What infertility taught me
I wrote this piece for Today's Parent.
Always the planner for every possible outcome, I decided to take the afternoon off work following a doctor’s appointment with my husband to find out our fertility test results.
“Yeah,” my friend told me, “that’s a good idea. It might be a really heavy appointment.”
It struck me as a weird thing to say. Of course it wasn’t going to be a heavy appointment—everything would be fine. I wasn’t the kind of person who goes to a doctor’s appointment and gets bad news. I didn’t know who that kind of person was, but I knew it wasn’t me.
Our doctor delivered the news in a matter-of-fact tone, but her expression betrayed the seriousness of what she was saying. Our case was rare: She told us that my husband has a condition called azoospermia, which means that his semen contains very small amounts of sperm, and I have a blocked fallopian tube. Not only was it worse than we thought, it was a Very Bad Case of Infertility.
It ended up taking four years of trying (including our own attempts, a pregnancy loss, hormone treatments for both of us, surgery for my husband, three intrauterine insemination cycles and two rounds of in vitro fertilization—one with my husband’s sperm and one with donor sperm) for us to finally get pregnant.
The first thing to change was my unwavering confidence that everything would be OK. In retrospect, my plans, which were to get married and get pregnant immediately, seem silly. As a type A, I’d even factored in a contingency year for “trouble,” but the plan was to get pregnant right away. Looking back, it was naive of me to believe that I’d be able to schedule my life so meticulously. I definitely didn’t factor in the years we’d spend in and out of the clinic or the emotional roller coaster we’d endure, with hormones to amplify it all.
Back before there were any signs of trouble, when we originally started to track my ovulation, we got pregnant on the first try. Not only was I not that excited about it but I sort of regretted getting pregnant so quickly. I was scared of being pregnant, of how my life would change and of what having a kid would do to my career. It turned out to be a chemical pregnancy (much later on, we learned that, with my husbands’ sperm, it would be very difficult for us to have a live birth) so I lost the baby very soon after finding out I was pregnant. At first, the miscarriage was no big deal to me—in fact, it was a good sign. It meant we could conceive easily.
We tried for a baby for about six months after the loss before getting a referral to our fertility clinic. We didn’t suspect that something was really wrong—we just thought that it was taking a bit longer after the loss. But I was 35 and I knew that six months was the amount of time to try before seeing a specialist. Now, I’m very grateful we took this step because it took so long for us to finally conceive.
During the years we spent doing fertility treatments, I often thought back to those early days of trying to get pregnant when I held those positive tests in my hands (I had taken a few to make sure, of course) and I realized how much I took them for granted. Back then, I thought getting pregnant was a given. Now I know that being able to conceive is a huge privilege that not everyone gets. But I always maintained hope that we’d someday have a child, though I adjusted to the fact that the road would be long and hard. Throughout the journey, maintaining that realism became increasingly important.
My positive-thinking friends would say, “This cycle will be the one! You’ll be pregnant by next month!” But having that kind of attitude can be crushing during a cycle when you get a disappointing test result. I’d always get my period during the two-week wait before having to haul my ass to get a blood test confirming what I already knew: It was another month where nothing happened, where the hormones were a waste of my time and my sanity, and our mounting medical bills were resulting in nothing but debt. For me, a cautiously optimistic attitude was key—knowing that the statistics for individual cycles were against us but persevering through several treatments would culminate in having a child at some point was what kept me going during the really hard bits.
I’ve never been a patient person, but if infertility teaches you one thing, it’s patience. While everyone around you is getting pregnant and having their first (and then second) babies, you’re stuck on the sidelines, watching. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent sitting in waiting rooms, not to mention the months waiting in between appointments. Meditation helped me a lot with learning to curb my impatience.
During our first round of IVF, my name came up on a waiting list for a mindfulness-based stress reduction program that I’d signed up for months before. The meditation program was intense, with an hour of meditation every day for nine weeks, but it helped me to stay the course through the process, which was lonely and trying. Every evening, I’d go to my meditation space and do a body scan, focusing on how well my body was doing through the physically rigorous treatment cycle. The reflection was a welcome break from worrying about injections, doctor’s appointments, and the constant anxiety that in vitro might not work.
Meditation helped me deal with the daily outcomes, most of them disappointing, and to accept what was happening. Thankfully, after a round was unsuccessful, I had meditation to practice, which helped me focus on my emotional well-being while dealing with my reaction to the process.
A few months ago, after another year of IUIs and IVF, we found out that we’re pregnant (with twins!). For us, this means that our treatments are over and we can finally move on to the next stage of our lives. I’m left feeling incredibly grateful for this pregnancy (even the morning sickness) in a way that I don’t think I would have before. I’m a little bit tougher, a little more patient—and from what I’ve heard about parenthood, that’s something that will come in handy over the next few years.