Baby-Making After 35: Am I Doing it Wrong?
Medical-types have been rooting around in uteruses, mucking about in vaginas, for long enough that they’ve cracked the conception code. Can’t get pregnant by getting busy? Da da da-da, baby science to the rescue! Better yet, once-expensive IVF is now covered for Ontario women, giving my waning fertility a real chance. (Canadians, I tell ya, handing out healthcare like Halloween candy!)
But it isn’t supposed to happen that way. Surely not for me.
Here I am in this adult place, in procreation phase, my body priming for motherhood. This part should be biology. It would happen when it happens because my cells and follicles and hormones would line up in a harmonic convergence of super-fertility! Younger me understood the birds and bees to be just that: nature, instinct. We are animals, throwing pheromones around, sniffing each other out and pouncing in the blind pursuit of the progress of our species.
Does it, though? I’m a divorced woman of 36 trying to make a human with my new-ish much younger boyfriend. And, we’re struggling.
Am I *gulp* normal?
Never mind that I pursued the arts; I take comfort in the finality of math. I believe in the scientific process (thanks, genetically, to my measure-twice father). Despite my dominant gut-feels (hi mom!), I really do want the world to be explained by equations, in petri dishes, and under microscopes. Oh, and I’ve crushed hard on any scientist ever played by Jeff Goldblum.
The equation isn’t adding up for me. (Did I forget to carry the 1?) In an attempt to find hard data on fertility and pregnancy rates for women my age, it seems no one can agree. “Studies” heavily contradict the experiences of actual women — women in my circles, regulars in the mommy forums, the Kardashians. Doctors like to fear-monger, waving about archaic medical charts that would convince any woman over 35 tie up her tubes immediately. Double-knotted. The risk-of-birth-defects line travels peacefully along the x-axis until it abruptly shoots upwards in the mid-30s like a reverse Olympic ski jump.
Fertility declines, miscarriage risk climbs, the horror stories whispered among my friends increase in volume and gruesomeness. Of course the mythbusters want us to believe that doctors are operating on out-of-date info, that new studies are more hopeful, and that we are more youthful than the 30 and 40-something women of our grandparents’ generation. That our healthcare is better, that we’re living longer. I’m not sure what to believe. Teetering on the edge of hope and optimism, I’ll align myself with whatever opinion suits my own interests. You win this time, gut.
The best lie ever told to teenage girls is this: looking at a penis could get you pregnant. YM Magazine’s “Say Anything” column had a hidden agenda, I suspect: convince girls that their bodies are humiliating, and thereby influence abstinence. We swapped stories of friends of cousins of friends who were impregnated from semen expelled roughly in the vicinity of their snuggly fitting panties. Girls whose stories could not be fact-checked because they lived in Michigan or Florida and it was the pre-MSN Messenger part of the 90s.
We were the most captive audiences when horror stories were of the vaginal variety. If you believed the hype, there would be a hell of a lot of broken condoms floating lost in the uterine Bermuda Triangle. And half of your friends would have Toxic Shock Syndrome.
We were 13, and terrified of penises. I am told now that this is no longer the case. That they sniffed out the truth over a decade ago (clever buggers), that they’ve been brazenly doling out handies in the back of school buses. For colour-coded jelly bracelets. Google results can’t agree on whether blue or yellow is the colour for hand jobs. I’LL NEVER KNOW, I GUESS.
It’s true that science says their youth makes them abundantly more fertile (nature’s cruel, cruel joke) and that my actual friend was knocked up on premature ejac, but the new millennials — the born-in-the-2000s girls — got wise to the lie: it’s not that easy to get pregnant*.
*PSA: wear a condom, respect your body, speak up, don’t leave your drink alone, see your doctor.
Truth be told, I’d have had an extra hard time conceiving back then, considering my underlying fertility issues (read on). But man, sex ed had me scared. In retrospect, maybe I should have been more promiscuous. Is that what I’d tell my younger self if I had the chance? To the Deloreon!
Now that the last paragraph is committed to “paper”, my mother and I will likely never be able to make eye-contact.
I’ve exhausted your patience for tangents now, so let’s get to the meat of it.
I touched on this baby-making process — this saga — in my recent post about my miscarriage. On the whole, this birds and bees stuff has been equally harrowing. It deserves to be fleshed out: the plight of the under-fertile, aged divorcée with a ticking baby clock.
The “trying” phase began early, out of urgency. I landed myself in emerg shortly after ending my 20-year relationship with The Pill. I had started to notice an increase in oil in my skin, and then came the resulting acne. Here, there, and everywhere! It was especially prevalent on my back, chest, and around my groin. Yep, down there. Cystic acne — the hard, painful kind that sits way under the skin — but also, sometimes, abscesses. Imagine those cruising on your panty line.
One such inflammation became large and scary – it looked like a huge water blister that might form on your ankle at the outset of sandal weather, only much, much too close to my lady bits. It hurt to sit, and then to even exist. Ultimately, I had to have the thing lanced with a scalpel, but not before half of the Toronto medical community took a real close-up gander at my undercarriage. Fucking teaching hospitals.
I spent the following week in appointments with my naturopath, GP, dermatologist, and finally a fertility doctor, attempting to make sense of my body’s war against itself. There were tests. All of them. Every bodily fluid squeezed out of me and scrutinized. Transvaginal ultrasounds (get worked over with a massive dildo-esque wand wielded by a tiny, stern middle-aged woman). Standard ultrasounds (drink 6 liters of water without peeing, allow same tiny woman to push mercilessly on your bladder).
