Desperately Seeking Baby: Believing in an Invisible Hope
A Rude Awakening
Before Infertility graced us with her presence, I'm reasonably certain that I had never heard that word before. I had no idea how persistent and relentless this problem could be. I also had no idea how insensitive the rest of the world is to this issue. Honestly, I'm confident that I was part of the problem for a long time. At the very least, I was blissfully going through life not realizing sensitivity was necessary. This shouldn't be a shock due to my Y chromosome. Still, I've discovered over the years that women are every bit as guilty as men. In fact, women who I considered to be some of the greatest role models ended up being the worst offenders!
In December of 1994, I married a woman whom I had fallen in love with while attending college in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We were so excited about starting a new life, and we definitely couldn't wait to have children. About 2 years into our marriage, she had a miscarriage. It was very early in the cycle, in fact she didn't actually know that she was pregnant at the time. That turned out to be the last pregnancy. About a year later, she was diagnosed with infertility. This was a shock to her, but at the time she really believed that this was nothing more than a speed bump. I felt the same way. Neither of us had been exposed to anything like this. All of my aunts and uncles had multiple children. All of hers had multiple children. Her brother and his wife had two boys. Surely the doctors would figure this out. There's no way that we could have predicted how unbelievably long the road was actually going to be.
Once she was diagnosed with infertility, our doctor asked us to start doing the basal body temperature chart. This would be great, because it would let us know when she is ovulating so we can target our sexual activity. It turns out that this is when a lot of our relational struggles really started. Sex went from an expression of love and intimacy to a means to an end. We slowly began to wrap our entire lives around this one goal. Eventually, the bedroom became a pressure cooker. The charts were informative, but not in the way we had hoped.
We discovered that she wasn't ovulating at all. Eventually they tracked it down to Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), the most common cause of female infertility. She tried several medications, including clomid and metformin, but ovulation still was not happening. Eventually, they recommended doing a couple rounds of self-injections using gonadotropins to stimulate the ovaries. The first round ended with artificial insemination, but no pregnancy. The second round actually ended up overstimulating the ovaries and they each swelled up to the size of a grapefruit. This was very painful, and they ended up aborting the process. For ten years, this was the story. Treatment after treatment turned to failure after failure. Frustration and hopelessness slowly took root.
The Hits Just Keep On Coming
While all of this was going on, the planet continued to rotate. We continued to live out in the world with all of those other people who were blissfully unaware of what was going on in our neck of the woods. People continued to ask if we were going to have children, not realizing what an emotionally volatile question this was for us. Proud parents would tell us all about what their kids were doing. I can honestly admit now that we did not want to hold other people's babies, we didn't want to feel pregnant women's tummies, etc. Even diaper commercials acted as a regular reminder that there was a void we did not have the power to fill. God certainly did not seem to be in a hurry to fill it, in fact we were sure that God simply was not on our side.
A couple years in, we completely gave up on Mother's Day. Every church has some special way they recognize mothers on their special day (flowers, stand up, etc.). While this is great for those being honored, it serves as a painful reminder of the infertile woman's struggles. Church greeters would instinctively wish my wife a happy Mother's Day, assuming by her age that by now she must have at least one. It didn't get better when we left the church grounds. Waitresses, cashiers, and other random people whose lives intersected with ours were well trained to perform their well-wishing duties. It seemed like everywhere we went, someone was reminding her again that she couldn't do the one thing women feel like they're supposed to be able to do.
Still, Mother's Day wishes weren't nearly as bad as the onslaught of babies. This one is very tough, because everyone knows that, when a baby arrives, everyone rejoices with the proud parents. Why wouldn't they? But when you are dealing with infertility or recurrent loss, the last thing you want to do is go celebrate the birth of yet another child that isn't yours. Those who have never lived this life may accuse us of being selfish, but they simply have no understanding of how emotionally devastating infertility can be. These friends should be sensitive enough to understand when the infertile couple doesn't show up to the baby shower or the delivery room. You can't just turn your pain off with a switch while you go perform for your friends.
It's extraordinary how much other women can underestimate the blow that infertility has on self worth. As a guy, it seems intuitive that other women would just hop right on board, but sadly this isn't the case. When one woman is dealing with infertility or recurrent loss, all of the other women seem to feel a sense of obligation to provide hope through platitudes, Bible verses, their own personal stories, etc. At a time when infertile women just want to be heard and understood, their friends are trying to solve their problems by saying things like "Pregnancy is such an awful experience you're really better off." As if this poor woman, whose lifelong dreams of giving birth to a child of her own may be permanently dashed on the rocks, might actually say, "Gosh, I never really thought of it like that before!"
This is the life we lived through 10 years of infertility treatments. No one understood. In fact, very few seemed to want to make an effort. It seemed like everyone we knew was getting pregnant. Even teenagers who had no desire for a baby were getting pregnant. It really began to seem as if God was mad at us for something. We just couldn't figure out what it was. Unfortunately, it turned out that the struggles weren't over. We finally set off down the path of open adoption, only to have the birth mother change her mind the day we were supposed to pick up the baby from the hospital. Four months later, we found out this same baby had died due to neglect. There's no way to make sense of something like that.
Eventually my wife and I did adopt a son, but by then the anxiety and depression brought on by all of these circumstances had taken its toll. After thirteen years of marriage, my wife left in search of greener pastures the week after our son's birthday. I thankfully became the custodial parent of our adopted son (she had left without him) and devoted myself to the role of single dad. It took a long time to come to terms emotionally with what had happened, and it was incredibly painful to watch my son deal with the loss of his mom in the home. Still, I was thankful for a chance to start over and put that incredibly difficult part of my life behind me.
