Coming out of the infertility closet

Last week I received this video from a reader:

The subject really touched me, because I struggled with infertility for five years before conceiving my son … and a big part of the challenge was the fact that it was a secret. Keiko's brave video inspired me, and so maybe it's time to tell my story. You should know, this is a long, long story.

The docs were impressed…
Heading in for surgery, 2007

The babycrack (aka irrational, drug-like longing for a baby) began in 2000. My mother was born in 1950, had me in 1975, and some how I'd just always assumed that of course I would have a kid of my own in 2000. It made nice numeric sense in that weird OCD way. When in 2000, I looked around and found myself blissfully happy living in a rad hippie house with a partner I knew I'd be with for the long haul, I shrugged and assumed a happy accident would come along soon.

I'm an accident! Dre's an accident! Virtually all my friends are accidents! Virtually all my friend's KIDS are accidents. I assumed at some point Dre and I would have our own happy accident and the cycle would continue.

We were still using birth control at that point, but were prone to slip-ups that I assumed would result in our own happy accident eventually. Years passed, but no happy accident. Dre and I got married in 2004, and few months later I had an oddly long cycle. This was weird for me — my cycle is like clockwork, which is part of why Fertility Awareness had worked so well for us. At the 10 days late point, I took a pregnancy test.

It was negative and I got my period a couple days later — but Dre and I realized we were both disappointed. We had lots of conversations and decided we would stop trying not to get pregnant and see what happened. We no longer were going to have an accident. We were going to plan to have a child. Novel! Early 2005 was lots of fun.

But, after several months of not-NOT trying, I started to wonder a little bit. After years of Fertility Awareness, I knew my body really well. It's not like the whole ovulation thing was a big mystery to me. I shrugged and guessed it was time to start charting a bit more thoughtfully, just to see what I could learn.

This is, of course, about the time when the "you're married, so it's time for kids!" questions and statements started. Of course these questions came from friends and family, but the whole internet was clearly over-ready for kids. I mentioned getting dizzy once on my blog, so many people IMMEDIATELY assumed I was pregnant that I ultimately deleted the post. (Never mind that I was 2 days into my period: the internet insisted I was obviously pregnant.) When people would ask me directly, we'd just smile and say we were working on it and ha ha everyone thinks that's funny coming from the newlyweds.


I started charting my cycle in more detail in mid-2005, and we started Officially Trying. Every month I would make contingency plans — ooh, if I got pregnant this month, then the baby would be born the month before the book was released! Oh, ok if we get pregnant THIS month it'll be right after the book comes out. Ah: if I get pregnant THIS month I'll be doing a pregnant book tour.

There were temperatures taken every morning at the exact same time. There were nice charts that looked just the way they should. I was the A+ student in my own science class! There was impeccably timed, incredibly boring procreative intercourse! And every month, there was my period!

Around this point, I mentioned to my OBGYN that we were trying, and she smiled and told me we needed to take a vacation together. Gosh, I WAS working an awful lot, what with the overtime at movies.com and writing my book evenings and weekends…

Coming from a midwifery family and having lots of friends who are body workers and healers of various kinds, I started getting a lot of thoughtful advice. I needed to relax. I needed a baby altar. I needed abdominal massage. I needed to stop stressing about it so much. This always happens to Type-As. It would happen when it was meant to happen.

Ok. I stopped making contingency plans and stopped avoiding alcohol two weeks out of the month. I needed to stop obsessing. I just needed to relax! My doctor and my friends and family all agree: If I could just relax things would be fine.

I switched jobs at that point to a boring but less stressful gig that paid better, because I needed to stop stressing and obviously I was going to get pregnant soon and I wanted to save money. All my friends who'd started trying around the same time we had were starting to have their babies. Obviously I'd have one soon too, right? Dre and I put off getting a dog because I'll be pregnant next month and it'll be easier to introduce a dog after the baby's born. We'd wait.

So, now we're in 2006. I'm charting like crazy, saving up money like crazy, not stressing and going to dance classes and hanging out with friends every Friday. La la la! I'm not obsessing about it! I'm not thinking about it! I'm relaxed!

I borrow friend's babies
Borrowing a friend's baby in 2006, hoping the baby might be contagious
At the advice of my mother and holistic medicine friends, I started doing fertility acupuncture and Maya abdominal massage. I tried focusing more energy (manifest manifest manifest) on getting pregnant. Then less energy (don't think about it! let it just happen!). I tried hanging out with friend's babies hoping their baby-ness would rub off on me. None of these things have resulted in me getting pregnant. All through 2006, the weight of the trying and failing got heavier and heavier. After a year of trying to conceive, it's not so much fun. It's depressing. It starts to mess with your head.

I started feeling like a core part of my body had become an untrustworthy stranger. A breech of trust with your own body is emotionally brutal. Right around this time, I fainted for the first time in my life for no explicable reason. I'm convinced it was just my body and my brain having a serious argument with shouts of trust and expectation and "how could yous!" and doors slamming.

