Warning: This post is very long and incredibly personal.
I have wanted to write this post for a very long time. Mostly because I wanted to explain why I haven’t been posting. Every time I tried to write a blog post about design, or books, or even my dogs, it just didn’t feel real. My mind was elsewhere. But, I felt like I needed to share because reading the stories of other women who have been through this same struggle buoyed my hopes and helped me to feel less alone. I was especially inspired to share my experience by Jenna Kutcher’s recent podcast episode and her openness on Instagram.
The truth is that for the last three years I’ve been pretty obsessed with having a baby.
Keegan and I were married in February of 2013 after living together for five years, and we decided to wait one year to try for a family. I was a little scared to take that time since I was already 34, and I had a sneaking suspicion (just intuition) that a baby wasn’t going to come easily for me.
I stopped taking my birth control in Spring of 2014, but I didn’t get pregnant right away. Instead, I spontaneously developed a terrible rash all over my face. When it first appeared, right before Memorial Day weekend, I felt terrible – hot all over, achey, and just plain awful. When the rash, which was super noticeable and embarrassing, didn’t disappear, I scheduled an appointment with a dermatologist.
I saw two dermatologists that summer in addition to my family doctor, and none of them could tell me what was wrong. The first one barely spoke to me. The second tested me for Lupus (scary!) among other things. She was nice, but she became convinced that I was allergic to the sun. I’m of Mediterranean descent and tanned easily my entire life, so this explanation seemed particularly bizarre. Plus, my condition looked nothing like the sun allergy photos I saw online.
Finally, out of desperation, I made an appointment with an integrative health practitioner who tested me for food sensitivities and bacteria overgrowth. The tests revealed that I was extremely sensitive to gluten and dairy. Yogurt – a favorite food – was off the charts. I decided to cut out gluten, dairy, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine to see if it helped with my skin and hopefully with getting pregnant.
After one cycle of this restrictive diet plan, I discovered I was pregnant, and my face was a lot better but still not back to normal. I was really excited about the baby and booked an appointment with a local midwife group for around twelve weeks, which was their policy. It seemed a very long time to wait, but I felt good. No symptoms, nothing. Around ten weeks, I started spotting, so they agreed to see me earlier.
After some testing and an ultrasound, we discovered the pregnancy was actually a blighted ovum, which means an embryo never formed, and scheduled a DNC. The DNC was the first time I’d ever had surgery in my life, and I cried on the table in the operating room because I was so confused and scared. Thankfully, the gas knocked me out in under ten seconds, and I didn’t remember anything until I woke up two hours later.
I took the miscarriage rather hard at first because I had believed for over two months that I was pregnant and had been planning to tell our families soon. But, I was also grateful that I’d been able to get pregnant at all, and I consoled myself with the thought that it (the blighted ovum) was never a real baby. I thought we would try again when my body healed and everything would be fine.
The Next Six Months
Over the next several months, I read books on fertility, charted my cycles, and tried to maintain a strict diet, but nothing really seemed to work. I saw a third dermatologist when the rash on my face came back worse than ever. I asked him if he thought the rash could be tied to food sensitivities. He basically told me I was an idiot and laughed at me, but he gave me a steroid shot that cleared the rash up immediately.
After six more months of not getting pregnant (it was now summer of 2015), we finally made an appointment with Dr. Young at Mid-Iowa Fertility. We immediately liked Dr. Young as well as the nurses and staff. Everyone was incredibly professional and attentive, and we felt like we were in great hands.
We went through a battery of tests, including laparoscopic surgery to see if I had endometriosis, which was very painful, and they all came back negative. Eventually, we were diagnosed with unexplained infertility, so Dr. Young recommended a series of IUIs.
Looking back, I think the “unexplained infertility” diagnosis made the entire process so much harder. I felt like I had no control over the situation. We didn’t receive any advice on how we could improve our odds. There was no discussion of diet or supplements. When I asked about testing for MTHFR, which is gene mutation that causes miscarriages, I was told that they didn’t believe it had any relevance. I know that this is because medical doctors are focused on science and not homeopathy, but I just wanted more answers and an actual action plan that I could use on my own.
The Second Miscarriage
We started our first IUI cycle in December of 2015, and I discovered I was pregnant the day we arrived home for our Christmas vacation. We were on an extended trip that included skiing in Vermont and staying in a tiny cabin/shack in the middle of the woods.
I hid the pregnancy from my family over the holidays – no small feat – and we drove up to Vermont. It was raining, and there was no snow on the ground. So, we hung out in our little AirBNB cabin, played board games, watched Netflix, and visited with my best friend and her husband. On the third day, I had a miscarriage.
I was discouraged and upset, of course, though I was a tiny bit grateful it happened on December 30th and not January 2nd. At least I could drown my disappointment with wine on New Years Eve and prepare to start again. As with the first miscarriage, I tried to keep a positive outlook and not dwell on it. Since this miscarriage occurred so early, I was easily able to rationalize that it wasn’t meant to be and my body was just doing what it was supposed to.