What happened next was even more unexpected than the ten years of infertility. Eventually I remarried (March of 2010), to an amazing woman from Richmond, Virginia. While there is no perfect relationship, we knew very early on that this was something special. She has even turned out to be an amazing step-mom for my son who was five when we married. About 3 months into the marriage, she showed me the two positive pregnancy tests. I was incredibly excited and thankful! I was also a little freaked out. Suddenly I pictured myself in the delivery room cutting the cord! I quickly got over it, thankfully, and we very quickly called everyone and made the announcement. It was a very exciting time, and was an experience for which I was able to be especially thankful.
At about the six week mark, my wife suddenly started cramping. We raced to the emergency room where they did an ultrasound and drew blood. They searched the uterus and found nothing but a yolk sac (the covering that develops around the fetus). They couldn't see the baby. In the blood test they were specifically looking for the hormone hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin), which should have been between 1080 and 56,500. For her, it was around 800. This was not a good sign, but they wanted to wait a few days and do another blood test to get a better understanding of what was going on. By then, the hCG numbers should have at least doubled. Three days later, the hCG count came back even lower than before which was an early predictor for miscarriage. It was an incredibly sad time, but we picked up the pieces and continued to look forward.
Four months later, she was pregnant again. This time we decided not to tell anyone until we cleared the first trimester. When we went in for our eight week checkup, they couldn't see anything (no yolk sac). The hCG numbers were going down, same as before. Because there was no yolk sac, this likely meant either a chemical pregnancy (the fetus had failed to implant in the uterus) or the fetus had actually gotten lodged in the fallopian tube. We went home to wait for the intense pain that resulted from a fetus outgrowing a fallopian tube, hoping for a chemical pregnancy. Either way, we were looking at a miscarriage. We couldn't believe this could happen a second time. I personally couldn't believe this could happen after 10 years of infertility in the previous marriage. I was beginning to think that I had been cursed by God somehow and was inflicting my torment on her simply by proximity.
After the third miscarriage, we took a long break and did some soul searching. Our situation was officially labeled recurrent pregnancy loss. It was very hard for me to be hopeful at this point. Every miscarriage took a significant toll on both of us emotionally, and her physically. Also, it didn't take long for me to realize that all of the insensitivity issues that exist for infertile couples are there for couples dealing with recurrent pregnancy loss as well. After a long break, we narrowed things down to two options: adoption and seeing an infertility specialist. We recognized that infertility wasn't really a valid description of what we were experiencing. Infertility really focuses on trying to get women pregnant (in vitro, etc.). Getting pregnant wasn't really our problem--it was staying pregnant. We decided to go the "infertility specialist" route hoping that they would be able to give us some guidance. They performed numerous tests on both of us (chromosomal match, sperm quality, etc.) and everything looked fine.
The answer we were given was that, because she was in her late thirties, some high percentage of her eggs may not be viable. They weren't actually able to prove that without surgically removing some number of eggs to test them, which they didn't want to do. Instead, they decided to push us towards in vitro. After much discussion, we decided to continue down the current path and hope for the best (mostly because we weren't comfortable with selective reduction, freezing embryos, or having a litter). Frustrated, we pressed on. Two more pregnancies led to two more miscarriages, the last one in February of 2012. We looked at each other and decided that we had grieved enough. We were done. Our last option was adoption, but we couldn't bring ourselves to start that process. Instead, we decided to take plenty of time to rest and heal. It was time, and we had plenty of healing to do.
Those of us who have lived through similar situations would likely agree that it's very easy to look at the laundry list of things tried without success and become despondent. It's easy to lose hope. This isn't so much a story about how we were rock stars and never gave up hope despite the circumstances. We certainly failed in that endeavor. As we approached the end of the road, the sheer volume of failures seemed to be (to me, at least) an incredibly strong indicator that we were wasting our time.
Surprisingly though, I'm actually writing this from Northside Hospital in Atlanta, GA. We may have been done, but God wasn't. On Dec. 12th, 2012, baby Hannah Elizabeth was born to two amazed and proud parents. In March of this year (one month after our fifth miscarriage), we decided to celebrate our anniversary by going to a great little bed and breakfast (Glen Ella Springs Inn, Clarksville, GA) where we could just escape everything and focus on us for a while. It turned out to be just what we needed. While on that trip, baby Hannah was accidentally conceived. After a couple years of getting pregnant when we wanted to be pregnant, the pregnancy that made it to the end was the one we had decided ahead of time we wouldn't pursue. We had stopped pursuing the baby, so she pursued us instead. So in essence, this is a story about how having hope has nothing to do with your ability to believe. Hope is there whether you believe in it or not.
Her name has special significance to both of us. According to Luke chapter 1, Elizabeth was very old and had been unable to have a child. But God, when they least expected it, finally gave her a son who would later be known as John the Baptist. Hannah was one of two wives of Elkanah (one wife had children, while Hannah did not). In fact, the wife who had children constantly taunted and ridiculed Hannah for not being able to bear children. In anguish, she prayed with tears in her eyes, asking God for a son. Not long after that, she gave birth to Samuel (1 Samuel chater 1). These stories are a reminder to us that not seeing a plan doesn't mean there's not a plan. Not seeing any ray of hope doesn't mean there's no hope. God is still God and he still love us, even though our circumstances may seem to say the opposite.