Breaking the Taboo | A fertility journey

Breaking the Taboo | A fertility journey

This Mother's Day we are so honoured to share #lhwoman Jessie Metz's raw, honest and real story about her fertility journey. From being a career-driven woman who never thought she'd have kids to wanting it so badly but not understanding why it wasn't working the way you learnt in school. 

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It’s 5:45am on Saturday morning. I’ve been awake for a few hours already (yay for insomnia!), and rather than continue to lie in bed as my mind and body battle it out I thought it was about time to put pen to paper on a topic I’ve been wanting to write about for a while now: Fertility.

The whole topic of fertility can be a black box for a lot of women (and men) before they start trying for a family. We don’t learn about it in school, and we don’t talk about it very much in public due to the stigma and taboo around infertility. But now, 2 years into my own fertility journey, I think it is time to share my experience in the hope that it helps someone somewhere as they navigate through the murky waters of fertility and assisted reproductive services.

Let me start by saying that I never thought I’d have kids. Career-driven and independent, I couldn’t imagine myself doing school pick-ups and attending ballet recitals. Not to mention I was worried about how it would change my relationship with my husband, and of course the pure terror of the prospect of giving birth. But somewhere along the line, something shifted. I found myself living the life I had envisaged (lots of travel, lots of work, lots of fun) and all of a sudden feeling a yearning for something else: A family of my own.

After talking it over with my husband, we decided to start trying for a baby. Not really knowing much about fertility, we thought unprotected sex was generally the ticket and we didn’t think about it too much. Going about our normal lives, sans condoms. Given everything we were taught in school about sex, we naively thought it would be pretty quick and easy. We weren’t in a rush by any means, but I thought after 6 months of trying we should/would get the outcome we were looking for.

It didn’t work out that way. After 6 months of trying, we started doing research and being more diligent in our efforts. I tracked my periods, used ovulations sticks, and we just generally became one of those couples you see in the movies (“let’s go now — I’m ovulating!”). With each month that went past without a positive pregnancy test I became more and more anxious, oscillating between feelings of personal failure (there must be something wrong with me), resentment towards my husband (was there something wrong with him? Why was he not as worried about this as me?) and fear of what I believed was inevitable (we couldn’t have children). Needless to say, there was very little joy left in the act of baby-making for me, as my mind went into overdrive each time, thinking about whether the sperm and egg would meet, and we’d finally get what we were hoping for.

By the 10-month mark, we decided to do some tests. Nothing came back with anything to worry about, and counterintuitively I was crushed. I thought if I just had a diagnosis, an explanation, we could figure out the next steps and “fix” it. But instead, we kept trying naturally and waiting. I also started acupuncture and changed my diet and lifestyle to see if that would make a difference. Another four months passed, we filled our lives with things (moving countries, new jobs, etc) and yet somehow all I could think about was the baby we didn’t have. We started exploring our options, spoke to our GP and then to an IVF specialist. We officially received a diagnosis of “unexplained infertility” and while there were other potential routes we could have taken, we ended up choosing IVF as it seemed to have the best possible outcomes given our personal circumstances.

Terrified of what was to come, I reached out to the few friends I knew who had been through it. It was difficult to find people to talk to who could give real support, as so many women don’t divulge their fertility journey, and those that do often do so later on, when the raw emotions of the experience have worn thin. Adding to that the realisation that like most things in life, everyone’s IVF experience is different, I felt like I was stepping into a vast unknown. But with the help of my family, some wonderful friends and of course my incredible husband, we started the process.

The protocol was more intense than I had imagined; daily injections of at least one (up to 3 or 4) hormone, blood tests every few days and internal scans as the time came closer to ovulation. The injections themselves were painful but bearable, blood tests and scans were more of an inconvenience than anything, but the effect on my body of all the drugs was what surprised me the most. Luckily, I never had issues with my cycle. I got my period each month like clockwork and had no problems with my eggs. So, my IVF specialist decided to start me on a lower dose of the main hormone (Gonal F — to stimulate egg production) than the average. The first week of treatment was quite normal, and I went about my life without much change. But by day 6 or 7 I started to notice a difference. By the time they did the first internal examination to count my eggs, I had 24 eggs growing. Given that most months women release only one or two, twenty-four made all the usual PMS-type symptoms amplify dramatically. I was dizzy, nauseous and extremely bloated. My appetite diminished, I struggled to do my normal daily tasks as it became painful to walk (the pressure in my abdomen was intense) and I couldn’t concentrate enough to work. In the day or two before my egg retrieval procedure, I honestly was worried about what was happening to me. I had never heard of other women experiencing this level of pain and distress. I spoke to the IVF doctors and nurses daily, and they measured my hormone levels very closely. I was getting dangerously close to hyper-stimulating, but with 24 healthy eggs to retrieve it was too good to give up. We kept going 24 hours longer, and then I went in for my procedure.

The egg retrieval procedure itself was routine; I went under general anaesthetic (not 100% necessary but some doctors prefer it to allow them to focus on getting the best outcome instead of worrying about you) and it was all over in under an hour. But when I woke up, I was feeling awful. Taking that many eggs out was more painful than I imagined and had left my ovaries very battered and bruised. Coupled with the side effects of the general anaesthetic, I spent the next few days in bed recovering. Overall though, it was a good result and the fertility team were very happy.