It didn't help that I kept my infertility to myself. It wasn't a secret, I told myself. It was just PRIVATE. But as a married woman of child-bearing age, people wanted to talk to me non-stop about how we were probably having a baby any day, weren't we? It got the point where hardly a week could go by without someone inadvertently saying something that would cut me to the bone.

All these comments were well-intentioned of course — part of the reason why I kept my pain to myself — but they starting to hurt like hell. Everyone seemed to assume I was always about pregnant, or if I wasn't, that they knew the secret solution to my getting pregnant.

At the beginning of 2007, depressed as hell, I went back to the doctor and said, "Dude, it's still not working." Her "ha ha! you need a vacation!" comment from the year prior became "Oh, huh, you're right. At 31, this shouldn't take so long."

If it was clear to me that holistic methods weren't working for me, I was equally dubious of western fertility methods. Half the time doctors don't even know what's causing the infertility, and I'd glanced at enough infertility blogs to see how bat-shit insane fertility treatments can make some people. It's a land of crazy abbreviations and people talking about their "embys" and using terms like "baby dancing." People mortgage their homes trying to pay for just one more cycle, just one more chance. It made me sad and terrified. The worst case scenario was clear: sliding down the path to ever-more invasive, expensive, ineffective Western fertility treatment.

Despite my slippery slope fears that one test would suddenly lead me into a forest of abbreviations and neurotic horrors, we decided to start the process. The doctor ran the easy tests first: Dre was just fine. My blood work and hormone levels were all just fine. Everything seemed to be just fine. Then began the more invasive tests, which ultimately revealed things were NOT just fine.

I'll spare you the gory details of the test and say that in Spring 2007 I learned that my right fallopian tube was basically broken. Thanks to some scar tissue from my 1986 appendectomy, I had what was known as a hydrosalpinx: a blocked and totally bloated fallopian tube.

There was much gnashing of teeth at this point. Lots of freaking the fuck out. I was officially broken. I was officially dealing with INFERTILITY. I felt like I'd exhausted a lot of the holistic women's health care options I knew about … the massage, the acupuncture, the herbs, the dietary changes, the prayer and manifesting. These were the tools I'd grown up with and none of them were working. Ultimately, a chunk of my reproductive bits were broken.

This was around the time I burst into tears and told Andreas I just needed a small warm therapy dog.

Me 'n' the sponge
Yay for puppeh therapy. She remains my best medicine.

Sassafras worked. Her nickname the first few months was just "Sponge."

This was also about the time I started outing myself to a larger (although still very very small) circle of friends. When people made joking references to me getting knocked up any day, I gave them a bleak response that actually things weren't going as planned. Close friends stepped up to offer support, and anyone else got the idea to stop fucking prodding at me about it.

The doctor recommended removing the blocked fallopian tube, since hydrosalpinges are known for dripping nasty goo into the uterus, making it hard for implantation to occur. The theory was take the bad one out so the good one can do its job.

So in August of 2007, I went in for a salpingectomy to have the bad tube removed.

Then it was back to trying naturally. It sort of felt like we'd reset the clock a bit. Hope sprang a-new! There was optimism!

Six months later, the optimism was dried up. Friends who'd started trying to conceive when we first did were now giving birth to their second children. The advice sometimes felt more insistent, although most of that was just my own delicacy. Try this! Try that! Eat less this! Eat more that! Take more time for yourself! You're thinking about it too much! It seems like no matter what I did, I wasn't doing something quite right, and this was clearly my fault.

Early 2008, and I was working part-time at Microsoft. In passing, a coworker mentioned that the company offered infertility benefits. Infertility benefits?! Whaaa? Really? No one offers infertility benefits, and I'd spent a couple years feeling sad for people who mortgaged their homes trying to make babies via invasive western fertility treatments that don't even work half the time. Remember? "Worst case scenario!"

…But with insurance paying, I wouldn't have to deal with the guilt of feeling like the selfish yuppie who put tons of money into overpopulating the planet instead of adopting a child in need. (I don't actually believe that's true, but it's the fear that lived in my head.) We could at least try?

And so, mid-2008, we headed to a local fertility clinic.

Our first doctor diagnosed us with "unexplained infertility," which only confirmed my doubts about Western fertility methods. She suggested doing three rounds of Intra-uterine Insemination to see if that would work, and then going on to IVF — which was pretty much the worst worst case scenario.

And so last year we did three rounds of IUI aka "Medical Turkey Baster." None of them worked, although one of the fertility drugs I was on was so intense that it gave me acid-like tracers when I woke up in the morning.

At that point, I decided to switch to one of the different doctors at the clinic. My first doc had been abrupt and never especially friendly. I liked this other doc the few times she'd been on-call when I'd had an appointment, and before we marched toward our worst worst case scenario treatment, I wanted to work with a doc I liked a bit better.

Within five minutes of meeting with Andreas and I, this second doc said, "Oh, I wouldn't say you've got unexplained infertility — this seems like a pretty clear case of tubal factor." Her theory was that even though my left tube wasn't totally broken, it may have been damaged enough by the inflammation of the other one that it could not be functioning very well or much at all.

