Trying to conceive
That was the thought running through my mind two years ago. On December 14, 2012, I had what was to be my final IVF transfer, the procedure in which the doctor puts the embryo back in (please do not call this an “implantation,” because no doctor can “implant” an embryo – the embryo has to do that itself – but I digress). It was the day of the Newtown tragedy, and I couldn’t help but feel that was a bad omen. It was already a risky move psychologically to do the transfer around such an emotionally charged time of year as Christmas. How would I handle the holiday if I didn’t get pregnant? It was, after all, our last shot.
After the transfer, I lay in the recovery room listening to the woman next to me giggle to her husband with the excited voice of someone doing their first IVF. “Honey, can you believe I have two babies inside me right now?” she exclaimed. Rookie, I thought, then tried to block her, and the negative thoughts that she was causing in me, from interrupting my valium-induced happy place. I wasn’t sure if the embryo could feel my mood, but I only wanted to be sending it positive vibes.
But I still didn’t really expect it to work. It was our “closure cycle,” a FET (frozen embryo transfer) of two embryos left over from my summer cycle, which ended in miscarriage. Because that was my final fresh cycle, I begged the embryologist to freeze something, anything. Thank God I did.
My beta (i.e. pregnancy blood test) was on Christmas Eve, but I had taken a home test days before anyway. Even a positive pregnancy test was not enough to make me feel happy, though, since I had had five positive tests in the years before, and none of them had led to a live baby.
Because I already knew I was pregnant, the first beta never really made me nervous. It was always the second one that freaked me out. The initial number doesn’t matter that much – what matters is that it doubles on the second test. So I went through the holiday with a sense of trepidation. It seemed too much to ask for a Christmas miracle. Too cliche. Too cheesy.
My next beta was right after Christmas, and sure enough, it barely rose at all. I cried, but also felt a sense of acceptance. I had literally done everything I could. I emailed the adoption agency we’d decided to work with and told them we were on board.
Two days later I had to go for another test to make sure my levels dropped appropriately. I had had a previous ectopic pregnancy, the telltale sign of which is erratic betas, so that was a concern. After the early morning blood draw, my husband and I went out to eat at our local breakfast spot. While there, my phone rang. It was the doctor on call, who I didn’t know and who obviously didn’t know my history. “Good news,” she said. “Your beta doubled and everything looks good.” Huh?
I went outside in the cold without my jacket so I could hear her more clearly. “But,” I protested, “this is my third beta. My second didn’t rise at all. It’s supposed to be going down.” She didn’t have an explanation for me, and told me to come in in another couple of days.
Now I was angry. Just when I had started to accept what was happening, and was resigned to the fact that I would never be pregnant and that we would be adopting – the universe had to mess with me again. It was pouring salt in the festering wound that had been my years of infertility treatments and miscarriage. Why was God being so cruel?
On New Year’s Eve, my husband and I went out to dinner, and I toasted with ginger ale instead of champagne just in case. I was pissed that I couldn’t even get drunk on New Year’s. The waitress, who by the end of the evening admitted she’d had a few to drink, asked us if we had kids. We told her no, and she replied, “Tonight will be the night for you guys! You’ll see. I predict you’ll conceive tonight!” Thanks, drunk waitress, I thought, for making me feel even worse.
Next beta. It went up again. And the next – up again. It didn’t make sense. Looking at my chart, the technicians would always miss the second test, and start talking excitedly as they drew my blood. I’d have to remind them that things were still uncertain. Didn’t they notice that glaringly strange second test, the one that didn’t jump at all? The one that told me my baby didn’t make it? The only explanation was a “vanishing twin,” in which both embryos implanted but only one of them kept growing.
There wasn’t one specific moment when we knew the pregnancy was stable. I wish there had been, so I could have cried tears of relief and joy and felt a weight being lifted off my shoulders. But the first ultrasound only showed a tiny sac and no heartbeat, and then I had some bleeding. It wasn’t until almost eight weeks that we heard the glorious swish-swish sound of his heart, and even then because it was very slow we weren’t out of the woods yet. Through it all, I felt like I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.
And to be honest, I still feel like that to this day.
Other IVF moms, tell me about your “two week wait” and beta story!
