I went off birth control pills a month before I turned 30. I was healthy and so was my partner, and I naively expected I’d be a mom by the time I was 31. I wasn’t. I wasn’t a mom by 32, 33 or 34 either. Meanwhile, dozens of my friends, coworkers, cousins and acquaintances seemed to easily get pregnant. Some days that was tough, and I stayed off social media for weeks at a time to avoid seeing pregnant bellies and baby announcements.
I didn’t know people who had infertility and I didn’t understand it, so for a long time, it felt like a personal failing to not be able` to get pregnant. I felt ashamed and broken.
I know now that a lot of people feel that way. Infertility is something most people don’t talk about openly. That is starting to change a bit — Michelle Obama mentioned her struggles in her memoir, and it was a storyline this year on the TV show This Is Us. I’m glad. I’ve learned infertility is not an uncommon experience.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 12% of women ages 15 to 44 have difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term in the United States. That figure doesn’t account for men who have fertility issues, too. Around one in four women with infertility have unexplained infertility, which is the diagnosis my life-partner and I received 18 months after we’d been trying to conceive without success. With unexplained infertility, we had no clear path forward because all the tests came back normal. We had no problem to pinpoint and address. We were felt trying various avenues and seeing what would work.
Ultimately, my journey to reach a viable pregnancy lasted 4.5 years and it entailed 11 types of medicines, getting 152 total shots, trekking to 45 doctor appointments, undergoing seven procedures (four rounds of artificial insemination, or IUIs, and three rounds of invitro-fertilization, or IVF), enduring two early-term miscarriages and going through a disrupted adoption process. The process was emotionally draining, physically taxing and often demoralizing.
While I instinctively braced myself for another loss, my third IVF embryo transfer succeeded. I am grateful that I finally gave birth to my baby last year during Infertility Awareness Week, at 35 years old.
These are seven lessons I learned along the way — I hope they will help others going through infertility as well as their friends and loved ones.
1. Medical professionals don’t know everything.
I saw two different gynecologists who told me to “just keep trying” or to “try not to stress.” One of them even encouraged me to touch her hand, saying she had a “fertile touch.” It feels laughable now. Infertility isn’t something you can erase with superstitions. But at the time, I humored her and touched her hand. When my life-partner and I later met with an infertility doctor, he said we had an 80% chance of getting pregnant after three rounds of artificial insemination. By the time I’d tried IUI four times (including one that was cancelled), he said we actually had less than a 10% chance of getting pregnant each time. The reality is, often doctors are just making educated guesses, so do your own research too and advocate for yourself.
2. IVF isn’t the only option for infertility.
Initially, after my gynecologist gave up on the “keep trying” mantra, she suggested we try IVF. It took meeting with a second gynecologist to learn there were less expensive and invasive options. While everyone's situation is different, I started off with Clomid — a drug that regulates ovulation — and then did the IUIs. I later learned these had worked for a few friends and a cousin. They just didn’t work for me, and instead, I usually had terrible side effects. Explore your options.
3. When you are doing the IUI or IVF process, you go to a lot of doctor’s appointments.
At the first appointment, you have a baseline blood test and weigh-in (to determine the medicine dosage) and then you have monitoring appointments across the process. At monitoring appointments, you get blood drawn too, but the focus is vaginal ultrasounds. You get undressed from the waist down and are probed with a cold, lubed-up wand while the doctor sees how your uterine lining and/or your egg follicles look. It’s uncomfortable and can feel invasive, but it’s a necessary step so be mentally prepared.
4. Adoption is not necessarily easier than infertility treatments.
Before doing any infertility treatments, my life-partner and I explored adoption. Sadly, we faced several barriers, including the $40,000 price tag of an infant adoption. Later, after Clomid and IUIs failed, I took on extra paid work and we made it within three weeks of taking home a baby when things unraveled. We walked away from the process, losing the hope of a baby as well as $20,000 we had already paid. It was devastating. Don’t feel badly if you don’t consider adoption, do what you feel is best.
5. IVF is usually not covered by insurance.
By the time we exhausted all our other options, my life-partner worked for a company based in Massachusetts, and we learned that IVF would be mostly covered by his health insurance. This is not true in most states. I have been saddened to meet women who could only afford one or two IVF tries and then had to wait months or years to save up to try again, or they abandoned that path altogether due to the cost. IVF should be covered by insurance!
6. A positive pregnancy test isn't the end of fertility struggles.
After years of crying bitter, frustrated tears on the toilet when my period arrived each month, I finally got positive home pregnancy tests during my first two IVF transfers as well as positive pregnancy hormone levels in my blood test. But then my levels dropped and soon I lost those pregnancies. When I did, I endured pain so bad I vomited and I spent hours curled up on the couch with a heating pad, crying off and on. Be cautiously optimistic over a positive pregnancy test but also be mentally and emotionally ready for uncertainty and possible loss.
7. Support groups may help.
During the IVF process, more than four years into our journey, I finally attended one. For once, I was with people like me. We commiserated together about people in our lives who didn’t “get” what we were going through. With the group, I stopped feeling ashamed and broken. I wished I had gone to a support group sooner.
When two friends I met at the support group became pregnant from their next IVF transfer, they gave me hope that eventually I could get pregnant, too. I just had to keep trying. I did, and I feel lucky to be a mom. I hope everyone else who yearns for a child can find a way to have one,
Holly Kearl is an author and the founder of Stop Street Harassment. She also works for the Aspen Institute as the Community Manager for the New Voices Fellowship.