I experienced pregnancy envy multiply times on my fertility journey. But one example really stands out.

My story of pregnancy envy

I still remember it as one of the worst days on my fertility journey.

It was the due date of the twins I had miscarried on Christmas Day the year before, following my third cycle of IVF in a 12 month period.

I’d tried burying the pain by throwing myself into a challenging work project that consumed my energy and attention, but it continued to simmer away beneath the surface.

I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. I felt like I was hanging off the edge of a cliff by my fingernails.

That was when a couple of close family members turned up to break the happy news that they were expecting a baby.

I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t say a word. I just sat there numb. My husband found it within him to respond in the conventional, celebratory way, and to offer tea and biscuits and pleasantries, while I silently disappeared upstairs, and fell right off that cliff.

In the days that followed, I experienced a myriad of emotions – sadness, despair, anger, (at them for turning up and delivering their news as they had, at my parents for not stopping them, and at me for my response), guilt, shame, loneliness, inadequacy and failure, to name but a few.

None of us really understood what had happened or how to handle it – as is often the case with “pregnancy envy”.

What is pregnancy envy?

Pregnancy envy is where a person struggling to conceive struggles to feel joy for someone else’s pregnancy news. Instead, they feel a complex mix of emotions, (often intense, unwanted, and uncomfortable), towards themselves, their situation, and/or the other person. It’s completely normal and can happen to the kindest of people.

How common is it?

It’s very common.

In a survey of individuals experiencing fertility issues, commissioned by Fertifa and Fertility Network UK in September 2021, 91% of participants admitted to experiencing pregnancy envy.

And it’s not an easy thing to admit. It’s often accompanied by guilt and shame which blocks people from discussing it openly.

What makes it a mental health issue?

Speaking from personal experience, and the experiences that have been shared with me by others, there are many ways in which pregnancy envy can have a detrimental impact on mental health.

To begin with, there’s the initial response to the pregnancy related news. That’s often painful enough, but then there’s frequently a secondary response to the initial response, which is just as painful.

The initial response might look like a cocktail of sadness, anger, frustration, jealousy, or countless other unwelcome emotions.

The secondary response might sound like a series of harsh judgements about that response, such as, “what’s wrong with you?”, “why can’t you just be happy for them?”, and “you’re a bad person”.

Guilt and shame can ride hot on the heels of that, maybe with a bit of self-loathing in the mix, and before you know it, you can find yourself trapped in a spiral of suffering.

And unfortunately, the initial triggers, (basically any pregnancy related news), aren’t few and far between. Nope, they’re everywhere. All of the time. Any escape from the spiral of suffering can therefore feel only temporary and fleeting.

And to make matters worse, it’s often in the closest of relationships that the triggers arise. Family, friends, and co-workers, who are starting and expanding their families, are frequently a source of pregnancy envy, and this can lead to growing tensions and/or a loosening of ties in these important relationships. Sadly, this only serves to compound feelings of loneliness and isolation and adds a further layer to the spiral of suffering.

It is because of this mental health impact, and the closely connected social impact, that it is so important that pregnancy envy is managed.

How can you manage your pregnancy envy?

If you recognise pregnancy envy in yourself, here are four ways you can manage it:

  1. Show yourself, and those who trigger you, compassion.

Acknowledge that what you’re experiencing is pregnancy envy, and that it’s normal, frequently occurring, and understandable, given your circumstances.

And acknowledge that the other person isn’t trying to hurt you. They have something you want very much, yet they’ll undoubtedly have other challenges of their own too.

Don’t see yourself as a green-eyed monster. See yourself trying to swim in your waves of grief.

  1. Identify and accept your triggers.

Everyone has slightly different triggers. For some, it’s anyone who is pregnant. For others, it’s anyone who gets pregnant easily.  For others, it’s something completely different. Identify what pushes your pregnancy envy buttons and simply acknowledge it, and accept it, without judgement. In some cases, this might be enough for your triggers to loosen their grip.

  1. Establish boundaries to protect your well-being.

Once you know what your triggers are, consider how you might manage your exposure to them, in ways that work for you. For example:

  • What can/can’t you talk about?
  • How would you prefer to communicate about these things?
  • What events can/can’t you attend?
  • What media can/can’t you absorb?
  • What social circles do/don’t you feel safe and well in?

You’re unlikely to want, or need, to tell everyone your boundaries, but you may find it useful to discuss them with a few key people. This will enable you to help them, help you, navigate the pregnancy envy challenge together. If they care about you, they will be understanding and keen to explore how they can safeguard your well-being and your relationship.

  1. Be prepared and be kind.

You won’t always be able to avoid your triggers, and when pregnancy envy strikes, you may find it difficult to determine how to manage it in the moment.

