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A Strong Woman:
Brenda Strong, Mother, Actress, and  Spokesperson

Kelly James-Enger

Chances are you've seen Brenda Strong in your living room—on your television screen. The actress of more than twenty years has appeared in television shows ranging from Seinfeld (as Elaine's nemesis, Sue Ellen Mishkie, also known as "the Braless Wonder) to feature films like The Kid & I and Red Dragon. Today, you know her as Mary Alice Young, the suburban housewife who kills herself in the pilot episode of Desperate Housewives. You probably didn't know that she experienced secondary infertility for years—or that she's helping women achieve their dreams of pregnancy.

While she's appeared in everything from commercials to sitcoms, Strong says she's enjoying the stability of working on a series. She appears in frequent flashbacks and is the show's narrator. "I think any actor likes variety and certainly likes to be challenged with roles that are distinctly different," she says. "But there's a lot to be said for knowing where you're going every day and having a family to work with."

Besides the film crew and actors at Desperate Housewives, Strong has a family of her own. Her husband of seventeen years, Tom Henri, is a yoga instructor, and the two have a son, John, who is 11; she also has an adult stepdaughter, Montessa Henri, and a five-year-old grandson named Keoni.

However, Strong's journey to parenthood had its ups and downs. It took Strong longer than she expected to get pregnant the first time. "I was helping my husband raise his daughter and we decided now would be a good time to get pregnant," says Strong. She went off the pill at age 32 but it took her a couple of years to conceive. "I thought I'd wait six months and then I'd get pregnant. When that didn’t happen, I started getting an inkling that something wasn't working correctly," she says.

Strong made an appointment with a Chinese acupuncturist a friend had seen on a Friday for the following Monday.  "That Sunday I starting having breast tenderness, and it turned out I was pregnant," she says. "I called and said, 'wow—you're good! All I had to do was to make an appointment." She saw the acupuncturist for several months to help her sustain her pregnancy, and delivered a healthy baby boy.

The Yoga Connection

Strong used yoga to help stay fit, healthy and centered during her pregnancy, and became a yoga instructor as well. She's been practicing yoga for 18 years, teaching for 12. Initially she started as a prenatal yoga instructor and went on to teach hatha yoga classes and partner yoga with her husband at a number of yoga studios.

As she continued teaching, she began researching yoga postures that would stimulate the second chakra, which yoga practitioners believe is the energetic center that houses the reproductive system. "I was looking for poses that could calm the nervous system and make your reproductive system more receptive [to pregnancy]," she says. Using her knowledge and experience, she began teaching yoga for fertility to help women achieve and sustain healthy pregnancy. That eventually led to developing her video (now DVD) called Yoga4Fertility. (Visit www.yogaforfertilty.com for more information about it.)

When her son was about two, she started trying to become pregnant again, and continued to teach fertility yoga classes. "With infertility you get to hate your body. You begin to feel angry and betrayed that your body isn't functioning," she says. "Yoga gives you a sense of pleasure. You're opening your body and stretching and making it feel good—and you start to notice you have a little more control over your relaxation response when you're waiting for egg retrieval for IVF or whatever it is. You learn to calm yourself and that gives you empowerment."

Besides, a yoga class is a positive place for women to regroup, she adds. "Community is crucial because so many women [experiencing infertility] feel alone," she says. "The women couldn't talk to the people they would normally talk to…it becomes depressing and you can't speak about your feelings. Studies show that people who are isolated actually become more depressed."   

But in a class like this, "you can share and mirror and be in a community who recognizes and accepts what you're going through," says Strong. "I found myself surrounded by women in the same boat…it was very important to my emotional health. I became much more empathetic to other people…and we really relied on each other."

Her students created relationships that helped sustain them during this difficult time. '"The good news was that I would constantly be losing students," she says. "The best part was when someone would get pregnant and provide hope for others. The class provided…an emotional container for these women of safety and support and something that was healthy—the idea of let's not just talk about how difficult this is, but let's do something about it." 

Trying for Another Baby

Strong saw a physician to make sure that there was no physical reason such as blocked tubes preventing her from becoming pregnant. She knew that her age was a major factor and wanted to proceed with insemination and other medical interventions to become pregnant, but her husband was concerned about the stress and potential damage that that kind of treatment might have on their relationship. "He already had two children, and he felt like 'we either get pregnant [naturally] or we don't,' and I think we should make peace with that," she recalls.  

It was a difficult time for the couple, Strong says. They spent a couple of years in therapy and continued to use yoga as a way to maintain their bond. "I couldn't get my husband to get on board to go more Western [medicine], so I used a more Eastern approach," she says. "As we progress, we realize Eastern and Western medicine both have value and they both support each other."

Strong focused on using yoga and mind-body techniques and spent the next four years trying to achieve her goal of having a second child. "Every month you go through a depression," she says. "You hope that it will happen, that it will magically appear….that monthly cycle of hope and depression wreaks havoc on the woman and wreaks havoc on the bond and on the relationship. In some respects, it was cushioned somewhat because I had a child but it but didn’t lessen the tension or the stress on the relationship."  

Strong did conceive again at the age of 40, but had a miscarriage near the end of her first trimester. After that loss, she chose not to continue to pursue becoming pregnant so she could let go of the monthly cycle of hope and despair. "This was at the tail end of four years of really trying. And I thought 'do I need to do this'?" she says. "The irony is that at that particular time that my step-daughter was pregnant, and my sister was pregnant with twins," says Strong. "I knew I was going to be a grandmother and my sister was pregnant with twins, so I knew that three new babies were coming into my life right at the time that baby was conceived."

Sharing her Journey  

That might have been the end of Strong's infertility journey, but instead she chose to share her experience with others. "There are celebrities who are going through infertility who are still choosing not to come forward," says Strong. "In a way, I feel like it's my obligation and responsibility to come forward."

She stresses the importance of community as well. "I think it's vital that women who are experiencing fertility difficulties surround themselves with women going through the same thing," says Strong. "It's very isolating because you're around women who are pregnant or have children, and the last thing you want to do is talk about it because they don't understand. It's hard for them to understand your jealousy or that you're not sharing their joy."

Strong is a national spokesperson for the American Fertility Association, which is a not-for-profit, free resource for women and men experiencing fertility challenges. She's also working on a book tentatively titled Fertile Mind, Fertile Body. "There's such a stigma attached to this and a need to speak to how to we can empower ourselves," she says. "The book will be a manual on how to go through this process without it wreaking havoc on your life."  

Strong suggests that women who want to become parents obtain as much information as they can about their fertility options. "Educate yourself thoroughly. Don't assume that this one doctor or this one approach is the going to be the end all," she says. "One of the best resources is the American Fertility Association. You can get referrals and information and advice from them, and getting advice and information is really empowering." [Visit www.theafa.org for more info.]

Today, she is a woman at peace with her life and her family, and offers hope to those hoping to build their own families. "It's a journey, not a destination," she says. "It's not about getting a child. Ultimately there is a child out there for all of us if we choose to have a family whether through medical intervention or adoption or mentorship. It's about approaching this from the standpoint of there's nothing wrong. There may be obstacles but it's a journey—and take it as such so the emotional roller coaster doesn't devastate you."




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