My husband found me, bent and sobbing, in the middle of the empty room holding a tiny and perfectly new cotton onesie to my chest. Rocking back and forth, I struggled to catch my breath as grief surrounded me like an October fog. The room I had hoped to fill with the smell of lavender and the soft strains of “Amazing Grace” still stood empty … like me.
All the diligent research on infertility interventions and the grueling treatments themselves had boomeranged me to this familiar place—childlessness—and after four years of prayer and positivity, I had reached the end of myself.
At 31 years old, being childless among so many “child-full” people had banished me to an entirely different planet. Before my experience with infertility, life had plugged along according to my plans. College degrees? Check. A career teaching deaf kids? Check. Marriage to soul mate? Check. It was only after I had experienced the earthquake of infertility that I questioned my naïveté. Had I ever controlled my life’s course or had I achieved my previous goals thanks to dumb luck? Not that I believe in luck, per se, except to note that I was lucky that my agenda aligned with God’s game plan for me until I hit the age of 27. After that came five years in which God and I were on distinctly different pages, and I wrestled with him like a contender in a heavyweight world tournament.
My dreams of having a family with a pack of rambunctious kids went back to a time when I pressed my five-year-old hand into wet cement on the front porch of my new playhouse and
assumed the role of Mommy to my dolls and stuffed animals and any neighborhood kids who were willing. I couldn’t separate my yearning for children from the rest of me, which led me to believe that if the mothering part of me was left to wither, the rest of me would follow suit. The most difficult lesson in my 27 years came down to one terrifying idea: I am not in control. In the end, this truth would free me from a shallow faith that had allowed me to spend a quarter of my life on cruise control.
My husband, Mark, and I started “Operation Baby” on a celebratory Valentine’s weekend getaway. We’d been married for three years and were jumping ahead of our initial plans for starting a family, but only by a few months. Wouldn’t making a baby on the holiday that honors love and lovers be a sweet story to tell when we soon announced our pregnancy?
Looking back on our conversation that weekend, I am incredulous at our unbridled optimism. Though I know many couples have followed a similar plan, it seems unjust that pregnancy can be achieved on the meager $50 budget required for a pre-copulation dinner and a movie. Most pregnancies, in fact, require a far smaller budget.
In truth, my trip from glass-half-full to glass-utterly-empty was short. After a few months of trying, I became convinced that the successful joining of egg and sperm was taking way too long to be normal. The obvious explanation: something was amiss with one of the donors.
Despite my concern, I refused to panic. Infertility was a challenge that I could crush as I had all others: by putting my brain to work. After all, I had a graduate degree.
With this plucky outlook, I ordered the book Resolving Infertility: Understanding the Options and Choosing Solutions When You Want to Have a Baby. Along with scouring the internet, I devoured every page of this manual, certain it would solve and resolve (look at its title!) our dilemma.
The book did helpfully lay out solutions, and Mark and I traipsed down a rosy path that began with the “just wait and see” approach to conception. This same path meandered into a mess of grueling treatment options that would land most couples either on the crazy train or in the poorhouse. Regardless, I was raring to go. My husband, however, was not so eager.
He was quite content to stay on our current groove of “wait and see” and “I'm perfectly happy with you, my beautiful wife, and growing old with just the two of us would suit me fine.” I love him for his devotion. My husband put zero pressure on us to have a baby. His nonchalance counterbalanced my intensity since, for me, having a family was the gold standard for a healthy marriage and a fulfilled life. Mark’s clearer (read: saner) perspective on family planning grounded me, but I dragged him along on this journey toward pregnancy and he supported me with the loyalty of a golden retriever.
I had the path all mapped out, and it followed exactly the approach prescribed in Resolving Infertility, which might as well have been the Bible during my drive toward pregnancy. In
hindsight, it’s possible I could’ve spent more time reading the actual Bible. Fact: Learning to trust and rely on God entails a considerable learning curve.
