Why Getting Pregnant Feels Like a Competition — and What to Do About It

For many women, the stress of trying to conceive can be compounded by the feeling of getting left behind.

Illustration depicting women competing in an obstacle course, with one woman holding onto a bottle to show how fertility feels like a competition
Photo: Jenna Brillhart/InStyle.com

When I was eight years old and signed up to run cross country, I was aware that I would be participating in a race and that there would be a lot of running. I did it anyway. Six years ago, I joined my friend Kelly — who, like me, was raised by television — to create the most powerful team ever to participate in a Friends-themed trivia night. Every participant was well aware that there would be Friendly foes. When I was 30-none-of-your-bees-wax, and captain of team Switzerland in the Beer Olympics, there was nothing neutral about it. I wanted gold.

In all these instances I was in on the game. I signed up to throw my hat in the ring. I was a willing competitor.

When I was 38 and beginning the journey of becoming a single mother by choice, I was surprised to once again find myself on the field of battle. But this time, I didn't realize I was even registered to compete until one of my closest friends disqualified me from her life. For her, the competition was too close — and too personal — to maintain a friendship.

When you are struggling to conceive, every day feels like a contest. You are prepping, training, testing, trying — competing with yourself, and however inadvertently, sometimes with others around you, or on social media. There are few things more painful than scrolling through your feed and seeing another celebrity birth announcement or the gender reveal for a friend who started "trying" around the same time you did. When I was struggling to conceive, a day couldn't pass without a Kardashian or a Duggar being pregnant. Each post of each pregnancy was just another reminder of what I wasn't, and what I may never be. I always tried to be a good sport. Happy for them, sad for me, but sometimes that's hard to be when you are stuck by yourself on the bench.

While I always knew I wanted to become a mom, I wasn't ever really sure that I wanted to become someone's wife. Single and 38, I realized the conventional path to motherhood, barring some kind of Match.com miracle, was looking unlikely. After discussing my options to get pregnant with my OB/GYN, we settled on intrauterine insemination with donor sperm.

I got busy scheduling my consultation with a fertility specialist, browsing through online sperm donor catalogs, rolling up my sleeves and dropping my pants for a series of physical tests to gauge where I stood, reproductively speaking. I had all my ducks and ovulation sticks in a row. I was ready to do this.

It was at this point I started to share the news that science and I were going to try and make a baby together. I started with my close family. They were excited for me — apprehensive, but excited. Then I started telling my friends. One of my first calls was to my close friend, Zoey. She was the person in my life who could read my mind before I even knew there was something to read. She was amazingly witty, and as supportive a friend as I had ever had. I was excited to share this news with her, to have her in my corner. Turns out, I was the only one that was excited. Zoey didn't seem psyched by my news at all. She seemed rocked. After some awkward silence following my big announcement, the conversation shifted to the weather, and witty banter about the commute home. In the days that followed, our text conversations petered out, going from daily to rarely.

For a year and a half, I didn't understand what had happened. Did Zoey not agree with my choice? Was she doubting my ability to be a parent? Then a ding hit my mailbox, and a hammer dropped on my head and my heart. It was a note from Zoey. An apology note that detailed her horrific and heartbreaking road to becoming a mother. She shared with me that my news made her jealous and frightened. So frightened by the idea that pregnancy would happen easily for me, (which, it didn't) and so scared that she would be left behind with only a trash can of negative pregnancy tests, that she had pushed me away.

Fertility Is a Marathon

When you are struggling to conceive or are coping with infertility, it's difficult not to compare and compete. It's the race no one wants to be in, but here we are, feet in the stirrups and ready to go the distance in a marathon of hurt.

Johana and her boyfriend Luca of Newark, N.J., knew right out of the gate trying to have a child would be difficult. Johana has suffered from ovarian cysts, and has had to have one of her fallopian tubes removed. It's been 10 months of trying to conceive, and still no baby. It's been hard for Johana personally, and in some ways, professionally. Two of her coworkers are also trying to conceive, and struggling to do so too. Johana thought their shared issues would maybe bring them all closer together. Not the case, she says. "There is kind of a weird energy when we talk about pregnancy," she says. It's the elephant in the room, and it's the animal no one wants to talk about. So they talk about every other animal on the planet (literally). "When we are together we have to talk about pets. It's our common topic," she says.

