I like to talk and write a lot – about almost anything. As a journalist by training I have always had that stereotypical interest in anything and anyone. There was always a story to uncover.
Except there was one story I could never bear to write. Not officially, anyway, and not for just anyone to read. Over the last decade, many friends have encouraged me and wondered why I hadn’t written about my struggles to conceive. But somehow, documenting my fertility story felt too close to home and, more poignantly, I couldn’t face that the story may be over.
Don’t get me wrong, I certainly talked about all these things a lot – openly with friends and strangers alike – as I knew it was important to overcome my pride and not let my emotions fester away. But somehow writing it down made it like an official record — and I simply wasn’t ready to accept that version of the story.
From the very beginning, I was driven by the belief that the more women talk about fertility issues and share their experiences, the more we lessen the stigma that plagued my parents’ generation. During my efforts to get pregnant, I learned there were genetic links to fertility issues – many associated with immune disorders that were prevalent in my family. I became very disheartened when I asked family members “do you think so-and-so didn’t have children because they had issues with fertility?” and they all admitted they never asked, were never confided in and that it just wasn’t spoken of.
To me, this seemed like almost more of a tragedy than the reality of not being able to conceive. I often wondered if these couples were still mourning the isolation and the shame even more than their life spent without children. My own grandmother never broached the subject head-on with her daughter who was in a childless marriage for 30 years and a teacher who was passionate about children. It just wasn’t done – at least not in my Anglo-Protestant-Canadian enclave.
But here’s the thing: I did eventually get pregnant. I am very proud to report that I am the extraordinarily blessed mother of 8 year-old boy-girl twins. However, the scars left behind from the fertility trenches were still there, and what was perhaps even worse, I seemed to have more fight in me.
When I was initially trying to get pregnant I cringed at the words “maybe if you stopped thinking about it?” or “you are too hard on yourself, you need to relax and try to be happy.” I have spoken to other women about these types of comments. They are offered with good intentions but are not particularly helpful when you’re on the other side. Of course, I knew that stress manifests itself physically and is hugely counterproductive. And after all, look at those friends who got pregnant on a party week in Ibiza only to give birth to a perfectly healthy baby 9 months later…
So I embraced not trying, not thinking about it, not mapping out my menstrual cycle and watching what I eat. I dove into work: covering theatre, music and visual arts stories in London along with the occasional Al Qaeda backgrounder for a Canadian Broadcaster. This was the post-911 era and news was humming. My husband and I traveled, partied and tried not to think about my looming biological clock.
Madonna, who was living in London at the time, gave birth to a son in her early 40s and became a very public example of what was possible. I was still just 34. I now realize this was relatively young but I had endometriosis and I suspected I had had it for a long time. My husband and I were living the single life in a fabulous European city and there was no shortage of distractions and friends – but I was just ready. I wanted a family.
I won’t bore you with all the details but here is a short synopsis. After two hysteroscopies, various rounds of timed cycles with estrogen-boosting drugs, intrauterine inseminations (IUIs), a hysterosalpingogram, Chinese herbs and acupuncture, a Sri Lankan aryuvedic guru, “not trying” and a failed IVF, I finally got pregnant with my second attempt at IVF. And then there were two embryos on that first 6-week ultrasound – twins – and at 20 weeks I was told I had a boy and a girl! Finally, on the summer solstice in 2005, I gave birth naturally to my precious rays of light – Leo and Issy. It was the best day of my life.
I know deep down on that day I wondered if God had given me that master-stroke of good fortune – a healthy boy and a girl – how could I possibly ask for another baby after that? And yet, I did eventually long for another. And this was even more taboo than talking about not being able to conceive in the first place.
So despite generally considering myself an open-book, somehow writing my feelings down on this issue felt like writing an epilogue to a story that in my heart wasn’t finished yet. I hoped my story would end with another baby, the one who came naturally after I stopped trying because I already had two kids and was happy and wasn’t thinking about it. And, the kicker to all this was, this felt greedy. After all, I had been very fortunate. I shouldn’t appear ungrateful and push my luck.