So, the path. It went like this:
Step 1: Testing
Test husband and wife to find out what the heck is wrong with man/woman/couple.
Step 2: Medication and making love
Take mild infertility drug while trying for three to six months to make a baby the old-fashioned way.
Step 3: Intrauterine Insemination (IUI)
Undergo three to six cycles of IUI, fondly referred to as the “turkey baster method.”
Step 4: In vitro Fertilization (IVF)
Go through two to three cycles of IVF in various forms (fresh, frozen, zygote intrafollopian transfer —ZIFT, gamete intrafallopian transfer—GIFT) coupled with industrial strength infertility drugs and $12,000–$15,000 price tag per cycle. In IVF, technicians remove a woman’s eggs and a man’s sperm and introduce them in a blind date in a petri dish. A few days later, specialists place the resulting embryos in utero hoping for implantation.
Step 5: Use of donor egg or sperm
If specialists determine the egg or sperm to be shoddy, use donor egg or sperm along with pregnancy-inducing drugs to create a baby and then place the baby in the woman’s uterus. The rationale behind this treatment is that if a couple’s reproductive cells don't hit it off, introducing a more exciting stranger might get the party started.
Step 6: Use of donor embryo
If introducing donor egg or sperm is a flop, use pregnancy-inducing drugs along with a donor embryo and deposit in the woman’s uterus. Sometimes a couple’s genetics are incompatible and there are plenty of frozen embryos that have been created through IVF waiting for a womb to call home. In this case, the woman could still be an incubator for said embryo.
Step 7: Use of gestational carrier
Use of a carrier (i.e. another woman) and drug cocktails for two (egg making for bio mom and pregnancy-inducing for carrier). Some people refer to this arrangement as surrogacy, but, technically, a surrogate donates her egg and room in her womb. A gestational carrier simply carries a husband and wife's embryo, becoming an incubator for someone else’s biological child.
Step 8: Adoption
At age 27, staring down a decade of childbearing potential, reaching Step 8 seemed about as likely as being struck by lightning, thus its position at list’s end.
Ah, the path. It was my step-by-step guide for how to make a baby, affording a brief and artificial sense of peace. Surely if I stuck to the list, I would achieve the desired result: a baby,
motherhood, a happily ever after. Hard work plus a plan yields success. A + B = C. In all my experiences to date, this logic had worked beautifully, which meant that it must be valid. Only . . . what if it wasn't?
Oddly, I looked forward to testing like Martha Stewart looks forward to spring cleaning. It was the first progressive step on the path that would lead to our baby. Never mind that 95% of the testing involved me being poked and prodded in places that—until our foray into infertility treatment—were off limits to all but my lucky husband.
Never mind that the testing involved scheduling, planning, charting, and sharing the minutia of our sex life with a host of nurses, doctors, phlebotomists, ultrasound techs, and the occasional medical student on intern rotation.
Doctor: “Do you mind if our intern, Dr. Young & Attractive, sits in on this trans-vaginal ultrasound?”
Me: “No problem!”
You're welcome, Dr. Young & Attractive, I thought. You can thank me in your graduation speech.
Clearly, at 27-years-old, I presumed that my positive, helpful attitude would put me on the fast track to pregnancy; that being a good person, a rule follower, would protect me from experiencing infertility’s pain and injustice. Even as a woman who claimed to live by God’s grace, I depended on life’s fairness.
But Step 1 on the path was no time for spiritual navel-gazing. There was work to be done!
Checking my basal body temperature each morning upon waking, I recorded the reading to the nearest 10th degree on my bedside chart.
My husband begrudgingly presented his semen for analysis—though, come to think of it, what was he begrudging? Just saying.
I marched into the doctor’s office for postcoital testing, a lovely procedure that examines the mucus appearing a short time after a husband and wife—well—engage in coitus. Pre-testing, I abandoned romantic thoughts for pep talks directed at our sample: “Come on, sperm-mucus! Shape up and look your best for the doctors tomorrow!”