Back home, we decided to take a little break so we we could go to Mexico. The Zika virus had just broken out, and we didn’t want to take any chances. At the time, the recommendations on abstinence after exposure weren’t as strict, so we thought we’d be able to try again when we got home. We did our second IUI in March, but it was unsuccessful.
The Third Miscarriage
It was now summer of 2016. I had been struggling emotionally and mentally that winter and spring even though I kept it to myself. It seemed like everyone around me was getting pregnant effortlessly and easily. I felt like I had to be around pregnant women constantly. The hardest part was pretending I was happy for them when I wasn’t. I cried myself to sleep many nights. I felt like a total failure and blamed myself. I went back and forth between elimination diets and binging on the food I knew was bad for me. I thought about not having kids at all and giving up. I was really at a breaking point.
This period was one of the loneliest of my entire life. I felt like I was gripped in a vise of sadness, and it was difficult to enjoy anything. Around this time, I also got really into studying the Law of Attraction as a way to make myself feel better. I read Ask and It Is Given by Esther and Jerry Hicks, which was totally transformative. I used many of the exercises described in the book to elevate my mood, at least temporarily, which was a positive. However, I was torn because I just couldn’t make myself believe that I could have a baby, and my belief in the LOA told me that my negative thoughts were causing my problems. It was a vicious cycle in which I constantly blamed myself – my body and my thoughts – for our failure to conceive.
And, then our May IUI worked! All of a sudden, life became so much easier. We went for an ultrasound at six weeks, saw the embryo and heard the heart beat. I was super excited that this was the one and felt lighter for the first time in two years. But, at seven weeks, I felt a sudden absence of symptoms. I remember telling my husband the baby was dead and crying. He told me to be positive and that I couldn’t know that, but when we went for our next ultrasound, it showed I had been right. I didn’t go back to work that day and instead lay on the couch for the entire afternoon. The next morning, I told myself that I got to be sad for one more day but then I had to get up, get some exercise, and go to work.
After the DNC the following week, we got barbecue and mac and cheese, which had become our post-surgery routine. I went back to work and tried to keep my shit together, but it was hard. I tried not to think about getting pregnant anymore, but the truth was that I was crying myself to sleep at night and verbally abusing myself inside my head for being a total failure. The summer and fall of 2016 were a really hard time.
Our doctor decided our next step was IVF because our miscarriages were due to chromosomal defects. By genetically testing our embryos, we could increase our chances significantly. I did my research, and I thought the odds were in our favor, or at least better than doing nothing. We were incredibly lucky in that my insurance fully covered everything except the genetic testing, which we paid for out of pocket. I was so grateful – for Keegan, for the job that provided me this fabulous insurance, for Dr. Young and his nurses, even for the reps at the pharmacy who patiently walked me through the array of drugs.
We started the hormone injections in early November. I gave myself all of the shots – one in the morning and two in the evening – for almost two weeks. The morning shots were easy, and I barely felt them, but one of the evening shots was brutal. The needle was longer, and the fluid burned as it was injected. I developed bruises all over my abdomen at the injection sites. Towards the end of the injection cycle, I went to the doctor for tests and ultrasounds, and I was proclaimed ready for the egg retrieval.
The egg retrieval was surgery #4 (two DNCs and the endometriosis test) in two years. It was a bizarre experience in that I wasn’t fully sedated, but I had no memory of the surgery afterward. I took several days to recover and could barely walk for 24 hours, though the doctor said I could go back to work the next day.
Our retrieval resulted in twelve eggs, six of which became embryos. We sent those embryos off for genetic testing, and three of them made it through the five-day waiting period. One of the three tested positive for Downs Syndrome, which left us with two healthy embryos. I would have been happier with three or more, but having read all of the message boards late at night, I knew enough to be grateful for any good embryos. After the genetic testing, you have to wait for one cycle to transfer one of the embryos. Since we were right up against the holidays, we elected to wait until after New Years 2017.
I flew back to Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving. I happened to go out one night with some friends from high school, one of whom was on a similar journey. We spent all night talking about IVF and embryos. She described how she had eliminated all of the toxic products from her life and was using a regimen of essential oils to help with her fertility. I found this conversation fascinating and felt uplifted by her positive outlook and proactive approach. When I got home, I immediately began switching my toiletry products and household cleaners. This little bit of control over my situation helped me to feel slightly better both physically and mentally. I’m planning to write up another post on my favorite natural products soon.
I started taking high doses of estrogen in early December to prepare for the embryo transfer. The increased hormones made me a little crazy and gave me severe anxiety, which didn’t help my precarious emotional state. Our embryo transfer was scheduled for mid-January, but I became incredibly sick after our return flight from a trip to California over New Years.
