Motherhood After Infertility: Real Voices, Real Moms
I’ve been a mother now for eight months, and while it feels like a hot second, I find I already have a lot of opinions and thoughts about motherhood after infertility. While I firmly believe I was a mother well before my child arrived physically on this earth, her actual arrival has caused me to process not just her birth, but the decisions made to get her here, and her actual arrival generated a lot of thoughts and worries about the future.
People assume that once the fertility struggle is “over” that life just moves on. Getting a positive pregnancy test didn't erase all the anger and sadness from the long wait nor the trauma endured. It did not nor does it eliminate the fears I have moving forward; carrying a child nine months and then birthing that babe has not removed the worry I have about infertility in my future. Motherhood is a huge transition...for any woman...in fact, it’s down-right EXHAUSTING...but the mental aspect is significantly different for those that were unable to conceive naturally.
Rather than exclusively speak to this topic myself, I wanted to feature multiple perspectives and share the vulnerable and resilient voices of other women...women I know...that became mothers, thanks to Artificial Reproductive Technology (ART), specifically IVF, just like me. So, without further adieu, here are the responses from my friends and fellow ART mama’s: Carrie, Joy, Megan, Sarah, and Samantha.
NOTE: Please see footnotes at end of blog for bio data on these featured women.
Q: Choosing to pursue ART, especially something as invasive and time consuming as IVF, it’s a very conscious decision; can you speak to how you and your partner came to make that decision, and did you have confidence that this route was going to bring you your baby(babies)?
[When] my husband and I met with a reproductive endocrinologist who spoke to the statistics of each route (clomid/femara, IUI, IVF), we sat there somewhat overwhelmed. We knew we desperately wanted children, prayed about what steps to take moving forward, and talked with our family and close friends. We chose to attempt [Femara], acupuncture and herbal teas and when that failed, we decided to bypass IUI and go straight to IVF. From that moment forward, I had confidence to trust the process. We chose not to do IUI before IVF as we knew a close friend who had gone through three cycles - all failing - and after my month after month of 'failing to get pregnant' I knew my heart couldn't take much more "failure." I had much more confidence in IVF than any other form of reproductive technology.
We struggled a lot to come to a decision to attempt IVF. As we were trying to figure out whether IVF was the next step for us after several unsuccessful IUI's, I was fearful of going through such an invasive and time-consuming (and expensive!) procedure and it ultimately being unsuccessful. My thought at the time was that it would be easier to start a family by adopting. The idea of adoption wasn't much of a stretch for me, as I had always had a desire to adopt, and this was true even before we received our infertility diagnosis. So, we decided to direct our energy towards adoption and signed up with an adoption agency. We were matched twice...but both matches fell through. It was heartbreaking. Part of my hesitancy to try IVF also came from my fundamentalist Christian upbringing, and a small part of me feared that I was trying to play God. At the same time, I realized there were so many things wrong with this kind of thinking. What happened next was sort of strange and inexplicable. We were visiting our hometown for a funeral, and that Sunday morning we dropped by our old church that we used to attend. In the middle of a song I noticed my-old-college-buddy-turned-infertility-doctor sitting in the row in front of me. I was so shocked seeing him after so many years...We had lost touch....We spent some time catching up and I began asking him questions about fertility doctors in [my area]. By that time, I was reconsidering IVF after the failed IUIs and adoptions. He immediately offered to treat me free of charge. My jaw hit the ground. That kind of made the decision easy, and in a way affirmed that no, God didn't think I was trying to play Him.
Each pregnancy loss was more painful and confusing than the last and after the third one, my ObGyn recommended we contact a fertility specialist for a consultation. I had known several friends who had gone through the process (some with multiple attempts before successfully being able to conceive and deliver a baby), but I have never even once imagined it as a necessity for myself. To my knowledge, the women in my family never had trouble with conceiving so it was a bit of a shock to me. But my personality tends to analyze the situation and then move to find the best solution, and seeking guidance from a fertility specialist seemed like the next logical step. I thought this would also be something concrete and constructive to help me move through the grief of yet another loss. Yes, I did have confidence that this route would bring us another baby! I don't know what it was, but I felt positivity, hope and determination (I know, this last one makes no sense because this had nothing to do with how determined one feels) throughout the process. My husband had a little bit more trepidation, because we know of several friends who had unsuccessful transfers or pregnancies after multiple attempts. We...had decided early on that if [IVF did not result in a pregnancy], we most likely would not go through a new IVF cycle with another egg retrieval, etc. again.