For the serum progesterone test, I submitted to a blood draw performed by the rookie lab tech who missed my vein but, rather than retreating for a fresh poke, fished around diligently under my skin until her tiny probe found its mark.
Finally, pre-medicated with Valium to sedate my cervix, I crawled up on the examining table for the tubal dye test, also known as the hysterosalpingogram, or HSG. In this gem of a test, a radiographic dye is injected into the uterine cavity through the vagina and cervix, creating a spill visible on ultrasound to confirm open fallopian tubes.
After having the HSG, I dressed quickly and made a beeline for the exit only to find myself—ears ringing and head spinning—back in the examining room with nurses issuing strict orders for me to lie down until the dizziness passed.
I had driven myself to the test and popped the Valium in the waiting room because I am nothing if not practical (why interrupt Mark’s day to be my chauffeur?). Driving home while dizzy, however, had not factored into my plan.
Incidentally, the HSG test was the only one in which something weird—like nearly passing out—had occurred. My doctor chalked it up to nerves, but the episode formed a bit of a theory in the back of my mind, one I didn't dissect until later.
Experts say that the dye used in the HSG test boosts women's fertility levels for a few months, especially if the infertility is unexplained or caused by endometriosis. Mark and I seized this insider information and ran with it.
Other tests came later, along with fertility treatments, but we’d completed Step 1 in about six months. All testing, of course, was dependent upon my cycle, dependent upon the passage of
time; another month, another ovulation cycle, another stretch of expectant trying, another phase of waiting, another menstrual cycle.
Mark and I toiled to the end of the “wait and see” path to behold the thorny road stretched out ahead of us. It was filled with white-coated professionals whose ministrations would muddle our marital bed.
And the testing had failed to give us a plan of attack. Sure, there was a touch of endometriosis on my part and a varicose vein on my husband's, but these were essentially non-issues according to our doctors: The varicose vein did not negatively affect Mark’s sperm count, and my endometriosis was correctable with further treatment.
Experts slapped our infertility with the label: UNEXPLAINED. This diagnosis marked the end of wondering if my fear of remaining childless was silly paranoia. At the same time, our non-diagnosis rolled out the red carpet for doubt. Were God’s plans for me—for us—truly good? Like walking out the door of a cozy house on a frigid winter day, reality smacked me in the face. My planning and striving had obstructed my ability to see God’s ultimate power, and now I bristled at the stark truth: He was clearly in control, which meant that I was not.
It’s one thing for married couples to schedule time for intimacy, to set aside a space for connecting to ensure that making love doesn’t get lost in our hectic lives. It’s quite another to
approach that appointment with secretarial efficiency and NASA-like precision, acting as if one’s very life is balanced on adherence to mission protocol.
Our attempts at baby making required this sort of grueling accuracy. When the time was right according to my chart, the drill went something like this: Mark and I would have sex every other day for seven days. My apologies to Barry White, but a shelf abounding in sexy mixed tapes couldn’t have transformed the focus of these meetings from performance to pleasure. This was a military operation.
After consulting both of our schedules, we determined a plan to meet in the boudoir on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday at 21:00 hours to initiate delivery of male DNA material into female portal. To ensure optimal connection and proper transfer, the portal would then remain raised and stationary for 30 minutes, post-delivery.
This serious enterprise took place in an antique, four-poster bed within the quaint, sloping walls of our first home, a century-old fixer upper. Mark and I bought the house at a time when we were so full of hope it makes me tear up to think of it. We were in our late 20s and naïve to the lengthy trial that lay ahead.
Looking back, I want to sit down with that couple and tell them to hang on to hope and each other; I long to warn them about the lies that Satan will hurl at them in their first decade as husband and wife. Skilful deceptions like, “Your marriage was not meant to be,” and, “You deserve this heartache.” They need to hear the truth proclaimed with loud certainty: God’s plan is
to bless, so hold tight. This harsh season of despair will evolve into a show of God’s faithfulness, as radiant and sure as the summer sun.
