That’s the amount of time that passed between our wedding and the birth of our twin daughters. It seemed like forever. Time crawls when you are a childless mother.
Infertility starts with a whisper. I was 36 and my husband was 42 when we got married. We planned to start our family immediately. Every month, for the first six months of our marriage, I was sure that this would certainly be the month that I would see two lines. But every 28 days, my body told me otherwise. And every month I mourned the baby who wasn’t.
As time went on, the whisper of infertility became a roar. As I was quickly approaching 37, my doctor suggested trying Intrauterine Insemination (IUI). This is a less invasive and less expensive procedure than In Vitro Fertilization (IVF). The short and basic explanation of an IUI procedure is that the doctor tries to force fertilization by using a catheter to insert sperm directly into the uterus. The literature describes the procedure as involving “minimal discomfort.” The literature failed to mention that IUI causes an intense roller coaster ride of emotions and excessive anxiety while you wait to see if it worked. We tried it twice. Unsuccessfully.
The next step was IVF. Our first appointment at the Fertility Clinic was surreal. As we sat in the waiting room anxiously waiting our turn, we surveyed the other couples and wondered about their stories. After an exam and a few more tests, we were ushered into the doctor’s private office to discuss our options. As we listened to the doctor matter-of-factly describe the procedure and spout off the statistical odds of success, my head began to spin. The doctor seemed slightly impatient with my hesitation as I sat there still clinging to the fantasy that somehow I would become pregnant without medical intervention. I was afraid of the drugs and the shots, and I was worried about the cost. But mostly, I was afraid of failing. Again.
IVF is an all consuming commitment that takes over your life. The shots, the ultrasounds, the blood draws, and the procedure itself are all scheduled with exacting precision. I felt like a walking science project. I found a web board (blogs were a thing of the future 17 years ago) that became my lifeline. Suddenly I was discussing the most intimate details of my life with total strangers. I connected to them through this painful journey in a way that I could not connect to my IRL friends (that’s web board lingo for “In Real Life” friends). The web board gave me a safe place to talk incessantly about infertility.
Despite knowing the odds, I naively assumed that IVF would work for us on the first try. My egg retrieval went well and a few days later we returned to transfer the fertilized embryos. I left the clinic feeling certain that I was pregnant, settling in for the “two week wait.” In two weeks, if my period didn’t start first, I would have a blood test to confirm my pregnancy. Despite the doctor’s admonishment to resist home pregnancy tests, I bought tests in bulk, but I didn’t need them. My period started before the two weeks were up. What a crushing blow. Over the next two years, we did two more IVFs with our local clinic while our doctor adjusted my “protocol” with lessons learned from the first and second failed cycles. I was approaching 40 when the third cycle failed.
With knowledge gained from intensive research and advice from my cousin’s wife who had cycled successfully at NYU, we began considering out of state clinics. We narrowed down our choices to the three top clinics at that time – NYU, Cornell, and St. Barnabas. After much consideration, we selected St. Barnabas in Livingston, New Jersey.
After our first appointment at St. Barnabas, I knew what it must feel like for a baseball player to be called up from the minor league to play in the majors. This place was amazing and I was filled again with hope. I spent two weeks alone in New Jersey, living in an extended stay hotel, going to appointments in the morning and trying to catch up with work on laptop with a dial up connection each afternoon. The stakes were high – both emotionally and financially – and when this cycle became our fourth failure, we were devastated. Down, but not out. I had to give St. Barnabas one more chance.
A year later, we beat the odds with a successful fifth cycle. I was a month shy of 42 and finally pregnant. With twin girls.
Here’s the part of the blog post where I planned to list what you should and should not say to a couple experiencing infertility. But writing this post, I realized that there is very little “one size fits all” advice, because each couple experiencing this heartbreak is unique. Nonetheless, there are a few truths that I believe are universal.
- Under no circumstances should you say, “Just relax, it will happen.” Would you suggest relaxation as a cure for any other medical issue?
- Resist the urge to empathize by saying, “I know how you feel, it took us three months to get pregnant, we thought it was never going to happen.” I can assure you that this remark will cause your friend to realize that you have no clue what she’s going through.
- Don’t share the story about your sister-in-law’s college roommate who adopted a baby and then got pregnant the next day. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that adoption causes pregnancy, and now your friend will feel she has to justify why she’s choosing IVF instead of adoption.
- Think twice before asking a childless friend when she’s going to start a family. I was very open about my infertility struggles, but many are not. Some people can’t talk about it even with close friends and family members. Remarks like this can unintentionally cause great pain.
- Please don’t say anything like, “It doesn’t seem fair that you can’t get pregnant while there are so many unwanted pregnancies.” Believe me, your infertile friend has already thought about this tragic irony.
- Don’t try to lighten the mood by saying, “Please take one of mine.” I can assure you that your friend would trade places with you on even your most difficult parenting days.
- Even if it’s your personal belief, never ever say, “Maybe it’s God’s will.” I ended a friendship with someone who said that to me.
- Unless your friend offers, don’t ask her about her diagnosis. Whether the issue is with her, her husband, or unexplained, unless you are her reproductive endocrinologist, does it really matter?
If someone in your life is coping with infertility, the best advice I can offer is to simply ask what she needs and recognize that her needs may change over the course of her journey. I remember days when I felt both hope and despair.
Even in my darkest moments, I was able find happiness in my friends’ pregnancies. Yes, at times I was terribly envious and sad for myself. But I just never believed that there was a finite number of babies to be born, so someone else’s blessing did not make mine less likely. I was fortunate to feel that way, but not everyone does. Be gentle with your friend walking this emotional journey.