Frances* feels the competition of fertility everywhere she turns, and in every friend group she has. "I'm in multiple races with different opponents," says Frances. There are her friends from high school and college, who have had multiple children and are settled, and then there are her husband's friends, who started trying after Frances. It feels like they are all running ahead while she and her husband sprint in place, she says. "Imagine training for a marathon for three years and running as hard as you can," she notes, "then someone passes you walking, and with anchors tied to their feet. You watch them cross the finish line, and you're still miles away. That's what infertility feels like. Even though fertility isn't a race — it's a marathon — losing still hurts."

The Thrill of Victory or the Agony of Defeat?

If you have struggled to conceive, the great irony of the situation is that hurt and loss are oftentimes the great equalizer. But they can just as easily be the great divider.

"Elements of everyone's journey and fertility story are unique to themselves, but it's hard not to compare," says Ashley Herndon, a licensed marriage and family therapist. "Did I do enough? What is the right thing for me? It gets hard not to look over and see what someone else is doing," says Herndon.

Looking over could be as easy as making comparisons to friends or family who are trying to conceive, or simply scrolling through your Instagram feed to see what your celebrity "friends" are up to. "Social media is another piece where the idea of competition gets amplified," says Herndon. "Social media is the highlight reel and the happy ending. People aren't privy to the tears or the dirty side of it," she adds.

When trying to understand the competitive drive surrounding fertility, it's often difficult to pinpoint whether this is truly a competition rooted in finishing first or a rivalry based on the fear and the insecurity of not finishing at all.

"It's a terrible cycle of, 'If I can prove or show that my body works — that I am OK — then I am not a defective person,'" says Herndon. "It's a competition based on fear."

Will Kiltz, Communications Director at CNY Fertility, agrees the air of competition is sometimes there, but more often than not, it's the fear that's truly the issue. "While I'm sure there's some level of competition that stems from personality traits and the powerful desire to become parents," says Kiltz, "there is a fear of being left behind."

The fear, anxiety, shame and insecurity that come with competing, on top of the everyday stresses of infertility, only help make a hellish situation even hotter. "Competition is an added stressor that doesn't need to be an added stressor," says Herndon.

While research on the relationship between stress and pregnancy outcomes is mixed, it's clear that added stress can affect decision making and can also result in withdrawing from one's support system — a system a person really needs, especially when they are in the middle of the loneliest fight of their lives.

Not Being the Sore Winner

Katie of Carmel, Ind., struggled for five years to conceive. Prior to her fertility struggles, and during the early days of her trying, Katie traded constant texts with her best friend from college. They didn't see each other or speak on the phone all that much, but the relationship was still there. That was, until Katie's friend started having kids, while all Katie had were negative pregnancy tests. In this case, the silence didn't start on Katie's side of the text message, it started on her friend's. "Once we started trying and not being successful, the friendship fizzled out," says Katie. "As soon as I got pregnant, we started texting right away. It wasn't a malicious thing," adds Katie. "She just didn't know what to say and didn't want to inflict pain on me by talking to me about her kids and her pregnancy," she says.

While the pain of finishing last or never is real, there is also fear and guilt of finishing first.

"People walk on eggshells around you because they are anticipating a reaction," says Herndon. "It would be great if we were all in tune with ourselves enough to be able to say [to others] that we are scared," she adds.

Withdrawing From the Race, but Putting up a Fight

At the heart of everything, competition can only live where you let it. If you feel like competition for you is becoming unhealthy, start by first assessing your boundaries. "There may be things you might want to hide on your timeline," says Herndon, "or maybe you need to avoid baby showers for a time."

Also, look for ways and opportunities to relate and release. "I think it's hard to have to hold all that in. It starts to seep and bleed," says Herndon. "Find a way to reflect and talk about it. Whether it is finding a community that's going through this experience, or a support system that you can say the dark scary things to that won't hold you in judgement," she adds.

Therapy and self-care, such as reading and listening to podcasts, can be quite helpful when you are stuck in a competitive and comparative rut. "Also think about how you are engaging with your body and how are you taking care of yourself," suggests Herndon.

If you think you and the relationship can handle it, you can also explore the idea of talking about the competition within your friendships. This might not be the solution for every social group, says Herndon, but when appropriate it can be therapeutic.

After 7 IUIs, 3 IVFs, and one 9lb 13oz baby, I know firsthand that fertility is all about fighting, and fighting hard. I wish Zoey and I could have found a way to fight together, rather than fight against each other. What I learned during my two-year-long marathon is that taking the contest out of fertility struggles isn't waving the white flag on the crusade, it's simply putting your armor down so that you can fight harder another day.

* Name has been changed for privacy.

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