At the ages of 28 and 31, when Mark and I started pursuing medical treatment, we’d spent two years trying to conceive on our own. With a diagnosis of “unexplained infertility”, we were optimistic about treatment. On the other hand, if no physical condition prevented us from getting pregnant, then why weren’t we?
Having elected to follow the “natural family planning” approach after we got married, we were likely five years into infertility, rather than the two years that had passed since we started keeping track. Apparently, for TTC (Trying to Conceive) couples, natural family planning is 100% effective as a means of preventing pregnancy and 0% effective as a way to achieve it.
As I expected, we blew through six months of trying to conceive with the help of egg-making drugs featured in Step 2. I wanted to trust my doctors but intuited that transforming my body into an egg factory wouldn’t solve our problem. If my ovaries were working properly all along, one egg a month should have done the trick years ago.
Step 2’s supposed “mild” drug regimen was anything but. Anyone who spent quality time with me while I took the fertility pill Clomid could tell you I be straight trippin’.
In one week I churned out a semester’s worth of inspired lessons and considered abandoning my baby quest to pursue the title of World’s Greatest Teacher. The next week, I toyed with scrapping my hard-won master’s degree to pursue motherhood come hell or high water. During the Clomid days, I trailed a wake of snappish remarks and angry outbursts. Grief seeped through my pores.
The whole world seemed to conspire against me, from the pregnant teen at the mall to the well-intentioned cousin who invited all moms and children to go first through the Christmas buffet line. And let’s not forget the lab tech who performed an exploratory ultrasound without a word or a smile. Throughout Step 2, I was desperate for hope but too bitter to grab on to a lifeline anyone might have flung my way.
I can't entirely blame the drugs for coming unhinged, though. My loss of balance was also tied to my fierce desire to keep things normal. My mantra was “Fake it ’til you make it,” and I continued to barrel through life while taking no prisoners. A model citizen at work, church, family gatherings, holiday parties, and baby showers, I showed up with a cheerful, if deranged, smile. And if a doctor’s appointment/ultrasound/blood draw/procedure occurred in the middle of my workday—as it nearly always did—I left my gangly middle schoolers in the hands of another teacher, drove to the appointment, braved the procedure, and returned to my students with that same plastic grin.
For fear of missing timely information from my doctor, I answered phone calls at school, although most bore the same old news. Results of pregnancy test: Negative. If my students
noticed my sporadic comings and goings, my frequent hallway breaks to compose myself, they had the grace to let it go. My closest co-workers—fellow teachers and American Sign Language interpreters—became my greatest cheerleaders and counselors, praying for positive test results and discreetly escorting me out of the classroom when tears threatened to breach the dam.
Our next treatment step, IUI (intrauterine insemination), was much the same but boasted an $800 price tag and, therefore, came with higher stakes. Insurance had covered the testing and meds up to Step 3, but with IUI we were on our own. Mark and I scraped together funds for three unsuccessful IUI attempts and then found ourselves at a crossroads.
The sticker price on Step 4, in vitro fertilization (IVF), was around $15,000. Five years into our marriage and even fewer into our careers, we had a mortgage, car loans, and student loans, and were slowly paying off credit card debt.
Was it responsible to consider shelling out this outrageous sum on a treatment with no guarantee? Mark and I could follow perfect protocol during the IVF process and end up with crushing debt and no baby. Did considering such an invasive treatment signal our lack of faith? After all, God didn’t need assistance to make a baby. He placed one in Mary without the help of a husband, who’s usually a key player. Surely he could produce a pregnancy in my defective womb with or without our involvement and without leveraging our financial security, our emotional stability, and the health of our marriage. Couldn’t he? I prayed and pleaded and bargained with God. In despair, I challenged him to meet my emptiness with his power to fill me. And he answered me: Wait.