As I mentioned in a previous post, Jeff and I struggled for over three years to get pregnant. When we were going through it, it took all of my physical and mental energy to try to keep moving forward and I could barely process what was happening. I never planned to write about it here, but then I remembered all of the brave people who shared their struggles both online and off, and thought I should contribute our story too in case it helps someone going through something similar.
So I wanted to share a little more about the process we went through, and some things I found to help as I went through the hardest few years of my life.
Our Infertility/IVF Story
I’ve always been a Type-A Planner person (not a good mix for infertility!) so when I turned 30, my husband Jeff and I decided to stop using birth control. I knew that sometimes it took couples awhile to conceive and I wanted to give us time before I hit that dreaded age of “35” when a woman’s fertility supposedly starts to decline. My own grandparents passed away when I was very young, and I wanted my and Jeff’s parents to have as much time as possible with their potential grandchildren.
I can’t remember exactly how I felt when the first year went by with no baby. As I said I am a planner, and my mind tends to be too far in the future (something I’m constantly working on). So while I had been looking forward to getting pregnant/having kids years before we actually started trying, I don’t think I was too worried yet. We had occasionally taken a month or two off from trying because we had a vacation coming up or friend’s wedding to attend, and besides that we worked opposite schedules. I was also unhappy at my job, I had taken a paycut and money was tight and I was stressed. I figured I was just too stressed and made lists of how I could use this time to make my life better for when a baby might join the family, like eating better, working out, doing yoga, managing my money better, fixing up the house, etc.
I think it was after the second year passed that I decided to finally seek out help from a doctor. I saw my regular nurse practitioner who ran a blood test to check my egg reserves which were normal and then said I should see a reproductive endocrinologist for more tests. I am a bit of hippie so I sought out the most “holistically-inclined” reproductive endocrinologist I could find (I just knew that she recommended acupuncture) and made an appointment.
She ordered a bunch of tests and it was discovered that I was slightly hypothyroid and I had several cysts on my ovaries, but they were diagnosed as “simple” cysts which usually clear up on their own. Over the next year, I also sought out help from other doctors (a naturopath and a reproductive endocrinologist who specializes in thyroid issues) to get second opinions and try to figure out how I could possibly treat or heal myself. All of Jeff’s tests checked out normal and we eventually received a diagnosis of “unexplained infertility.” I wasn’t ready to consider fertility treatments yet, and spent the next several months researching and driving myself a bit crazy trying to figure out what was wrong with my body. I’m still not quite sure why I wasn’t able to conceive naturally, I am still borderline hypothyroid and two doctors told me it’s likely I have endometriosis (one large cyst still remains and is no longer considered “simple”).
At the three year mark, we decided to investigate fertility treatments and I found an amazing practice (Fertility Solutions of New England) through the website FertilityIQ.com for which I will be forever grateful. Our decision was based on the fact that it was getting harder and harder for me to mentally recover after each month that went by without getting pregnant. The other major factor was that we found out my health insurance would cover fertility treatment 100%, which is unheard of. There is no way we could have afforded IVF without that coverage and I can’t imagine how awful it is to be where we were and not be able to afford to move ahead and try treatments.
Because it was suspected I had endometriosis and the fact we had been trying for so long, we decided to try just one round of the less invasive technique of Intra-Uterine-Insemination (IUI) before we went for In-Vitro-Fertilization (IVF). The IUI cycle failed and I was really upset, but we did have a family vacation planned afterwards which was a great distraction.
There is soooo much that goes into an IVF cycle, but the basic process is this:
1. You are placed on several medicines so your ovulation cycle can be closely controlled and monitored, and often have to go in for bloodwork and/or ultrasound at least a few times a week to see what your ovaries are up to. Some of the medications encourage your ovaries to produce multiple eggs (instead of the normal single egg) so they can collect them in one procedure.
2. When you are about to ovulate, you are given a “trigger shot” so the doctors know that your eggs will be released in the next 48 hours. You are given an appointment for an egg retrieval procedure. In this procedure, you are sedated and the doctors go into your ovaries and retrieve the mature eggs with a catheter through your vagina. The doctors use ultrasound to guide the needle to the right place. I don’t remember the procedure at all and didn’t feel any pain (I think some cramping afterwards is normal). Jeff also had to produce a “sample” at the clinic on this day and right after they retrieved my eggs, they mixed them with his sperm in a petri dish in the lab.
3. Over the next few days, I could call the lab to get updates on how our embryos were developing and we were scheduled for a 3-day embryo transfer (some people choose to freeze their embryos right away, or wait 5 days). They retrieved 5 eggs and only 4 were mature, but those 4 made it to the day 3 mark. We only planned to transfer one embryo, so the rest were frozen.
4. On the third day, I went back to the clinic and they again used a catheter and an ultrasound machine to place a single embryo directly into my uterus while we watched. Everyone there was incredibly kind, excited and hopeful, it wasn’t cold or clinical at all! We had to wait about 10 days and then went to the doctor’s office for a blood test to see if my hormone levels indicated that I was pregnant. I will never forget where I was the moment I got that voice message from my doctor that my test was positive. It took several months for it to fully sink in.
