* Note: Since new readers may stumble on this post via my submission in the Bloggers Unite challenge, a word of warning. This post will discuss a current pregnancy, past pregnancy losses, and plans to parent after infertility. Please tread lightly if any of these topics are triggers.*
It’s National Infertility Awareness Week (NIAW) yet again. It’s hard not to let a milestone like that make you pause and reflect. This will be my fifth NIAW as a mother-in-waiting; this will also (hopefully) be my last NIAW as a mother-in-waiting. Today marks 31 weeks 1 day gestation of the IVF miracle kicking away in my belly. (Somehow “miracle” doesn’t seem the right word for something that a healthy mixture of science and dumb luck created, sustained, and guarded for the past 7 months, but our language is full of gaps when it comes to the often taboo topic of infertility.)
When we started naively trying for our first child five years ago, I knew nothing of NIAW. I knew hope and optimism. I knew the emotional tears of joy and connection that dripped down my cheeks after the Mister and I really “tried” for the first time. I knew the worries about having enough money, where to put the nursery, and wondering if we were really ready. I knew absolutely nothing. Five years, three miscarriages, three surgeries, thousands of pills and injections and doctor’s visits later I struggle to remember who that woman was. I’m tempted to despise her naivete, to squirm at the thought of her cluelessness, to shout at her for all the times she’d asked casual acquaintances, “So when will you have kids?”, to slap her for telling her inlaws over lunch one early spring day that she wouldn’t be having caffeinated tea because, well, they were “trying.” Then the frustration and anger I feel fade and are replaced with deep sadness. I will never know that woman again. She’s gone for good.
Four years ago I still had never heard of NIAW, but I was starting to get acquainted with “infertility.” Even before a year of trying (the standard period required for an infertility diagnosis at my then-age of 27), I knew I was infertile. In 8 months off of birth control I’d only had three periods. I’d already become disillusioned at the prospect of buying and wasting home pregnancy tests, I reflected back to the “normal youthful” irregularity in my cycles which had landed me on birth control at 18 to begin with, and I was increasingly anxious for answers. I began to dip my toes into the world of online fertility charting and chat rooms and learned how it felt to have my heart break each time a “friend in the computer” crossed to the other side – the pregnant side – without me. In the beginning I allowed my doctors to convince me that the pressure I was feeling explained my mood swings and depression. I was told it was “typical” for cycles to fluctuate after birth control, for conception to take up to a year, for a little bit of anxiety to set in when it didn’t work like it did in the movies. For months I lived two lives – the driven professional woman who worked full time and attended graduate school in the evenings and on weekends; and the scared little girl who felt like her body and soul were breaking. Worst of all was the knowledge that the only things wrong with me were impatience, a low pain tolerance, obesity, and a little “run of the mill” depression. Then one morning in February I woke up in a panic. I didn’t know who my husband was. When he handed me the phone to call out of work, I didn’t know how to use it. He got me in with our doctor (yet again) that same day. She (again) repeated that I had a busy, stressful life and likely just needed a hobby, to get more exercise, and to relax. But, she also agreed to run blood work. The next day, February 8, 2011, marked the beginning of the next phase of my infertility. It was the day I was taken seriously, the day I started to get answers, the day we learned my thyroid had basically given up. Ultimately, it was the first day I knew I was ill. It was liberating and terrifying in equal measure, but I celebrated it as the beginning of the end of my fertility troubles. A pill a day, a few blood tests, and I was assured we’d be pregnant in no time. The diagnosis of PCOS a few months later came with the same good news: two pills a day, diet management, and I’d be pregnant in no time. I embraced each new diagnosis as a sign that we were getting closer to our goal. Looking back I still feel much the same, but I wish I could take myself aside and tell myself not to celebrate prematurely. The doctor’s visits would continue, the diagnoses would continue, the familiarity with the American medical system and insurance regulations would bloom into another full-time job. The journey was still at its starting point. I needed to pace myself for the diagnoses and surgeries to come.
NIAW 2012 was the first I celebrated. On Wednesday night we attended a fundraising dinner hosted on behalf of NIAW by one of the members of my new RESOLVE Peer-Led Support Group. Yes, I’d formed my state’s first (and still only) support group. I’d done it as a way to pass the time and to dull the ache of my first miscarriage a few months earlier. The miscarriage that may have been/may not have been an ectopic pregnancy. The one that was treated with chemotherapy that sidelined us from trying again for 3 months. The one that was mismanaged by an OB/GYN that had no time or patience for me. The one that inspired us to finally seek out a reproductive endocrinologist no matter the financial cost. NIAW found me at the perfect time. Our souls had been crushed, the tears were free-flowing, the sense of isolation and separation from the “normal” world was smothering me. NIAW 2012 bore the message “Don’t Ignore Infertility!” and I listened. I raised my voice in our support group meetings, I embraced my core group of “fertility friends in the computer,” I shared our story on Facebook to highlight the dangers of personhood legislation, I signed us up for the 2012 Walk of Hope. Each bold and public move was underscored and fueled by another private setback or heartache. 2012 brought my second miscarriage, the laparoscopic surgery that diagnosed my endometriosis, several failed cycles with our first reproductive endocrinologist, and a job offer from another state that removed us from the support networks we’d built for ourselves just as it gave us the gift of working in a state with a (weak) infertility insurance mandate. I learned the hard way that infertility can and does impact so many life choices. Where to live and work, how to form deeper bonds with old friends and quick bonds with new friends through shared struggles, how to answer, “So, do you have kids?” And, at the time, I was proud of the strength I’d found through my growing engagement with the infertility community and becoming an infertility advocate. I still am today, but its become bittersweet.
