Infertile. Barren. Two words that I never thought I would use to describe myself. Growing up as a little girl, and even during seemingly endless fertility treatments, I never thought those two words would become part of the definition of me. How wrong was I? I am #1in6.
About this time last year, as I was reading all the wonderful and inspirational stories from the #1in6 campaign – my journey towards becoming a mother was heading like a freight train towards its ultimate end in failure. I would never be “Mom”. Stepmom, Aunty, bonus mom, Nana even, but never “Mom”. What occurred to me in reading these stories – was that there was still hope in them. I thought maybe, just maybe, if I could get the courage to tell my story one day – it might help someone else who had to give up hope. So here I am, with the help of family, friends, doctors and (I’m not afraid to admit) – anti-depressants, I can tell my story without tears running down my face. It will never be easy to talk about – but at least I can – and I feel that is a huge step forward.
In many ways, for a Childless Not By Choice woman, I am very blessed. I have an incredibly supportive boyfriend and family, four amazing step-children and one handsome grandson. I’m also blessed with financial resources that many do not have, not at the celebrity level (who can pay for surrogates, endless lawyer costs for adoption and surprise the world with easy “miracle” pregnancies and adoptions), but still at a finite middle class level with savings that I could use towards fertility treatments that are in no way inexpensive.
My infertility journey began in 2012. I was 38, and because of a failed marriage – single. Feeling independent, healthy and happy – I decided to attempt to become a mom on my own – via sperm donor. My family doctor referred me to a fertility clinic with a great reputation, and because my mom had little trouble getting pregnant, and my dad – the youngest of his family – was born when my grandmother was 43, I felt I had no reason to believe I wouldn’t be successful. The fertility clinic, after a barrage of standard tests – agreed – my only issue was that I was single.
They referred me to an office in Toronto that co-ordinates sperm donor samples for Canada – and off I excitedly went on the overwhelming and strangest on-line shopping experience I ever had – for the sperm donor for my future child.
Around this time, I met by boyfriend, who supported my choice to become a mom and enthusiastically helped me in everything in my journey. I never expected to find someone who would support me in becoming a new mother at my age – most of the men you meet have had their children (my boyfriend has four), or don’t want children. I found an incredibly special man who wanted me to be able to have the joy that children can bring.
IUI (Intrauterine insemination) turned out to be a relatively easy process for me. Once I had purchased sperm (starting with 3 samples from one donor), I started testing for ovulation, called the clinic when the time was right, and made the two hour drive to the fertility clinic the next day for the very easy and painless transfer process. The doctor had decided since I had not presented with any infertility issues – that I didn’t need to take any hormones, so the only difference in life was the waiting to see if it worked. It didn’t.
Unconcerned, I tried two more times with the samples I purchased. Again, neither time worked. This time, somewhat concerned, I met with my own doctor at the fertility clinic once more. (For those who have not gone through the process – you may or may not see your own doctor for any procedure at the clinic I was referred to – they cycle through rotations – privacy and embarrassment eventually disappear as it feels that every doctor and nurse in the clinic sees parts of you that you would rather not share with the world). We decided to try once or twice more with a different donor (sometimes donors are not compatible for unknown reasons), and if that didn’t work – we would look into other options. Again, I ended up with two failed IUI cycles.
Now, much closer to 40, and much more concerned that I wasn’t getting pregnant, my fertility doctor recommended IVF (in-vitro fertilization) – a significantly more costly and involved procedure – with many more decisions. This came with some good news – we now had the option of using my boyfriend’s sperm to get me pregnant. Having undergone a vasectomy after the birth of his youngest child, his sperm wasn’t “active” enough for IUI. However, with IVF, because the sperm and the egg are put together in a dish – mobility isn’t an issue. He underwent a procedure called PESA (Percutaneous Epididymal Sperm Aspiration) – essentially a painless procedure where the sperm is withdrawn with a needle.
