There…it’s out. I’m sure with Mother’s Day approaching, it isn’t the best time to write about this topic, but it’s because of this day that made me realize that it was time. For years, we’ve been silent on this issue. People have asked questions, and we’ve provided very few answers.
A friend of mine asked if I’m doing this for my own peace or to provide information to all of you. My honest answer? A little of both. When a couple is infertile, “closure” doesn’t exist. The issue will stay with you in some regard your whole life. However, there is a sense of moving on—moving forward—and using this struggle instead of allowing it to use you. I think that’s where we’re at.
A few notes to begin this four-part series:
1) None of these posts are written in anger. We’re not mad at God, at friends, at family…in many aspects, we were never mad. Just sad. Frustrated, sure. Upset, of course. But almost never angry (almost…there are some things that anger us, but that’s later).
2) Our friends and family have been great. Understanding. Supportive. Towards the end of this series, I will mention some things that were done and/or said. Sometimes, it might sound like our families hurt us with words or actions. This was never done intentionally. Reader, you must know that up front. If it was done intentionally, I would not write it here. In fact, some of these things are being brought up to our families here for the first time. We’ve never even shared some of these pains with them. Why? Because they didn’t do anything wrong. We knew that. The issue was our issue, and we tried to deal with that. When I get to the Dos and Don’ts part of the series, if you are a family or friend who has committed some of the Don’ts, just know that we love you and hold no ill-will. You guys have been great, and any “Don’t” was unintentional and we know that.
3) I am not trying to compare battle scars here. A lot of the things written in this series can easily apply to those dealing with cancer or even the loss of a loved one. I’m not trying to rank our pain against anyone else’s. One of the reasons we have not said much about it is because we know that overall, we can’t complain much. Others have it so much worse than we do. The reason for this series is to answer a lot of questions we haven’t fully answered before, and to help people understand what someone like us thinks, feels, and struggles with. Hopefully, when it’s all finished, you’ll have a better idea of how to act around someone dealing with infertility (or any other personal pain).
4) I will try to return to this point as often as I can, but you may notice how completely irrational some of our thoughts/feelings are or have been. This is common. Someone going through infertility will think and act irrationally. That’s one of the struggles. Knowing that it’s an irrational thought, but not being able to control it.
5) In many ways, Steph and I are lucky. We can’t have children. We haven’t experienced a single miscarriage. I can’t imagine how painful it would be to be labeled infertile because every conception you have ends in a miscarriage. Like I said, I don’t want to compare battle scars, but in my opinion, those couples trump what we’re dealing with.
Some general information to get us started: Infertility is on the rise. About 1 in 5 couples today struggle with it (roughly 7 million couples, or 14 million people). I’ve seen a lot of different stats, but the consistent numbers seem to be around 11 percent of women (about 7 million) between the ages of 15-44 are infertile for one reason or another. While infertility is commonly associated with women, it’s actually very balanced: About one-third of the time, the woman is infertile…one-third of the time, the man is infertile…about 10 percent of the time, it’s both…and about 10-20 percent of the time, no cause is found. Roughly 67 percent of the time, infertility treatments result in a baby. Shockingly, according to the World Health Organization, infertility and sterility ranks 3rd among the most life-threatening diseases of the 21st Century.
In short: It’s very likely that someone you know is going or has gone through this. For some of you teenagers reading this, there’s a good chance that you or a friend of yours will experience infertility in their lifetime. For the record, if a couple has been unsuccessful for a few months, it’s not an infertility issue (yet). Infertility is defined by over one year of unsuccessful, consistent attempts for a child, or three (or more) consecutive miscarriages.
Steph and I are extremely organized people. We think everything out. Everything. We plan everything out. Everything. Even our “spontaneous” actions have been processed, analyzed, and rationalized in our minds first. Communication was always our greatest strength as a couple. We discussed everything. Consequently, we were frequently on the same page about a lot of issues.
