According to the World Health Org, “Around 17.5% of the adult population – roughly 1 in 6 worldwide – experience infertility, showing the urgent need to increase access to affordable, high-quality fertility care for those in need. The new estimates show limited variation in the prevalence of infertility between regions.”
If you spend time online in mom forums or your local mom Facebook groups, you’ve seen the posts. A mom begging for resources, extra prayers, advice, and insight from others – hanging on to any sliver of hope that they can get pregnant.
Fertility struggles can feel incredibly lonely and put so much stress on women and their partners. A post by Cedars-Sinai says, “Studies have shown that infertile couples experience significant anxiety and emotional distress. When a round of fertility treatments proves to be unsuccessful, for instance, women and couples can experience deep feelings of grief and loss.”
Women often feel so alone, and shared experiences can keep them going. We interviewed Ginny, a mom of two boys who lives in suburban Chicago. She works as an Assistant Dean at a prominent Chicago university, and when she’s not working or being a mom, she enjoys traveling, reading, trying new restaurants, baking, and running.
We hope her story will help those in the thick of it all and those with a friend or family member experiencing fertility struggles.
How did your journey with fertility struggles begin?
My husband and I got pregnant quickly when we started trying, but our first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage at 11 weeks. I had a D and C, and unfortunately, the surgery was not complete, and after two months, I knew something wasn’t right when I still had a positive pregnancy test and was bleeding quite a bit. My doctor at the time wasn’t concerned and said that sometimes things “can be weird after a miscarriage,” but I really felt that something wasn’t right and got a second opinion. That doctor confirmed that part of the placenta was still left in my uterus. He suggested waiting and seeing if it would come out on its own, which didn’t feel like a great option for me since this miscarriage had already been lingering for two months, and I was 36 and feeling the clock ticking.
I got a third opinion, and that doctor suggested a second D and C to remove the remaining placenta. He assured me that he would do the D and C using hysteroscopy, a camera that allows the doctor to view the uterus. Typically, D and Cs are not done with hysteroscopy, and it is a “blind” procedure, which seems crazy to me. This doctor was one I felt I could completely trust, and he became my new OB. That surgery was successful, and within a couple of months, we were back to trying to get pregnant again. Still, after a few months of tracking my cycles and realizing that I ovulated late in my cycle, my doctor referred me to a fertility specialist.
What feelings did you have in those early days of struggle?
There were a lot of feelings in the early days. I felt sad and frustrated that what seemed to happen so easily for everyone in my circle was not happening so easily for me. I sometimes felt sorry for myself and wondered, “Why me?” We seemed to have terrible luck, and I really couldn’t understand what we did to deserve it. We never had a serious infertility diagnosis other than me ovulating a little late in my cycle. My husband had perfect sperm. My uterus was fine. I was otherwise very healthy. Sometimes I almost wished we had a more specific thing to point to as the issue because at least a specific fertility issue would have given us answers. There was no concrete answer that ovulating late was the issue, and I had gotten pregnant before, but I wanted to be as aggressive as possible, so we started fertility treatments. I also felt lonely because while my friends and family were always there for us and provided an open and loving ear, almost no one really understood what we were going through and all the treatments I was undergoing.
I also felt motivated and excited. Once we started fertility treatment, I felt motivated to get it right, to be an active participant and do my research, understand all the terms, the medications, and what they do, and to think of my own ideas of things we could try. At the end of our journey, my fertility doctor told me she should grant me an honorary MD for all the stuff I knew by the end, ha!
I try to use that knowledge today to help other women going through fertility treatments if the topic comes up.
How long was your journey?
Our journey to our two sons was five years. Other than the year after our first son was born (before we started thinking about trying for baby #2), the entire time was spent either trying to get pregnant, being pregnant, or recovering from pregnancy loss and complications. In October 2017, we started trying to get pregnant, and in November 2017, we had our first pregnancy, which ended in January 2018. We started fertility treatments in the summer of 2018 with two unsuccessful IUIs (intrauterine insemination). We moved to IVF in the fall of 2018 and got pregnant with our first son following our first round of IVF. He was born in August 2019, and a year later, we decided to just see if we could get pregnant on our own, and we did on the second month of trying.
Unfortunately, we learned the pregnancy wasn’t viable, and I had to have another D and C. My current doctor could not perform the surgery, so I had to find someone else at the height of the pandemic. That was a very difficult time, as my husband could not be with me for any appointments or procedures, and we could not leave our house much. I had to have the surgery with a different doctor and was very nervous about the surgery being incomplete again, but I was assured that they would be very careful.
I was in the same situation again two months later, with a positive pregnancy test and bleeding a lot. I knew something was wrong, but the doctor who performed the surgery assured me it was impossible. I returned to my trusted OB, who confirmed that, once again, the D and C was incomplete. I honestly couldn’t believe this was happening to us again. This complication is very rare, and it had happened to me twice. This was a very low point for us after the devastation of the pregnancy loss. Once again, we had a second D and C with my trusted doctor and started fertility treatments again in the summer of 2021.