Over the next few days we waited for the daily phone call from the lab to tell us how many of our eggs had been fertilised and how many viable embryos were forming. By day 6, we had 13 embryos. We cried happy, relieved tears at the news. The pain was worth it.

Given my body’s reaction to the process, the doctor made the decision not to do a fresh transfer, and instead freeze the viable embryos and allow my body to recover and return to its normal rhythm. The trauma of the process left me a little scarred, so I was happy to wait. In fact, we ended up waiting longer than was necessary so that I could have time to emotionally recover and enjoy my life again for a few months.

Once enough time had passed, we embarked on the next stage of the process: embryo transfer. Thankfully, this was a lot less scary and invasive. Opting for a natural transfer cycle, the IVF team monitored my normal ovulation cycle and 5 days after I ovulated, inserted one of the embryos. All we had to do now was wait 2 weeks to see if it had worked.

I didn’t understand up until that point why everyone I had spoken to had warned that the “two-week wait” was the hardest part of their IVF journey. How could the waiting game be harder than the egg retrieval? It wasn’t supposed to hurt, and there were no injections or anything. But this time the struggle was mental. I felt like I was seeing pregnant women everywhere I went, and the longing for a baby intensified again. The closer we got to the 2-week mark, the more depressed I became. I could feel my usual PMS symptoms starting, and with every cramp a flood of emotions would follow. My husband was beyond supportive during this whole time, but I could see it was eating away at him too. We knew it hadn’t worked and we were crushed. In the end, my period arrived a day before I was supposed to do the pregnancy test. By that point, there were no tears. It was a relief to know for certain and we’d already grieved for the baby we never really had but so desperately wanted.

We needed time to breath and reset. I wanted to do more tests to make sure there wasn’t anything preventing implantation occurring. So another month passed. We took a holiday, reconnected and rested. And then we tried again. This time, I followed the doctor’s suggested protocol of injections (at much lower levels than before) in order to help control the timing of ovulation. It was all in the timing; critical that we implant the embryo exactly 5 days after I ovulated. Thankfully, I had no adverse reactions to the drugs this time and everything went off without a hiccup. Unfortunately, my husband couldn’t be there for the implantation procedure, so I went with a friend. Just before we left, the doctor showed me the picture of my uterus and the tiny dot where the embryo was. I didn’t think much of it, but my friend suggested I take a picture of it just in case this was the beginning of our journey to parenthood. I wasn’t too keen having been burned before by false hope, but I did it anyway and sent it to my husband.

And so we began the two week wait again. I had PMS-like cramps throughout. My husband and I cried many times over that two weeks, again convinced it hadn’t worked. But the day came for the pregnancy test and there were no signs of bleeding. So I did the test, looking forward to knowing definitively what I suspected and moving on with my life. Another failed round, 11 more embryos to go. But this time was different. The nurse called late in the afternoon, a full 2 hours after my husband and I had already stopped working due to the anxiety. When she said the words “you’re pregnant” we both could not believe it. I couldn’t speak. When we put the phone down, we stood there holding each other for a while, sobbing. Waves of shock and elation washed over us, as we shared the news with our parents. Of course, it was still early days, but we were pregnant. We could have babies; there was nothing wrong with us! I can’t explain how relieved I was.

Now, at 14 weeks pregnant, we’ve seen the baby wriggling inside my belly, heard its strong little heartbeat and marvelled at the tiny fingers and toes forming. While we are entering into a new unknown, we are so grateful for the miracle that has occurred to allow us to become parents. With so much to look forward to, it was time to make peace with my fertility experience. I only wish I had more women’s experiences to draw on, to give me strength and hope and guidance during a time of such uncertainty.

I hope that my story can help other women going through what I went through. And hopefully I can share some things I learned along the way that I wish I’d known at the start. Chief among them is the fact that every person’s experience is different, and normal. Fertility is a struggle for more people than you think, and whether it leads to IVF or something different, trying for a baby is a physical, mental and emotional rollercoaster for most people. There’s nothing wrong with you or your experience. I also felt like I would have benefitted from knowing that it wasn’t my fault; there was nothing I could have done to ensure the outcome I was looking for. I remember asking my IVF specialist if my stress levels would affect my chances of success, as so many people had told me to relax, rest more, stop drinking, meditate and so many other things. His response was “excessive stress isn’t great, but to actually prevent you from having children it would need to be extreme. Don’t listen to what people tell you; the only thing that can guarantee a baby is having unprotected sex. Tune everything else out”. This was honestly the best advice I received; it freed me from the shame and guilt I had been struggling with for over a year.

So, to all the people going through their own fertility journey, here’s what I want to leave you with: cut yourself some slack, know you are not alone, don’t be afraid to reach out for support and try to hold out hope. Oh, and I’m only a phone call away if you ever want to talk.

NOTE: I want to acknowledge that I am one of the lucky ones; there are lots of women that struggle with infertility for a lot longer than I did, and some would-be parents who never are able to realise their dream of having a child. Every person’s journey is unique and there is nothing “fair” or “right/wrong” about how it works. I am grateful our time in IVF was relatively short, and has a happy ending. I hope by sharing my own experience, it encourages you to share yours and know that it isn’t a journey you have to face alone.

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No matter where you are at on your motherhood journey we hope you take a moment to stop, reflect and let yourself be extremely proud of where you are. Motherhood looks different for everyone and we are thankful to all the mothers and mother figures out there, whatever that may look like

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