We had happy news for a change – this procedure was successful and we had more than enough samples that we were able to freeze for our use! Optimistic with this news, and loaded with knowledge from an information session that all couples undergoing IVF at the clinic must attend (sadly well attended and booked well in advance), we felt that we would be successful in becoming parents together. Once I was accepted for my first IVF cycle (after many phone calls to the clinic), I again made the two hour drive to the clinic for the first of many, many appointments for an IVF cycle.
During the first appointment I was given instructions, time frames and bags of medication and needles. I’ve lost count of how many needles I have given myself. It’s relentless. It doesn’t wait for your life – you find you must carry a purse like bag of medication everywhere you go – so when you need to give yourself your medication you can. I have given myself needles in my office at work (fortunately I have a door), in my car pulled off on the highway making another endless drive to the clinic. You name it. My phone alarm rang – and a round of needles. Finally – after daily four hour round trips to the clinic – I hear that the next day is the day for egg retrieval. Excitement and nerves. Egg retrieval is not an easy or simple process – you are medicated heavily with pain medication, and cannot drive after. The ovaries apparently are not made to be pricked with needles (very long intimidating looking needles).
I’m not a lucky one – my ovaries do not appear to have many egg reserves left (women – unlike men – are born with all the eggs we will ever have, and every month after puberty we lose them). Furthermore, one of my ovaries is difficult to reach. They were able to retrieve 7 eggs – not a good result – and I went home hoping for the best. That night, I wound up in emergency with internal bleeding as a complication from the retrieval. Fortunately, that wouldn’t affect the ability to transfer – so I waited for phone calls. Every day they call you with news on how the embryos are doing. Mine weren’t doing great – and by the day of transfer only 3 had survived. Due to my age and the development of the embryos we made the decision to transfer all three.
Transfer is a hopeful day! I could see the embryos they would be transferring on the screen. My babies. I even got to go home with a picture of them. My boyfriend was there to hold my hand as we watched on the screen as the doctor placed our babies in my uterus. Then waiting until the day when I can go for a blood test to determine pregnancy. Then waiting again until I finally get the phone call if the transfer was successful – it wasn’t.
I can’t begin to explain the devastation I felt with this news. I felt broken. Like I failed. After many tears, and many talks, we decided to talk to my doctor and see what my options were.
My fertility doctor felt due to the lack of egg reserves I had, that we would try a different type of cycle – different medications geared to triggering more eggs to mature. Hopeful, and armed with more bags of medication, we went home to wait again. And so the process started again, more needles, more drives and another very painful egg retrieval – this time completed abdominally on one side (not a recommended procedure – and shockingly much more painful than even the standard vaginal method). This time, again, only 7 eggs retrieved, with 3 transferred. Again – another negative result. More tears, more heartbreak, and no hope, and I didn’t know if I should look for any.
Finally, I decided to talk to my doctor, and find out what went wrong, and discovering that infertility can sometimes leave you with few answers to questions. His only insight was that due to the lack of egg reserves, and quality of the resulting embryos – chances are I would never conceive with my own eggs.
There is really only one option left if I want to get pregnant on my own – IVF using an egg donor. Advancements have allowed for very brave and amazing women to donate their eggs. The eggs are frozen, making IVF using them much easier than traditional methods where they have to synchronize the cycle of the donor with that of the recipient. Of course, as with all fertility treatments, the next option is always much more expensive than the last. After much discussion, we decided to try. There is a bonus in using an egg donor at my age – many of the inherent risks associated with birth defects that increase as women get older when they have children disappear. I assumed the same risk for this factors as the donor who was under 25.
Yes, I still had risks at getting pregnant at 40 anyway – but there was peace of mind with this knowledge. We went through the incredibility strange process of picking another donor – an egg donor this time. This is made much harder than picking a sperm donor because of the very lack of donors. It’s emotional, trying to find someone that “feels” like you. And after all of this – my transfer failed. And somehow, even after trying again, failed again.