We had frozen embryos from our IVF cycle with our son, but they hadn’t been genetically tested. We decided to have them thawed, biopsied, tested, and refrozen to know if they had chromosomal abnormalities before we used them. This was expensive, and we were worried about damage to the embryos, but we knew we could not risk another chromosomal abnormality, and with our luck, we felt sure it would happen to us again if we didn’t get the embryos tested. Those results came back, and we had three normal embryos to use and transferred the first in the summer of 2021.
None of those transfers were successful, and we did two more rounds of IVF in October and November of 2021 to get more embryos. We had three more chromosomally normal embryos from those two rounds and did our first transfer in January 2022. That first transfer with the new embryos was successful, and our second son was born in September 2022.
How did you begin exploring treatment options? What insight can you share for those in the early days?
I did a lot of research on my own by reading medical journals. There are also tons of fertility Instagram accounts that are helpful. I tracked my cycle religiously (obsessively, maybe) and brought my concerns to my doctor with notes and data. He looked at the data and knew this was not his area of expertise and was quick to refer me to a specialist, which I appreciated. I used the doctor he recommended because I trusted him so much. I advise finding a doctor you trust, feel comfortable with, and believe in. It can be overwhelming when you start treatment because you must learn how to give yourself injections, and everything has to be timed perfectly and administered correctly.
If you go to a large clinic, there may be many patients, and it is easy to feel like a number. I’d also encourage people just starting their fertility journey to know that it is often a marathon and not a sprint. Everything revolves around your cycle, so you must know that any new treatment or procedure will take at least a month. It’s tough when you want to start everything right away, and you are faced with delays. Going into the process and knowing how things work would be very helpful in setting expectations.
Reproductive challenges are a form of trauma, but many women struggle silently. How did it impact your emotional well-being, and what can you share with those in the thick of it all?
My emotional well-being was affected in many ways. Fertility can be all-consuming because usually, when you want to be pregnant, you want to be pregnant YESTERDAY. The appointments can be every other day during some treatment, so it is very time-consuming. I often felt physically and emotionally exhausted, like my life revolved around treatment (because it usually has to). I always say that your uterus and ovaries do not care what plans you have or if it is a holiday. My first egg retrieval was on Thanksgiving morning.
There were many times when I felt motivated and hopeful and sometimes when I was very discouraged and hopeless. People in the thick of it all should know that these ups and downs are normal. I always gave myself one day to feel bad for myself if I got bad news, and then, I tried to look forward to the next cycle and treatment with hope.
It really is like riding a roller coaster.
I’d also share with people in the thick of it all that they are not alone. You may not know a friend or family member who went through what you are going through, but many people have fertility challenges. Seek out Instagram pages or support groups (your doctor and many hospitals will know of support groups) with understanding people to help feel less alone. Or see a therapist who specializes in fertility patients.
Are there any misconceptions about fertility struggles people may not know or understand?
People often think that fertility treatment (and IVF especially) guarantees a baby, and they really don’t realize that fertility treatment is an area where the amount of time, effort, and money put in does not always equal the outcome you get. You can work hard, do everything right, and still not get pregnant. People also need to know and expect delays and be aware of the timeline for fertility treatment. Even once you find your doctor and start treatment, it can take many months before you are actually at the point where you can actually get pregnant.
There is also a misconception that IVF is a way to choose to have twins or choose the sex of your baby. In my case, my doctor would not allow the transfer of more than one embryo because a twin pregnancy is risky for both mom and baby. And even though I had embryos of both sex, I was never able to choose which one they transferred. They chose the best embryo to give me the best chance for a single baby. Another misconception is that there has to always be something “wrong” with one partner or the other. Patients often have unexplained infertility where no cause is ever identified.
It can be hard to stay hopeful when you’ve experienced so much loss. How did you manage, or what did you do to move through the constant uncertainty?
We always tried to have something to look forward to, like a trip or event. After our last pregnancy loss, we packed our bags on a whim and drove 20 hours to Florida for distraction. We stayed for three weeks, and getting away for a while was hugely helpful.
Having a goal in mind was also always helpful, so I was always looking forward to the next treatment cycle. Even before I knew if my current cycle was successful, I had a plan for what I wanted to ask my doctor about for the next cycle. The cycle I got pregnant with my second son, I called and asked to speak to the doctor about what I wanted to do next because I didn’t want to waste any time. The nurse encouraged me to stay hopeful because maybe I was already pregnant (and she was right!), but it was good for me to always have a plan and move forward.
What resources did you find helpful that you’d share with others?
Instagram is hugely helpful in seeing real-life people documenting their journeys. I never had a page of my own, and I never officially followed any accounts, but I would look at some of my favorite accounts often, and it always helped me to feel less alone. The night before my second son was born, I was at Starbucks and saw the woman behind one of the accounts I would look at. She was also pregnant and due any day, and I had to stop and introduce myself. We exchanged information and are still in touch today.
I also love the podcast Infertile AF. I would go for walks and listen or listen on my commute. The creator interviews women about their stories; I have always learned a lot.
If you’re struggling with fertility, know that you’re not alone. You can find resources and support groups at The National Infertility Association (Resolve.Org).