A support group for couples is working to end the silence, stigma and shame of infertility.
Lynn Polin, the founder and creator of Kindred Beginnings, a family-building support group, tells Weekend TODAY's Kristen Welker she knows exactly what it feels like to want so desperately to start and expand a family, only to endure failed in vitro fertilization (IVF) attempts and pregnancy loss.
"My husband never wanted children," Polin told TODAY Parents. "So to go from never wanting children to having to go through six years and 10 rounds of IVF and a loss and a failed foster-to-adopt... it was a lot."
While in therapy, Polin told her therapist there had to be a way for more people experiencing infertility to support each other.
"Everybody needs that one person," Polin explained. "And my therapist kind of did her therapist thing where she made it sound like my idea, but it was really her idea. She said, 'Hey, why don't you start a local support group?' So I found Resolve, the National Infertility Association, and applied to be a peer-led support group leader."
Assuming next to no one would attend her first meeting, Polin was shocked when nine people attended her inaugural session.
"That's how I got started," she added. "I turned my pain into power."
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Polin, who now has two children, became a certified integrative fertility coach and founded Kinder Beginnings, to provide couples experiencing infertility and other reproductive challenges with an "online community of safe, free spaces."
"I always say that amazing things happen when we surround ourselves in shared community, because that connection just shows us that we're not alone," Polin said. "Other people are going through similar experiences and have had similar feelings, and we can just support one another and lift each other up in love and support and connection."
A reported one in eight couples will have a difficult time becoming pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term, according to the The National Infertility Association. And while one 2017 study found that trouble conceiving can bring couples closer together, another study of 50,000 Danish women found that couples experiencing infertility are three times more likely to end up divorced.
One reason for the strain infertility and issues conceiving can have on relationships is the different ways men and women often cope. For example, one 2006 study found that women use "confrontative coping, accepting responsibility, seeking social support and escape" skills, while men rely on "distancing, self-controlling and planful problem-solving" techniques.
Ashley Muneanu, who tried for four years to get pregnant before welcoming her son, 4-month-old Rhys, to the world, told TODAY that experiencing difficulties trying to conceive put a strain, at times, on her marriage with her husband, Adrian.
"He's always been very supportive and very sweet, but you just become this little angry ball of energy," Ashley said. "Sometimes I didn't want to talk to anyone. No one touch me. Don't look at me. Don't think about me. Just let me be mad over here. So I think it did put a little bit of a strain at times, but it did ultimately benefit us. We were stronger through it."
Ashely and Adrian's experience is one Polin sees frequently in the experiences of many of the couples who attend the support sessions, which are created in part to help couples learn how to openly discuss how they're feeling about and processing their specific fertility issues.
"What I realized is that the guys just want to fix it," Polin explained. "They don't want to see their wife or female partner having to navigate all this. So, there's a need for open dialogue and men coming together in a shared space."
Briana and Bill Helgestad, who have been trying to build their family for six years and who also attend Polin's sessions, say that therapy helped them better learn how to communicate during the ups and downs of trying to conceive.
"Bill is a very present, in-the-moment person through our journey," Briana told TODAY. "I'm the Type A, the planner, the control freak."
Bill says that learning that "each person grieves in a different way" helped the couple better communicate during the most challenging moments of their ongoing fertility journey.
"Some people really need to talk about it," he added. "There are some people who want to keep it in."
Polin says that learning how to communicate as a couple can help people remember that they are human beings and not the sum of their reproductive struggles.
"One of the things that I will always remind people is that they were a person before this, and a couple before this," she said. "You will never be that person or that couple again, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. And most likely, you've gotten away from the things that they love because this is all-consuming."
Polin suggests couples take physical breaks — go for a walk, read even one chapter of a book — and set aside specific times to discuss their fertility struggles.
"It could be that every day, you allow 30 minutes, an hour, whatever, to only talk about fertility and family issues," she added. "Outside of that time you've allotted, there is no discussing it."
Those breaks will not only keep communication lines open, but will make it easier for couples to discuss their fertility issue when they're ready, willing and able.
Those open discussions, Polin says, will work to de-stigmatize what is a common medical condition for so many people across the world.
"Infertility is as common as breast cancer," Polin said. "So the more that we are open about it, the more common these discussions become, the more accepted it becomes. Communication itself will shatter the stigma and shame around it, which is what National Infertility Awareness Week is all about."
If you or someone you know is experiencing infertility and/or having trouble conceiving, here are some places where you can find online support:
- Resolve.org is part of The National Infertility Association.
- Call The National Infertility Association Hotline at (888) 623-0744.
- You can also find support groups at ReproductiveFacts.org.
- Find more online resources at kindred-beginnings.com/resources/.