I tried to occupy myself with packing, but my mind kept turning back to the clock and the phone. We were awaiting the call from our fertility doctor, letting us know if the years we spent in grueling, humiliating, disruptive (not to mention financially draining) treatments had finally resulted in a pregnancy. Time was crawling.
For the past two years I had become obsessed with the pursuit of having our own child. Two miscarriages, a long period of infertility followed by two rounds of IUI’s, tests, more tests on me, and then him, led us to this point in time. Here I was, staring at my last shot at biological motherhood, on our fourth round of IVF (in-virto fertilization). We had discussed the “what-ifs” and decided this was enough. Those two years, along with thousands upon thousands of dollars and countless hours of worry had worn us down physically, financially, and emotionally. The real casualty in all of this was our relationship. It had taken a massive toll on us as a couple. We could not go on any further with more fertility treatments.
Married for seven years, I was determined to get my Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology and pass my license exam so I would be credentialed to practice before we attempted pregnancy. By the time I achieved my goals, I was more than ready to get pregnant. In reality, I always was. I was that little girl who would name her dolls and dream of the day she’d be a mother. I had suppressed this part of myself in order to get the education that meant a lot to me, and also wanted to enjoy being a married couple for a while without the constricting nature of parenthood. So when we had fertility issues, it was pure torture for me.
What I really want to talk about is how damaging and stressful the experience of infertility was for us as a couple. I know millions of couples are out there right now enduring the difficult process of infertility treatments. Needles, blood tests, ultrasounds, ovulation kits, monitoring… it is brutal. I found it so ironic that the act of two people coming together wanting to create life so badly could actually extinguish the life in their relationship with this very unnatural scientific intervention.
Since we gained much wisdom in our personal battle with infertility, I’d like to share some ways to protect your relationship, hoping it will help those who are embarking on fertility treatments, or are in the midst of it.
1) Protect your sex life because infertility will ruin it if you allow it to. The act of sexual intercourse is not one that is meant to be contrived, planned or anxiety-ridden. When a couple encounters fertility issues it’s only natural to tense up about sex. Ovulation tests, blood tests and scheduled sex (just to name a few) basically ruin what should otherwise be a spontaneous and natural act. Do yourself and your body a favor – lay off the “planned” and pressured sex. Performance anxiety and worry cause stress physically and mentally. It certainly cannot increase fertility to stress the mind (and therefore the body). Getting away to a hotel room or taking a day trip might be just what you need to shift the mood and give way to a more relaxed sexual connection. Make time for non-fertility related thoughts, discussion and activities. Otherwise, it can be overwhelming and all consuming. Try romance again. Do something to relax each other – explore what that means for you as a couple. Candles, baths, and massages are just a few examples. The bedroom needs to be a no-fertility talk zone. Whatever you can do to refocus and settle the mind to just be with one another again without the infertility thoughts in the way is crucial. Remember, sex is a celebration of your love with or without a pregnancy.
2) Talk about your feelings with each other. Women notoriously withdraw into themselves and become so absorbed in achieving the pregnancy that they wall off their partners. I cannot say this enough: be mindful of obsessing. No matter how much you obsess, it will not change the circumstance. Pay attention to your partner’s needs as much as your own. Don't go off on your own obsessive research mission and leave your partner feeling alone and isolated. Now is the time to turn toward one another, not away. It is important to recognize when you need emotional support beyond that which (or what) you can provide one another. Couples may need individual therapy or group therapy in order to cope with infertility. Make sure you stay connected to one another and know the limits of what you can provide to each other. You can lose yourself in this process… I did for a little while. The anxiety can take you off the deep end if you let it.
3) Remember that you will be okay with or without a baby. I really wanted to have our own biological child and my husband did not want to adopt. I longed to look into my baby’s eyes and see a glimpse of my husband staring back at me. I wanted to see our genes mixed together – it's such a biologically driven desire – at least it was for me. I wished though, along the road of infertility, that I had recognized we'd be okay no matter how our story ended. We were enough, our love was enough – we had a full life – and it was enough. Did I say “enough” enough? Really though, if I had accepted that I was not in control and that we would have a great life together despite the outcome – things might have not been so heavy and foreboding. Make it a point to talk about what you do have together and as individual people. You had a life together before your struggle with infertility – so you can have one during – and after.
4) Know when it’s time to surrender or to take a break. Either you will run out of money, time away from work, or your body or mind will be physically and/or mentally exhausted. Know when one or both of you cannot invest anymore in the process of trying to have a biological family. Sometimes, no matter what you do to protect your relationship, it wears on it. Don’t lose each other. As hard as it is, acknowledge your limits as a couple and as an individual. Give one another permission to fly the surrender flag. Many couples with unexplained (and sometimes even with diagnoses) suddenly become pregnant when they “give up”. There are far too many of these stories for this to be a mere coincidence. Talk about outcomes, if treatment fails , and how you plan to deal with them: no children, adoption, re-focus on careers/goals, travel, lifestyle changes, and any other plans.
