Naturally, We Assumed We Could Have Kids

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After ten years of happy marriage, my husband and I started trying to have a baby when I turned 30 and he turned 31. We were young, healthy, and ready mentally and emotionally; we were excited.

I went to a preconception appointment and got all of my medications adjusted to be appropriate for pregnancy. We don’t smoke or drink, and were at healthy weights. We read books to learn more about improving our fertility.  I naïvely bought several of my husband’s favorite childhood books to use as an announcement present.

Yet month after month, despite tracking ovulation and daily temperatures, we got negative pregnancy tests.  But the anxious waiting and devastating failures had only just begun.

We are both school teachers, so it’s really hard to take time off to see a doctor.  Not only had we been saving up sick days for the past ten years to create a 40-day maximum “parental leave” but we also couldn’t just skip work.  We have to get a sub to cover our classes, make work for the students, and worry about how we are going to catch up. But seeing our students learn and grow each day helped us to have hope that we would one day have a family of our own.

After six months we decided it was time to see a doctor. I did ovulation induction with drugs, follicle monitoring, and trigger shots. Six more months passed.  Nothing. All of our tests came back normal. But we were officially diagnosed with infertility. All I did in my free time was research, but all it did was reinforce that our efforts should have been working.  I’d never really encountered a problem that couldn’t be solved with hard work and science.  I tried every trick in the book, even some really crazy ones. 

That’s when true despair set in.  We were good people. We were kind and responsible and loving.  We had both dedicated our lives to loving and raising other people’s children, yet we couldn’t have our own.  It wasn’t fair.

The question “Are you pregnant yet?” from well-meaning friends started to sting.  Seeing babies and pregnant women made my heart ache.    

I went in for a uterine evaluation.  I knew it might hurt, but wow. The nurse commended me for not kicking the doctor in the face! (I guess it happened often?)  A positive outcome, though, was that the doctor realized that one tube was blocked, so I thought we had found the answer.  

I went in for my first surgery, a laparoscopy and hysteroscopy.  I woke up sobbing from the pain. I kept telling myself it was all worth it for a child, and my doctor assured me that I’d be pregnant within the next three months. I wasn’t.

We moved to IUIs to increase our chances.  A friend bought us a onesie, and I wondered if we’d ever be able to use it.  I still have pictures of the blank pregnancy tests. I couldn’t just blame it on bad luck anymore.

I survived my first Mothers’ Day as an infertile woman.  My husband made me French toast and told me, “I hope this is the last Mother’s Day that you’re not a mother.”

Everyone knows teachers don’t make much money.  We had always been responsible savers, but $20,000 for one round of IVF?  $40,000 for adoption? Neither one was a sure thing.

At work I was called to the principal’s office and told that I would be given two more classes the next year.  I opened up about our fertility struggles and the likelihood that we would be undergoing IVF soon. This man, my boss, told me that I needed to relax and it would happen.  Obviously my doctor disagreed. The longer we waited, the more our fertility would decline. I sobbed and begged. My husband and I had been working at the school for 10 years.  It was our home, and our coworkers were our family, not to mention we would lose our saved time off if we left.

The day that we began our first round of IVF, we both quit our jobs.  The stress of the extra work would have been too much had we stayed. We moved to a new town and new house that was better for raising a family.  Though we felt confident we could find new jobs, with all the change and uncertainty, I remember googling “how to stop a panic attack.” I couldn’t believe how much infertility had changed my life.  

We decided to go with a low-cost clinic in New York for IVF, and I coordinated my ultrasounds with my Louisiana gynecologist.  This process was a full time job. Every day we were researching, injecting, and hoping.

We drove to New York from Louisiana to save money on plane tickets.  They only retrieved eight eggs, and we got the call the next day that only four were mature, and only two of those fertilized correctly.  We were devastated. The doctor had no explanation for what caused our poor results. One embryo survived three days, but it was the lowest quality possible and had only grown to 4 cells.  There wasn’t much hope for it to be successful.   

We did another retrieval.  I did a ton of research and used estrogen priming, human growth hormone, and supplements.  We got 12 eggs that round, and eight were mature, but only four fertilized. Fifty percent fertilization rate again, which is incredibly low for IntraCytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI—in which a sperm cell is inserted into one egg).  We got the call two days later that three had survived to Day 3. We had another low-quality one, but two that were better, so we were ecstatic.

Our Thanksgiving holiday was marred by the first frozen embryo transfer failing.  We had both found new teaching jobs, and our precious students at school celebrating the holiday season were a reminder of the family we didn’t have.

Our Christmas break began with a devastating call from the embryologist.  Our last good-quality embryo hadn’t even survived being thawed. It almost never happens, but we had managed to be the unluckiest .01%.  We transferred both of the low-quality ones at the same time and got the negative test on our thirteenth wedding anniversary. 