They diagnosed me with PCOS — Polycystic Ovary Syndrome — and while I’ll spare you the endless list of symptoms (why don’t you call my close personal friend, WebMD?), it basically meant it would be much harder for us to conceive.
After all of the test results were tallied — including my very favorite which involved the painful injection of dye into my fallopian tubes — we were deemed technically capable of conceiving. Even Reggie was checked out: his 2 vials of blood to my 17+. He was, thankfully/annoyingly, in perfect physical health.
Our only barrier was my sporadic ovulation. The medical experts on my Dream Team all disagreed regarding treatment, naturally. Rather than choosing between them, I tried everything. A very, very strict diet and natural supplements (fertility doc rolls eyes) combined with horribly chemical prescription acne goop (prescribed by dermatologist, denounced by naturopath) definitely improved my skin. But what of my ovulation?
I downloaded a cycle monitoring app and bought a basal thermometer. Neither seemed to shed any light on egg movement. Clue, however, is a very good iOS app for this purpose — you know, if your cycle actually makes sense (I think mine broke the app).
Miraculously, we were able to make one stick. Though that pregnancy ended in miscarriage, there was a silver lining: we knew that it was actually possible for us to conceive without turkey baster intervention.
That was July. By August, I was ready to get started again. Note: I deal with trauma by being busy — like after a breakup I might, say, vacuum the whole house and join a run club, rather than drown in double-fudge brownie ice cream. It’s now February, so I don’t have to tell you how well it’s going. I’ll take the ice cream now, please.
I said I would never subject myself to baby science — that I’d definitely adopt children over drugging my way into pregnancy.
And here we are.
The fertility doctor prescribed Metformin. It’s a drug for diabetics, but one of its weird scary side effects is that it sometimes kickstarts ovulation. By the third day, I was so constipated that I had to abandon it. More side effects!
(Will I eventually just give birth to a giant half-t-rex-half-velociraptor monster!?)
Recently, we decided to participate in cycle monitoring, which involves a 5 day dosage of another drug called Clomid. I’d start after Day 1 of my cycle and a round of probing (ultrasounds) and sticking (blood). On Day 11, I would then return for another stick and poke, they’d tell us we were ovulating, and send us home to finish the job. So it went down like that, except that on the follow-up exam, my eggs weren’t “juicy enough”. This actual direct quote is credited to the third no-name replacement doctor assigned to us by the clinic.
I was due to return on Day 13 for yet another peek at my scrambled eggs, but it didn’t happen.
We ended up in a fight the night before, in which Reggie didn’t feel like having sex because he ate lot of pizza and I, in response, called him selfish. We probably missed the window this time, and I’m still furious about it. My body has been through explosive hell for the past two years. But pizza. I think we’ll be in an unspoken apology standoff for the rest of time.
Don’t tell him I’m admitting any fault here, but we’re both dicks. Baby-making made us this way.
There it is. I hear time and time again that state of mind is the number one conception killer (though “science” will tell you it’s my advanced age). A couple with three kids once told me that after two rounds of unsuccessful and stressful IVF, they conceived unexpectedly on a Mexico vacation. Their advice? “Buy a 2–4, and rent a cabin in the woods”. I knew this going in — the pressure of “trying”, and thereby wrenching all of the love and fun and spontaneity and, frankly, willingness out of sex — is just as detrimental as stubborn eggs. We know that we’re capable of conceiving, so is all of this pressure actually the reason we can’t make it happen?
I also know that having kids only compounds relationship problems. If we can get through this part, though…? We’re set, right? Don’t tell me that it gets harder than this. Can’t hear you. I’m covering my ears and humming.
I might be pregnant right now. Despite The Great Pizza Tragedy of 2016, we managed to squeeze in a few begrudging attempts, roughly around my supposed ovulation date. Bad vibes likely intervened. I could check — our latest trip to Costco secured our supply of pee sticks — but there’s still an open bottle of wine in our house and it would be a shame to waste it. I’m kidding. Sort of. Negative tests are disheartening now and I’m trying to minimize disappointment.
On a side note, the mommy blogs say that you should never drink while trying to conceive. Naturally, I stopped reading mommy blogs. In a 2-hour call with my far-away BFF last week, she warned me: you will never feel more judged and inadequate than you will in your first few years being a parent. Bring it on.
Two weeks ago, I landed myself back in emerg, for a second round of scalpel hell. The year of painful acne has left a galaxy of scars across my back. My hair is also falling out now. The physical toll on my body is only exacerbating the emotional stress. Being back on the pill would make this all go away, but, likely, so would being pregnant.
How’s that for pressure?
I am struggling with an ending, but maybe there isn’t one yet. Maybe this post was premature. I’m getting the feeling that everything I’ve written is really only an intro to a much longer story. We haven’t even considered the next steps yet.
This week, a woman I know from a past life messaged me out of the blue to share her own conception story. Her challenges trump mine (perspective, amiright?), and she and her husband magically conceived naturally despite blocked tubes and after three unsuccessful IVF treatments.
What have I learned from this process, and from the stories I’ve collected from other women?
The highlights: Science, as it applies to making life, is bullshit. The data is contradictory. There is no one answer for everyone; what knocks you up might make me constipated. “Technically fertile” doesn’t necessarily mean fertile. Emotional health may really be more significant than egg count.
And, most importantly, despite all of the advances in scientific intervention, sometimes life does just find a way.