Three Women, Three Stories of Infertility

This week is a big deal for any woman or family who has struggled to create their family: it’s National Infertility Awareness Week. This movement was started back in 1989 by Resolve: The National Infertility Association and serves to remind us that even though it can sometimes feel like it, when it comes to infertility you are never alone. You’re far from it, in fact, as one in eight couples battle infertility on the path to parenthood.

Of course not every family dealing with infertility is the same or is going to look the same. Who is the poster child for infertility? Whether you’re single, married, gay, straight, black, white, hispanic, or something in between — we all know the same heartache.

One of the best places to find solidarity along your infertility journey is online. I started blogging almost as soon as I started trying to conceive — partly because I wanted to chronicle the experience, but also because I wanted to connect with other women and families who were going through the same thing. There is great comfort in reading about what other people have experienced.

I reached out to writers Kymberli Barney and Aela Mass and asked them to contribute their voices to this piece along with my own. Both women have written beautifully and powerfully online about their infertility journeys. While all three of us have had wildly different experiences, our overlap is that we all wanted to have families and what we expected to happen … didn’t.

By sharing our stories, we hope you’ll find encouragement, hope, and comfort in knowing you’re not in this alone.

Kymberli’s Story

image source: Kimberlei
image source: Kymberli Barney

My husband and I married young (ages 18 and 20), and the plan was to wait until after I’d finished college before we’d try for a baby. One year later, Frank was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and we decided not to wait because we read that M.S. could affect men’s fertility. The irony that I was ultimately the one who had fertility issues was not missed on either of us.

Not being able to get pregnant within the first six months was frustrating, but not alarming. I knew that most couples conceive within the first year of trying. When the one-year mark came and went, I was concerned, but didn’t take any concrete steps toward getting answers with the help of a doctor. I was just barely 20, after all, and I was young and healthy. Sure, my cycles were irregular and there might be a stretch of 6 to 10 weeks between periods, but if I’m having periods, then that means I’m ovulating, and eventually everything will align properly and I will get pregnant, right?

Another year came and went, and during that time, it seemed like pregnancy blossomed everywhere except within me. Though I was still in college, I was working full-time with middle and high school students and several of them managed to get pregnant. How was it that they could get pregnant when I couldn’t? My infertility shook my faith. I was crumbling and felt very isolated within my inability to conceive.

I did seek help from a fertility specialist at the conclusion of my first year of teaching. As it turned out, I had not been ovulating after all. I was prescribed Clomid, which is an oral medication that encourages ovulation. I got pregnant with twins on our second Clomid cycle. Later, we conceived two singleton pregnancies.

On the grand spectrum of infertility, our problem was solved relatively easily. We didn’t have to use costly, invasive procedures to build our family, and my physical issue of being anovulatory didn’t detract from my ability to safely carry a pregnancy. As such, I decided to be a gestational carrier to help another infertile couple who did need to use such extreme measures to have a baby. Being a surrogate was my way of “paying it forward,” so to speak. It was during medical testing for surrogacy that I received a full and proper diagnosis for my infertility — Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).

Our four children range in ages from 9 to 13, and our family is complete. I’ve also helped build another family by carrying a baby (now age 8) for an infertile couple. Now, I continue to advocate for infertility awareness and the benefits of third-party reproduction (surrogacy, egg and sperm donation, etc.).

Infertility within the black community

I advocate for no one to feel alone within their infertility, especially within the black community. In retrospect, I can see that a lot of my isolation was self-imposed. Platitudes such as “It will happen in God’s own timing” are in part what kept me from getting help earlier than I did. Such beliefs are cultural foundations in the black community. While there is nothing wrong with these beliefs, for some it produces the idea that getting medical help is interfering with the natural order of things.

There is also the idea that seeking medical help for conception is something that is always extremely expensive, and thus is something that rich people do. Culturally-speaking, “rich” is sometimes correlated to “white.” Not getting help because it wasn’t something that black people do isn’t a reason that applies to me, but there are many African-Americans and minorities who unfortunately fall into this line of thinking.

