by Harriette Rovner Ferguson, LCSW
I am a psychotherapist specializing in working with individuals and couples who are experiencing infertility. I have been doing this work for well over 20 years and lately have concentrated on people using third party reproduction to create their families. I began to notice that it was hard for couples to imagine themselves as parents. How could they? After sometimes years of failed treatments, the thought that a procedure might bring them a successful pregnancy was just too hard to conjure up in their minds and so when they came into my office, talking about their future child was too far a stretch.
The problem is that I need to talk to them about their family building option and their belief of how their child’s conception would impact him/her later in their lives. My job is to open up a discussion about their feelings about disclosure (who to tell, who not to tell), family support, their individual feelings about being biologically or non biologically linked to their child and what they imagined this relationship would look like.
I began to wonder how I could help them believe that one day they might hold a baby in their arms. A baby who would call them Mommy and or Daddy. So when they sat down in my office and I told them that during our consultation (as mandated by their physician), they were not the most important person in the room, but their future child is. Everything that we will talk about will revolve around what is in the best interest of their child and nine times out of ten, they looked at me like I had three heads.
I am trained as a Gestalt therapist. We use an empty chair technique to help our clients focus on the different parts of themselves. The client places an imaginary inner child or the people in their lives that have hurt them onto the empty chair, which allows them to open up about their feelings. As they speak to this projected person, they can get in touch with the feelings and begin to name them, recognize them and start releasing the negativity from their lives.
Hmmm! I looked around my office and realized that I could use an empty chair with the people who are planning to have a child. I could ask them to project that baby/child/teen onto the chair (that has a few teddy bears on it!!) and when I questioned them about how they thought they might feel telling their child they were conceived through a donor, surrogate, gestational carrier, they could imagine it. If they sit for a minute and focus on the chair, they are able to let their heart and their minds project how they might feel.
So when I ask them "What do you think about talking to your child about his/her biological origins," they take the question in and ponder. Before I used the chair, most couples’ immediate response would be that they would not ever tell or they would wait to tell or they were undecided and were afraid to even think about it. But with the chair present and my coaxing them to think deeply about what would be in the best interest of their child, they almost always decide that if they have their child’s best interest in mind and heart and they want to be honest parents that their children can trust, they decide just like the research teaches us. The earlier the story begins, the easier it evolves and the family moves on to create a secure and stable environment where children can grow and flourish, no matter how they came to be.
So, thank you empty chair for bringing this imaginary longed for child into the room so these future parents can make a decision that will benefit all of the members of this beautifully conceived family.
Harriette Rovner Ferguson, LCSW, has been specializing in providing psychotherapy to individuals and couples experiencing infertility for the past twenty years. She is a mental health consultant to infertility clinics on Long Island, New York City, and Pennsylvania. She conducts interviews and evaluations for infertility patients entering an IVF cycle or those contemplating using a third-party to create their families.