I peed on a stick. It was the day before my official blood test so technically it was too early to see a result, but I did it anyway because this was going to be our last chance. I wanted to be alone when I saw the negative result. This was our third in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment, with genetically tested embryos, after three intrauterine inseminations (IUIs), after four miscarriages, after five years of trying, after years of grueling tests, many weird invasive procedures, using all of my insurance benefits through two different insurance companies, blowing through our savings, and now with the addition of daily blood thinner shots and monthly infusions to suppress a suspected overprotective auto-immune system. My husband and I agreed that this was going to be our final attempt but I knew in my heart that there was no way that I could stop trying. So now this little pregnancy test that I was staring at holds not only the power to tell me if I am pregnant, but also whether or not my marriage could potentially survive. The test is positive. Now what?
The anxiety that I experienced during my fertility treatments was nothing compared to the anxiety of actually being pregnant. I mostly laid on the sofa trying to move as little as possible in case I somehow shook the baby lose. We celebrated the passing of every week by taking pictures of my belly in front of a chalkboard with the gestational week written above me. I had decided to keep the pictures this time instead of throwing them away as I had with my previous pregnancy losses. I stopped buying the What to Expect book after tossing it three times, because I decided it was cursed.
It turned out that I was pregnant with twins, but we lost one at 13 weeks. It was difficult to mourn this pregnancy loss while still being pregnant. I worried that my despair would affect the living baby, so I shoved all the grief back inside to be opened at a later date. Genetic testing showed that we were pregnant with a girl and a boy but since it was so early, I had no idea who was lost and who survived.
We had been told that most babies could survive being born after 24 weeks so 24 weeks became our goal. We celebrated ‘viability week’ the way I would have celebrated a positive pregnancy test before my journey into infertility. Up until this point, I had never considered my desires about childbirth because I was terrified to think too far ahead. It sounds so silly but it never crossed my mind. I started thinking about how I wanted to give birth and realized pretty quickly that my OB/GYN and I were not on the same page. I had found The Business of Being Born and learned about home birth and doulas, and I was hooked! I felt that I needed to have an intervention-free birth in order to trust my body again. I was scared of hospitals and doctors, so how was I supposed to give birth there? Unfortunately we were so far along at this point, we felt stuck with our provider and hospital. We read The Birth Partner and The Bradley Method, took a Lamaze childbirth education class, and decided that we were going to attempt unmedicated childbirth in a hospital all by ourselves.
When I was about 37 weeks, I started doing everything I could to get labor started. I wanted to get my baby girl out of my body as soon as possible because I didn’t trust that my body was capable of taking care of her. I was doing Miles Circuit and Spinning Babies to get her in the right position, eating pineapple and figs by the platefull, red raspberry leaf tea, and lots and lots of orgasms. At my regular OB/GYN appointment at 38 weeks, she swept my membranes. Contractions started soon after and by midnight I was in full blown labor. I knew from my research that I needed to labor at home as long as possible. I walked around my apartment, swayed with contractions and tried to rest as much as possible. Around 6 AM, my contractions were three minutes apart and my membranes ruptured. We called the doctor and headed to the hospital. Zoë was born around noon.
My story is just one way that infertility can affect a family, but there are so many other examples. Some families may be treated for PCOS, endometriosis, male factor infertility, and low egg reserves, or they may be considering egg, embryo, or sperm donations. There are many other reasons to rely on artificial reproductive technologies (ART) in order to have children. All of these procedures are expensive and sometimes receive little or no insurance coverage. LGBTQA and single parent families may have an especially difficult time finding insurance coverage for these procedures.
Adoption, which is often times recommended by friends trying to be helpful, can be equal to or greater in cost compared to ART treatments. With adoption also comes the vetting process, which can feel stressful or judgemental, and can take a very long time. When you add lack of funds to an already sensitive situation, it can become even harder to manage the stress.
No matter what type of infertility families are diagnosed with, many of them have the same issues in common. Guilt is an emotion that is frequently seen in families suffering through infertility. I was sure that my infertility was karma for the abortion I had in my twenties. I also felt that it was my fault because I waited too late to have children, that my body was broken, and that I was dragging my blameless husband through this torture. I even begged him to leave me when I was hopped up on loads of hormones. I felt guilty for being sad when I saw other pregnant people and not being able to just be excited for them. I even stole a cab once from a pregnant woman, out of spite! I felt like a bad person deep down to my core.
Grief is another emotion that is common. I grieved my lost babies. I also grieved that I would never get to experience the joy and excitement of a positive pregnancy test and being able to announce the news without hesitation. Many families suffering through infertility do so in private. We grieve alone due to perceived social norms which make us feel that it is not okay to discuss these problems with others. Sometimes we keep it a secret because we don’t want anyone to feel sorry for us, or because we don’t want to discuss our current status every time we see someone who knows.
Anxiety is the big one. Looking back, there were so many things that I could have done to lower my anxiety. I was so caught up in my own despair that I didn’t ask for help. My therapist was not the right fit but I was desperate and too overwhelmed to look for a new one. Anxiety can also seep into our postpartum period and make us question our ability to parent a child. It is also common to become obsessive over caring for the baby and experiencing constant worry that something bad is going to happen.
My infertility journey is what inspired me to become a doula. It was a long, hard road that I still struggle with at times. I feel drawn to help others through the anxieties of pregnancy and childbirth with the compassion and understanding that I needed during mine. Part of my healing experience was needing to feel in charge of my body during my birth but others may feel like they don’t want to experience any more pain. Some may put full trust in medical interventions due to distrust in their bodies. We must be aware of how their infertility experience may impact their birthing preferences and be supportive to these needs as they are expressed. As doulas, we can help to ease these anxieties and provide support to these families by being aware of the complexities of the struggle with infertility.
Alison Wehr and her husband Ken live in NYC and are parents to two crazy toddlers, Zoë 4yo and Kenny 3yo. She is a DTI certified birth & postpartum doula and she is passionate about supporting families conceiving through ART and IVF. You can find Alison at www.doulaalison.com.