Many of us are brought up to believe that becoming a mother is a natural and easy thing to do. Yet one in ten women will find it difficult to get pregnant or stay pregnant (source).
This post is part of My Sweet Home Life’s Overcomers series – where we look at women whose lives haven’t turned out quite how they expected.
We’ll be featuring women who have struggled with abuse, addictions, unexpected loss, and challenging circumstances.
Each of these women have come through their experiences with lessons learned – lessons that can help us all as we navigate this crazy thing called life.
Today we share the story of Maria, and her experience of overcoming infertility.
TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF
My name is Maria and I live in Australia. I moved here five years ago from New Zealand with my husband. We have a daughter who is four.
It’s early on a Saturday morning. I’m sitting in a small MedLab waiting room in Auckland. There are two couples in the waiting room and three other women. Each of us holds an IVF clinic card. No one is talking. I start to think about how everyone looks so composed and relaxed but underneath there is so much grief and raw emotion.
When did you first start trying to get pregnant and what were your expectations?
I was 36 years old when my husband and I started trying for a baby.
After six months of nothing happening (ie not getting pregnant), I went to my family doctor and got a referral for blood tests to find out what was going on. She told me she would either call with the results or I would receive a letter from the fertility clinic with an appointment date.
My first lesson, learned belatedly, is that if you are having trouble getting pregnant (no matter what age) you must be an advocate for your own health. Do your research, ask questions and make things happen. Especially if you are over 35, as time is of the essence.
I didn’t do any of these things and waited months for those first test results. The doctor didn’t phone and I never received a letter. My anxiety levels were through the roof during this time. I finally chased it up and seven months after that initial GP appointment, we had an appointment at the fertility clinic.
I was 37 at this stage. We looked into going public but the wait was too long and we weren’t eligible. Yes, it was eye-wateringly expensive. Some people have big tax bills, we had a big infertility bill.
There were lots of tests to try and figure out why I couldn’t get pregnant – were my ovaries working, was something wrong with my Fallopian tubes, was it endometriosis, was it my husband?
‘No’ was the answer to all these tests.
I was finally told I had unexplained infertility. It felt like a life sentence, and it consumed me. Every pregnant woman I saw, every baby passed in the street, was a reminder (in my mind) that I had failed as a woman. The baby aisle in the supermarket was torture and to be avoided at all costs. The baby magazines on display at the fertility clinic were like a slap in the face (they eventually replaced them with some trashy mags). I took it all very personally.
Through this time, I was still doing everything I could to get pregnant. I exercised, then stopped exercising, cut out alcohol and caffeine, took baby aspirin, insisted that my husband wear boxer shorts and for the love of god, get that phone out of his pocket and that laptop off his knees! I went to several different acupuncturists and consulted a chiropractor.
And all along I desperately wanted to talk to a psychologist specializing in fertility issues, but couldn’t find one. I swear there’s a niche market there if you’re a psychologist.
What was the next stage in your infertility journey?
I’ll spare you the details of the treatments we undertook. Unless you’re going through IVF (in which case you know every single detail about the process), it is very mundane. We did three rounds of clomiphene (fertility drugs) and then decided to do a round of IVF.
It was a big decision to make the leap to IVF, partly because of the cost (financial, physical and emotional) and of course the outcome is a big unknown. It’s a gamble. Do we go ahead and make the leap to IVF or cut our losses and accept that we might not have children?
The actual IVF process wasn’t hard, but it wasn’t a walk in the park either. We were just so hopeful that I would get pregnant, while desperately trying to keep things in perspective and be rational. It takes its toll emotionally and, as I soon found out, physically.
The egg harvesting (I forget the proper medical term!) went well, but afterwards wasn’t so great. I reacted to the procedure and was unwell for a few days. The eggs were frozen and no implants could take place for a couple for months (my body needed to recover). I was gutted.
However, this turned out to be a silver lining, though only in hindsight! I ended up having some other (unrelated) health issues that needed sorting out. During this time I had to put the IVF process on hold. I was very upset as this meant yet more delays to getting pregnant.
About five months later we were finally given the all clear to do the first egg implant. I had 20 eggs, 15 were viable and six ended up being fertilized, which is good – we were lucky.
The first implant went in and cue two weeks of waiting, hope, anxiety (without getting too anxious because it might mean that the egg didn’t implant), more blood tests and the result.
We were heartbroken.
