Skepticism

Cross-Post: The Myth of Magical Thinking

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally posted on Grounded Parents and is written by Angela about the pervasiveness of magical thinking in the infertility community. If you want to read the rest or leave a comment, click through the link at the bottom of this post!

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(Trigger warnings: miscarriage and stillbirth)

April 19-23 is National Infertility Awareness Week in the U.S.A.

When you’re trying (and failing) to have a baby, people can say a lot of ridiculous things to you, some of them well-meaning, some of them not. To mark NIAW, I was originally planning to write a post about things not to say to an infertile friend, but the topic’s been extensively covered elsewhere on the internet (examples here, here, here, here, and here). The sheer plethora of such posts does suggest that perhaps we’re still having some trouble getting the message across.

I decided instead to focus on one particular area of “advice” that I think is particularly pernicious, even though it is almost always offered out of a true sense of compassion and a desire to be helpful.

Magical thinking.

A standard definition of magical thinking “is the attribution of causal relationships between actions and events which cannot be justified by reason and observation”. You hear two pieces of bad news and wait anxiously for the third because “bad things come in threes”. You bring an umbrella because that guarantees it will not rain. You wear lucky socks to a big job interview and give them the credit for landing the position.

Magical thinking abounds in the world of infertility. Proponents of it will say things to an infertile friend along the lines of:

“You need to stay positive and visualize a good outcome.”
“You need to imagine holding your baby in your arms.”
“You need to focus your positive energy and send it out into the universe.”
“You need to make a vision board.”
“You need to read The Secret.”

Here’s the problem: “advice” along these lines carries with it the erroneous assumption that if the friend just worked harder at positive visualization, she’d overcome her infertility and be able to build the family she wants. (I’m using ‘she’ here because, in my experience, the vast majority of unsolicited advice concerning infertility comes from women and is directed at women. I’d love for men to share examples they’ve had directed at them in the comments.)

The onus is on the patient.

That’s not just unfair and untrue: it’s a cruel thing to say to a friend.

I’m sure these comments partly arise because friends can see that this is a stressful and emotionally wrenching process, and they know that stress is detrimental to pregnancy outcomes.

The thing is, anyone undergoing infertility treatments knows that stress is detrimental to pregnancy outcomes too. There is a whole new level of stress created when you’re stressed about not getting pregnant and then stressed about being stressed because that might be the reason you’re not getting pregnant.

It is exceptionally difficult to be at a fertility clinic and undergoing invasive medical procedures and NOT feel stressed by this. It is stressful to load your body up with hormones. It is stressful to keep track of a complicated medical regime. It is stressful to have to take time off work for cycle monitoring. It is stressful to have your entire schedule (including your sex life) dictated to you by someone else. It is stressful to pour your heart and soul (and wallet) into something you want so desperately knowing all along that it might not work, despite everything.

Infertility patients know that stress is bad. They don’t need to be reminded of this.

One of the hardest things to cope with when it comes to infertility is the loss of control.

Click here to read the rest of this post or to leave a comment at Grounded Parents!

Mary

Mary

Mary Brock is a scientist who works on drugs you've hopefully never heard of. She enjoys cooking to Blue Grass music, messing with her cats, and hosting the Boston Skeptics' Book Club. She was born in the South but loves living in New England (despite the lack of chocolate chip pizza). Mary does not use Twitter and don't even try to follow her, because she is always looking over her shoulder.

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