Sometimes this idea is passed down from community elders who were raised in a time when infertility was not enough of a reason to seek medical care. Historically, the medical and financial disparities between whites and minorities did make treatment of infertility a condition for which a woman would not receive medical help.

Today, we have a culture of minority women suffering under the fallacy that treatment for infertility is an out-of-reach luxury and not a valid medical condition that should be addressed. According to several medical studies, about 15% of white women seek help for fertility-related issues, while only 7 to 8% of black and hispanic women do. It is easy to see why one would feel isolated while being young, black, and infertile.

Infertility does not have to be suffered in silence and the isolation isn’t nearly as pervasive as it might seem. A couple of years ago, I was profiled in an article about infertility in the black community in Essence magazine. Within a day of its release, I had several co-workers (of all races) open up to me about their own struggles with infertility. I had no idea these women were suffering (or had once suffered) from the same isolation that I once felt. The knowledge of knowing about our individual struggles brought with it the power of support, and for some, the power of knowledge and advice about next steps.

Aela’s Story

image source: Aela Mass
image source: Aela Mass

My wife and I eloped in October of 2011, just a few months after marriage equality became legal in our home state of New York. Having been engaged for over a year, one of the reasons we decided to finally just elope was because we’d been talking about starting a family since we got engaged and didn’t want to wait any longer.

The job I had at the time had unbelievable benefits, and since we didn’t have a guy in our lives that we wanted to ask to be our donor, it made the most sense for us to use donor sperm from a cryobank. We also decided we’d seek the assistance of fertility specialists instead of trying to do any of this at home.

We had no idea what we were in for.

I assumed it’d be easy. Put some sperm in me, and I’d get pregnant. We opted to start with IVF because my insurance covered it, it had a greater chance of success than insemination, and it would cost us less because we wouldn’t need to buy as much sperm. My first cycle three years ago was a low-dose medicated cycle (because I didn’t believe I needed much of anything). The cycle yielded two eggs, and it failed. My second cycle was a full-dose cycle that was technically successful, except that my water broke at 17 weeks — three days before Christmas — and I lost our twins. We did every test under the sun, and no one was able to explain why. It wouldn’t be the only time we heard the term “unexplained” on our journey.

I went on to have four FET (frozen embryo transfer) cycles, since we had embryos from the previous cycle. They all failed. Even though I had been receiving fertility treatments for nearly a year at this point, it was the first time I actually received an infertility diagnosis: unexplained infertility.

The diagnosis was crushing. Here I had thought that my only obstacle was a lack of sperm. But that wasn’t the only obstacle. My own body was now an obstacle, too. I was no longer a patient at the fertility center simply because my wife and I needed sperm. I was now there because my body needed help.

Luckily, we had developed great relationships with our reproductive endocrinologist and the nurses and ultrasound techs at the center — a center we had specifically chosen for their high level of care and respect for all types of families.

Since we started this journey in 2011, I’ve attempted to get pregnant a total of 12 times. My wife has attempted to get pregnant a total of four times. Both of our bodies have experienced miscarriages. Me at 17 weeks, and my wife at 12.

Yet here we are in year three of fertility treatments, and as I write this, I’m in the too-long two-week wait to see if my most recent IVF cycle was successful. At 37 years old, the pressure is really on. But we’ve got to just keep at it. I know my body can get pregnant, and I feel luckier than some other women in this struggle who are unsure of whether theirs can even do that. So I hold on to hope, we hold on to it together, and we just keep trying. It helps that we have an unbelievable support system with our families, our friends, and our readership — total strangers who, like us, belong to a club no one wants to be a part of.

Advice for those actively trying

There’s so many inspirational outlets for you during infertility, which are all great, but people so often forget to tell you that it’s okay to just feel shitty. Feel depressed. Cry. Blow friends off. Allow yourself to feel the crap-hole of infertility.

But don’t let it consume you.

Give yourself the time to feel all the yuck, but don’t live there. Force yourself to put makeup on. Drag yourself to a movie. Get drunk with girlfriends. Do something, anything. And repeat. When the dark sets in again, and it will, let yourself be sad. And then force yourself out of it again.

Advice for friends of those actively trying

Please don’t ever say, “It will happen in time,” or, “It will happen when the time is right.”