Going into our marriage, we had a game plan for the rest of our lives. We were going to experience the joys of a “free” and childless marriage for the first couple of years. These years were our years. Time to focus our love on only each other. Plus, it allowed us time to do little things for the future: Try to save some money, slowly purchase baby stuff instead of having to spend a fortune within a nine-month span, and read about and discuss what kind of parents we wanted to be. The plan was to start a family when we were about 26-27 years old, and have our third and final child when we were 33 (which we are now).
In our third year of marriage, we were right on track with our plan. We discussed if we were ready to start a family, and decided it was time to let nature work. When we began, we kept it very casual. All forms of birth control stopped, but we still only had sex when we wanted. There was no calendar, no temperature taking, no peeing on sticks to see if Steph was ovulating. It was more of a if-it-happens-it-happens kind of thing.
Let me say this: planned unprotected sex is the most exhilarating and frightening thing a couple can do. On the one hand, your heart is racing because you may have just made a baby. On the other hand, your heart is racing because you may have just made a baby. Your life will never be the same again. You’re somehow happy and hyperventilating at the same time.
One year passed with no luck. We talked a little about why nothing had happened, but they were brief discussions. We were having unprotected sex, but we weren’t exactly trying. To use the poker cliché, we weren’t “all in.” So, still relatively stress-free, we went into Year 2 of baby-making with a slight game-plan: the calendar. Using “period math” (as I heard on a TV show once), we figured out roughly when Steph should have been ovulating, and stepped up our efforts on those days.
It was during this year when the rollercoaster of emotions really began. Steph would be one week late, and I would start to get excited…only to find out that her period began shortly thereafter. Steph would be one week late, and I would start to get excited…then it stretched into a second week, and my excitement would build…only to find out that her period began shortly thereafter. This happened numerous times that year. There was even a time during Year 3, just before we started seeing specialists, when Steph was a full month late. At this point, I actually said to a friend (who had also gone through a long state of infertility) that I thought it had finally happened. Two days later, Steph began her period.
The majority of my excitement was internal. I really did not allow my emotions to show because I didn’t want Steph to think that she had disappointed me if it turned out that she wasn’t pregnant. I don’t know if Steph ever felt the same level of internal excitement when she was one week late…two weeks…one month. All I know is that externally, she was pure calm. I think she refused to accept the possibility until she knew for sure. That way, if it turned out that she wasn’t pregnant, she wouldn’t be so crushed. That’s a very “Steph” way of thinking. Normally, I’m very similar to that…but for some reason, when it came to the idea of a child, I couldn’t help but ride that rollercoaster.
I hate rollercoasters.
It was during Year 3 that we decided it was time to see someone. It wasn’t a step we wanted to take, but we desired something that wasn’t coming. We needed to know why and if there was something we could do about it. Now, young readers or anyone in the early stages of frustration, the best advice I can give is that before you see a single doctor, you and your spouse need to have multiple discussions. It can ruin your marriage if you don’t. Everything I’ve read on this step says the same thing.
You need to research what lies ahead. Know in advance what kinds of questions the doctors will ask, and decide what kind of answers you’re going to give. You have to be on the same page. If it’s decided that you need infertility treatments, what are you okay with, and what makes you uncomfortable? How long are you willing to let the treatments go? What can you afford (Having a child is considered an optional life decision, so many insurance companies do not cover anything regarding infertility)? You need to discuss these things early. You need to come to clear-cut agreements early. The worst time to have these discussions is during the tests or at the end of a cycle. At those moments, you are way too emotional for any kind of rational decision-making.
The smartest thing Steph and I did was set a finish line. By this time, we had a doctor’s theory that our issues resided in Steph; therefore, my stance was very simple: I would not let Steph do anything that she was uncomfortable with. The way I looked at it, she was the one who would have to go through the doctor visits, treatments, etc, so who was I to tell her how far she should go? Steph’s opinion was very straight forward. She would do the monthly tests. She would take any pills prescribed. Injections and in vitro fertilization (IVF) were not an option. Simply put, Steph refused to be a lab rat. Her reasoning: “At what point are we playing God? I want our child to be someone God creates and blesses us with. Someone we create ourselves, not someone created in a lab.”
