It’s National Infertility Awareness Week, something that affects an astounding 1 in 8 couples in North America. A topic that is often lost in baby announcements and shame, I wanted to shed light on the struggles that couples go through to start, or even grow, their families.
Suffering in silence is something I know all too well. I have dealt with the ups and downs of infertility for years. As a teen I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS); a condition that would make it difficult for me to regulate and produce a variety of hormones, prevent regular menses, increase the risk of ovarian cysts- of which I’ve experienced several, and ultimately make it difficult to conceive due to a lack of ovulation.
I wanted to share my piece of mind and acknowledge National Infertility Awareness Week. I think often times people don’t realize how hard someone is fighting an invisible battle.
- My sex-ed teacher lied.
I can still picture that quirky woman slamming a condom over her face and telling us “don’t ever let them tell you they’re too small” and instilling the fear that “without one of these you’re going to get pregnant” into our heads. Clearly, this was a lie. There was no talking to us like young women who were all different and that for about 1 in 8 of us it would take more than pulling the goalie to get pregnant.
It seems silly but there did come a time where I – clearly in a state of depression, had to ask myself, “Am I doing it wrong?”
- As much as you want it to, it doesn’t go away.
After two and a half years of negative pregnancy tests and endless heartache, I reached a point where I gave up. I’d accepted that it was likely that I would never conceive and decided to focus on what I did have; a wonderful husband, supportive family, amazing friends, and enough nieces and nephews that I could spoil and enjoy the crap out of.
This lasted about five months, until the holidays rolled around, and I walked into my living room on Christmas Eve to see my dimly lit tree, perfectly reflected in the gifts under it – and began to weep.
It wasn’t enough.
I want to play Santa and see little faces ignite with excitement as they run out to open gifts. I want to hear little laughs and see my husband hold tiny hands and drippy ice cream cones on warm summer days. I want to know what it is like to be pregnant.
- People unintentionally suck sometimes.
Us starting a family was kept relatively low key because well, I’ve known about my condition for the better part of a decade and always anticipated challenges and generally find it invasive when perfect strangers are basically asking if my husband and I are getting it on. It’s amazing how when people learn you’re a newlywed the first question they ask is “when are you going to have kids” like it’s a race, or social obligation to procreate seconds after the wedding cake is cut.
For the first few months I would blush knowing that we were already trying and politely try not to tell them it was none of their business. But by the end of year three, this question became too personal. I found myself getting almost angry with people asking. The words were painful for me to hear and even more painful for me to answer.
The worst experience for me was the most recent.
I was at the pharmacy, picking up another round of hopeful hormones, when the lovely lady at the counter needed a reminder of my new last name. The woman in line behind me chimed in with a big smile stating “it’s going to be mommy soon”. It was horrible. It took everything I had to put a smile on my face and walk out the door before I burst into tears. I sat in my car sobbing for about fifteen minutes.
Situations like that are all too common for women dealing with infertility. Most of the time I get hollow, uneducated advice from people who think they’re helping; stand on your head, prop your legs in the air, only make left turns on Thursdays, eat hot peppers before and after sex, go out and get really drunk -you get the point. While this advice is meant to be helpful, to me, it feels like judgement, like we’re doing something wrong.
- Your body really is a wonderland.
When we talk about infertility, we are inevitability talking about female hormones – aka what makes the world go round.
For most of my youth and early 20’s, getting pregnant was right up there with renters insurance and debt collectors -something I avoided like the plague. It just wasn’t a priority for me. I also didn’t really understand my diagnosis of PCOS, so I had no real understanding of the overall impact it had on my body -especially my hormones.
In my late 20’s, I began to really understand my body -a process that involved more ups and downs than I had ever imagined. My poor (and wonderful) husband endured many mood swings, energy bursts, crying fits, unexplainable weight gain/loss and sore boobs (mine) before a doctor was able to identify a hormone imbalance -something that was clearly hidden behind birth control pills in my younger years. Unfortunately, hormones were only one part of the bigger problem in our journey to have a baby.
- You become a science experiment.