I also sensed that a number of friends and family who had been on this journey with me felt I should be happy with what I had already been blessed with. And I was! And I still am! But somehow I couldn’t just stop being broody. A woman once told me that feeling never goes away. I get that now.
Meanwhile, over the course of five years of prodding, hormone injections and failure, my self-esteem had been slowly eroding. Privately, I had begun to question my femininity (because fertile equals feminine, right?). Over time my lame reproductive system affected not only my idea of who I was as a woman but also my relationship with my partner. You try not to get stuck in that proverbial trap but eventually you find yourself in the place where sex is no longer carefree and fun. It becomes a rollercoaster where you get your hopes up that a miracle will occur with each liaison coupled with inevitable and repeated failure. It causes you to start protecting yourself, anticipating the worse and, well, you can just see how unsexy that all is.
But here is the really confusing part, in my heart, when I was truly honest and not just torturing myself, I still believed I could get pregnant naturally. Some people say the best cure for infertility is getting pregnant – it is like a reboot of your system. And I had been pregnant – I had carried two babies and delivered them naturally. Surely this meant I had it in me.
In addition to all this, I’ve always had an athletic mindset — I felt tough and was determined. I ran two marathons, a handful of half-marathons and 10 k races just to prove to myself that my body was strong. And secretly, I continued to believe. Even as I rode the waves of hope and disappointment again and again – I still had faith.
It wasn’t the same as the first time to be sure. I was never delusional about that. It was a completely different experience walking into a fertility clinic and looking at all those ashen faces remembering when I had sat there waiting to be told my treatment hadn’t worked, again. I had two healthy toddlers at home.
I tried twice to have frozen embryos from my second IVF cycle transferred: first when my twins were two years old and then again when they were about three and a half. I was living in Dubai by then and the country’s Muslim-influenced views on reproductive technology prevented me from doing the treatment there so I had to travel back to London.
Both efforts failed and the last one in spectacular fashion. A rare confluence of immunosuppressant drugs, stress and strep throat led to a spontaneous eruption of guttate psyrroisis. In my case, this manifested itself in flaming red welts over every inch of my body – except my face, thankfully. The dermatologist had never seen such an extreme outbreak and prescribed a cure of ultra violet rays (vitamin D) and bathing in salt water. The irony of my proximity to the salty Arabian Sea and the scorching sunlight of the Emirates in May felt scathing. I covered from head-to-toe for about 6 weeks to hide my spots (fortunately not suspicious behavior in this part of the world) and clandestinely sunbathed frying away my sadness. This is when things finally changed. With two toddlers, I just didn’t have the energy or the finances to justify expensive medical odysseys for a while. I felt guilty. And I knew I had to take a step back.
I told friends that I felt it was a sign and privately I tried to convince myself of this too. But secretly I still believed. I openly swooned at the sight of young babies and held out the dream of a big, chaotic family.
It has been years now since I’ve had paying work – instead I’ve become a professional volunteer at my children’s school, assisted some local charities’ efforts in Africa and started a children’s clothing line (Moon & Cocoon) which, while keeping me occupied, barely broke even.
I am 43 now and I feel age has finally caught up with me. I love my children more than anything in the world and celebrate the symmetry of my family of four. We are fortunate to have travelled extensively together and I love that they are at an age where we can move around easily and explore the world.
I will always yearn for more babies – there, it’s on the record. I love taking care of them. I love the responsibility and the limitations on my freedom. I love being at home and reliving all the milestones of childhood while trying to do things differently and better for my children as best I can. I haven’t looked back at a lost career with regret. I have cherished the gift of motherhood and loved it so much – I wanted to do it all over again. But for now I own my longing and pour it back into my two beautiful children, their friends, my nieces and nephews and any child in my care.
I long, I love, and I move on.