Q: In what ways did infertility shape your pregnancy experience?
Apart from having to take progesterone shots, I feel like it was quite a normal experience. I cherished every single moment of feeling those babies in my belly. My body is BUILT for being pregnant. I could have kept those twins in for longer than 40 weeks! I do remember feeling some frustration at how well my body handled being pregnant but failed so miserably at becoming pregnant.
I think a lot of women who have experienced infertility can identify with this. You hold back on fully celebrating and embracing being pregnant, especially early on. You're floating somewhere between denial and elation. It's difficult to marry the reality of being pregnant in that moment with memories of years of heartbreak and loss.
It made me scared my entire pregnancy. After having so much loss and uncertainty, I was on pins and needles every doctor appointment. I just kept praying that I would see their heart beats. It also made me over analyze every little thing in my pregnancy. I would freak out about the tiniest pain, spotting, what I was eating, how much I was exercising. It was a very easy pregnancy but I was so scared of losing the babies the entire time.
Q: How have you worked through the suffering and frustration you’ve experienced? (i.e. support groups, counseling/therapy, coping tools, and/or medications) And what kept you sane throughout your journey?
I attended a support group at my infertility clinic one Wednesday a month for 4 months. This opened my eyes to the experience of others. A lot of times, people don’t talk about their experience in this area, and it was so freeing to speak and listen so candidly. I credit that support group for helping me conquer my IVF PTSD.
I had a lot of support from close family/friends that I shared our journey with. Weirdly, Instagram also helped me. I loved finding people's stories that had gone through something similar to us and ended up with their babies. It was like a light at the end of the tunnel for me.
My faith in Jesus Christ kept me sane in my journey. I grew so much closer to God and relied on the Holy Spirit to provide comfort for me. Unfortunately, I have many friends who have experienced infertility and I love how many of them have joined support groups to help them cope with the process. Looking back, I do feel it would have been helpful to surround myself with other women on the same journey as me but am very thankful to my family and close friends that I confided in during the journey. My journey helped remind me that God doesn't promise that we will have easy, simple lives. What He does promise is that He will be with us always.
Q: It’s reasonable to assume that during those deep, dark moments of infertility, we all spoke the words that if we were given what we wanted that we’d never take our child(ren) for granted; how do you remember to cherish each moment?
I try to take a moment each day to sit back and watch my two children to soak it all in. This pandemic has made it really hard to be a working parent, but at the same time, it has brought with it a blessing of time. I will most likely never have this much time with both of my children at the same time ever again. So now I get even more opportunities to just sit back and watch them. Sometimes they're playing separately in different parts of the room, sometimes they're fighting over a silly toy, and sometimes the older one is quietly reading to the younger one...I'm thankful for all of these moments.
I love remembering how longingly I prayed for my children and absolutely spoke and thought those words (never taking them for granted) ALL the time! I would spend so much time praying for each specific part of their body to develop during the 'wait' part after the transfer - their eyes, their heart, their bladder, their arms and legs - and just love seeing how preciously perfect they are now. In the most chaotic, loud, and messy moments of having three children so close in age, I will often cry with them and then remind them (and myself) how I prayed for them - how much I longed for them to be in my life. Whenever we look at photos of our family before they were born, they used to ask where they were. Now my kids know that they were there. They always say, "Mommy, that's when we were in your heart!" and I say, "YES!" because they were absolutely always in my heart!
Q: Do you feel you are more committed as a parent because you invested so much in IVF?
Absolutely. I know that all parents are committed to their kids, but there is a level of growing up you have to do when going through infertility and I think that it better prepared my heart for the sacrifices required in parenthood.
I don't know for sure, but it does feel that way sometimes. Or maybe it's that in the five years it took us to get pregnant, we matured a lot as people. Going through the adoption process was incredibly soul-searching and refined us in many ways. I know for sure if I had gotten pregnant earlier in my life (my original plan was to have four babies by age 30, ha!), I would not be as patient a mother as I am today.