I went to see my family practitioner after four days of fevers and chills. When the nurse started asking me questions about the medicines I was taking, I told her about the IVF. Out of nowhere, I started crying, and she asked me if I were depressed. Then, still crying, I started laughing hysterically, and asked her, “Isn’t everyone going through IVF depressed?” My poor doctor came in to do the flu swab, and I cried even harder. I’m sure he thought I had lost my mind.
It took a full two weeks to recover from the flu. By the time I was better, we discovered my body wasn’t responding to the hormones, and Dr. Young decided to cancel the transfer.
In all honesty, I was a total emotional wreck by this point. Very few people knew what we were going through. No one knew about the battle raging inside my head. I was listless and sad and generally depressed. I swung back and forth between total ambivalence, overwhelming sadness, and rage. Keegan suggested I see a therapist multiple times, and finally, I made an appointment.
Taking a Break
I just wanted time to take care of myself and feel normal for a while. I had been pregnant or trying to get pregnant for three years, and I couldn’t think about it anymore. So, I decided to order the essential oils my friend mentioned at Thanksgiving, and I joined a gym so I could start lifting weights and doing yoga again. I started the oils regimen during my February cycle. I saw my therapist weekly and made time for the gym. I even took up tennis. I told my doctor I would come back in the summer. I took a vacation with my best friend over Spring Break. Keegan and I went out to eat regularly, I drank wine, and I just tried to relax.
I also quit one of my jobs. This was a huge decision, and I’m very grateful that Keegan supported me in it. For the past two years, I had been alternating between teaching and working in a design firm. Neither of those positions stopped at five o’clock or took a break on the weekends. When I was at school, I was fielding texts from clients. When I was at work, I was getting emails and requests from students. I realized that it was totally unsustainable and that I needed a break.
With my new days off, I read books, caught up on my classwork, worked out, and slept a lot. Within a week, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted. I felt better than I had in months, maybe in years.
IVF Round 2
We met Dr. Young and scheduled another round of IVF for late June after my sister’s wedding in Baltimore. I had decided that as long as I was going to take hormones again, I should do another egg retrieval to increase our embryo supply. The timing was sticky between our travel schedule and the office’s two-week break in July. It needed to fall during that particular period or we were out of luck until August. I didn’t want to do a transfer just before classes started, so I was very intent on making this schedule work. We got our birth control prescription and were all ready to get started.
And, then I realized I was late. I have always had a long cycle, so I didn’t think anything of it. But, one day, getting nervous about the IVF timing, I checked the tracking app on my phone. I realized I was at 36 days. That was almost a week late! I had one pregnancy test left in my drawer and decided to take it just to see. And, shockingly, it was positive.
I drove to the store and bought more. I took those too. They were all positive. I just couldn’t believe it.
I scheduled an appointment with the fertility clinic. They confirmed the positive results with a blood test. We went for an ultrasound at six weeks. Again, we saw the embryo and heard the heart beat.
It was incredibly hard for me to get excited. I’d been down this road before, and it always ended in heartbreak. Although I dutifully gave up all the things, I was incredibly skeptical that this pregnancy would work out. We went back for an ultrasound at nine weeks, and I told the nurse, “Just tell me right away if it’s gone. No sad faces.” Looking at the screen, she smiled and said the baby looked perfect. The heartbeat was strong and fast. We had officially graduated from the fertility clinic.
We chose a doctor group and scheduled an appointment for another ultrasound at 11 weeks. Again, I was convinced the baby would be dead. I just didn’t think I was capable of making and carrying a healthy baby after all we’d been through. I thought it would be easier to expect the worst rather than hope for the best. So much for the Law of Attraction!
But, it was still alive and growing fast at 11 weeks, and our doctor seemed particularly nonchalant about the whole thing, even at my advanced age. He told us to schedule our next appointment for 15 weeks. The day before we flew to Baltimore, we heard the baby’s heartbeat one more time, and I was able to relax and truly believe I was finally going to have a baby.
I’m now twenty weeks along, and we just passed our anatomy scan with flying colors. The rest of our appointments are booked through October. The baby is due December 1st. I’m incredibly grateful for this little miracle baby. I feel like the Universe came through for me after all.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading! It was incredibly difficult for me to share something so personal out on the internet for everyone to read. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I was very inspired by Jenna Kutcher sharing about her two miscarriages. On her podcast, she discusses how the topic of miscarriage is taboo – mostly because it’s uncomfortable for other people. But, so many women are silently struggling with miscarriages and infertility.
I thought that it would be easier for me if know one knew that we were having trouble conceiving. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I truly felt what Brené Brown describes as shame deep down in my bones. It radiated through me, and I couldn’t bear for anyone else to know. Looking back, I feel so sorry that I couldn’t help myself sooner. If I had cancer, I wouldn’t have been ashamed to tell people or ask for help. Why should infertility be any different?
The longer our struggle went on, the more I started to open up. It was like I just couldn’t hold it inside anymore. And, with each admission, I felt a little better and a little less lonely. I’m hoping by putting my story out there, I can help other women on this same journey feel less alone too.