In 2016, my life felt normal. I was 35, a mom to a 16-month-old girl, a full-time marketer and a wife to a busy professional. Then, I learned I had a large and growing cyst on my right ovary.
Due to concerns about potential cancer risk, rupture and torsion, I underwent surgery to have the ovary removed. During conversations before the surgery, there was little mention about the effect this could have on fertility. In fact, I was reassured that losing an ovary typically should not have an effect.
Maybe I had a premonition though. We started to try for a second child a few months after my surgery. I lacked that positive and airy feeling of optimism right from the start. Each month, I would play out a series of disappointing scenarios in my mind so that, when they happened, I would just say to my husband, “I knew it wasn’t going to work this month.” This was not only a defense mechanism but also a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We really wanted a second child, and we wanted kids somewhat close in age. At the time, I had my heart set on having two kids less than three years apart. This meant we had a short window of time. At 35, I was already advanced maternal age and would be termed “elderly multigravida” during pregnancy. Or worse, referred to as having a “geriatric pregnancy.” I felt pressure, but no control. Months started rolling by.
Lack of conception, a battery of tests and a diagnosis of secondary infertility landed us in a fertility clinic. We will never be sure if it was my missing ovary, my age, my husband or a combination that has led to our struggles conceiving a second time; but I was told I now had diminished ovarian reserve. We learned it could take three rounds of in vitro fertilization to retrieve enough eggs for one transfer, and there was still no guarantee. My husband has been very supportive, but I still carry the burden of thinking this is my fault.
“I get frustrated because my body is not doing something it was created to do and has done before.”
It took two months to conceive my daughter naturally. I get frustrated because my body is not doing something it was created to do and has done before. When I hear stories on the news about unwanted or accidental pregnancies, I wonder why these people can get pregnant and I can’t. I get nostalgic about my past pregnancy and react emotionally to all the pregnant bellies I now invariably spot when we take my daughter to the museum or the library.
I often feel stuck between those who are desperately longing to have their first child and those whose families are complete. I spoke with caution when a friend recently disclosed how long she has been trying and how she has yet to see two pink lines. I understand how sharing the void I feel could seem insensitive.
On the other hand, I had a visceral reaction when another friend recently shared the joy of getting through potty training and giving away baby gear. Although I did not do so, I had an urge to disclose that I’d give almost anything to feel that same sense of contentment. At dinner with friends, I join in and relate to the conversations about childbirth and sleepless nights because I have experienced them. Though I do it with more nostalgia than the satisfaction that we made it through. I don’t let on that I am yearning to be there again with them.
We moved on to IVF after three failed intrauterine inseminations. Ovulation kits, scheduled intercourse, ultrasounds, inseminations, oral medications, injections, egg retrievals, embryo transfers, blood work and more ultrasounds. For each round of IVF, I receive a calendar that dictates my life for the next month. It explains when to start birth control to calm my ovaries, when to start oral medications and injections to stimulate my ovaries, when to come in for monitoring, and if I am lucky to produce enough eggs, when retrieval day will be. My husband and I are exhausted.
“I often feel stuck between those who are desperately longing to have their first child and those whose families are complete.”
IVF is disruptive. I avoid wine and skip my morning coffee. I miss important meetings. I organize travel around the injections because taking the medications through airport security in a cooler is added stress. I have to take the injections at specific times each day. I often hide away in the bathroom, so my daughter does not see a needle pricking her mommy’s belly. She is now 3 and doesn’t understand why I cannot pick her up for stretches of time. Your ovaries can get enlarged due to the medications. To avoid an ovarian torsion, strenuous exercise, sex and lifting heavy things are off limits. At 35 pounds, she fits into the “heavy things” category. She cries, and we have to tell her that “mommy has a belly ache.”
Intimacy becomes scheduled and somewhat mechanical. The way my husband and I sometimes talk about sex during this process sounds like we are discussing a regular grocery store run. You get nostalgic about the pre-fertility-treatment spontaneity. At each egg retrieval, my husband has to produce sperm, on demand, in a small room at the fertility clinic.
One of the hardest parts of secondary infertility is the comments. “When are you planning to have a sibling for your daughter?” “You have one healthy child, isn’t that enough?” “Fertility treatments are expensive, and you have to inject yourself with needles, so is it really worth it?” Or, “There are so many children who need parents, so why not adopt?” People who love and respect me have been the source of these comments. I have come to realize that people mean well. I have also learned that most people don’t understand infertility. They don’t know the right questions to ask or the ones to avoid.
“The most unexpected emotion, but one I have felt profoundly, is guilt. I feel nagging guilt that I can’t seem to be content with my already very blessed life.”
The most unexpected emotion, but one I have felt profoundly, is guilt. I feel nagging guilt that I can’t seem to be content with my already very blessed life. We have a curious, healthy and kind little girl. Yet I long for another child while friends struggle to have one. When I am at doctor appointments, doing online research or daydreaming about what I feel should be, I know it is taking away time from my family and my work. I feel guilty that I cannot produce a sibling for my daughter. What I internalize about this is that she’ll miss out on what I had with my sisters and be left to deal with our old age and fading health alone some day.
Disappointment creeps in when my period arrives, an insemination does not work or not a single egg survives a retrieval. It’s a long game. I feel isolated at times. There is still a lack of knowledge about infertility among the broader population. There is a sense it is a private matter. I am confident I am part of the masses who search for reassurance by lurking on message boards or Googling. All of us struggling with infertility are united by what feels like a secret battle few in our lives know anything about. We’re not alone, though ― roughly 11% of women and 9% of men in the U.S. have experienced fertility problems.
I recognize how fortunate we have been to be able to cover fertility treatments with a mix of insurance and savings. I also know others have their own struggles, often more dire than mine. I am working on having a balanced perspective. Juggling my infertility journey while still moving forward and enjoying life’s other miracles can be hard, but it is necessary. For now, I try to be present in my life and compartmentalize this ongoing process in order to not allow it to define me.
I hope this story helps people tread more lightly. Infertility can arise unexpectedly. We never know what people are struggling with.
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