And then, one day, without knowing it will be “the day”, I was at the end of my journey. I had no hope, no money, and really no will to get up in the morning. I’m lucky in the sense that I have no doubt that I’ve tried everything to get pregnant. I’m heartbroken by the fact that because we have used both donor egg and donor sperm the only constant factor is me.
I’m the reason I can’t be a mom, the reason why I can’t make my boyfriend a father again. My body failed us. I’ve been asked why don’t I “just adopt”. The reality of the adoption is years of waiting, heartbreak at failed adoptions, and as always just like with fertility – buckets of money. Money I no longer have, and time that I feel I don’t have. I’m 42 now, and waiting over 5 years for the adoption process just doesn’t feel right. I’d be closer to retirement and that's a choice for me that I don’t feel comfortable with. Frankly, I also fear that I would start an adoption – and for whatever reason, it wouldn’t be successful. I just feel for me – for now – that isn’t a heartbreak that I can put myself through anymore.
Now I find myself with some regrets: if I had made different choices, would I have had better luck getting pregnant younger? I’ll never know – I’ll never know why I didn’t get pregnant. There are no answers. I find myself with worries I never thought I would have – I have developed fears of dying alone and being forgotten. Irrational fears I’m sure, but still there. I hope in time, they too will pass.
I find I’ve become not a great friend in cases – avoiding friends with young families, or babies that I can’t bear to hold. In one case, an adoption and the joy with that I couldn’t make myself hear. Not that I don’t feel joy and happiness and love for these people – I just have become selfish in what I will put my heart through. Some days are better than others. Hopefully, as time goes by, I’ll have more better days that not.
I feel alone in many ways – I don’t look around and find many women that have lived through this. While my boyfriend cares deeply and regrets that we couldn’t have a child together, even he admits his grief isn’t the same – he still is blessed with his children and loves and treasures his time with them. My boyfriend and my friends tell me I need to value myself more. I don’t think that my feelings are about not valuing myself, but of grief. The grief in knowing that the person I dreamed I would be, will never be. And learning to accept the person you are today, and will be tomorrow. You need time to mourn. Grief, emotions and fear aren’t rational. Sometimes I feel that people don’t understand that I need to mourn my babies too, that just because I never had a positive pregnancy test, they never existed. But they did exist. I have the pictures. I’ll never know who they would have been, what they would have looked like. All that potential is just gone.
I live with the blessings and the curses. The blessing of step-kids. The joy of my grandson. Sharing in his smiles and giggles and hugs while he and his beautiful mommy live with us. The curse of knowing I’m just “Heather”, of seeing my grandson’s eyes light up when his mommy walks into a room – knowing that no one will ever look at me that way. Of living with the all apparent daily knowledge that I would have loved being a mom, and the heartbreak of knowing equally well that I only get to be on the outside looking in.
I watch the heartbreak of my family for me, my boyfriend’s, my parents, my brother’s, and my step-children’s. All in different ways. The pain in my brother’s voice when he called, a month or so after my journey came to an abrupt end, with the happy news that I would be an Aunty again. The knowledge that in a tiny way – I took away some of his joy – because the last thing that he wanted to do was hurt me – and the last person he wanted to tell that he was going to be a daddy again was me – at the same time – I was one of the first he wanted to share the excitement with. And the pain in my parents voices when my beautiful niece was born – the question – “Are you OK?”. Knowing that again – a part of their heart is broken for me – even during their joy for my brother. The knowledge that I need to find peace in that there will never be a little me in the world – with my hands, or my eyes. That I have to be OK with knowing that I will only live on in memories, and the time I spend with those I love. The blessings I have with my family. That my niece carries a part of me with her middle name, that maybe my nephew has a bit of his Auntie's ability to solve problems.
Infertile. Barren. Yes, they do define me. They are ingrained in who I am now – with all the anger, excitement, joy and sadness that came along the way. I’m sharing now, and moving forward – because it’s time. I am #1in6.