When it comes to the women in my family (or maybe it’s Asian culture), personal issues are supposed to remain just that – personal. It was only very recently that my mom opened up to me, sharing about the pain and loss she went through as a woman and as a mother. Things she had kept internalized for years that I never knew about. Watching her raise me and my two younger brothers, I saw firsthand being a mom isn’t easy. But what I was never really prepared for was the emotional and physical strain of trying to become a mom.
While I have all the admiration in the world for women who fight their battles quietly, I’m opening up about something very personal in this post. It’s different from the curated version of my life you usually see on my social media, but I think it’s important that we can talk about this kind of struggle without fear of stigma.
The Frustration Cycle
We all have friends who don’t want kids or who are indifferent (“If it happens, it happens”). I respect that, but I’ve always known I wanted to be a mom. Once Nick and I decided to start a family, we naively thought it would happen right away. When it didn’t after several months, I started tracking my ovulation like a hawk (I think Ovia overtook Instagram as my most-used app!) And after that, we probably tried every wives’ tale in the book – Mucinex, “special” lube, headstands. Lots and lots of headstands. You try to keep the negative thoughts from creeping into your head, but it’s hard. There’s always this whisper … maybe there’s something wrong with me.
As time went on, the pregnancy announcements that seemingly surrounded us eventually became babies and then first birthday parties. And while we were genuinely happy for our friends’ milestones, at the same time it was like a depressing re-run that I had to watch on repeat. Every cycle the same. High hopes, scheduling, timing, followed by waiting, and then frustration. And shame. And anger. And always, sadness.
Earlier this year, we finally decided to see a fertility specialist and get tested. It was a few days of getting poked, prodded, and dyed, and plenty of surprise “oh, insurance doesn’t cover that part” bills. When it was over, I was almost wishing for something definitively wrong so we could just “fix” it. But our doctor told us everything looked fine, and started us down a 6-month plan of fertility treatments. Meanwhile, everyone would offer their own advice. Do acupuncture. Don’t stress. Work less. And of course that one line of advice that undoes itself as soon as it’s uttered…“Just don’t think about it.” During this time, the once innocuous question of “so when are you guys having kids?” by well-intending friends and pesky aunts became one more pill to swallow and politely smile through.
After months of the less-invasive treatments without success, the next step would be In Vitro Fertilization (IVF). A more invasive, more expensive, and even more emotionally draining procedure.
For those who aren’t familiar, the IVF process starts with a few weeks of daily self-injections into the abdomen to essentially trick your ovaries into becoming an egg factory. Your doctors monitor egg progress at the crack of dawn almost daily by drawing blood and doing vaginal ultrasounds (let’s just say, it’s not an EXTERNAL ultrasound), and then determine your injection dosages for that night. Next, surgery is performed to retrieve as many eggs as possible, which are then fertilized externally with sperm before being transferred back into the ovaries as an embryo.
However, since our tests indicated nothing was wrong, we were told our insurance would not cover IVF. And without insurance, it can become quite expensive because each cycle brings only a chance of success, and each attempt could cost upwards of $15-20k. Needless to say, at this point I’m not doing so well following the “not stressing” or “not thinking about it” advice!
An Insurance Mix-up
This August when I got my period again, I just felt empty and defeated. We made the hard decision to pay for round 1 of IVF out of pocket, and to figure out the rest as it unfolded. As a last ditch effort, I had our doctor submit the case anyway even though we were told insurance wouldn’t cover it … and we were dumbfounded by the response. Our insurance said that our test results (from over half a year ago) showed sufficient abnormalities to approve IVF coverage. Had we submitted it sooner, it would’ve been approved immediately at the time. I’ve never felt so frustrated and relieved simultaneously.
Where We’re At
Last month we officially started IVF. Probably the most emotionally loaded three letters I’ve ever typed. The fertility journey is a roller coaster, and one of the hardest parts is you never know how far along the ride you are. The ultimate unknown and worst part, is that you could go through it without success. That you do all of it for just a chance to be a mother, and you might have to do it again and again.
Throughout it all, I’ve felt ashamed and frustrated that my body couldn’t do something that a woman should be able to do. Lonely because there was no one to talk to who I felt would understand. Jealous every time there was a new pregnancy announcement, especially from those who weren’t even trying. Guilt, for even feeling that way. Left behind as I watched seemingly every friend and peer graduate onto the next chapter, wondering when it’d be our turn. And silly, knowing how many women go through years of infertility, miscarriages, and so much worse compared to me.
But sometimes, you just have to focus on what’s right in front of you. And in this case, that meant confronting the cooler full of syringes that arrived on our doorstep. As someone who turns into a 5-year old girl at the sight of needles, the daily injections and blood drawings never got easier. And then there were all the unnatural changes to my body from the hormones. The feeling of having no control over the outcome. This week, while waiting alone in pre-op before egg retrieval surgery, I was fighting nausea from the IV and felt tears start to roll down my face uncontrollably. A nurse came in and asked why I was crying, and I just couldn’t explain and didn’t want to have to explain. It was both nothing in particular and everything all at once.
Now, I’m writing this recovering on the couch, wrapped in a heating pad, awaiting news on how many embryos made it and will continue on to the next step. Infertility and IVF gets mentioned so much these days – whether it’s on TV or through a friend – it almost seems commonplace. But that shouldn’t take away from how tremendously brave and strong each woman is throughout her unique journey. It’s something we shouldn’t be afraid of talking about. Because it’s something that no one should have to take on alone.
So whether you have kids or don’t want kids; whether this topic is far off in your future or you’re in the middle of it right now – thank you for lending an ear and letting me open up.