We can’t have children, and I keep thinking about starting a support group for childless couples in Vancouver. I got the idea because I have to write a paper for one of my social work courses.
The more I work on this paper (which isn’t 100% complete, and which is due in three days), the more I think how healthy and good it would be to connect with other couples who can’t have children!
If you’re interested in connecting with a childless couple (I don’t like the term “childfree” because it wasn’t our choice), let me know in the comments section. I live in North Vancouver, and would want to stay on the North Shore. Plus, I believe there are other infertility support groups in Vancouver proper.
If you’re a social work student (undergrad or grad), you may be interested in seeing what I’m handing in for Social Work 502 (Social Work Practice). I like to share my work :-) For instance, I wrote a policy brief for another social work class: Sample Policy Brief: The Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI) in Canada.
Here’s what I would do if I was starting a support group for couples coping with a childless life…
Support Group for Couples Coping With Infertility
Infertility is frequently defined as the inability to achieve a pregnancy after being exposed to the risk of conception for at least 12 months. Infertility affects 10-15% of the population; the prevalence of infertility is increasing in Canada (Bushnik et al, 2012).
Once thought to be a “woman’s issue”, infertility is becoming accepted as a problem that affects men and women equally. According to the Mayo Clinic, infertility is due to causes involving only the male partner 33% of the time, causes involving only the female 33% of the time, and causes involving both 33% of the time (which includes “unexplained infertility”). Infertility is a serious emotional and physical health issue experienced by both partners.
A couple’s inability to conceive a child has substantial emotional, physical, social, and financial costs, both to the couple and the community. The majority of couples affected by infertility describe the experience as one of the most shattering events of their lives (Haemmerli et al, 2008). How couples cope with an infertility diagnosis and life without children depends on their personalities, lifestyles, and relationship.
Therapies to help couples cope with infertility include psychodynamic/analytic interventions, mind/body relaxation sessions, cognitive-behavioural therapies, and online counselling interventions. The benefits of peer support and self-help groups for some couples and individuals coping with infertility are widely documented. Groups offer opportunities for peer support, education, personal insight, and stress reduction (Toseland & Riva, 2012). Infertility self-help or support groups enable couples to share their experiences and encourage solidarity, which are effective and healthy coping strategies for an extremely stressful life event.
Infertility doesn’t just affect couples, it also has an impact on public health in Canada. Infertility treatments often result in preterm or multiple births, which strains the health care system (Bushnik, 2012). Infertility treatments that result in live births are associated with an increased risk of birth defects (Davies et al, 2012). The psychological and marital distress a couple undergoes has an impact on psychological and psychiatric health care resources.
An infertile couple experiences a wide variety of stressors. These stressors include disruptions in their personal life and relationships with others, negative changes in their emotional and sexual relationship, and stress on their relationships with co-workers, family and friends. Further, infertility challenges expectations and plans for their lives Peterson et al (2008). A couple’s diagnosis of infertility isn’t an individual experience; it affects their extended family, workplace, and community. If they can’t cope, society as a whole suffers.
Women who remain childless after an infertility diagnosis are at a statistically significant higher risk of alcohol/substance abuse, schizophrenia, other mental disorders, and hospitalization for all mental disorders than women who conceive (Baldur-Felskov, 2012). Research shows that women report significantly higher amounts of personal, marital and social distress because of infertility as compared to men (Haemmerli et al, 2008).
While women experience more psychological and physical distress, infertility has a dramatic impact on both partners of a couple. Further, one partner’s ability to cope impacts his or her partner’s individual response to infertility stress (Haemmerli et al, 2008). If one partner isn’t coping well, his or her partner is less likely use healthy coping strategies.
Boivin (2003) found that men and women benefit equally from counselling. The couples approach to infertility therapy – as described in this group approach – may facilitate communication, improve adjustment to a childless life, and increase sexual and marital satisfaction. It’s important that both partners participate in infertility interventions, that they learn they’re not alone, and that they see how other couples cope with a painful diagnosis.
The intention of this infertility group is to help couples accept and live with the fact that they will not conceive children naturally. It will introduce them to new coping strategies, and enhance their existing ones. Group members will be encouraged to share their experiences, and respond to each other empathetically. Couples will express and vent their feelings, which may increase self- and other-understanding. They will learn strategies for overcoming the loneliness, isolation, and despair that often accompanies infertility and the thought of living a childless life.
Members will learn they are not alone. They will lean on each other for support, and perhaps benefit from becoming “helper-therapists” (Toseland & Rivas, 2012). This group will help reduce the stigma of living without children, and encourage couples to talk openly.