One could easily make the argument that infertility is an attack from Satan, and that God created these injections and IVF to combat this. Just to make sure it’s absolutely what Steph wanted, I made those points to her. Steph was adamant, though. She wanted no part of any injections or IVF. I respected that decision. Her logic was clear and firm, and I made one promise when all of this began: To honor whatever her wishes were.
It’s biblical, gentlemen. Love and honor your wife (1 Peter 3:7). Never make her do something she doesn’t want to do. Don’t talk her into it. Don’t guilt her into it. Don’t pressure her into it.
Let me be clear about something: This was our choice. It was our reasoning. We do not believe that people who do the injections or IVF are going against God’s wishes. Not at all. It simply made us uncomfortable, and that was enough for us to decide against those steps.
The doctor didn’t tell us much that we hadn’t already read. He kind of outlined the steps of the process (the “cycle”), which easily killed the joy of making a child: Invasive monthly tests for Steph, a variety of pills for Steph to take, and lots of scheduled sex. Seriously—when Steph was ovulating, someone from the doctor’s office would call her and inform her that for the next 10-14 days, we were to have sex as often as possible, every other day.
Side note: As a guy, that sounds like heaven. Trust me, it’s not. There’s nothing romantic about that kind of sex. There’s nothing hot about that kind of sex. You know what it becomes? A chore. I knew of a few friends who had gone through this, and they talked about how tired they were of sex. I didn’t believe them. I do now.
The doctor discussed all of our options both presently and down the line. One of the things he brought up immediately made us uncomfortable and made our finish line crystal clear. He said that if we were successful, and these treatments resulted in Steph getting pregnant, the medications had a history of producing multiple fetuses (vs regular conception). He said that it would be at this time that we would need to discuss selective reduction. Bluntly: Selective reduction is when you choose to abort a fetus (usually if there’s more than one) in order to decrease the health risks of the mother and/or the fetus(es). It can also be done if tests show that there will be a birth defect or impairment with the child.
There was a moment that night at home where we almost called the whole thing off right there. To be fair, it’s not like the doctor was suggesting that we do it. If I remember correctly, it’s a topic they have to bring up. Still…it made us sick thinking about it.
I will spare you the details of the tests. Let’s just say that mine was easy. They handed me a cup and pointed me to a bathroom that had a stack of Playboys. The only awkward part was trying to figure out if I was in there for too long or too brief (yes, I actually stressed about that). Steph, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky. I won’t go into everything, but she had multiple tests…monthly tests…and many were painful. A few were so painful that I actually had to take off work to drive here there and back. Enough said.
The meds given to Steph destroyed her. They affected her mood: she would cry more easily, she would anger more easily, she was depressed…talking to her was hard because she would either cry or snap at the slightest thing. They made her gain weight…a lot of weight. I don’t know the final count, but I know it was 50+ pounds. What was frustrating was the doctor constantly scolding Steph to lose weight, lose weight, lose weight…that we would never conceive if she remained that big (while also telling her that she needed to relax)…yet kept prescribing the meds that were doing it to her. We can’t blame overeating as the problem. Why? Because the meds made her sick. Nasty, violently sick. Steph does not throw up. I can probably count on one hand how many times I’ve heard her do it in the 12-13 years I’ve known her. While on these meds, however, it was nearly every morning. They caused her crazy-painful stomach cramps. In short—the meds were tearing her up physically as well as emotionally. I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that between her monthly tests and her monthly meds, trying to get pregnant was literally torture for her…and voluntary torture at that.
The doctor told us at the beginning that they normally run about three cycles (three months) before taking a break. He said we could continue, but basically it wouldn’t work after three months. He said we could stop for awhile, then pick up and try again for another three cycles. After our third cycle, we had nothing but torment to show for our efforts. It was time to take a break. It was during this break that an official diagnosis came. The doctor believed that Steph had Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).
PCOS: A Medical Lesson
What is it: In short, a chemical imbalance.
What causes it: It’s not totally known, but the main belief is genetics…and sure enough, Steph’s problems are hereditary.
Symptoms: Irregular menstrual periods, cysts, weight gain, depression, and infertility (just to name some common ones that Steph experienced).