It’s therefore worth being prepared. Knowing what your triggers are, consider:

  • What might you be able to say/do in the moment to protect your well-being?
  • What might you say/do when you’re ready, that will make you feel good?

As much as possible, try not to engage with the pregnancy envy. Simply see it, feel it, (even though it’s uncomfortable), and wait for it to pass.

How can you manage pregnancy envy in others?

If you recognise that pregnancy envy may be an issue for others, whether triggered by you or otherwise, here are four ways you can help manage it:

  1. Show yourself, and anyone triggered by you, compassion.

Managing pregnancy envy isn’t about preventing you or anyone else from experiencing the joy of pregnancy related news. No-one wants that.

It’s about being mindful of those who might be sensitive to that news.

So, allow yourself to feel happy with your news. Allow yourself to celebrate. Allow yourself to feel hurt and disappointed that you can’t share it with this other person as you wanted to.

And meanwhile, remember that this other person is hurting. And they’re doing the best they can in challenging circumstances.

Don’t see them as a green-eyed monster. See them trying to swim in their waves of grief.

  1. Seek to understand their boundaries.

If you know that pregnancy related news might be an issue for this other person, don’t assume what they will, or won’t, be able to manage in relation to that news. Getting it wrong could leave them feeling excluded or overwhelmed – neither of which will be good for their well-being.

Instead, seek to understand what their boundaries are, and how you might be able to navigate them together. They may initiate this conversation with you, or you can let them know it is a conversation you would welcome, if and when they’re ready. This may prompt them to think about what they need, if they haven’t already, and it will ensure they know that you care enough about them to want to do what’s right for them.

The sort of things you may want to explore include:

  • What they do/don’t want to talk about.
  • Their preferred ways of talking about these things.
  • Events they do/don’t want to be involved in.
  • What each of you will do if the approach you agreed isn’t working.

You don’t need to agree to anything you don’t think you could commit to – nor should you – but try to see past personal preferences to be as receptive as possible to their needs.

  1. Respect their boundaries.

It should go without saying that once you understand the other person’s boundaries and you’ve agreed how you will work with them, you need to honour that agreement.

However, in a state of euphoria, it can be easy to let such agreements slip. Try not to let that happen. You don’t need to be able to understand why this other person’s boundaries are as they are, but if you want what’s best for them and your relationship, you need to respect them. There are sure to be ways you can enjoy your moment without hurting them.

  1. Adopt considerate practices.

You won’t always have individual agreements in place, but you can still do your bit to manage pregnancy envy by operating in considerate ways.

In the workplace, managing baby showers, maternity collections, and visits with newborns, is a highly effective way of managing pregnancy envy. Adopting a practice of letting everyone know:

  • when and where these events will take place;
  • that they are optional; and
  • that it is understood that for many reasons, not everyone may feel able to participate;

will encourage co-workers to consider that one person’s joy might be another person’s pain, and potentially be more sensitive in their approach to other things, such as pregnancy announcements, too. It will also give those who struggle with pregnancy envy, the opportunity to manage their well-being without drawing attention to themselves or their circumstances.

My story revisited

At the beginning of this blog I shared one of my most painful experiences of pregnancy envy. Returning to that example, I now know that:

  • if I had shared more about what my husband and I were going through in our efforts to start a family of our own with my close family members, (they knew little to nothing about what was going on when they shared their pregnancy announcement with us); and
  • if I had explained that I wanted them, or any other loved ones, to share any pregnancy announcements with me by written message, so I could process the news privately, then respond fittingly when I was ready; and
  • if I had prepared a stock response for the times those announcements would take me by surprise, which, for me, would most likely have been along these lines: “Thank you for telling me. I’m currently experiencing some challenges on my own path to parenthood. I want to give your news the response it deserves, but that’s difficult for me to do right now. If you could give me some space to process this, and come back to you, I would appreciate it”; and
  • if I had recognised that my response was a by-product of grief, not ill will; and
  • if I had shown myself kindness and compassion, rather than berating myself for my unwanted thoughts, feelings, and behaviours; and
  • if my close family members had been better informed and better equipped to understand the pain their announcement could cause and how to approach it sensitively;

things would have worked out very differently, and far more positively, for us all.

I hope by reading this you’re able to do better, and experience better, for yourself and for others.

Emma Menzies | 14 May 2024

Copyright © 2024 Emma Menzies t/a Ready Steady Coach

If you enjoyed reading this blog, then you may also be interested in:

How to survive and thrive on Mother’s Day when You’re on a fertility journey

What I didn’t know about miscarriage (until I had one)

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