We were so incredibly lucky that the first round of IVF worked, and that the process was much easier than I expected. While I was always grateful the technology existed, I had put it off for so long. I really did want to learn to heal my body on my own (which created a lot of pressure on myself), but I think I was also afraid because I knew if IVF didn’t work, we probably wouldn’t be able to have our own biological children, and that would be devastating to me.
I think finding a good doctor and clinic (that is hopefully close to you) is one of the the most important things you can do. Every part of the process was so much better than I was expecting (even how everything worked out with my busy schedule), and it was a relief to put our fate in someone else’s hands for a little while. I do need to reiterate that we got incredibly lucky with IVF working so quickly and my insurance coverage, so many couples go through worse heartbreak for much longer. It does seem like there are legitimate efforts in the field to make IVF more affordable, and I even read about a research study in Canada in which the laboratory costs were greatly reduced by incubating the embryos inside the woman’s body!
Some Tips for Those Struggling with Infertility
The only thing that will truly help an infertile couple is a baby. It just sucks to want something so badly and have it be totally out of our control. It sucks to have yet another Christmas, yet another birthday or New Year’s Eve go by without a pregnancy. But over the course of our infertility journey, I did find some things that lessened the pain on some days.
Recognize that Infertility is a Crisis
Infertility can become a true mental health disorder. It is something you carry around with you and no matter how you try to distract yourself or how often you focus on the positives aspects of life, it is always there. Make sure you respect this fact, which leads me to my next tip . . .
Get Help. Get Help Sooner Than Later.
I tend to put off going to a counselor until I feel really awful and my emotional state is starting to affect my daily life. And then the only thing I regret is waiting so long! Even though there’s not much a mental health counselor can do to help you achieve a pregnancy, they can help you notice patterns of thought that are making you feel worse, or help you identify relaxation and self-care techniques. In my case, my counselor even helped me recognize that I really wanted to go back to school for a Phd. but I kept ignoring it because I was afraid. I started taking classes to see how I could manage it with work, and it was something that made me happy and was distracting and hope-giving. This goes for medical help too. I think I put off doctors and fertility tests, wanting to “fix myself” instead with natural methods. While I am grateful for learning more about how my body works, looking back I think part of it was fear, and trying to fix myself put pressure on myself for something that was most likely out of my control. Those years sucked going through them, but they can really feel like a weight when you finally seek medical help and it feels like you’ve been trying for SO.LONG. The stakes just seem that much higher. The general rule of thumb is to visit a doctor if you are under 35 and have been trying to conceive for 12 months, and are over 35 and have been trying to conceive for 6 months.
Be Kind to Yourself
I can’t stress this enough. Infertility brings up so.many.emotions. Sadness, jealousy, bitterness, guilt . . . the list goes on and on. Be very, very kind to yourself. Do whatever you need to do to protect your mental health. Take a day off from work. Stay off Facebook and Instagram. Skip that baby shower if you feel that it’s going to kill you (if you just can’t skip the shower – an alternative is to leave before the gift opening and do something really nice for yourself afterwards). Just know that it’s OK to take care of yourself first, because infertility is the f’ing worst. This actually gets easier, so keep practicing! I found that I had good days and bad days. On my good days, I had the strength to reach out and be the friend I really wanted to be to the pregnant ladies in my life. On bad days I learned to allow myself to lay low and watch a chick flick with my phone on silent.
Notice the Difference Between Sorrow and Fear
This just might be me and my crazy personality, but the fear I would never get pregnant and my life was going to be this hard and sad forever was always in my head. Before we even tried fertility treatments, I would react like I had been told I would never conceive, which was not the case. When I got really upset, I learned to try to notice if I was reacting to fear (future-tripping and reacting to something that had not happened yet) or sorrow (like learning I wasn’t pregnant this month).
Recognize What Your Expectations Might Be
Sometimes you don’t even realize you are doing this, but another thing that made infertility so hard for me is that for years I’ve had an expectation of my what my life would be like. I am very lucky that I have amazing family and childhood friends nearby. When I left graduate school, I was excited to move home, get an awesome job with my new degree and have fun raising our families together. When they started to have kids I was so happy for them, but it was hard not to feel worried if I would ever be able to share that experience or get “left behind”. But even before we got pregnant I realized that comparing my life to this ideal expectation was making everything tougher on myself – the future may look different than what I hoped or planned, but different doesn’t necessarily mean worse.
Find Someone Who Understands
This one is huge! Find someone else who is going through these struggles too, whether it be through an in-person support group or online forum. One day, I was surprised to see a girl I knew at my fertility clinic. I didn’t say anything in case she needed privacy, but we soon connected and started to hang out – it felt like a gift from God. You can feel so isolated, but so many others are also struggling with infertility and it helps to know you are not alone.
Note: I had meant to publish this post earlier but coincidentally, this week is National Infertility Awareness Week. I was reminded of this by the latest post on the wonderful blog, Davis Duo. I found Owen’s blog shortly before we started our own fertility treatments and it really helped me overcome my fears of the IVF process. If you are struggling to build your family, please know that I am rooting and praying for you!