The journey my husband and I took to parenthood was long, complicated, and heartbreaking. However, for us, it was worth it. That doesn’t mean it was “fair”. As someone who has experienced the pain and uncertainty of infertility, I have an intimate understanding of how unfair it feels when it seems as though everyone around you can easily get pregnant and have babies, while you are going through a private hell. Although that perception may or may not be accurate (we often don’t know what someone else has been through), the emotions it brings are certainly real and valid. When you are in the middle of the dark times, it feels as though everyone says the wrong thing. Logically, you know that they just don’t know what to say, or that the subject makes them uncomfortable and sad for you, but emotionally the words can hurt or even anger you. I’ve learned the importance of extending grace and, hopefully, receiving it from others, particularly in the midst of grief.
The first time I became pregnant, I was just shy of 30; my husband and I were both pretty fit and healthy. We weren’t really “trying” so much as not preventing. I’d gone off birth control just the previous month, but since I hadn’t really had periods very often for a few years due to the pill, we assumed it would take a little while for my body to normalize and be able to conceive. So, I wasn’t even really considering pregnancy when, one day, I was suddenly overcome by a wave of nausea so strong that I stopped and leaned against the wall in shock. What…? Oh! Could I possibly be pregnant? I didn’t really think so, but since I didn’t have a cycle to help me figure it out, I ran to the store to get a box of tests just in case.
As it turned out, I was indeed pregnant. When I saw my husband that evening and told him the news, he was almost speechless. Neither of us had considered that it would happen so quickly! Little did we know that we were about to experience a lesser-known side of infertility. While you often hear about couples who are unable to conceive, I was able to conceive quite easily, but my body was unable to hold onto my babies. We soon found out that there was likely something wrong with our baby at my first scan. A scan that I didn’t realize I would be getting and which I attended alone. I wasn’t sure how far along I was and had never been pregnant before, so I didn’t know that my first OB-GYN appointment would include an ultrasound. They determined I was probably about 5 or 6 weeks along, but they were not seeing what they would expect. The nurse used the term “blighted ovum” and unfortunately rather callously told me I could just try again. I was confused, I didn’t even know what “blighted ovum” meant (essentially it means that pregnancy began but didn’t progress much past the stage where the gestational sac is formed). However, my doctor wasn’t sure yet what was going on and had me schedule another scan for the following week. The next scan proved that I didn’t have a blighted ovum, as there was now a visible yolk sac and an early-stage embryo! But they couldn’t find a heartbeat. Within moments I had found that my baby had grown since the last appointment, and also that my baby had likely passed away.
I was essentially sent home to wait for a miscarriage. However, after another scan and waiting weeks, it became clear that I was experiencing a “missed miscarriage”, meaning that my baby had passed away but that my body hadn’t realized it and wasn’t releasing the contents of my womb. I ended up having to take medication to “force” my body to miscarry at 10 weeks and endured a traumatic and very painful miscarriage at home. I was completely unprepared for the physical (and emotional) toll. My experience was so far removed from what I had been told to expect; I was actually alone when my baby finally left me. I was so weak from the process the next day that I found myself unable to stand upright long enough to make instant oatmeal. I felt waves of loneliness, despair, and frustration at my weakened state. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, the miscarriage didn’t complete, and about a week later I started having contractions (when there is retained “material” in the womb it can put the mother at risk of dangerous infection). My OB ended up completing the process manually at her office (this was very painful as I was fully awake and unmedicated) and they then had to give me a shot to stop me from hemorrhaging. Needless to say, my first pregnancy was physically and emotionally traumatic. But miscarriage is actually much more common than most people think. Statistically around 1 in 4 pregnancies ends in miscarriage and the true number may be even higher. So although the experience had been heartbreaking and even, in my particular case, a bit dangerous, I think everyone assumed at this point that it was just an unfortunate “fluke”.
I went on to have 3 more miscarriages over the next few years, including another missed miscarriage. This landed me within the estimated 1–2% of women who experience 3 or more recurrent miscarriages. During that time I was mistakenly told I had a malformed uterus, sent to a fertility specialist, and was subjected to multiple painful and invasive tests (of course almost none of these things were covered by medical insurance). I was put on a rotating cocktail of medications and our doctors struggled to figure out why my body was unable to carry my babies. Although they discovered some things that may or may not have contributed to our difficulty and medicated me accordingly, there was no definitive reason that could be given. I essentially had unexplained infertility given that both myself and my husband were tested for our respective fertility health (my eggs and his sperm) and were both determined to have “above average” fertility potential.
