Monica: “I can’t believe this. My uterus is an inhospitable environment? I’ve always tried so hard to be a good hostess!”
Somewhere in year two of trying to get pregnant, we started considering that maybe this thing wasn’t going to bang out without some help. We weren’t sure where the help should come from and struggled with the Ghostbustery question, “Who you gonna call?”
I kept starting to move forward, then having second thoughts and thinking we just needed to have sex more or have sex less or change up the timing or try leeches or shock treatments. Nobody knew about essential oils back then or I would’ve been allllll up in that. We would’ve had oils in all the orifices.
People choose different ways of pursuing help, and we tried them all.
#1: The wait and see approach
Just keep tracking your ovulation. Just keep having sex at the appropriate times. Lather, rinse, repeat.
#2: The extreme prayer approach
When things aren’t taking their natural course, some of us decide to go above our pay grade, into the heavens. This can take many different forms, from lighting candles in church or [insert religious venue] to healing services where people lay their hands on your uterus and speak in tongues or smear oil on your forehead and speak a blessing over your womb.
Or maybe your extreme prayer isn’t something you’d consider prayer. Maybe you start making deals with the universe, promise to call your mother every Sunday or stop stealing cable from your neighbor or vow to plant a tree, offset your carbon footprint, and do a better job of recycling. You might take meditation classes, learn how to align something like a chakra or an aura or light incense and write poetry in a meadow while wearing paper pants and a crown of flowers.
Whatever. You try to get pregnant through pleading, deal-making, or being a better person. This is slightly noble, but not necessarily effective, and if your prayers are not answered according to your timetable, it can leave you with a faith crisis, or just super pissy.
#3: The medical approach
When approaches #1 and #2 don’t work, many people head for #3: Get Thee to a Doctor. With the medical approach, you’re going to encounter a couple of steps. First, let’s diagnose the problem, and second, let’s see if we can fix it. For many couples, either or both of these parts can take a while and involve exposing your goodies to many, many people.
We went with a combo approach, spending time praying and also getting my feet in some stirrups and testing Alex’s junk to figure out the problem. You might work your way through a chain of doctors, from your primary care physician to your OBGYN to a reproductive endocrinologist, and eventually, you might pinpoint the source of your infertility and then work to solve the problem.
Or maybe you’ll hear what I did, which is, “Yes, we’ve pinpointed the reason, your endometriosis, but no, we don’t understand why that’s keeping you from getting pregnant, because it’s not like you have a clump of something clogging up a tube somewhere. It’s more like you’re a toxic environment for children.” Okay, they didn’t say that part, but I read between the lines.
While pursuing the Extreme Prayer Approach, I prayed that God would make the right path obvious and help me figure out what to do, and if God answered that prayer then I’m pretty sure God gave me fake appendicitis.
One night my lower right quadrant (that’s what everyone at the hospital kept calling that squirrelly area around my right ovary) went berserk. The pain got worse and worse and we’d just had a visit from a friend who told us about his appendicitis. Fearing that my appendix would burst and poison my whole body, I went to the doctor, who gave me a rectal exam. There’s nothing better in the world than a gloved finger up your patoot when you’re wracked with pain. It’s like, “Thanks, doc, feels all better now.”
She sent me to the ER and they started running tests. They gave me something fantastic for the pain, which helped me get over the anal probing I’d just experienced, and I had my first pelvic examination by a male doctor. It was a day of firsts. They sent me home, without appendicitis or answers.
This kicked off a season of ultrasounds and tests, which ultimately lead me to a fertility clinic. The best thing about that place was I was no longer sitting in OBGYN waiting rooms surrounded by pregnant women. The worst thing was the overwhelming amount of information. Between the price tag and the decisions about embryos, it was a lot. The doctor told us to start with a laparoscopy to figure out the pain on my right side, a sperm count for Alex, and then we’d go from there.
During the laparoscopy, they confirmed that I had endometriosis and also got rid of as much of it as they could. They told me that some women were able to conceive after the surgery and to take a few months to try some more. The pain in my right side was still there, twinging away like my ovary was actually a jellyfish that stings me over and over all day long. But I hoped for the best, that I’d be one of the lucky ones who could get pregnant post-surgery.
I wasn’t. Months crawled by, still no baby, and it was time to talk about intrauterine insemination (aka IUI, when they power wash sperm and squirt it inside you with a giant turkey baster) and superovulation (when they use drugs to make you ovulate a bunch of eggs at one time, like an Easter egg hunt for your ovaries). We were officially starting fertility treatments.
If I were to create my own superhero, I’d call her SupHERovulation, and she’d have the power of Fertility. She’d swim the rivers and oceans on her chariot pulled by enslaved sperm men impregnating women with her fallopian tubes of power. All we’d have to do to call her is cry, “SupHERovulation, help! My uterus needs you!”
Our first IUI failed after a weekend getaway to New York City. I had major allergic reactions to progesterone, so we pow-wowed with the doctors and changed up a few things for round two.
Our second IUI failed at my brother’s wedding reception between the salad course and the entrée. This did not feel like great timing. As the cramps overtook me, I excused myself to the bathroom and discovered the truth. No baby. I stood in the bathroom stall for a few minutes, took a deep breath, and returned to the table.
I leaned over and told my mom, “I got my period.” I could see it in her eyes. She already knew. She has a sixth sense about her kids and those extra minutes in the bathroom tipped her off. She put her arm around me and ordered me a glass of wine. It’s one of my favorite moments with her. There was this solidarity, where I felt like she immediately understood what I was going through, that I didn’t want to ruin my brother’s wedding but I needed a moment. She’d miscarried a baby between me and my brother and she knew all too well the pain and loss. I was so grateful for her understanding. And the wine. I was way grateful for that. After it knocked the edge off the cramps—and the heartache—I got up and danced the night away in my green twirly gown with my husband.
It was still just us. It was awful, but we were together. I have photos of us dancing together and I look so happy. And yet I’d just experienced another death. Somehow that’s how feelings work. We have grief and joy all wrapped up together in one moment on the dance floor, and I think the key to survival is making space for both of those emotions and letting them coexist as long as they need to.
Our third IUI never finished because I was in danger of ovulating too many eggs, getting pregnant with septuplets, and ending up on the news as a cautionary tale. (I always have been an overachiever.)
Our fourth and final IUI was almost as expensive as in vitro because they monitored me so closely after the last round. It didn’t work.
We agreed to take a few months off and not talk about it. We went to the beach, and I watched Alex build a sand castle with some stranger’s kid and resisted the urge to bury myself in the sand. I cried underneath my sunglasses. It was time to talk about in vitro.
I think Alex was hesitant to put that pressure on me, knowing that my body would bear the burden of all the procedures, so I told him I wanted to go for it.
My biggest regret from the early years of our infertility is not being more proactive sooner. I kept waiting and trying to make sperm meet egg through sex and prayer. So by the time I sought help from a reproductive endocrinologist, I was already a strung-out basket case ready to drink snake venom or strangle a rabid puppy to get pregnant. I was tired and starting to fade away from the life I loved. I think if I’d gotten help sooner, I would’ve had more emotional stamina and stayed more present in my relationships.
I don’t know exactly where you are in the process and what you’re going through. I’m sorry for your losses, for your pain, and that this child you want so badly isn’t coming when your heart feels so ready for it. If you’re smack in the middle of trying to make decisions about procedures and specialists, hang in there, and I’m rooting for you.
Excerpted from Infreakinfertility: How to Survive When Getting Pregnant Gets Hard, available via Amazon.
Photo by Alex Dale.
P.S. If this essay resonated with you, don’t miss our podcast episode on infertility