The Jellyfish Swarm – an analogy for the invisible pain of infertility and miscarriage

This very powerful analogy can apply to any woman who, for whatever reason, is struggling either to conceive a baby or to carry a pregnancy to full term. It describes the pain that those experiencing fertility problems or miscarriages, can start to experience at the prospect of attending any social gatherings.

Fear begins to develop at being confronted at one of these events by something that is certain to upset and distress you - perhaps seeing a pregnant woman with a bump; a couple with their newborn baby; an unexpected announcement of a pregnancy; or questions about when you are going to have children.

As time goes on, and no baby is appearing for you, it seems that everyone you know is getting pregnant quickly and easily around you. This begins to cause you more and more pain as time goes on. You soon find yourself feeling horrible emotions, like jealousy, envy and resentment and anger towards those who are pregnant. It gets to the point where you start to avoid any occasions that might put you at risk, and, in doing so, you become more and more isolated.

It’s hard for those who know you to understand why you’re refusing the invitations and social engagements you once would have jumped at. This can mystify and perplex those around you – and can be misinterpreted by your family and friends – and even partner - as being anti-social or strange.

This idea for this jellyfish analogy was given to me by one of my clients when she was trying to describe what was going on for her in her life. I think it goes a long way to help people understand why socialising can become a difficult and painful experience for women trying unsuccessfully to have a child.

Picture this . . . . .

You and your partner have been invited to the wedding of one of your closest friends. It’s going to be on a beach in an idyllic location. Surfing, body boarding, snorkelling and windsurfing activities have been organised for the following day and you’ve been asked to bring a wetsuit as the sea is going to be rather chilly.


The wedding is wonderful, as perfect as the bride and groom could ever wish for to celebrate this special occasion - ideal weather; a stunning location; the most romantic setting; a beautiful ceremony and surrounded by all their closest family and friends.

The next morning the weather is fantastic. You and your partner are getting ready to spend a fun day on the beach with the bride and groom and all the wedding guests, when you suddenly realise you’ve forgotten your wetsuit. Undeterred by the prospect of a very cold sea, you head off, determined to enjoy the surf.

What you didn’t bargain on was that the sea would be full of tiny clear, jellyfish. and, although invisible to the eye, they nonetheless have a nasty sting.

As you, alone, don’t have the protection of a wetsuit, your body is vulnerable to these jellyfish, so you are the only one who feels them. Only you are suffering. Each time you feel the pain of another sting, you cry out, “Ow!” “Ouch” The other guests near you look surprised and you might try to explain that It’s hurting you to be in the water. They are a bit mystified. They all have on a wetsuit and are not being stung at all. They can’t see any jellyfish. They’re all having a great time and are really They can’t quite see what your problem is.

Eventually, it gets too much for you. You explain to everyone that you have to get out of the water, that you just can’t bear the pain and that it hurts you too much being there.

So, you walk back to the hotel and sit alone by the pool.

Your partner comes to see you and feels bad that you’re so unhappy, sitting there on your own. He tries to understand, but he has his wetsuit on, and even he doesn’t experience the pain of the jellyfish stings as you do.

He wants to be supportive of you and so he joins you by the pool, but he doesn’t really get it and he’s clearly a bit fed up that he’s missing out on all the fun with his mates. Yet he knows how guilty he would feel if he were to go back and join them.

He may try to imply that it can’t be as bad as all that, and surely it would be better for you to be out there, enjoying being with him and all your friends, than sitting here isolated and miserable by the pool. He doesn’t want to shut these people out of his life and really wants you to find a way to be able to socialise with him and all your friends. He also wants to be with you and would love to be able to enjoy this wonderful time with you. He misses the fun, bubbly outgoing person he used to know and love - and he wants her back.

You don’t want him to leave you to go and be with his friends. You wish he also felt the searing pain of these stings so he would understand what it’s like for you. You may feel you have to give him permission to go and be with the others, but at the same time, you desperately want him to choose you over them.


So how can you manage this? First, begin by understanding there’s nothing wrong with you. Your reaction to the sometimes-insensitive things people say; to the pregnancy announcements that come out of the blue; to the scan picture posted on Facebooks; and to the probing questions about your intentions for a family - are almost universal among women who are trying unsuccessfully to have the family they dream of. It is a protective mechanism, a coping strategy that you instinctively employ to shield yourself. To do otherwise would make like insufferable. For many women, avoiding situations that would put them at risk of severe emotional pain is very common.

Try to accept that this behaviour is a normal response for women in your situation. You’ve not gone ‘mad’ or become a ‘bad’ person. It may feel like that to you because these reactions are all very alien to you. We are conditioned to believe that envy and jealousy at other peoples’ good fortune (especially something as ‘wonderful’ as the announcement of a pregnancy) is unacceptable and unpleasant – so we must be bad. We are also social creatures that thrive in the company of our friends and family. So, to find yourself wanting actively to avoid social situations at all costs is abnormal for you and you can feel like you’re going a bit nuts. It is such a strange and difficult time for you and your partner. No one warns you that you may not be able to conceive as easily as you’d always assumed. There’s no manual to help you navigate your way through this unfamiliar terrain. You may easily end up feeling isolated and alone in your pain.


