My grandmother had sixteen children. My mother had six. My sisters had children without ever batting an eyelash at everything it takes to make such a miracle happen. Yet, there I was, three years into my marriage, three years without using contraceptives, and I still had no children of my own.
About two years into our marriage, I brought up my concerns with my doctor. She told me to relax, that God had a plan, and that it would happen eventually. That was nice and all, but it wasn’t the medical response I was looking for. Relaxing wasn’t going to magically regulate my periods.
So, I switched doctors and again voiced my concerns. I was eventually diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome and went through a year of metformin—still no period. Then I bit the bullet and visited a reproductive endocrinologist; he put me on Clomid to stimulate ovulation. Then came the tests, including a hysterosalpingogram (HSG), which is when dye is put in your uterus and fallopian tubes to take X-ray images, to assess whether your fallopian tubes are clear and an egg can pass from your ovaries into the uterus.
My first big disappointment happened during that HSG. I watched the fluid stop in my right tube. It was completely blocked. The next disappointment came soon after. My left tube appeared to be “out of place” but still open, so my doctor increased my Clomid dosage and added injectable medications to stimulate my left ovary. I still didn’t get pregnant; I was crushed.
But then, the most frustrating thing happened: One of my closest friends announced that she was pregnant. Then another.
I was so happy for my friends. But I must be honest that it was also incredibly hard. I so badly wanted what they had. But then the even more shocking questions came. They knew I was getting treatment for infertility, but because their pregnancies had come easily, they were insensitive and often asked me questions like: “Are you pregnant yet?” “What’s going on with your doctors?” “When are you going to join the club?” “Are you sure you’re not pregnant?” Really? I was sure.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 6 percent of women in the U.S. between ages 15 to 44 are unable to get pregnant. And another 12 percent of women in the U.S. ages 15 to 44 have difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term. That’s nearly one in five women in the U.S.! So it’s likely that you know someone struggling with infertility, whether they choose to share it or not.
I would have liked for my friends to listen and ask questions when they didn’t understand. Offering solutions like, “Relax. Eat this vegetable for fertility. Drink this tea. Get a fertility massage. Have more sex,” may have been well-intentioned, but they drained me. Just hanging out would have been fine. Who doesn’t love popcorn and a chick flick?
It’s difficult to empathize with things you’ve never experienced. I get that. To an extent, no one can blame people for their experiences or lack thereof. So learning what I did from my friends’ reactions has made me want to share my story. I hope that sharing allows others to understand what it’s like to struggle with infertility and to be a much-needed source of support for a friend experiencing something similar. Here are six things I wish my friends had known.
01. It’s lonely.
Infertility makes you feel betrayed by your own body. It made me feel like I’d failed my husband. I felt ashamed. I felt like I wasn’t a good wife because I couldn’t give him the children we’d both hoped for. From time to time, I’d tell him he was free to leave me if we couldn’t have children; I understood if he didn’t want to be with me. After all, how could I ask him to sacrifice such a big thing for me?
Luckily my husband loves me, and he said he would never leave. He wanted me more than anything else in the world, and we would get through it together. But it was still hard to talk to him about what I was feeling, even though my struggle was also his struggle, and I knew he was hurting just as much.
Sometimes we wouldn’t go out because we knew I’d end up asleep at the movie (thanks, hormones). My husband would grab drinks with his friends or play video games to blow off his steam. I would stay home alone feeling miserable. But I knew that if I did go out with my friends or family, they’d end up saying something that would make me feel bad.
I like being around people. Being alone is hard for me. So feeling cut off from my community was really hard. Just coming over to hang out one-on-one and talk would have been nice. It didn’t always have to be about my problems. I just wanted to be distracted for a while and made to feel normal again.
02. It made me worry all the time.
I worried my husband would leave me. I worried I’d never be a mother. I worried I would have a bad reaction to the medication. I worried I’d be unable to keep myself from spending all our savings gambling for a chance to become pregnant every month. I worried about the size of my follicles or whether I was eating enough protein to make quality eggs. Every month for two weeks, I worried about whether the result of my pregnancy test would be negative again.
Being told to relax belittled my worries. I needed affirmation and moral support in the midst of my concerns, instead of feeling like I was just making a “big deal” out of nothing.
03. It’s dehumanizing.
I’m a modest person. I’m not embarrassed or ashamed of my body; I’m just not one to put myself on display. One of the worst parts of this was how often I found myself naked from the waist down with my legs in stirrups while a nurse inserted a probe into my vagina. At one point, this happened four out of seven days in a week.
I am still upset at the thought of being on an operating table with one catheter in my urethra and another through my cervix. A surgeon working on my fallopian tubes through holes in my abdomen while a room full of people looked on. I know they are professionals and that the surgery was ultimately necessary, but I can’t help but feel violated. They didn’t care about seeing my most intimate parts and may not even remember me now that it’s over. But I care, and I’ll never be able to forget.
04. It destroyed intimacy in my relationship.
Apart from fearing that my husband would leave me, infertility took away from the most intimate part of my relationship with him. From the moment we got married, we were open to children. Each time we had sex, there was some hope that we’d end up pregnant. When it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen, sex became a reminder that we couldn’t have children. So we just stopped for weeks at a time.
Once we started treatment, the excitement started to return. That is, until the doctor started telling us when we could have sex, exactly what time we should have sex, and how often to have sex. Someone else dictating your sex life takes all the intimacy away. And it creates an incredible amount of pressure. We were no longer using sex to express our love. It became a means to an end—an awkward, uncomfortable means to an end.
05. It’s physically exhausting.
Every month my hormones were on a roller coaster. I spent the first two weeks of each cycle with my body pumped full of drugs just to make one tiny little egg. Clomid gave me abdominal cramps, hot flashes, and mood swings, and it caused my abdomen to swell.
To help our odds with timed intercourse, each month we were given a trigger shot of HCG: a 6500iu shot of the pregnancy hormone to provoke ovulation. Infertility also has a cruel sense of humor because using a trigger shot makes you feel pregnant. Just when the symptoms begin to subside, and you stop feeling nauseated, you get another HCG shot. This acts as a booster and is supposed to help with implantation.
I also suffer from low progesterone, so I had to take progesterone supplements for the last ten days of each cycle to help my body support pregnancy in case conception occurred. The progesterone made me feel worse than the trigger shots. I was so exhausted that I could barely keep my eyes open at work. I was hungry all the time. I also got headaches, but I couldn’t take anything just in case I was pregnant.
06. It’s emotionally exhausting.
Even through all the hormonal ups and downs, each month I’d tell myself it was worth it because I might actually be pregnant. Then each time came the punch line to the cruel joke: a negative pregnancy test.
I went through this every month for almost a year. The first half of the cycle is full of hope and elevated estrogen levels. They keep you feeling like it might actually work. The second half of the cycle is a brutal waiting game. I desperately hoped for the pregnancy symptoms I felt to be real. Each time the test was negative, my hormones crashed. I’d take the news ten times worse than my ordinarily rational self would have. Each cycle ended the same way, with me crying in bed while my husband held me close, promising to love me forever, and swearing to never leave me. By the end, I was exhausted and ready to give up.
Believe it or not, I’m one of the lucky ones. There are some women who endure fertility treatments for years. Many come close to a decade of living as I did. After almost a year of active fertility treatment, I’m finally pregnant. I know that my friends and family will be happy for me—especially the friends who never tried to make me feel like my concerns were irrational. But I also wish I’d have heard more of, “I’m here for you. I want to support you. You are a strong woman.” This is what every woman deserves and needs to hear most.
Photo Credit: Erynn Christine Photography