So, we kept trying. I was taking medicines to prevent my body from “attacking” my babies, medicine to help my womb “hold” them in the early stages, and daily self-administered injections for a blood-clotting disorder that had been discovered in a blood panel. I also did some medicated cycles where I was given fertility drugs so the doctors could closely monitor my egg maturation and trigger ovulation to try to control the process further. Nothing was working.
This was a dark time. I struggled with heightened anxiety and stress to the point that I eventually had to be hooked up to a portable EKG for several weeks. My body was bruised and tender from injections and the medications and multiple pregnancies had deposited some extra weight I couldn’t seem to shift. I felt frayed, worn out, and just lost. I felt betrayed by my own body, which seemed unable to do the one thing a woman’s body is “supposed” to be able to do. My husband struggled in his own way as he watched what I was going through and mourned the loss of our babies, but it was often hard to connect as we grieve and handle emotion in very different ways. We came to the point where our doctor was simply running out of tests to perform and medications to try. We were advised that IVF was our best option, and not just IVF, but the most expensive form of IVF (other than surrogacy or donor-egg IVF) because of our specific situation.
That was a very scary place to be. We were discussing options that are financially, emotionally, and sometimes physically overwhelming: do we try IVF? Do we start adoption proceedings (an option we’d been considering for some time)? Can we possibly afford to do both? What if we take the next step and we still end up with no child?
We decided to try one more time on our own (while still taking all the medications prescribed by my wonderful fertility specialist). As expected, I got pregnant right away. I wasn’t excited about it. I’d left behind innocence and joy for the process long ago. We went to our first scan fully expecting bad news…but this time was different. There was a tiny flickering heartbeat on the screen. I cried, my husband cried, the nurse performing the scan cried. However, after so much heartache you begin to try to steel yourself for the next bad news out of self-preservation. After waiting 2 excruciating weeks until the next scan, I went in fully expecting my baby to have passed. But when we saw the screen, there was a chubby little “gummy bear” wiggling around and waving it’s arm bud at us as the heart continued to beat strongly! We were elated! We were joyous! But of course, we were also fearful.
When you have experienced losses, pregnancy is so long. I struggled with what I knew was an irrational fear that if I acknowledged my baby out loud, he would die. We waited a long time before telling anyone other than immediate family about the pregnancy. I also happened to have an anterior placenta, meaning that it was toward the front; it acted as a pillow between me and the baby, making it harder for me to feel his movements. At one point later in the pregnancy, I was terrified that he had died when I hadn’t felt movement for awhile. We went in to get checked and it turns out he was in there bopping around, but I just couldn’t feel it due to his position at the time.
Finally, after a long and complicated labor, our son was born on Father’s day, 2014. He was big, healthy, and strong–what a lovely gift to his daddy! After walking through “fire” to get him, he was finally in our arms. We are so blessed. I know that there are many who struggle longer than we did and some who are never able to build their families in the “traditional” way. My hope and prayer is that everyone who experiences this is eventually able to realize their dream of parenthood, whether that is through pregnancy, surrogacy, adoption, fostering, etc…But none of these options will come easily. The path to parenthood for those of us who struggle is usually long, complex, expensive, possibly physically invasive, and emotionally draining. These are just some of the reasons I am so open about my experiences, painful and frightening as they were. I want others to know they are not alone. I also fervently hope that we can shed light on issues that illustrate the need to improve our physical and mental health outcomes and also increase resources related to pregnancy (and pregnancy loss), childbirth, postpartum care, and “alternative” family building.
We went on to experience another infertility journey to have our second child a few years later. The second time around we experienced a different problem in that I couldn’t get pregnant. So we just got to see all different sides of this experience. Once again, on the very cusp of taking an even more expensive and invasive step, I got pregnant with our beautiful daughter and gave birth to her in 2017 after a healthy pregnancy. Although she gave us a little bit of a scare with 2 short NICU visits within her first 2 weeks of life, she is ultimately healthy and we are so grateful. We have completed our little family. I am finally done with the hundreds of shots, the expensive specialists, and the invasive procedures in my quest for my babies. So now, we just have to get through parenthood…My husband and I sometimes look at each other when our kids (now 5 and 2) are being particularly rambunctious and joke “well, we tried really really hard to do this to ourselves, so we can’t complain!” And we have no complaints.
Keep your head up momma or daddy, we are rooting for you.