We know you mean well, and you probably don’t know what to say, but don’t say this. For us, the time IS right. Hell, the time was right three years ago when we started this. Instead, just let your friends know you are there for them. And listen to them. Really listen. And if you haven’t experienced infertility yourself, learn about it so you can understand them better.

Find hope in each other

Honestly, each and every time I read or hear another woman’s story who has been or is going through this struggle, I am given hope — hope because I’m not alone, hope because another woman out there knows what it’s like to cry these tears. I want to get through this for her and I want her to get through this for me, so that we can pass the hope on to other women. Because it truly is all we have to keep going.

Dresden’s Story

image source: dresden shumaker
image source: dresden shumaker

I always assumed I would meet a great guy, get married, and have kids. It didn’t exactly work out that way.

In my early- and mid-20s, I was married to my career and barely had time to date. I then became a full-time caregiver for my grandmother and led a very isolated life. How was I ever going to meet a guy?! How was I going to have the kids I was suddenly so ready to have?

When I found myself doing Internet searches for sperm banks, I also found the term: single mother by choice.

That’s what I aspired to be, not because I didn’t want to be married, but simply because I wasn’t. I told my mother I wanted to have a baby on my own and she was 100% supportive. There is no way I could have continued without her support.

I was 29 when I met with my first reproductive endocrinologist, and she and I both assumed I would have no issues with conceiving. I was getting a regular period, I was healthy. Let’s do this!

I ordered sperm and the bank shipped the vials directly to the fertility clinic. Time to make a baby. Except it didn’t happen. Not the first time (that’s normal). Not the second time or third time (still normal). My doctor told me she didn’t even see married couples unless they had been trying to conceive for at least a year. When I was unsuccessful at pregnancy after my sixth intrauterine insemination (IUI), I started to wonder if something might be wrong.

It was terrifying to think I had jumped off the cliff towards motherhood and may have misjudged how far the gap was. After every failed cycle, I sunk into a depression and would then pull myself out. I knew if I got to the point where I simply could not continue trying, I would have to stop. This meant that in between trying, I would give myself breaks of emotional and physical recovery. Going through fertility treatments as a single woman was hard, expensive, frustrating, and isolating. I found the best comfort from new friends I met online through infertility blogs.

One of the cruelest parts of going through infertility is how surreal finally achieving a successful pregnancy feels. Surreal isn’t even the word. When you’re used to the bottom falling out, it’s impossible to relax. I was in a state of panic for my entire pregnancy. I was envious of other women who got pregnant easily or would say things like, “We are trying for a June baby because that’s when my vacation time is.” What kind of magical world is fertility?! And yet when I was in a waiting room at my OB’s office, I was just another pregnant lady. No one had any idea how long it took for me to get there.

Yes, I wanted a prize.

He arrived the first week of April, and I have had the privilege of parenting him for six years. Even though I am on the other side of the fence of trying, I will never forget one thing: infertility sucks.

Advice to single women who want to be moms

When I started trying to conceive I was 29 and many, many, many people told me I would regret trying on my own while “still so young.” They thought I had plenty of time to find someone, settle down, and have kids. For years women have been told it isn’t until we turn 35 that our fertility begins to decline. This number doesn’t apply to all women.

If I hadn’t started trying when I did, I probably would not have my son. If you are a single woman and thinking about becoming a single mom by choice, know that you are not alone. Jump in and have some tests done. If you need to give yourself a timeline, fine, but arm yourself with information about your own biological clock vs. the average woman’s.

Advice to friends

I’ve had people tell me I was selfish for having a child using donor sperm instead of adopting a child. One of the most bizarre and out-of- place things you can say to anyone trying to start or expand their family is, “Just adopt!” From my perspective, as a single woman, it’s truly not that simple. Heck, adoption isn’t simple for ANYONE from birth family to adoptive family. To say, “Just adopt,” completely demeans all of the challenges and heartbreak involved.

If you have suffered with infertility issues we invite you to share your own story here in the comments. And remember: you are not alone.

For more information on infertility and to find support in your area, visit the resources available from RESOLVE.

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