Helpless. Powerless. Impotent.
Trying—and failing—to have a child will make you feel that way.
That’s how I’ve felt while riding shotgun with my wife, Emily, as we’ve endured three rounds of IVF, three lost pregnancies, and two random genetic conditions that complicated it all.
You can schedule intimacy, and track ovulation cycles, and leverage gravity with a strategically placed pillow following the aforementioned scheduled intimacy. You can even turn to professionals in hopes of finding a test-tube solution, as we have.
But most of the time, the process of conception seemed completely out of our control.
Or so I thought.
Physical Vs. Mental Control
It was the middle of the day, yet we were in the dark.
Emily and I sat at a neighborhood lunch place commiserating with each other, frustrated over our uncertain future—especially because not that long before, it had been so clear.
Three months earlier, going into Emily’s 20-week anatomy scan, we’d been convinced that her third pregnancy was going to be our rainbow.
Instead, what the doctor told us was more like being overwhelmed by a hurricane.
The screening showed that our baby was the victim of a lethal, 1-in-35,000 genetic abnormality, the result of something having gone wrong at conception. It wasn’t anything we’d passed on; it was just bad luck.
For a long time after receiving the diagnosis, we couldn’t pull ourselves out of the past, trying to comprehend what had happened while grieving the loss of the child we had never met.
Now, at the café, as we picked at our food, our focus was on trying to move forward. It seemed impossible.
Emily pointed out that she didn’t know when she’d recover physically, which meant that she didn’t know when she could start the IVF process again, which meant that she didn’t know when she could maybe/hopefully become pregnant again.
It felt like she had no say about when, how, or if any of this would happen.
In these ways, Emily was right. We had almost no control. We had no control over what was happening, or would eventually happen, with her body.
But we realized that we did have control over what went on in our minds—how we chose to think and behave regarding the future we were now facing.
In the unpredictable world of infertility, that’s empowering.
We Control How We Treat Each Other
It’s strange to describe anything you do as a couple as a lonely experience, because by definition, you’re not doing it alone.
Yet that’s exactly how I’d describe infertility and pregnancy loss.
These are topics you don’t readily discuss publicly, even amongst family and friends, which makes you feel like you’re carrying around a secret, and makes you lie whenever someone asks, “What’s been going on?”
And when you do talk about it, while others can listen, empathize, and imagine, even if they’ve gone through something similar, they can’t know exactly what you’re going through.
Only your partner can.
(At least, mentally and emotionally. I have no idea of the sacrifice and suffering Emily has endured physically.)
This is why you have to be each other’s go-to person.
You have to be loving and loyal. You have to be generous and compassionate, yet honest and tough. You have to be present for each other, and you have to respect each other’s space. You have to validate each other’s feelings, and you have to challenge each other’s descent into darkness.
It’s a difficult balance to strike, and it’s one at which you’ll occasionally fail.
But that’s OK, because you both can trust the other’s intentions. You wouldn’t have picked them to be the parent of your child if you didn’t.
We Control Our Gratitude
Over a six-month span, Emily miscarried twice—the first at 11 weeks, the second at just shy of seven.
In trying to offer comfort, some people would say to me, “At least Emily can get pregnant.”
Which forced me to bite my tongue from saying, “So what?” In my mind, if the pregnancies weren’t viable, they weren’t valuable.
But once I shook off the anger and self-pity, I realized how foolish this thinking was.
For starters, Emily’s ability to get pregnant was not nothing, because for a lot of people, it’s everything. This ability, though it hadn’t produced a child on the outside yet, was something to be treasured.
Beyond that, for as painful as those two lost pregnancies were, they weren’t a curse. They were a blessing.
They prompted Emily’s doctor to have us take a particular blood test that revealed Emily has what’s called a balanced translocation, a 1-in-500 chromosomal issue that increases a woman’s miscarriage rate to around 50 percent. (We’d later learn Emily’s rate was closer to 90 percent.)
Those results not only let us know what was going on and that we needed to do IVF, it spared us unknown amounts of desperation, despair, and time.
We’d been told full miscarriage workups weren’t usually done until a woman has three concurrent losses, and to that point, Emily had just had her second. Had it not been for her doctor’s insight and intuition to order that blood test, how many months would it have taken for Emily to inevitably have her third?
It’s not always apparent, and sometimes it takes a while to see, but in every situation, no matter how awful, there’s always something worthy of appreciation. You just have to be willing to look for it.
We Control Our Resilience
At every stage of this process, I’ve believed we were primed to become parents.
I believed that when we tried the traditional way, Emily got pregnant twice in a matter of months, then we lost those pregnancies.
I believed that when we started IVF, especially when the first retrieval yielded a bounty of eggs.
Then the genetic testing for that round, and the two that followed, showed almost all of Emily’s eggs had been compromised by the balanced translocation.
And I believed that when, finally, Emily was successfully implanted with a chromosomally healthy embryo.
Then our child fell victim to the genetic mutation — the odds of which were more than twice as long as the odds of me getting struck by lightning.
For each loss it was easy, even tempting, to feel cursed, to feel as if this were our fate. And I spent too much time believing exactly that.
But each time, we also had a choice of what to do next: to give up or get back up.
Whichever choice we made was entirely up to us. We chose and continue to choose getting up and continuing to fight.
We Control Our Sense of Humor
A shared sense of humor has always been a pillar of my relationship with Emily. Through our struggles with infertility, it’s been our lifeboat.
We joke about everything.
We joke about how Emily’s pregnancy acne resembles the “Before” picture on a Clearasil commercial.
We laugh at the emasculating embarrassment I’ve endured while having my sperm samples held up to the light and inspected in front of me.
We joke that we’re going to force Emily’s IVF nurse into retirement, because she can no longer take having Emily and her horrifying test results on her call sheet.
I get it—infertility and pregnancy loss are least of all a laughing matter.
But in the face of such trauma, in certain instances, what’s left to do but laugh?
By finding humor in our struggles, we’ve been able to break the tension, cope more easily, and take this serious situation—and ourselves—a little less seriously.
Laughter might not be the best medicine. But if nothing else, compared to the fertility drugs Emily has injected, it’s definitely the cheapest.
We are not always perfectly supportive, grateful, resilient, and light-hearted, but we really strive to get to positive mental and emotional places. Everyone knows that before great success often comes disappointing failure, so we channel the power we do have and keep moving forward on this challenging conception journey.
Brent Stoller is a writer in Houston. In trying to expand their family, he and his wife, Emily, have endured three pregnancies, three lost pregnancies, and one continuous heartbreak. Yet they still hope to one day hold their own healthy child. For Brent’s hopeful, humorous take on the traumas of infertility and pregnancy loss, visit BrentStoller.com.
Listen to stories, share your own, and get feedback from the community.