Why infertility: Basically, the ovary doesn’t make all of the hormones needed for an egg to fully mature. Because of this, ovulation doesn’t actually occur.
Fun facts: This is a relatively new diagnosis among women, but one of the fastest growing. Currently, about 10 percent of American women of childbearing age have it (about 5 million women). PCOS is typically diagnosed in a woman’s 20s and 30s. It’s also kind of a pre-diabetes in that, if not controlled early on, one could develop diabetes (50 percent of women diagnosed with PCOS develop diabetes before they turn 40). On top of everything else—PCOS is not covered by nearly all insurance providers…meaning once the doctors officially diagnosed Steph with PCOS, our medical costs skyrocketed. You have to love insurance companies, right? Fifty percent of women diagnosed with PCOS will develop diabetes if not controlled early…and insurance companies will cover your diabetes, but not help you prevent diabetes.
So…where were we during all of this? To be blunt—in hell. All we wanted was a child. That wasn’t happening on its own, so we looked for help. The “help” we received turned out to be torture-quality tests on Steph. I don’t care if you’re a guy or a girl…how comfortable are you going to be having someone dig around in your most tender of body parts? I can’t fathom the pain Steph endured, but I know that my heart ached for her every time as she left the office in tears, came home, curled up on the couch, and suffered silently some more. On top of that, she was pumping medication into her body that was wrecking her. It made her ill…it made her gain weight…it caused violent cramps…it drastically affected her mood. We were told when and how often to have sex—the equivalent of a parent reminding us to clean our room and mow the lawn.
And there was nothing to show for it. The only progress that was made was a diagnosis that basically said it didn’t matter what we did…we weren’t having children.
The diagnosis of PCOS brought with it new meds when we began a second round of cycles. These meds did not have quite the same effect on Steph that the previous ones had in terms of cramps and making her sick. They still affected her mood, however, and they made her feel sluggish. You know those days where you went to bed at your normal time, you woke up at your normal time, but for some reason it still feels like you woke up too early? As the day drags on, you constantly feel like you’re in some kind of dreary daze? You say things like, “I just can’t wake up today,” and it’s the afternoon? That was Steph almost every day on the new meds.
Three cycles later and we had crossed into Year 4. We had a doctor we didn’t like, months of excruciating tests, mood-altering meds, the most sexless sex life you can imagine, a medical diagnosis that scared us more and more as we read up on it, no progress made whatsoever, medical bills reaching higher and higher, and now the doctor was saying that we could do the injections if we wanted…but due to the PCOS, they probably wouldn’t work, and the side effects were even worse than the pills.
There was no official throwing in of the towel. Steph said that she was finished with the medical side of it all. I didn’t blame her. We walked away from the tests, the meds, the doctor…all of it. I vaguely remember one “What now?” conversation. The answer was more of a declaration: It’s in God’s hands. We’ve put our lives on hold for (now) four years. At some point, we’ve got to start moving forward again.
The words were never actually said between us, but we both knew what was happening. Unless a miracle occurred, we would never have children.
That was nearly three years ago. Want to know what kind of emotional toll this process has on a couple? Our marriage has never really been the same since Year 1 of trying for a baby, but more on that next week. We’ve lost some friends. We left a church. We’re just now at a point where we’re giving utter transparency.
I asked Steph three times if she was okay with me writing this series. She said what I had been feeling. “It’s time.” It’s time for all of you to know what happened and why. It’s time for you all to know how we felt then, how we felt afterwards, and how we’re feeling now. It’s time for us to get our petty feelings out in the open so we can let them go. It’s time for us to share our story so that others can come to us for help and guidance if/when they go through it. I’ve had so many people admit that they just don’t know what to say or not say, or how to act or not act around us…and it’s time to help all of you know what’s okay and what isn’t—with us and others like us.
There’s no happy ending to this series. There’s no bitter resentment either. Just understanding. For us. For you. And maybe that’s enough. In the end, if this is the heaviest cross we have to bear, I think we’ll consider ourselves lucky. Children are such a joy, but there’s so much good that can still be done without them. So get ready, my friends…we have quite a journey in front of us.