5) Love each other as much as you can throughout. I remember my husband driving in the late night to a pharmacy because we accidentally dropped a vial and its contents. He gave it all to me throughout our journey – and by all I mean 110% in all the arenas: financially, physically, and mentally. He held me more times than I can count while I cried, he stood next to many exam tables holding my hand, he eased my disappointments and had humiliating experiences himself – all to give me my dream of motherhood. Appreciate what your partner is doing for you. Remember, it’s hard on you both. Remember that your love for one another was the reason for all of this – don’t forget it. Remember to appreciate your partner.
Back to our story – I waited by the phone for my blood test results of round four of IVF – way beyond the two times we initially agreed to. In my mind, everything would change with this phone call. We would have our family, or not. The shrill of the ring made me jump from my own skin. I let it ring again, almost frozen in place. My hands shook and I felt faint. The thick Greek accent of my fertility doctor came across the line, “Heather, I just had to call you myself … I told my nurse to let me share this awesome news with you. It’s positive!” he said, through an audible smile. “It looks like your numbers are high. We’ll wait to see if it is a twin pregnancy.” I managed to get out “Thank you! Thank you so much, Doctor!” through joyous, streaming tears. I hung up and immediately called my husband – wanting to tell him in person yet unable to contain myself for the time that would take. “It’s positive!” I shrieked.
It was a victorious time until the day before the ultrasound. As I was standing in line at the grocery store checkout, I felt an odd sensation of warmth down my leg. Peering down, I saw a trickle of blood running down my thigh. I dropped my items and ran to the parking lot, scavenging for my keys and crying. I was petrified that I had lost the pregnancy. Hysterical and unable to drive, I called my husband and hours later we found ourselves back in the city in the cold exam room.
The ultrasound tech entered with my doctor who touched my hand as he passed, trying to reassure me. “Let’s take a look,” he said, “And not jump to conclusions.” Our eyes were all transfixed on the screen, the wand searching back and forth over my abdomen. The nurse said, “There is the bleeding,” referring to a dark area. Tears immediately welled up in my eyes. She blew up the screen, looking closer for a few minutes, and suddenly a faint rhythm filled the air. The doctor asked for the tech to turn up the volume. Across the screen a tiny blip of a heartbeat pulsed, and the bean shaped embryo came into clear view. “You have a heartbeat,” my doctor said with relief. “It looks like the other embryo is no longer viable, but we have a viable embryo with a heartbeat.” He squeezed my hand and they left the room allowing us our privacy. We embraced, cried and celebrated – tentatively. The baby wasn’t in our arms yet, but we had much reason for hope.
March 2003, we gratefully welcomed our brown-eyed, beautiful baby girl into the world. We had survived infertility and were rewarded with the outcome we had long dreamed of – parenthood. After giving birth, I recall everyone leaving the room for one reason or another and there I was alone with her in silence. It was all so surreal – like I was dreaming – and she wasn’t really resting in my arms. It took me hours to acknowledge that I really was a mother... something that didn’t sink in until the first time I nursed her, I think. She was here, she was ours, and I could relax now. I had such an awesome appreciation for the miracle of pregnancy that only those who have gone through infertility can truly appreciate. I was holding a miracle.
Ten months later and tapering off nursing, I had been feeling very dizzy, preparing for our first big trip to Disney with the baby. I was getting my nails done this day, baby at my Mom’s, getting ready for the trip. On my way back from the nail salon I picked up a pregnancy test. I arrived back at my Mom’s and shared causally with her my purchase and went into the bathroom. Seconds later two lines filled the results window. I stared, mouth gaping in shock. I came out of the bathroom and speechlessly showed my Mom the stick. “No way!!!” she said. We hugged with excitement and astonishment.
Moments later my husband entered the house for dinner as planned. My Mom and I sat around the table smirking at one another. Halfway through dinner I told him. I piped up “Honey, I had my eyes examined today, and they must really be getting bad as I get older.” He replied, “Oh yeah, why?” not even glancing up from his plate at me. “Well”, I said,” I was thinking something might really be wrong with my eyes since I saw two lines on the pregnancy test I did today.” He stopped chewing and slowly met my eyes. “NO WAY!” he shouted. It was unbelievable to comprehend that we were pregnant so easily after all we had been through – and this was a cause for much celebration. We were blessed with our second daughter just 18 months apart from her older sister and we know how very lucky we are to have them both.
We are the lucky ones – we know it. We are doubly lucky. Who knows why our IVF pregnancy finally worked or why I got pregnant again so easily after years of struggle after our first miracle. We cannot possibly understand. Medical Science cannot explain everything. We also know that many couples are not so fortunate to have their dreams come true. Infertility takes down many relationships – it’s an unfortunate fact. We know the toll it took on our relationship, and hope that those struggling through it will choose to grow stronger together, instead of allowing it to drive them apart. Finding peace with your particular outcome, however it ends for you, is always the goal.
My heart hurts for each of you who are struggling with infertility and my hope is that your dreams come true. I ask you to not lose sight of your own love. Protect it, keep it safe. Remember, it is what has led you here to want to create more life and love together – and it remains what matters most when things get tough. Try to embrace the greatest gift that you already have – someone who loves you.