It was nearly five years ago, at age 29, that my life-partner Mark and I decided we were ready to become parents. We discussed having one biological and one adopted child and decided to focus on a biological one first. I assumed by age 30, we’d have our first kid. I had no idea that it would take this long to get to where we are — I’m just starting the second trimester of my current pregnancy, and I will be 35 years old when this rainbow baby is born.
It took me a long time to face the term “infertility.” To accept that the term described me. There’s a lot of shame and misconceptions out there about it and not a lot of people talk about it. So that’s why it feels important to me to share what I’m sharing, to speak out and say, “This has happened to me and this is what it was like.” I hope that if others are going through this and need support, this can be helpful in some way; and please feel free to reach out to my privately, too.
Below is the overview of my experiences, how it affected me and what’s helped me through. A specific timeline about each milestone of this process is listed in Part 2 for those who want to know the exact details (I assume mainly others who are going through it). Part 3 focuses on adoption, including the barriers we faced and why we walked away from an adoption plan.
Each month after I went off birth control, my period showed up. Before long, I’d had 12 periods. Online I read that if you don’t become pregnant naturally within the first year of trying, you should go see your OBGYN, so I did. Dr. Brown, whom I’d been seeing for my annual visits since I was 18 years old, didn’t seem worried. “It can take time for the birth control pill hormones to leave your system. Keep trying,” she assured me with a smile.
Month after month, my period arrived. At first it didn’t bother me. I had worried for years about how I’d manage to create a good work-life balance and if I’d be a good mom, and I honestly feared the act of being pregnant, so at first, I felt relieved. It gave me the chance to pack in extra work projects and take advantage of work-travel opportunities to Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Africa, India, Turkey, Colombia and Mexico. (I am grateful for all that I got to do and see.) It gave me more time to not have to worry about being responsible for a baby. But later, as my desire to have a child grew, I shed a few disappointed tears each month as I sat on the cold white toilet and as holidays, back-to-school season and Mother’s Day rolled around.
After the first year and a few months of trying, I did what I could to try to boost my fertility. I stopped training for long distance races. I cut back on unnecessary work-related travel, unpaid activism and sweets. I took pre-natal vitamins and ate recommended foods like kale and salmon. I peed on ovulation predictor sticks. I tried to “think positively” and to “not be stressed out.” Dr. Brown and another OBGYN I saw for a second opinion both told me things like, “just relax,” “it will happen,” and “touch my hand, I have good fertility vibes.”
After more than two years of trying, Mark and I underwent various tests that indicated we had unexplained infertility; we seemed to be healthy and “normal.” I worried that we would never become parents unless we changed course, so we began exploring infertility treatment and adoption options, and we faced various roadblocks with both paths. “It would be so much easier — and cost nothing — if I could just get pregnant naturally!” I’d lament.
After deciding to put adoption on hold due to barriers we faced when we initially pursued it (see Part 2 & 3), in Oct. 2015, I began infertility treatments. I took Clomid for a few months to regulate my ovulation cycle (I had also tried this for one month in 2014, but the side effects were so bad, I stopped). I hate this drug. Hot flashes, crying jags, paranoia and extremely heavy and painful periods were among the side effects I experienced. Then I underwent four rounds of IUI (artificial insemination) between January and June of 2016. When those emotionally and physically taxing procedures all failed, I took on addition paid work to allow us to finance the process for adopting an infant (at the agencies we looked into, it was $40,000 on average).
Ultimately, the adoption didn’t work out in January 2017, a mere three weeks before we were to take our new son home. Not only was it heart-breaking, but we lost a lot of money in the process. Six weeks later in March 2017, I began IVF treatments. Thankfully, Mark had a new job where the health insurance covered nearly all the expenses, and so it became our most cost-effective option. We are fortunate because without good insurance, it can cost up to $15,000 per try and thus can be out of reach for many. In our case, sadly, the first two attempts ended in early-term miscarriage. But the third try seems to be working. #rainbowbaby
The impact on me:
As you may imagine, the nearly five years became increasingly more difficult.
From a logistical/work standpoint, it was frustrating to try to plan… should I take this consultancy job that will require travel in X months? Should I say yes to a speaking engagement next year? I kept planning things out by nine months, fruitlessly. During the infertility treatments, it was especially hard to plan work or travel because I didn’t know how my body would react to drugs and when I’d have to have doctor’s appointments and procedures. I had to put a lot of things on hold, turn down work opportunities and just wait.