So another little aside. My husband had always wanted to move to Australia. I didn’t. He looked into it and started to make it happen. I wasn’t keen. But I eventually came round to the idea. By this point I was fairly certain we would never have kids. We could base ourselves in Australia and travel a lot, and maybe keep trying with the IVF.
While planning the move to Australia, we decided to have another egg implanted. You can guess what happened. My husband handed in his notice at work and two weeks later I got the call confirming that I was pregnant!
Yes, I’m aware that having something to distract me (ie planning to move countries) from the ever-present grief of not been able to get pregnant, might have helped.
I can’t tell you how happy we were. Unfortunately getting that positive test didn’t end my anxiety. I was over the moon to be pregnant, but would I actually stay pregnant? 12 weeks and 20 weeks were the biggest hurdles for me personally (a friend had lost her baby at 20 weeks and I was absolutely terrified it was going to happen to me). Once I got to 24 weeks, I allowed myself to start feeling excited. All those years of waiting and hoping and it was finally happening.
In late 2013 our daughter was born!
What advice would you give to others experiencing infertility?
There are many problems when going through IVF – where to start?! But two things that irked me the most were..
Firstly, if you do decide to tell people about your infertility journey, be prepared for some well meaning but annoying cliches and advice.
“Oh I just lay there with my legs up the wall every time after sex and I got pregnant”. That’s nice, but doesn’t work if you’re in early menopause, have endometriosis, PCOS or that final catch all: unexplained fertility.
“Go on holiday”.
“Have you tried…”
If you do know someone with fertility issues, its best to avoid making these sorts of comments. It’s meant to be lighthearted and well-meaning advice, but when you’re hearing it for the umpteenth time, we’ll start to get a bit tetchy.
So how do you respond to someone telling you about the fertility issues? Just listen. Trust me, this is all we want. Only give advice if asked. We might ask if you know of anyone who went through IVF (and then inundate you with questions about their experience). Or we might not. Sometimes we just need a shoulder to cry on. Be supportive. Send us an email to see how we’re doing. Ask us out for coffee.
The worst comment I received was when someone told me, very sincerely, that infertility was nature’s way of telling you that you really shouldn’t have children and I should just learn to live with it. That was an interesting perspective and one that really messed with my mind for quite a while.
I ended up joining Fertility NZ. These people were a lifesaver. Going through IVF, you just want to talk to someone who understands what you’re going through. And that’s partially what Fertility NZ offer: support groups. I was part of a group that met every few weeks. At first the meetups were facilitated, then they left us to organize ourselves. Of our group of six women, each of us had completely different fertility issues. So far two of us have had successful pregnancies. These woman kept me sane.
Secondly, the blood tests: they are endless. I knew the opening hours of every clinic in Auckland and would drive across town at the time appointed, on any given day of the week for the all important blood test. You feel like a pin cushion. Under no circumstances should you joke to the nurse that you have more track marks than a junkie. Cue cold silence.
The following wasn’t a problem, but was one of the biggest lessons I learnt through the IVF process. Nowadays, if I meet a woman who does not have children, I don’t ask why (previously, I would have delicately edged the conversation towards this topic). You never know what her circumstances are and I’ve learnt not to make any assumptions.
And over time, as you get to know someone, their story will emerge – it could be that they didn’t want children, there could be genetic/physical issue, there was no Mr Right at the time (surprisingly common) or they could have gone through IVF without been able to get pregnant. Some people can talk about it, and for others it’s too hard to talk about.
No one expects to find themselves dealing with infertility. You’ll hear ‘infertiles’ joking about the irony of trying so hard not to get pregnant when we were younger, and then desperately wanting to later on.
My IVF story had a happy ending. This isn’t so for everyone who goes through IVF. I realize how lucky I am to have our daughter.
I would have loved to have had more children, but chose not to. I was 40 when I gave birth to our daughter and living in Australia with no support network. I couldn’t do it.
Going through IVF made my relationship with my husband stronger. He was a source of great support and advice. The experience forced us to talk about issues we never would have otherwise (including the ethics around what to do with the embryos if one of us died!!). There are friends I heavily leaned on for emotional support, and I’m grateful for their help through it all (as trying as it would have been at times!)
To anyone out there dealing with infertility, all I can say is you’re not alone. There are people out there who can support you along the way – seek them out. Try and enjoy life as much as you can while going through treatment.
It’s a tough time; be gentle with yourself.
Want to read more about women overcoming challenges? Read Jane’s story: Overcoming depression.
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