That’s when true despair set in.  We were good people. We were kind and responsible and loving.  We had both dedicated our lives to loving and raising other people’s children, yet we couldn’t have our own.  It wasn’t fair. I tried going to a support group for infertility, but they all believed this was “God’s plan.”  I wanted nothing to do with a God that would actively plan this torture.

Always searching for an answer, we wondered if the lab quality had been the problem since the clinic was so cheap?  My grandmother had been offering to pay for treatment for months now, so I made the decision to swallow my pride and call her.  I never thought I could actually ask someone for that much money, but she wanted to pay for a state-of-the-art clinic.  

We began the whole process again after three months of new egg-quality-enhancing supplements and perfect eating.  We got 15 eggs, and ten mature, but only five fertilized. My new doctor was surprised, but I wasn’t. Fifty percent fertilization again.  It hadn’t been the quality of the lab. She said that low fertilization was most likely coming from poor egg quality, but no one has figured out what causes it.  Surprisingly, one made it to blastocyst on Day 5, and another made it on Day 6.  

After another hysteroscopy, we transferred the first one, and we were absolutely ecstatic when we got our first positive test.  We had never seen one in almost three years of treatment. I brought out all the presents I had bought for my husband over the years.  We jumped up and down, laughed, and allowed ourselves to start talking about baby names. 

But the beta HCG came back low, and it doubled in 72 hours, but just barely.  My husband tried to calm my fears, saying, “We will meet our baby one day, even if it isn’t this one.”  In the two weeks we waited for the first ultrasound, I couldn’t stop my anxiety from taking over every waking moment of my life.

“There’s nothing there.”

We cried and held each other as the doctor tried to talk to us.  I was angry, I was sad, and most of all, I was so frustrated. Why did this keep happening to us?  We were doing everything right. We had fixed everything that was fixable. At this point I couldn’t even wrap my head around the fact that some people can just get pregnant on their own and have perfectly healthy, easy pregnancies.  It just seemed so impossible.

I went to the transfer of my last embryo alone.  My husband had just started a new job, and it was the second day of school.  He couldn’t have a sub during the first week when the students were all relying on him.  I cried after they transferred the embryo. Right there laying on the table, I sobbed. I had lost all hope.  All of this was just so depressing and difficult now.

I wasn’t surprised when I got another positive pregnancy test.  I was happy, but I knew this time that a positive test didn’t mean a baby.  I survived through the next several weeks waiting for the first ultrasound.

“There’s the heartbeat!” I couldn’t believe it.  I took a video of the little baby in my belly at seven weeks and watched it over and over.  It was a real, live baby inside of me. The risk of miscarriage was down to 4% now. I let myself feel pregnant.  I let my husband take me shopping for maternity clothes.  

At the next ultrasound, my doctor beamed. “How are you feeling?” 

“Terrified.” 

“Well, let’s have a look!  The scan last week was perfect!  There’s the baby!”

“But does it have a heartbeat?”

After a long pause, she asked, “How did you know?  There’s no heartbeat.”

I can’t even put into words how I felt in that moment. I hadn’t “known” but my worst fear had proved true.  It was so awful that it didn’t feel like real life, yet even the most dramatic TV show wouldn’t have something so cruel happen.  

I’ve never heard my husband sob like he did, not even at his father’s funeral the year before.  We were both broken. We still are.  

It’s been several months but we are doing the best we can to heal.  Our doctors still have no explanation for why we can’t have a child.  After more than 200 injections in the past three years, I don’t think I can put my husband and myself through another round of IVF, because it’s not just IVF, it’s the months of supplements and trying to eat perfectly in hopes of solving a problem that no one even understands.  

I don’t know if I can handle many more losses, but we decided the pain we feel now is nothing compared to the pain we would carry with us the rest of our lives if we gave up on having a child.  We waited only a couple of months. It helps me to have a plan in place. When I have a decision to make, I generally think about it a lot and then make it quickly.  

I don’t know if I can handle many more losses, but we decided the pain we feel now is nothing compared to the pain we would carry with us the rest of our lives if we gave up on having a child.

We are moving to embryo donation now.  A sweet couple who had success through IVF is blessing us with their remaining embryos.  We connected with the couple through PVED (Parents Via Egg Donation), which also works with embryo donation.  It is far cheaper than traditional adoption. It costs about $2,000 for the contract and shipping, and then the cost for the frozen embryo transfer.  You also get to experience pregnancy and have control over prenatal care.  

My doctor is running every test possible to see if she can get more answers before our next transfer, but I’m not holding my breath.  I’ve learned that optimism and hope don’t really have much of an effect except for making failure even more crushing.  

However, there are so many new things to learn and coordinate with embryo donation. We are excited about the possibilities that science has provided, even if it can’t answer our questions.  It’s going to be complicated, physically and emotionally, but I guess everything that’s worthwhile is.


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