Q: Tell me how infertility has changed who you are as a person, for better or worse?
I have stopped apologizing for putting my family first. I lost a dear friend because I was tired of explaining myself, and she never understood, even though I tried to explain what I was going through. I will no longer explain my reasons for doing things!
It has changed me for the worse because maybe now I'm too old to have four kids, which drastically lessens the chance that I'll be surrounded by [multiple] grandkids by the time I'm 65. This was my picture of happiness since I was a little girl…[I’ve had to shift that vision].
Infertility has made me more empathetic and sensitive to the challenges everyone around us faces...I realize now how my questions and actions truly affect [others] and how they're coping with the challenges they're going through.
Infertility [has] shown me that if I can endure four years of the worst pain in my life (to date), I can endure so much more. It's made me stronger and put things in perspective for me.
Q: What advice would you give another woman struggling to conceive?
I would tell her that all of her feelings, whatever they are, are completely valid. I would tell her that she is not broken but beautiful. I would tell her that she is worthy and deserving.
Communicate with your partner. He/She is the ONLY other person whose opinion matters on how/when/why/etc. to start your family. Everyone else will try to chime in, but you do not have to listen! Also...trust your actual doctor and your actual body, not anyone else’s. Otherwise you will fall down a deep, dark hole and it’s not good for anyone.
Don't give up! There were so many times I wanted to give up over those four years and I'm so glad that I had a doctor that believed in our case and encouraged us to keep trucking. Also, find someone that is going through something similar and is a good listener, and lean on them through the process. It does wonders to have someone who will actually listen to what you are going through and be able to relate. The hardest part for me was that I felt so alone. Infertility is not something many women talk about (which I get because I was one of them). For me it wasn't the embarrassment of going through infertility or that I was afraid of being judged, it was purely the pain of having to explain to someone how we got to the point of doing IVF. There was so much pain from losing babies, the procedures, the shots, the uncertainty, the unknown, everything. I did my best to block it out, and for a while, I also blocked out a lot of who I was. It wasn't until I started opening up about my journey that I found a LOT of other women that were going through similar situations.
Be kind to yourself. And to your partner. There is no one and nothing to blame. Life may feel unfair and it is perfectly ok to feel this way. You may see other couples all around you able to conceive (some, very easily!) and wonder what is wrong with your body or with your partner. If needed, seek help from a counselor so that you can work through some of the struggles, anxiety and grief. And lastly, don't be afraid or ashamed to ask for help. Most of us need a strong support system when we're experiencing grief; those of us struggling with conception is no different. Surround yourself with people whom you can rely on, who will encourage you and lift your spirits up when needed. It's ok to temporarily distance yourself from someone who drains your energy, who doesn't fully support you, or doesn't fill you with love and hope.
Q: Well meaning friends and family often don’t know what to say in an effort to support the infertile couple and/or unknowingly ask insensitive questions. What do you wish the general public knew about infertility and IVF?
It's human instinct to want to give advice and give examples of other family/friends who have been through experiences to your friends going through a hard time. However, this is not helpful. Please don't give a laundry list of everyone you know who has experienced infertility or review the process that worked for them. Listen. Ask open-ended questions (ex: how are you feeling about this? how is your relationship with your husband?). Also, please NEVER say to relax and they'll get pregnant. While, yes, that does frequently happen, it simply places blame on the very person you love and are trying to comfort. Check in on them often. Google time frames of the process if you're not familiar and check in on key dates/time frames.
Never ask a woman if she is going to have kids one day. Just because a woman doesn't have kids, assume that she does want them but can't. One of the most painful questions I would get asked all the time was "When are you having kids?"....[and] do not tell a women to just "have fun" with sex and that it will happen...just because you have sex, doesn't mean it will always lead to a baby...Everyone's situation is different.
We need space. [Not all infertile women] want to share every last detail with the world, so please don’t make us...allow us time and space if we [ask for] that.
Q: [For moms experiencing Secondary Infertility], how did you explain to your firstborn, if you and your partner choose to, about the IVF process and your pursuit to give them a sibling?
