- Fertility & Reproductive Systems
How I Weathered the Infertility Storm
The silent pain of infertility
It is extraordinarily easy to learn about fertility online; experts are all eager to share their knowledge through stories, blogs, articles and studies. With a bit of effort, you can gather all the important facts you need to know - the optimal age for conception, the best foods to eat for peak fertility, and the most reliable tests to predict whether your fertility journey will be a smooth or a tumultuous one.
If you find yourself with an infertility diagnosis, however, navigating through the experience can be a lot more difficult. This vulnerable time is filled with choices, and these choices can be emotionally charged and difficult to make. Although my daughter is now almost 4 years old, I can still feel the sting of those unexpected words from my doctor. She said, matter of factly, "I'm not saying you'll never get pregnant. It's just unlikely. I recommend we try the next step." I was 33 at the time - beyond the "optimal age" to conceive, for sure, but not yet to that looming "advanced maternal age" label that belongs to the over-35 crowd. Soon after this frank discussion with the doctor, the journey to meet our daughter began.
Second thoughts about infertility treatment
I sought advice from three reproductive endocrinologists before deciding on a course of action. Following all these appointments, my husband and I chose the doctor and path that felt like the best match.
All specialists approach a clear infertility problem in his or her own way; some are blunt and direct, others offer endless choices and hope. All patients too, look at infertility in different ways. Initially, I was adamant that I would stop at a set point - I would accept the help of medication and possibly a mildly invasive procedure like intrauterine insemination, or IUI. That worked well for me psychologically, at least for a while. I was able to stick to my plan and principles; this infertility was not going to define me or change my life in the slightest. Then, after a few failed cycles of IUI, I had the uneasy feeling that I was wasting my time with all these appointments, procedures, and medications. Pregnancy was not going to happen, and I was now 36.
Three choices loomed at this point; I needed to move forward with the full route of infertility treatment, look into adoption options, or give up the idea of a child and make the best of a wonderful life with my husband. We began to explore adoption possibilities, and I also reached the conclusion that we could certainly be happy and fulfilled without a child. One nagging thought, however, kept entering my mind. I had only completed the earliest steps of treatment, since in vitro fertilization (IVF) scared me immensely (mostly because of the prospect of going under anesthesia). What if I gave up just a little too early, when that precious pregnancy could be just around the corner?
Taking a chance on IVF
I moved forward, with encouraging words from my husband, parents and best friend. I committed to IVF, a more invasive procedure but one which would offer the greatest chance of success. My mindset changed. IVF procedures are highly scheduled, tightly controlled, and coordinated through numerous doctors, nurses and assistants; there is nothing casual about them.
I met multiple times with a nurse who demonstrated how to measure medications and give myself injections. In her office, I fought through a mental block while I concentrated, and began to experience a total exhaustion like I'd never felt before. The nurse seemed truly bewildered by my inability to grasp the step by step instructions. I tried to hold back tears until I left the nurse's office. I felt utterly useless, like a complete failure. Not only was I unable to get pregnant, which women could do easily since the beginning of time, but I couldn't even complete a simple injection process. After all, the nurse pointed out (in a misguided attempt to encourage me), even patients who barely speak English can master the injection procedure.
I eventually got the hang of the schedule, the timing, and the shots. I felt empowered. Finally, I would get the chance to find out what my supercharged ovaries could do. I had overcome my fear of anesthesia enough to follow through, and I had a great feeling that my newfound grit was going to finally lead to success.
Unfortunately, this first attempt at IVF did not even look promising enough to make it to the big egg retrieval; it was converted to an IUI cycle. I suppose this might be done as a kind of consolation prize. After all that effort, the doctors might as well attempt a procedure with less chance of success, so as not to waste any chance, no matter how slight.
A low point, then a turning point
Several months later, I decided to try again - just one last time. I was more confident now with all the steps, and I got so used to the bloodwork and ultrasounds that it almost seemed routine. Ultimately, though, all the preparation proved to be not enough. Far from supercharged, my ovaries continued to look quite puny; after the so called "trigger shot", the doctor informed me that my estrogen levels were dropping instead of rising. Not a good sign, according to the doctor, but she said we could try anyway.
I decided to go through with the egg retrieval. I felt compelled to finish this, if only for myself. I needed to overcome my fear of the anesthesia, and I needed to give this thing my best shot. I was determined to end up proud of myself somehow. My husband said I was crying as I came out of the anesthesia. I don't remember that at all, but maybe I heard the doctors discussing the results before I was fully awake. They had been unable to recover a single egg. This was my lowest moment. Infertility was at it most menacing, most mocking, at this moment. I remember coming home and just lying on the couch all day. My husband, who was also depressed and deflated, helped me feel better. We watched TV movies, ate junk food, and talked about how sad we felt that our child would never come to be.
At the followup appointment, my doctor suggested I consider using an egg donor. I agreed out loud, but in my mind shut down the thought. No way, never, not a chance. The idea was absolutely repellant to me. If I couldn't have a genetic child, there was no way I would carry one from another woman's egg. Period.
My husband and I looked seriously into adoption as well, but the avenues we pursued favored open adoption arrangements, and we just couldn't reconcile our mixed feelings about becoming parents this way. Unlike in a closed, anonymous adoption, the lines of communication are kept open in an open adoption, through the birth parents, the adoptive parents and the children. There were too many variables for us to be comfortable with, although I know many couples open their hearts and take that leap. We also felt we couldn't deal with the heartbreak if an arrangement fell through. Many more months of life passed, and the issue of infertility faded into the background for a while.
This stop on the journey made all the difference
I vividly remember the day I felt the clouds lift. I decided to go for a consultation at a fertility center for a donor egg IVF cycle. I don't remember how I got to the point that I was willing to use an egg donor, but I definitely got there. I wanted to be pregnant, but most of all, I wanted to be a parent, and the ego I had wrapped up in the dream of a genetic child began to fade. I envisioned a child that was going to be loved unconditionally and was meant to be part of our lives. The feelings of failure began to drift away. The nurses, doctors, and assistants I encountered during this consultation all seemed to truly enjoy their work. And the most daunting aspect of this process, choosing an anonymous donor, was not difficult at all. When I finally laid eyes on the profile of my child's donor, I knew she was the one. The fact that she was fairly similar physically to me weighed strongly, but not nearly as strongly as her profile answers. She said it would be a honor to help someone start a family, and I could sense her warmth and honesty in many of her answers. That kind of genuineness really resonated with me.
During my years of infertility, I felt anger, self pity, and hopelessness. Infertility takes a toll on every woman, and every couple who experiences it, whether a child ever joins the family or not. I eventually opened my mind to other alternatives when a traditional family was not in the cards for me. That turned out be the right choice for me. My only regret was that I didn't take the path sooner.
Our daughter is a blessing beyond belief; she's full of joy, energy and curiosity. The time will come, probably soon, when my husband and I will tell her unique story in an age appropriate way. I know people have strong opinions about telling vs. not telling, and parents of both adopted kids and donor-assisted kids have a tough task when that discussion time comes. Ultimately though, every parent must consider what is in the child's best interest. I try to prepare myself for the questions that may come, but for now, I am enjoying all the simple pleasures of being a parent.