At various times, it grew hard to see babies being born in the span of time I’d been trying to have a kid. Numerous people I knew had at least one if not two kids during that time-period. I had to take social media breaks at points when seeing photos of pregnant bellies, babies and toddlers was too upsetting. I feel badly that a few friends delayed telling me about a new pregnancy as long as possible for fear of upsetting me. I hate that I made them feel that way and I hate that it was true, even though I was always happy for them, at some level it was upsetting.
The hardest thing to deal with were the many days when I wondered if I’d ever become a parent. At what point would Mark and I have to decide that the two of us and our two dogs were enough? I felt sad every time I thought about reaching that point. I never wanted to reach that point. But then my secondary concern was how long we’d have the stamina to keep going and keep trying (me especially, given that it was my body being experimented on). It was a lot to ask of my body, but I felt I must ask it. As the years were passing by and after our bad experiences with adoption, this year it felt like the only option to try was via my body.
Not surprisingly, it wasn’t just the emotional toll that wore on me, but also the wear and tear on my body, the 11 different drugs I ended up taking and their side effects. While Clomid was the worst, it was pretty typical for drugs to make me bloat, cramp, need to pee more frequently and feel more emotional. In essence, I felt pregnant without getting to actually be (or stay) pregnant. I cried when I had to start new drugs, fearing what they might do to me, and then I’d rally up my courage to be brave and start taking them.
No doubt in part due to the many hormones I was on, there were some days this year and last year when I was depressed and not much could capture my interest, especially after each miscarriage. I kept up with my paid, have-to-do work, but I let a lot of unpaid activism I used to do fall away. I felt less certain of myself, less confident and strong. I stopped traveling as much for work or going to as many community events. I folded inside myself.
When I was in the middle of having my 144 nightly (sometimes very painful) hormone shots during the three back-to-back IVF cycles this year, I’d sometime rant to Mark about how most people just get to have sex and they’re pregnant while I must go through this daily hell — without knowing if it’d ever even result in a baby. Of course, life is unfair for all of us in different ways, but it’s one thing to intellectually know that and another thing to accept it. I just couldn’t understand why my life (our lives) had to be unfair in this way.
And, now that I am lucky enough to have a life growing inside of me, it’s not as if a magic light switch went off and suddenly I’m “fine.” I still cry at least once a week because I’m sad about the losses I’ve had this year.
Even though I finished the various hormone drugs three weeks ago (after nearly 12 weeks this 3rd try), my hips still hurt from the months of shots.
When I had my 12-week check-up last week, the doctor noticed lumps on my left breast. She ordered an ultrasound. Thankfully I could get one done the next day so that my fears over breast cancer did not have to be prolonged. While I don’t have cancer, I do have several large benign cysts that were aggravated by all the hormones. Right now, I don’t have to do anything, but if they become painful, I may need a procedure.
I still worry about this baby-to-be in me and that s/he will die like my other two did. I am trying to be positive and hopeful, but it’s hard to fully shake that fear. I think that once I start feeling movement, my fears will reduce. So, I am not at the end of my tough journey to become a mom, but I think I’m finally closing in on it.
What’s helped me cope:
Mark has been a huge source of support. From reading about infertility, I know that the stress and strain can pull couples apart and some even separate or divorce. I feel fortunate that our hardships have brought us closer together. He has seen me at my lowest moments and has helped me through. When I was doing IUI, I mostly had to go to my appointments alone (I brought his sample with me for the procedure), but with his new job with better insurance, he could work from home a lot and was able to come to many of my IVF appointments and all my procedures. That made a huge difference as I felt less alone. And having someone give you nightly shots can bring a new level of trust and intimacy.
I reduced a lot of my unpaid obligations and spent more time taking walks and hikes with our dogs, going on runs, reading books for fun and seeing friends. I did things that filled me up instead of drained and depleted me.
I used to journal daily as a teenager but as an adult, I’ve mostly only journaled every few weeks. From April to October of this year, I kept a physical journal in my nightstand and jotted down a page of notes nearly every night, just recording what I was going through and venting as needed.
