My Infertility Struggle Taught Me the Best Lesson About Being a Mom

mother and son

I'm an "old" mom -- I'm 48 years old with a 5-year-old. When it came to creating a family, I got off to a late start. I was 39 when I married my lovely husband. He wanted to be a father, and after spending my 20s and 30s focused exclusively on myself, I was finally ready to be a mom. Somewhat naively, I figured my body was, too.

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I was healthy and in good shape. I did yoga, for God’s sake! I felt pretty confident I would get pregnant without much trouble, and initially, I was right. After just two months of trying, I was pregnant. Fist pumps and high fives -- I was 40 and pregnant! My best friend called me Fertile Myrtle when she heard the news. I felt blessed that this was all going so swimmingly. As those early weeks rolled by, I even sort of reveled in the nausea. This was so cool and exciting! We told family and friends.

And then, at about 14 weeks, I went in for a routine ultrasound. "I'm not finding what I want to find," said my OB as he rolled the wand over my belly.

No heartbeat. I had miscarried. Whoa, what? That was not the script. We were in shock and disappointed, but we rallied. My doctor told me I was physically fine -- it was just bad luck. I knew miscarriages weren't uncommon; I had friends who had experienced them. So, we just had to get back on that horse ASAP! I had gotten pregnant easily, I could do it again. I still felt optimistic.

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What I didn’t know then was it would take me a whole year before I would become pregnant again, only to miscarry again at about six weeks. Twelve monthly cycles of wondering, "Why are my boobs so sore? Is it PMS or pregnancy?" Twelve months of sex that had started to feel choreographed and fraught with hope and expectation. Twelve 28-day countdowns for my body to reveal success or failure. Twelve months of mounting anxiety and fear.

My confidence had become "Holy sh*t, this is not looking good." I was now 41 and had experienced two miscarriages. The prospect of launching back into the monthly roller coaster of trying to get pregnant felt daunting, and I could feel my fertility window closing. It was clear we needed more help. Along with getting acupuncture and taking Chinese herbs, we began investigating fertility treatments. Our health insurance didn’t cover anything, but we decided we would invest in the chance that this might help us finally conceive. We took the plunge into IVF.

Walking into the fertility clinic office, I discovered that helping women over 40 get pregnant was a booming business. The reception area was packed with professional-looking women on their smartphones. I’m not sure what was more surprising -- the fact that I was actually doing this, the insane number of drugs involved, or how routine the weird practice of giving myself shots became.

It all felt like a science experiment, and my body was the specimen. You take these carefully modulated drugs and then track progress with daily blood draws and ultrasounds that follow the development of follicles. For me, ultrasounds were the bearer of bad news, and now they confirmed my highly mediocre follicle development. I felt like a C student in IVF. Could a C student ace the test?

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Our first IVF try yielded three transferable embryos, so in they all went -- three simultaneous Hail Mary passes. After a soul-wringing two weeks and an official blood test, the answer was negative. No aced test.

At this point I could feel two dueling realities. First was hope, hanging on by a thread. We had paid for two rounds of IVF (econo-pack!), so we had one shot left. It could still happen. It was still possible. The other was the acknowledgment of failure and lost hope. The acceptance that something I really wanted and worked for was out of my control and probably not going to happen. We began to discuss adoption for real as I prepared for one last go-around.

This time, the ultrasound revealed even poorer performance by my seemingly decrepit lady parts. I remember lying on the exam table in the dark, getting a first glimpse at the scarce number of follicles that were developing, and feeling my heart sink. It looked like we would be lucky to get two good eggs and the doctor explained our odds were statistically as good using a method called intrauterine insemination (IUI) at this point as they were using IVF. Instead of fertilizing, harvesting, growing, and transplanting embryos as they do in IVF (more involved and costly), they would instead strategically bathe my lonely eggs with my husband’s semen and let nature do the rest (you know, the turkey-baster method).

As my doctor said, "All we need is one good egg."

We agreed to go IUI.

To say I was 99 percent pessimistic about the results is a true statement. I had truly surrendered to the IUI’s inevitable failure. Put another way, I had surrendered to a different reality than the one I had wanted. I felt beaten down, but also strangely relieved to be done with trying, hoping, and failing. It was time to move on.

This time the two-week wait felt different. It receded a bit into the background. I didn’t feel as consumed because I was already making my peace with a negative outcome. When it came time for the final blood test, I submitted my arm with a mix of cynicism and serenity.

And so, when I received a call from my doctor, whose voice rose with enthusiasm, I almost couldn’t comprehend what she told me. Positive. The results were positive and I was pregnant. I remember I just kept repeating how shocked I was. I couldn’t believe it. My husband looked as confused as me. It was good -- no, amazing! -- news, but we were almost too stunned to appreciate it. I wish I could say I let the feeling of happiness wash over me, but instead I felt a daunting wave of anxiety. I told my doctor hesitantly, "Well, we made it through the first hoop."

The weeks following were a blur of disbelief and anxiety. I was literally waiting for a miscarriage. I just couldn’t let myself get excited, it was too scary. If my body felt good, I worried I was miscarrying. If I felt awful, I worried I was miscarrying. My husband took me for a weekend getaway, and I spent the entire trip sure I wasn’t pregnant anymore because I wasn’t feeling nauseated enough. I was crazy.

I thought if I could make it to, say, 16 weeks, if all the genetic screening looked good, then it would feel real. Then I could let myself get excited. But throughout my pregnancy, which proceeded without a single hitch, I felt disbelief. As my belly got bigger, I began to let myself feel confident and believe this joyful thing was real. I remember joking at my baby shower, "I think I am actually going to have a baby."

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And I did. At 43, I gave birth to my happy, healthy, beautiful son. Even now, I tell my husband and anyone who asks that I think IVF is one big crapshoot, but worth the gamble. It just feels so strange that the randomness of that process, of all the trial, error, and false starts, culminated in the birth of my son -- a person who feels so destined, so specific, and so inevitable.

I now look at my path to motherhood as an enormous gift. I believe the struggle and the not-knowing have grounded me in motherhood in a way I possibly wouldn't feel otherwise. I know it sounds cliché, but I am truly grateful for my son, our family, and the gift of parenting every single day, multiple times a day. Even at the hardest parenting moments, I always see my son through a filter of massive gratitude. He is a miraculous angel-being, complete with snotty nose and superhero Band-Aids. I'm the luckiest person on the planet.

 

Image via iStock.com/RyanJLane

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