We ended choosing not to disclose to our firstborn any details about the IVF process. When we first pregnant after our firstborn, we made the mistake of sharing the good news about a sibling on the way, and so after that pregnancy loss, our firstborn (who was about three years old at the time), would ask incessantly about the "baby in mama's tummy", making the loss even more painful. After that, we decided we wouldn't share the news with our first born until we were ready to share with our extended family and friends.
Q: Stories of spontaneous pregnancies after infertility are frequent enough; there isn’t enough evidence to confirm that a first pregnancy can “jump start” fertility, but [some women fall pregnant, naturally, within a year of giving birth]. Can you speak to this experience? Did it provide a level of bodily confidence, clarity or unexpected healing for you?
Conceiving without medical intervention was the biggest surprise of my life! I truly thought I had the flu or a blood clot or some other (worse) medical condition. When the pregnancy test turned positive (the first positive urine pregnancy test I have ever had in my life!), I started crying. I still can't wrap my head around the true MIRACLE of conception. Until you have experienced years of infertility, it is hard to fully explain how miraculous spontaneous conception is...I am thankful for infertility because, first and foremost, I wouldn't have my precious sons, but also because I would not truly appreciate the miracle of my daughter!
Q: While the pain of infertility cannot be undone, what about motherhood has been healing for you?
Hearing the first cry mended my soul back together. He is here. He is real. He is a miracle...one that I got to assist God in making happen. I am a mom. My dreams have come true.
I'm not sure I'll ever be healed from infertility. We want a large family and all I can think about is the process we would have to go through again in order to have another baby. I try to put the pain behind me and focus on the present; loving my babies to my fullest!
With each passing month, our infertility journey does feel more and more like a distant memory and I find myself thinking "oh yeah, I went through that" as if I have almost forgotten. Maybe it's mommy brain, maybe it's that the joy my baby brings me has taken all my sorrow away. Probably both.
“You are not a victim for sharing your story. You’re a survivor setting the world on fire with your truth. You never know who needs your light, warmth, and raging courage.”
-Alex Elle, Bundle of Joy
Some names have been anonymized to respect respondent's privacy.
Age at birth of ART baby: 32 y/o
Infertility diagnosis: Male factor infertility - low motility
Length of infertility experience: 3 years
Summary of infertility journey: Husband went through varicocele surgery and pituitary testing. Conceived via IVF - 1 round, 1 transfer (a true miracle).
Age at the birth of ART baby: 40 y/o
Infertility diagnosis: Recurrent pregnancy loss
Length of infertility experience: About 2 years
Summary of infertility journey: After our first child, we experienced three pregnancy losses so my ObGyn suggested that we have a consultation with an IVF Specialist. Successful egg retrieval with many eggs (!) resulting in a few embryos, but after PGS, only two were viable for transfer. Successfully conceived via IVF with our first transfer with full-term pregnancy and successful delivery. (Thanks be to God!)
Age at birth of ART babies: 32 y/o
Infertility diagnosis: Unexplained Infertility
Length of infertility experience: Just over 3 years
Summary of infertility journey: Completed 6 months of Femara, similar to Clomid, a 3 month break, and 3 months of acupuncture 2x/week and custom Chinese herbal teas. After the year-long attempts, we went straight to IVF after speaking with a reproductive endocrinologist. Conceived on the first transfer (frozen embryo transfer). Transferred two embryos and they both implanted!
Age at birth of ART baby: 35 y/o
Infertility diagnosis: Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
Length of infertility experience: 5 years
Summary of infertility journey: 4 failed IUIs, 2 failed rounds of IVF, [conceived on third transfer]
Age at birth of ART babies: 34 y/o
Infertility diagnosis: Diminished Ovarian Reserve, Low Progesterone
Length of infertility experience: 4 years
Summary of infertility journey: We actually got pregnant about 2 months after we got married then miscarried at 12 weeks. We continued trying for another year with no success before we [sought] help. The next 3 years consisted of 2 hysteroscopies, 2 failed IUI's (one resulting in a chemical pregnancy), 2 rounds of IVF, [including] 2 egg retrievals, 2 failed embryo transfers (one resulting in a chemical pregnancy), 1 ERA test, and FINALLY, 1 successful embryo transfer!