Composition and Structure
This support group will follow (but not copy) a pattern already identified as successful in an outpatient clinic at the University of Bern, Switzerland (Haemmerli et al, 2008). This group will consist of 10 two-hour sessions, one evening a week. The group will be led by me – a counsellor with an MSW. My husband will participate (we are a childless couple). The group will be closed after 6 couples or 12 individuals have joined. Single members are welcome.
Each session will have a different theme or topic, always relevant to coping with infertility. Before the sessions start, members are encouraged to enjoy tea, coffee and light desserts. After 10 minutes of mingling, the session will officially begin with an opening round. Each member will “check in” by answering a question given by the facilitator. All members are encouraged to answer the question, but may pass if they like.
The evening’s topic will be introduced with a 15 minute “education segment” that highlights the topic’s most important facts and its relevance to coping with infertility. The facilitator’s partner will provide his experience with the topic (which may be different than the facts and/or the facilitator’s personal experience with it, which she will also share). The intention is to discuss the specific topic all evening, but the facilitator is open to following the group’s lead if it is healthy, productive, and conducive to the overall purpose of the group.
Every session will end with a “check out” to allow members to describe how they felt about the topic. The facilitator will attempt to summarize the most important points from the meeting, incorporating members’ contributions and highlights of the education segment.
Session 1: Emotions – Acceptance and Tolerance
Infertility and fertility treatments are highly stressful experiences and can result in different emotional reactions for each partner. In this session, members will describe their experience with infertility as a couple and as individuals. They’ll be encouraged to express how they feel about not conceiving naturally, and learn ways to accept their partners’ feelings.
Session 2: Options for Couples Who Can’t Conceive Naturally
Every couple in this group will likely be at a different stage in the infertility journey: some may have tried infertility treatments for years, and others may not even be “officially” diagnosed yet (eg, they can’t conceive naturally but don’t want to go to a specialist). In this session, members will not only discuss the options they’ve tried, but will also explore other ways to have children (eg, surrogacy, adoption, fostering, volunteering with kids, etc).
Session 3: Deciding to Let the Dream Go
Since this group is intended for couples who have decided not to pursue or to stop pursuing infertility treatments, it is important to discuss what it means to let the dream of not having children go. In this session, couples will share what it means to them to live without children, and how they plan to cope with a life different than they intended.
Session 4: Disappointment and Resignation
The thought of not getting pregnant is painful, and some individuals try to suppress or ignore their desire to have children. If feelings are suppressed, they will create internal stress and unhealthy physical, emotional, and spiritual reactions. In this session, couples will discuss long-term strategies for coping with the disappointment and resignation of living without children.
Session 5: How to Feel Good and Enjoy Life
Many couples coping with infertility are overwhelmed with sadness, disappointment, and even depression. In this session, members will discuss what made them happy in the past and how to pursue “the good life” even if their dream of a child is never fulfilled. The facilitator will briefly discuss the science of neurotransmitters (eg, dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin), how they positively affect one’s mood and well-being, and how to turn them on in daily life.
Session 6: Coping With Stress Caused by the Reactions of Others
The questions, comments, and advice of family members, friends, and colleagues can be painful for couples. Even the best-intentioned, kindest person can inadvertently say something that deeply wounds a person coping with infertility. In this session, members will learn how to handle misguided or ignorant questions and comments, and cope with the resulting pain or stress.
Session 7: The Wish for a Child – Will It Ever Go Away?
Couples often invest a great deal of time, money, and emotion in their attempts to conceive a child. Even after they decide to live without children, the pain doesn’t disappear. In this session, members will learn strategies for coping with a desire that is re-ignited at surprising times (eg, a coworker’s birth announcement). Members will discuss how different activities, hobbies, volunteer options, and lifestyle changes can affect their perspective on a childless life.
Session 8: Open Session
This session will give the facilitator and members a chance to pursue topics not previously explored, or get more information on past topics. Members will have the chance to discuss ideas, emotions, or experiences. This session is a tabula rasa to be used to meet members’ needs, expectations, and goals.
Session 9: Future Goals – Apart From Having Children
A couple’s attempts to conceive may have stopped them from seeing other goals and passions in life. In this session, members will start exploring the goals and dreams they’ve forgotten about or abandoned. The next session will allow members to share specific plans.
Session 10 – Wrap Up
The facilitator will lead a “closing ceremony” that allows members to express what the group meant to them, what they liked and didn’t like, and what they learned. In this session, members will be asked to share a concrete goal for their future (as discussed in previous session).
This version of my social work paper doesn’t include the Pre-Group Contact, Evaluation, or References.
What do you think – if you’re a couple who can’t have children, would this group meet your needs?