As LM becomes a better sleeper and my mind becomes a little less foggy, I’ve been able to take a step back and reflect on my life before and after I had him. Certain things – smells, places, even songs – remind me of how different my life used to be, back when I was in the throngs of infertility treatments. It was such a dark time for me. I had thought about writing then, but I was worried that instead of helping, exploring my feelings would throw me into an even deeper depression. I was barely hanging on to my sanity, and I needed to keep my emotions in check lest they put me over the edge.
I’m finally in a place where I can look back on it with a clearer head. In some ways I want to forget about it, just pretend like it never happened. Now that I’m part of the mommy club, it’s like I’m a normal person. Like I fit in. Like I’m not a total freak.
But I don’t want to deny who I was, or who infertility made me. Because it did change me. It changed how I look at the world and how it works, how I feel about God or any kind of higher power, what I want out of my life and what kind of person I want to be. It cost me friendships, some of them dear ones that I didn’t think could ever be broken. It taught me to see good where I didn’t think there was any, and how to deal with the bad. It left scars. There are things that haunt me, that I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of.
Those of us who’ve done many, many treatments or had many losses call ourselves “veterans.” We went through our own personal battle. I’m not sure if military veterans consider it offensive when others use the metaphor of war to describe traumatic experiences. If that is the case, I apologize, but that’s what it felt like.
When you start out doing treatments you are all full of promise, so excited that you are finally getting help. The doctors have found out what is wrong, and they know how to fix it. You’re in their hands, and they are the experts. Couples doing their first IVF often have a sense of hopeful anticipation, that this is going to be the thing that solves all their problems.
And for many couples it does. But we veterans had been here a while. We looked on these rookies with cynicism, because we no longer felt anything resembling positivity. We watched couple after couple pass us by as they had success. But we were still here.
It was that way for the miscarriages, too. After we lost our daughter at 17 weeks, we went to a support group at our hospital. All the other couples kept saying things like, “when we have another baby” or “when we get pregnant again,” and it made me feel that my sadness was deeper than theirs (not that I want to play the Pain Olympics, which I’ll talk about in a later post) because I didn’t know if I would ever be pregnant again. Or even if I was, could I carry a baby to term? I had already had three prior miscarriages. Maybe that was my last shot.
I was in a hopeless situation. I couldn’t get pregnant without help, and I couldn’t stay pregnant once I was. Adoption was on the table but that involved so much, from home study visits to waiting to be picked to the fear the birth mother would change her mind. It seemed overwhelming. Plus, I just really wanted to experience pregnancy. That might seem selfish, but I felt like it was my right as a woman. I didn’t want to have to mourn the loss of that, too.
Sometimes it scares me how close I came to not having LM. I know I would have been a mom anyway, that I would have pushed myself through the adoption process and eventually I would have had a child. I wasn’t going to accept living child-free. I told myself that I could do it, I could be strong, even if it took years longer before we found a baby to adopt (or rather, before the birth mom found us).
LM was our last egg, our last hope. I had begged our fertility clinic to freeze whatever embryos we had left from our last cycle, no matter what shape they were in. And they did. We had two little guys, and they were both transferred on our last-ditch-effort frozen cycle.
The pregnancy did not go well at the beginning and I was sure I would lose him. But he hung on, and somewhere along the way I morphed from bitter infertile to fairly normal pregnant person to regular old mom.
Sometimes I feel like I’m hiding some big secret, like I’m pretending to be someone I’m not. I hang out with all the other normal moms and feel like I was rescued from a terrible fate. Like somehow someone lifted me up and pulled me out of my dark, depressing life and gave me a shiny new one. And that someone was my son.
Any other infertiles-turned-moms out there? How has your experience affected your life as a parent?
Thank you all for the kind responses to my Huffington Post piece, The Storm That Follows a Lost Pregnancy. One comment, though, got me thinking. A Facebook friend said, “That must have been hard to share.” In some ways, it was. I was nervous to have people who know me read my story; but I was not scared to have other people, the entire internet really, read it. Maybe because even though I’m giving my name, to strangers I still feel like I’m anonymous.
But why should I feel anxious about sharing it with the people in my life? Shouldn’t those be the people you want to share your struggles with?
I think there is still a pervading feeling in our culture that pregnancy loss, and infertility, shouldn’t be talked about. These issues are still hushed-up, still only whispered about, still stigmatized. Some people think that these things should be private, that they are nobody else’s business. And while it’s true that others should respect our privacy, is the real reason we feel these topics should be private because there is a sense of guilt and shame around them?