When I was initially diagnosed with PCOS, I was 19 years old. From day one I had to have biopsies on ovarian cysts, internal and external ultrasounds, smears and more blood taken than I knew I had to give. And this was just the medical side of things. When it came to us actually wanting to get pregnant, it was all this testing and then some.
There came a point where I was willing to try anything; Yoga for fertility, fertility boosting diets, herbal remedies, meditation, old wives tales, and of course, good old essential oils. There was one point where I had a list posted on my bedroom wall of 30 things I needed to do before bed, all of them not helping in the long run. Don’t even get me started on the unsolicited advice from strangers about what worked for them, or how if I lost a few pounds it would happen for us. I cannot roll my eyes enough at that last one.
- Pregnancy tests are the worst.
I had a moment about a year ago where I seriously considered taking stocks in Clear Blue and First Response. Between ovulation kits and pregnancy tests, I felt if I owned a piece of the pie I wouldn’t be so bitter about forking over the cash every month. I finally discovered the cheap dollar store tests and never looked back.
But it’s not the cost of the tests that make them awful. It’s the constant disappointment in what they are telling you –“nope, not this month”.
For me, these are still the most painful tests of all. I find myself overwhelmed with sadness when I take them, because I ultimately know the outcome.
There was a point in my life where a bunch of my wonderful friends all found out they were pregnant in unconventional places, like fast food restaurants, their workplace bathroom or in a truck stop outside Niagara Falls. Naturally I clung to the idea that if I started to take these tests in unconventional places, then maybe my tests would come back positive too. Just goes to show you how you become fixated on the tiniest details, clinging to all hope that you have the power to change the outcome.
- Tiny shoes make me cry.
Like many women who live with infertility, around year two I became depressed- undeniably related to the hormone imbalance. I no longer had the energy to socialize with people outside of work. My overall coping skills were diminished, and I felt completely and utterly deflated.
As a woman who had dreamt of being a mom since I was a little girl, something as small as walking by a children’s clothing store would cause me to feel sorry for myself, and leave me feeling like I was inadequate as a woman. How come I couldn’t give my husband and me what we wanted for so long?
I saw women in my life get pregnant easily, by accident, and more than once in the time it was taking me to try and conceive just one baby. All of this weighed heavy on my heart and sucked me into a black hole for many months. Some of it came from bitterness and jealously, most of it was pure sorrow.
- My husband feels it too.
I think it’s important for me to acknowledge that during this journey it’s not just me who feels the weight of infertility -my husband does as well. This is not a storybook tale of creating a family for him either. On top of dealing with my emotional journey over the past few years, he has also had to deal with a journey of his own as well.
I know he’ll be a great father, I can see it in the way he is with our nieces and nephews, and I can see it in the way his face lights up when babies love him. Becoming a dad has always been something he has been very vocal about, but I often see the hurt in his eyes when we wait for more tests and more appointments. The pain is different, but it’s real.
- You realize your undeniable strength.
As a woman, nothing has left me more broken than the experience of trying to start a family. With that being said, I sometimes look at myself in the mirror and am in awe of how many times I have picked myself up off the floor and kept going. For that matter, I look at my husband sometimes and think that he too has an emotional strength I might have never known if we had not gone through this experience.
It’s not how I wanted to test our strength as individuals -or as a couple, but it certainly has showed me how strong we are. There have been fights. There have been times when one, or both of us wanted to give up. But when all is said and done, we rely on each other to keep going and reach the light at the end of the fallopian tube.
- You don’t give up.
Today, I am still trying to convince my body that I will be a good mom.
I still endure appointments, endless negative pregnancy tests, friends having babies all around me and the misguided advice from others. Instead of wallowing in depression, I began to talk to my friends. I let people into the world of my deep dark shame and started looking at babies with happiness again, instead of as a reminder of what I didn’t have. Sometimes I even catch myself planning a nursery I hope to one day have, or telling my husband that one day our kids will make fun of him for that shirt.
Most importantly, I have learned to love myself and see my husband in a whole new light. I have learned that no matter how bad it hurts, you don’t give up.
This piece was originally published April 2015.