At first, I tried to get through this alone with Mark (and infertility Internet message boards), but I realized that when it began to take over so much of my life, I couldn’t shut people out completely. I needed the support. Once I let them, various friends and family members then became a source of support. At one point, my mom texted me daily to see how I was doing and many other people checked in weekly or every few weeks. Some people sent flowers or cards or other items of support. After the adoption process did not work, my parents gave me and Mark a gift card to a hotel an hour away in a cute college town. We spread the three free nights out across three different weekends, one per IVF cycle, and that helped give us a break from the house and time to just focus on each other.
In April of this year, a few days before my first IVF procedure, we were feeling at our wits end, so we went to an infertility support group. It was a good decision. There I made friends who understood exactly what I was going through and they have checked on me and been there for me ever since. I am so grateful. It was with them that I stopped feeling “broken” for the first time and accepted my body for what it is and accepted that I would have to struggle harder than I ever imagined to become a mom. As a few of them went on to become and stay pregnant at the time that I went through miscarriages, they gave me hope that if I kept at it, I’d probably eventually become mom.
Related, right around my second miscarriage, an acquaintance wrote on Facebook about going through IVF years ago and from then talking privately with her, I learned she went through 10 tries. That actually gave me a lot of hope and the process felt a little bit more in my control. As long as I was willing to keep trying and trying, I likely could one day reach my goal.
Lastly, during the past two years of this journey, I thought a lot about my older sister Heidi while researching and writing about her life and her impact on me. She was born with various disabilities and had half a dozen surgeries and many illnesses and hospitalizations across her 12 years of life. She had to do daily physical therapy and exercises she didn’t always like. Experiencing infertility made me feel closer with her. Heidi’s body didn’t function quite the way she may have liked it to and it defined her whole life. Clearly mine doesn’t either and it’s defined my whole 30s so far. By society’s standards, we were/are both broken. The broken sisters. If we had been born at an earlier time, we really would have been societal outcasts, she for a “disfigured” body and me for a barren one. The outcast sisters.
On the other hand, I gained inspiration from her. When I loathed going to one more doctor’s appointment or having one more needle stuck into me, I thought about all her medical appointments and treatments and how they dominated her whole life. In contrast, I had “only” been doing this for a few years. I remembered how she always still found ways to be happy and I made lists to remind myself of all that is positive and good in my life.
One day when I felt nearly paralyzed with grief and depression over my losses and feared I’d never become a mom, I flipped through a black photo album I had carefully filled with photos of Heidi, hoping that seeing hundreds of versions of her smiling face could offer me comfort. As I gazed through them, I reflected on her life. Then I used a brown marker to scribble an encouraging note to myself, “Heidi didn’t give up and she defied the odds over and over. You can, too.” I placed the paper against our bathroom mirror and looked at it several times a day. Months later, it’s still there.
The thought of her courage and persistence helped me through not only that tough day, but this whole hard time period. Each day that I had an embryo transfer procedure (three in total) for each IVF try, a locket that belonged to her was one of the “good luck charms” I brought with me. And each morning before the procedures, I went running along a section of a bike path near my home where coincidentally she once had been during a visit to our relatives who used to live nearby. I felt stronger thinking of her.
Should becoming a parent be a “right”?
I want to recognize my great privilege in simply being able to do the treatments that have brought me to this point. Initially, we started with the lower level options in part because IVF was so expensive, and the other options cost much less. It was only with the insurance at Mark’s new job that we could afford IVF. The three cycles cost us about $5,000 out of pocket instead of the $20–40k it easily could have cost without insurance. I’ve now met people who ran out of insurance-covered tries and had to stop or who are waiting until they have a new job with better insurance to be able to try. I know there are others who may never have the chance to try because the cost is out of reach, or maybe they don’t have an infertility clinic near them or a job that will allow them to make the many doctor appointments. I feel angry and sad about that. Not only is it unfair that some of us struggle to become parents, but then to not even have affordable options for trying is just beyond unfair. Each day that I drove an hour round-trip to my appointments early in the morning before my work day began, I knew I was lucky to have a car (there are no public transit options to get there) and to have a clinic so relatively close by.
I know becoming a parent is not a “right,” but I wish the option to try to be one was and that it being a right could make trying to become one more affordable and accessible. In the feminist world, when we talk about reproductive rights, it’s all about family planning and the right to choose to parent or not, which is important, but it also assumes you easily can become a parent. The millions of us who struggle to become parents are left out, especially those who need better policies and options in order to have the chance to try.
My heart is with everyone who is actively trying so hard each month to achieve parenthood, be that naturally, through treatments or through fostering or adoption. I hope you will succeed.