Last year I started this blog, I submitted a post to the Bloggers Unite challenge, and I was humbled to be selected a finalist for last year’s Hope Award. My public self was riding high on the cause of infertility, as my private self mourned the loss of our third pregnancy. We’d seen the heartbeat only to see it cease. We’d driven 8 hours in one day only to be told my our last chance specialist that only time would tell what would become of the pregnancy. We’d traveled to maternity triage for an emergency D&C only to be told it couldn’t be performed on a Saturday and be sent home with sterile collection jars for the products of conception. My “Join the Movement” post was largely, if not joyful, at least driven. Yet, I wrote it as the Mister and I talked in quiet rooms about when “enough was enough,” when we’d move to a life without the prospect of children. I was struggling to put my voice to it then, and frequently still struggle with it now, but last year’s post showed me even more clearly the duality of a life lived under the specter of infertility. The pride, joy, empowerment, and, yes, even hope kept me going. It provided me with a sense of self and purpose beyond my own struggles. It made the injections and visits and surgeries bearable. But, in time, that same empowerment, that same respect for my own needs and emotions, started to take away from the drive to continue. It allowed me to reframe our failure to conceive and sustain a pregnancy as something other than failure. It gave me the strength to set limits. We’d complete an IVF package with all the pharmacological bells and whistles our far away specialist had recommended and when those cycles were done we’d be done. The baby boy who’s kicking me resulted from IVF. The “unnecessary extra meds” from the specialist – steroids and blood thinners – sustained the pregnancy. The attentive OB/GYN I picked out of the yellow pages acknowledged my fears and ran the tests that got me my latest diagnosis – antiphospholipid syndrome. The high risk pregnancy practice that OB/GYN referred me to has kept him baking even as my body has endeavored to resist their efforts. All of the above led me to want to label this year’s post something along the lines of “Resolve to know more about how much dumb luck is involved in this process.” But that ultimately felt off base with the emotions I’m feeling right now as I sit on the precipice of (hopefully) parenting after infertility. And setting that parenthetical “hopefully” to virtual paper finally gave me my prompt, finally guided all the words you’ve read to this point.
This year I resolve to know more about the lasting scars of infertility. The physical, emotional, and financial scars are ever-present. They’re the nervous tick that keeps me from writing with certainty that I’ll definitely be parenting after infertility by June. They’re the sadness I feel at having lost the connection to the woman I was during NIAW’s past. They’re the frustration I endured when reassuring our accountant that, yes, I had indeed traveled over 4,000 miles for medical treatment in the past tax year. And, yes, they’re even the raised red lines that traverse my pregnant belly marking incisions past, and reminding me of the incisions I’ll face in the future as I continue to navigate life with both endometriosis and a potential clotting disorder.
I never really thought that a lasting pregnancy would “cure” my infertility, but I also wasn’t quite prepared for how deep the scars would be and how sore they’d remain. I miss that naive girl, I miss the (illusion) of health, and I miss the ability to make life decisions without questioning how they’ll impact me as an infertile woman. For five years I was certain I knew my ultimate goal. Yes, it changed a little – from pregnancy, to lasting pregnancy, to some sort of final and personally acceptable resolution to our infertility – but I always knew what we were reaching for. I always had an idea where the finish line was located, even if I was having trouble getting there. Today I don’t have that certainty. Today it’s easier to reflect on where I’ve been, than to contemplate where I’m going, because it’s the past that’s given me these scars, and the past that will dictate how they shape my future.
Maybe I’m a bit strange, but when I woke up from my first laparoscopic surgery in 2012 I was proud of the scars that I bore. They indelibly marked this struggle in a way nothing before had. They added a physicality to this battle that I’d carry around with me for the rest of my life. I’m finding now that those visible scars are just the tip of the iceberg. Just as there’s no balm to vanish these incisions, there’s no salve to erase the many scars of infertility. I continue to wear them all with honor.
To learn more about infertility, NIAW, and RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, please follow the links below:
- http://www.resolve.org/infertility101 (Basic understanding of the disease of infertility.)
- http://www.resolve.org/national-infertility-awareness-week/about.html (About NIAW)