"It's no wonder the IUI hasn't been working," she said. "I don't think that left tube is getting any eggs to anywhere. With your young age, this makes IVF a perfect solution. We'll skip the tubes completely."

Interesting. We took home a huge packet of information about IVF and figured we'd make an appointment at some point to start the process.

In January 2009, there were layoffs at Microsoft. My first thought was "Oh my god, if I lost my job I'd lose those infertility benefits — we need to use those benefits IMMEDIATELY. If I get laid off before I have the chance to use them, I am going to be so fucking pissed." (Smart thinking: I was ultimately laid off during the third round of layoffs 10 months later.)

And so, in late January we made the call: we would begin our worst worst case scenario. My insurance would cover exactly ONE try at IVF. We would dive into one of the most invasive, expensive fertility treatments around … the one that led to Octomom. The one that led to many bankrupt infertility bloggers. The one that was pretty much diametrically opposed to everything I'd been raised with.

Remember, I'm the one who was the result of conception so spontaneous and magical and natural that it became my middle name. Conceived in a meadow! My parents couldn't even get inside a tent it was so natural!

And yet, here I was: staring down the barrel of the quintessentially opposite conception experience. Where my own conception involved alpine lakes and wildflowers and summer breezes on naked hippies, my process of conceiving would involve four shots a day for months, several doctors, a lab full of embryologists, $4000 worth of medication, and lots and lots of needles.

Needless to say, this was not the conception I had envisioned for child. My mother was a midwife for godsake! Dedicated to natural, non-invasive women's healthcare! And here's her broken daughter, pursuing something at the exact other end of the spectrum of medicine.

"It's pretty much our last option, Mom." I explained to her over the phone.

"Well, there's always another option," she said. "Which is allowing it to either happen or not happen on its own."

This was when I decided I needed to ask my mother very explicitly for her support. We had a big long talk where I was basically like, "Look, I realize this is not your modality. I realize this is probably not what you would choose if you were me. But I need you fully on-board with me on this process. It's going to be challenging and emotionally draining, and I really need your support through it."

As these things often go with my mom, all I had to do was ask. She was there to sit with me and go through the insanely complex calendar of medications. She was there to make me food after the light surgery when they retrieved the eggs. She was fully on-board.

Although when it came to on-board, it was hard to compare to Andreas. I made the decision early on in the process that I needed to go with the flow as much as possible. I would not document every day with crazy abbreviations. I would not obsess over my medications. I asked Dre to be in charge of everything involving medicine: procuring, understanding doses, and giving me all those bazillions of shots.

Shots in the belly. Shots in the ass. Shots from little needles. Shots from huge needles. Shots from medical "pens." Dre gave me shots morning and night. He patted my head when the hormonal psychosis got to me. He rubbed my butt after giving me the intramuscular shots from the really huge needles. He went to every appointment and made every phone call. He drove me to and from the nearly-daily blood draws and ultrasounds. He made his humiliating "deposits" (yes, that's what they call it) at the fertility clinic. All I had to do was be a patient patient and pin cushion. Dre did all the thinking and doing. For someone like me who spends so much of my time up in my brain, it was amazing to just step back and not think at all.

After two months of pin cushioning and crazy science/magic involving photos of embryos and decisions about whether to risk having twins … we found out it had worked. After almost five years of infertility, I was finally pregnant. The worst worst case scenario had worked. My pregnancy was relatively unremarkable, and my son was born the day before Thanksgiving 2009.

My son. I debated not including this photo because I know baby pictures can be triggering … but it felt it needed to be here. Photo by Jenny Jimenez
My son. I debated not including this photo because I know baby pictures can be triggering … but it felt it needed to be here. Photo by Jenny Jimenez

IVF was this terrible awful procedure that I'd invested a lot of fear in. It just didn't fit with my identity — who's heard of offbeat infertility? Offbeat IVF? Pshaw. It was the expensive invasive terror that desperate people indulged themselves in. It was like gambling: this thing that you keep tossing money at hoping that this time you'll win but ultimately the house always wins and you always lose. Of course you lose. It makes you crazy, and worst part? It doesn't even work most of the time.

Caveat: I recognize that we were beyond lucky to have insurance that covered the treatment. I have profound respect for people who fund fertility treatments out of pocket, but I'm not sure we could have done it. I also want to recognize that Assisted Reproductive Technology isn't a good solution for everyone, and isn't an option physically or financially for many of us who struggling with infertility. So, the moral of my story here is definitely not YAY IVF!

What I want to say is this: I was wrong. I invested years of my life living in fear, seeing something (in this case Western fertility treatments and especially IVF) as the awful boogey man in my hippie closet, the terrible admission of defeat that would forever turn me into a person I hated myself for being. Ultimately, I was wrong.

This makes me wonder … what other massive fears of mine are completely unfounded? What other things that I see as the worst WORST case scenario could actually lead me to a place of profound happiness? What other paralyzing grief and fear could I release?

To those of you who are wrestling with the grief of infertility, mourning the loss of a child who may never be: so much of my love to you. I know how hard it is, and you are not nearly as alone as you feel.