I know, I know: nothing can really prepare you for parenthood. However, when it takes a relatively long time, good amounts of emotional and financial investment, and a lot of physical groundwork to become pregnant, you learn a few things about yourself that you put to good use as soon as you become a parent. While we are all are born, to certain extents, with the traits below, dealing with infertility gives you a chance to hone them as skills. As a mother, I am still constantly practicing them, and while there are days when I don’t use them very well, I know I have the capacity to. So the next day, I try a little harder:
I learned resilience. My mother-in-law once shared with me that her friend who had also dealt with infertility told her, “Every month her period came felt like a loss.” It’s true – every time I got my period during treatments, there was a gut-wrenching transition from careful hopefulness to profound disappointment and sadness. My despair turned into frustration, but miraculously, within days, I was able to bounce back a little and return to that place of hope. Because people get pregnant all the time, right? At one point, it had to happen for us. At least that’s what all our friends and family said. Except, it didn’t.
My infertility journey started out with a botched procedure (an hysterosalpingogram, or HSG) that revealed I had something big and egg-shaped taking up about two-thirds of my uterus. I was 33 years old at the time, and my husband and I had been trying to conceive for six months. On the advice of my previous OB-GYN, who was familiar with my history of painful periods and short cycles, we only waited those six months until we decided to check out what might be going on. My new OB-GYN scheduled the HSG test after my initial check-up. Upon seeing the X-ray image projected on the screen, she immediately ordered an exploratory surgery (a hysteroscopy) without first doing an ultrasound to figure out what it was (she thought it might have been a large fibroid). This was extra scary to someone like me who had never before been under the knife. We knew to get a second opinion. Lo and behold, another doctor, a fertility specialist, ran a couple more advanced tests that showed there was in fact nothing taking up residence in my womb. The first, somewhat primitive, test had probably displayed a stubborn air bubble from the dye that was pumped into my uterine cavity for the X-ray. Suddenly the surgery I had been anticipating for almost a month was cancelled and the uneasiness of having an unknown object in my body was, poof, gone. Little did I know how many more hurdles I would have to jump over in the race to become pregnant, but it felt good to clear that one.
Six months later I had laparoscopic surgery to remove mild (stage 1) endometriosis and a large cyst that was hanging out around my left fallopian tube. According to my surgeon, however, the reason for my infertility was still classified as “unexplained.”
I learned patience. At one point during fertility treatments, I felt like life was broken down into two-week phases. Two weeks of waiting to see the second line on the ovulation test be of equal or greater value as the test line, catch the jump in my body temperature that signaled an egg was about to drop, and then two weeks of waiting to see whether my dreaded period would show up. When I started IUIs (intrauterine inseminations), of which I had four, it was two-week combos of taking medication and getting ultrasounds to see if my ovaries responded, and then two weeks after the trigger shot until I could test. IVF (in vitro fertilization) actually gave my husband and me a reprieve from this pattern. We now had a daily plan, which eventually gave way to almost-daily monitoring. And we only had to wait nine days to take a pregnancy test after the embryo transfer! Waiting had become second nature to us, but those nine days still felt like a lifetime.
We were incredibly lucky to become pregnant after the first IVF cycle with our son Hank, who is now fourteen months old. Before I got pregnant, I remember thinking to myself that I was going to be so relieved and elated when I finally did get that positive test result . . . but I was wrong. Though I cried tears of joy when we got the call from the fertility clinic, that happiness quickly morphed into crippling anxiety, which stayed with me the entire nine months. While I know all pregnant women deal with nervousness, those who struggle with infertility sometimes have it harder. Amy Blanchard, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in infertility, offered an explanation in an issue of Fit Pregnancy: “Women who become pregnant after infertility treatments face more complex challenges than those with a natural pregnancy . . . they can’t relax; there’s incredible fear and anxiety over miscarriage or birth defects. They’ve usually spent years in infertility treatment, and are used to things not working out.”
I learned empathy. Infertility is an invisible medical condition and none of its many treatments are guaranteed to get you the result you are hoping for: a baby. Not only did facing infertility reinforce for me to never again ask anyone if they were planning on having children (or more children), I also realized that people everywhere battle things I can’t see and the most important thing is to be kind because you don’t know what sort of hardships they face. Many people I interacted with during treatments didn’t know about my fertility struggles. It may have been the synthetic hormones I was taking, but if someone acted insensitively toward me during my treatment periods, I cried easily and I hurt more deeply. I remember thinking “I just want people to be nice to me right now.” I try to practice the same sort of empathy I was seeking then with my son now. Oftentimes I don’t know the reason why he’s upset and crying since he can’t communicate it with me. I just know he needs me to show him love and kindness and maybe give him some ibuprofen for those pesky molars poking through his little gums.
I learned acceptance. It’s basically impossible to not be flexible and adaptive during fertility treatment. Your body is essentially not doing what it’s supposed to. You’re always trying something new and seeing if it will work. A gluten-free diet, acupuncture, fertility yoga, essential oils, herbs, Maya Abdominal Therapy (massages that reposition your uterus in its optimal place), taking Mucinex for some reason I still don’t fully understand. I even went to a hypnotist twice. There’s the constant nagging thought that even when you’ve tried everything, you may not get pregnant. At first, it’s a raw thought. It eventually becomes more cooked and easier to chew and swallow. Infertility is the perfect lesson to teach you that life doesn’t always turn out how you thought it would, but that in the end, you’ll be okay.
There are so many other things I learned about myself, and my husband and I learned about each other, throughout our infertility adventure. Sometimes I can’t believe we are still together. I can see how battling infertility can break a union apart – it’s stressful, isolating, full of worries, frustrations and unknowns. It’s an emotional expedition, even without shooting yourself up with obscene amounts of hormones (or doling out equally obscene amounts of money to cover all the costs). But we became a stronger team because of it, and we are pretty sure we can weather whatever life might throw at us, including all the craziness that comes with raising children together.
The best piece of advice I got as I was just starting my IVF cycle was from a fellow fertility patient who had gone through IVF six times (six times!), with three successful rounds. She told me “You have to be open to becoming a mother in a way you might not have ever imagined.” I don’t think anyone imagines that their baby’s start to life will be in a Petri dish inside a dark lab, but she didn’t mean just that. She meant being receptive to all the ways you can become a parent with the help of science (assisted reproductive technology) or social services (adopting or fostering to adopt). When I reflected on those words of wisdom, it was confirmed for me that no matter what, I was going to become a mother, and I didn’t really care what it took. I was willing to make huge sacrifices, and so was my husband, and that already made us good parents.