While trying to get pregnant, I saw differing ways of handing loss. Many women who miscarried said they wished they hadn’t told everyone they were pregnant because then after their loss, they had to “untell.” My feeling on this was…so what? I was pregnant and now I’m not anymore. Maybe then people can offer their support, if only to lend an “I’m sorry.” OK, it’s fair to just not want to talk about it to acquaintances you don’t know well. But keeping quiet also means we suffer alone because the world does not know the sorrow we are going through. Everyone will just expect us to carry on as normal, when inside we are in mourning.
After my Huff Post story, some people I know sent me private messages to tell me that they went through something similar, and I had no idea. Other people, mostly mom friends I’ve met since having my son, said they had no idea what I had gone through. And why would they – I had not talked about it. It’s hard to bring miscarriage into normal conversation. And if you do, you often just gloss over it because it can make people uncomfortable. I remember once a few months after losing my baby, I got a compliment from a very good friend on a necklace I was wearing. I thanked her and said it was to remember my daughter, and it stopped the conversation short. My friend and her husband were visibly uncomfortable. But why should they be? Why can’t we acknowledge miscarriage the way we do other deaths?
There is no word to describe someone who’s lost a pregnancy or a child. We simply don’t have the words to talk about something that so many people go through. And I want to change that. It wasn’t hard to share my story, because that’s what I want to do as a writer, a blogger and a woman. To talk about the things that we don’t talk about.
Do you have a story you want to share?
I spent six years trying to get, and stay, pregnant. I went through seven IVF cycles. I had five miscarriages. Putting it that way, it sounds crazy. Why would any sane person go to such extremes to have a baby? And if the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result, does that mean I was nuts?
Looking back now at everything I went through, it does seem a bit insane. But in the moment it didn’t feel that way. It starts as one problem to solve, one IVF cycle. Then it turns out there is another problem to solve, then another. Every cycle is going to be the cycle, the one that fixes the issue you didn’t know about before. It’s a strange sort of addiction, and the habit is hard to break.
Adoption seemed to require giving up more – not only my genetics but my biological urge as a woman to grow a life inside of me. I desperately wanted to do what I believed women’s bodies are created to do: become pregnant and bear children. The IVF process was likely to be a lot quicker than the potentially years-long wait for a child through adoption.
But as time went on and cycle after cycle ended in failure, wasn’t it time to give up? What were we doing this for? We had spent so much time, energy and money on cycling. We had grown apart from our friends who had had kids. I was an emotional wreck who couldn’t stand any reminders of babies or children – and those reminders were everywhere. Clearly, something was wrong with my body that it couldn’t sustain a pregnancy. But all the losses were different; because they didn’t fit a pattern, no doctor could say what was ultimately causing them.
Eventually all our options had been extinguished. I had to decide what I wanted: to be pregnant or to be a mother. We had two frozen embryos which we would use in a “closure cycle” while we pursued adoption. I grieved the likelihood that I would never experience a baby growing inside me, never feel kicks, never give birth.
We pulled out all the stops for our frozen cycle. I went on a gluten and dairy-free diet to help reduce an inflammatory response. I took Prednisone for three months, which puffed me up and made me gain weight, for the same purpose. I took blood thinners. I continued the acupuncture that I had done for the past several years. I saw an immunologist who recommended using the cancer drug Neupogen off-label. My fertility doctor didn’t like it, but at that point I was in a position to insist.
Once again the pregnancy test was positive. But my second hormone “beta” level hardly rose at all, an indication of an early miscarriage. Resigned to the end of my fertility, I emailed the adoption agency we’d chosen to tell them we were on board. I followed up with more blood tests to make sure the levels went down.
But they didn’t. They continued to double. No one could explain why the second test hadn’t risen – a vanishing twin, in which both embryos implant but only one keeps growing, was a possibility. In any case, my ultrasound showed a baby with a heartbeat, and he became our son.
I know I would have been a mom even if I had not been pregnant, but that was a dream I had a very hard time relinquishing. Another woman might have chosen to move on sooner, and I wouldn’t have blamed her. That might have been the smart thing to do, and saved me years of emotional turmoil. But in the midst of everything, it always seemed that if we just fixed this issue, if we just solved that problem, things would work out. And eventually they did, although now I don’t attribute that to anything other than sheer luck.
Some might call me desperate or crazy, and maybe I was. But you can’t see your way out of a maze when you’re in the middle of it.
What was your TTC (trying to conceive) story? Any other infertility or miscarriage survivors out there?