The Thwarted Maternal Drive

I have a sense that this behaviour and these feelings are an automatic response to what I call the ‘thwarted maternal drive’ (TMD). ‘Mother Nature’ is a powerful entity. She resides there, deep within you, willing and urging you to procreate. This biological imperative is primal and intrinsic to women.

So, what happens when this drive is frustrated and no baby is happening for you?

In my theory, Mother Nature starts to make herself felt – and felt extremely powerfully. She starts to make this experience as painful and uncomfortable for you as she possibly can. Somehow, she switches on these excruciatingly agonising emotions within you. She knows that the more hurtful and unbearable this is for you, the harder you will try for the baby you are longing for – to make it end. You will do anything to achieve this goal and suffer any amount of physical, medical and financial duress in order to escape this torturous purgatory of no baby. She will make you notice, like never before, bumps and babies and young families everywhere you look.

You will start to contend with numerous losses and fears. Like the loss of having a baby when all your peers are having them and making you feel left out and left behind. Like the loss of being able to have a new-born at the same time as some of your best friends or family - giving you sadness that such a special time will not be shared with those you are closest to. Like experiencing the 3 am fear that, for you, a baby might never materialise and you may never be a mother. These fears and griefs are invisible (like the jellyfish). Perhaps even you can’t fully understand what’s happening to you, let alone your partner, friends and family.

The hardest thing is to accept that what you want is not happening in the way you imagined and envisioned. Even harder is that you have to learn to accept that you don’t have control over procreation. It begins to dawn, gradually, that creating a baby is not in your hands and so your family is not going to be realised in the way and in the timeframe you want. All of this is hard to accept, and can feel utterly unjust and unfair, especially when others are managing to achieve this same goal so effortlessly.

But try to hold onto the hope that, although your family not going to come to fruition as you hoped and expected, one day it will happen, somehow, albeit not necessarily in the way you anticipated. You are having to re-imagine a different way forward, one that will not be the same but will be equally as wonderful and positive.


So how can you do this?

I don’t know if this is possible or not, but if you can accept that what you're going through is a very natural and unavoidable process, designed to help galvanise you to get the baby you so desperately want, perhaps this may help you better tolerate what is going on within you.

Perhaps you can use this understanding to help you accept that you are not mad or bad, that you’re simply responding like any potential mother-in-waiting who is having her powerful desire for a baby thwarted. Perhaps you might be able to allow each jellyfish sting to increase your determination to do whatever it takes you to get there.

Also, you need to realise that there is only one group of people on this whole planet that feels these terrible feelings and react this ‘extreme’ way. Few men express such strong and difficult feelings at other people’s happy news; women who don’t want children are not bothered by pregnancy announcements; women who are not yet interested in starting a family do not feel jealousy or resentment; women who are pregnant, or who have had a baby or who have children do not experience any of these feelings of injustice and unfairness.

It is only women who really want a baby, but for whom this is not happening, who get to experience Mother Nature’s hand in their lives.

So try to understand that your partner may not feel as hurt and distraught as you and learn to accept that it’s OK that he feel quite differently from you. When you’re weeping because two more of your friends or another family members have just announced their pregnancies and he says something like “Why do you feel so much sadness at other people’s happiness?”, it’s not that he doesn’t care or that he doesn’t want a family as much as you do. He does. It’s just that he is not at the mercy of Mother Nature’s powerful primal forces in the same way as you are. Also, he has probably been conditioned not to show or express his feelings and probably feels he has to be strong for you.


How to help others get it

Perhaps you can explain this analogy to your partner, to your friends and to your family, to help them understand why you have become so uncharacteristically sensitive and withdrawn. Hopefully, they will then be able to understand why their enthusiastic announcements of their fantastic news; or their endless excited discussion (or complaints) about their pregnancy; or their detailed blow-by-blow account of their birth; or their description of how hard it is to have a newborn; or the grandparents cooing adoringly over the newborn baby; or your family’s innocent and well-meaning enquiries into your fecundity - are perhaps not as welcome as they might imagine.

Try to see that those jellyfish stings are Mother Nature’s way of keeping you fully focussed on the task. Take each of them as evidence that she is alive and kicking within in you. She wants you to have this baby as much as you do. And, although it seems harsh medicine, without that pain driving you forward, you may not have the impetus to keep going on this socially, emotionally, financially and relationally challenging quest.

In the meantime, I wish you well on one of life’s most difficult journeys and I hope, one day, you get the baby you are yearning and striving for.