? What is it like to adopt? Will our relationship survive?

The stresses triggered by infertility often cause us to blame our partners or retreat into depression, withdrawal and victimization. More hopefully, they also trigger an examination of self that can lead you both to explore new and challenging ways of being together, creating a relationship and family you'll both define in new ways. Becker's research suggests that most couples come through the process with mature and strengthened relationships, regardless of how they've redefined family.

Becker offers a balanced view of the effects of infertility from the perspective of both genders. While it is a myth that infertility is a woman's issue, much of medical practice remains focused on women in terms of emotional support and actual medical treatment. Especially around the issue of emotional support, men are often ignored or forgotten. This is sometimes due to preconceived attitudes among medical providers. However, it is primarily the case because men face the stigma of "male infertility" with much denial, avoidance, fear and ignorance reinforced by cultural and gender stereotypes. For example, powerful cultural messages suggest it's our duty to reproduce and that it should be easily accomplished. If we can't we'd better not go public with that information, or seek help with the problem. Trying to "go it alone" only contributes to feeling isolated and disconnected from your partner and others.

It's hard to overemphasize the importance of men becoming an integral part of the process from beginning to end, regardless of how their involvement is perceived by the medical establishment or any particular healthcare provider. Go to medical appointments with your partner, ask questions regardless of how naive they may appear, read, join a support group with your partner. Above all, learn to acknowledge and express whatever feelings may be present. Assert yourself!

Healing the Infertile Family is a hopeful guide for those lost in the maze of infertility. It's a tale easily and well told about a difficult issue which brings much distress to many people. Oh yes, what's the answer to the question posed above: Where do you turn when things don't go according to plan? You turn toward each other. And if that's hard, you ask for help and support to guide you to the solution that works for you both. No one is to blame in this process. Be easy with one another and persevere.

I have read this book after a 4 year journey with my wife through unexplained infertility and can recommend it in hindsight as a great source of validation for what we both experienced. I only wish I'd read it at the beginning of our process as a source of insight and reassurance.

Matt Chamberlain, CMFT is a Seattle-based marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with a variety of men's issues, including the emotions surrounding male infertility.


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