Like many couples, my husband and I began dreaming about having children soon after we were married. Becoming parents was something we knew we wanted for years, but the reality of certain factors in our life made our journey to parenthood a little more difficult than initially anticipated. While filled with challenges and obstacles, our fertility journey has ultimately made our relationship and each of us stronger. No matter what we endured, we believed that we would someday, somehow, be blessed with children.
Underpinning our journey to parenthood has been the rare gastrointestinal motility disorder I have been living with for many years. While I knew this chronic illness would impact my daily life, I still had an immense desire to be a mom. This desire persisted even during extreme relapses in my health when life-changing interventions were necessary. One such intervention was a surgery in which my large bowel was removed, resulting in a permanent ileostomy. I soon learned that as a result of my illness and the medical procedures I had undergone, I would likely have a difficult time getting pregnant when my husband and I decided to start trying.
Upon learning this, I began to question my physical ability to carry a child given my medical condition. The question “Can I become a mother while having such an invasive, chronic illness?” loomed over me like a dark cloud. Still, my desire to have a child was stronger than my self-doubt, and after undergoing numerous assessments to gauge my health, and receiving unwavering personal support from our local fertility group, Conceivable Dreams, my husband and I felt emotionally ready to explore our options when it came to seeking assisted reproductive treatment.
The journey begins
During the first five years of our fertility journey, we went through an array of first-time experiences, including fertility medications, IUIs, IVF cycles, embryo transfers, and yes, loss. With these experiences came many different emotions ranging from anxiety and nervousness, to fright and shame. I, myself, harnessed deep feelings of guilt and self-blame. After all, I was the one who had the chronic health condition; I was the one who couldn’t get pregnant. With each new cycle, the stakes felt higher than the last. The mounting stress augmented my desperation to get pregnant.
Through it all, my husband was my biggest support system, always believing that we would one day have a child. He attended the clinic appointments and cycle monitoring with me as much as he could, and we tried our best to communicate our fears, worries, and hopes with one another. While at times it was difficult for him to relate to the pressure and self-blame I had placed on myself each time we found out we weren’t pregnant, my husband knew and sympathized with the fact that it was me who was experiencing the physical and emotional changes in my body – the cycle monitoring, the hormones, the procedures, etc. Although we were dedicated to our journey to parenthood together, we shared different experiences. Being mindful of each other’s perspective and openly sharing our feelings was integral to us navigating this important journey together.
Emotions weren’t the only thing my husband and I invested during those first five years of fertility treatments. Also at play was a huge financial commitment that involved us taking out loans, increasing credit card debts, and downsizing our home – all in the hopes of having a child. Being ruled by my fertility cycle also led to me having to take large amounts of time off work which only added to the emotional stress I was experiencing, at times even exacerbating my primary health challenges. After years of trying unsuccessfully to conceive, we began to wonder how much longer we could keep going – though in my heart I knew I’d keep trying forever if I could.
Then, one day, our lives changed forever. Following a successful round of IVF and a fresh embryo transfer, we received a call from our nurse delivering the monumental news that we were pregnant! We cried many tears of joy in that moment as our hearts filled with love for our baby. Nine months later we gave birth to a beautiful five-pound girl, whom we named Cecelia. Now a thriving two-year-old, she is a shining, ever-present reminder of what we were able to create through our first fertility journey. We are in awe of her every day.
By the time Cecelia turned one, my husband and I had already begun the conversation about trying for our second child with our frozen embryos. We had always dreamt of having more than one child, and, having each grown up with siblings, wanted to try to give our daughter a little brother or sister. Shortly after her first birthday, we embarked on our second IVF journey and, after another successful transfer, found out we were pregnant once again. The thought of expanding our family filled us with joy and excitement.
Sadly, our second baby was only with us for a short time and we miscarried at six weeks, an event which left us absolutely heartbroken. A few months later, when we had healed to the best of our ability, we decided to try again with our remaining embryos without success. We were devastated. Once again, I began to internalize a great deal of self-blame, and wondered if I would ever be physically able to handle a second pregnancy.
As my husband and I began to work through our loss and decide whether we wanted to continue on this second IVF journey, we started to question the lack of dialogue we were having with other fertility patients we knew were facing similar challenges. We thought about all the hours we had spent over the years sitting silently in our fertility clinic’s waiting room alongside other silent couples, and how we all went out of our way to avoid engaging in discussion or even make eye contact. For many of us, it was far easier to hide our face in a book or our smart phones, or to stare at a television screen than to discuss the issue we knew had brought us all there. Infertility had touched every part of each of our lives – yet no one wanted to talk about it!
A new perspective
It was around that time that I made the conscious decision to shift the way I thought about my own fertility treatments. I knew that if I was going to embark on a second IVF journey, I would need to find mental and emotional wellness, as well as foster positive thoughts of fertility. The self-blame and doubt I had harnessed for so long were destructive and would only hinder our progress. I needed to believe in myself, my husband and our family’s ability to grow; Cecelia was, after all, proof of all that was possible. Committing myself to this new perspective, I immediately stopped thinking of myself as “infertile” and instead instilled in my mind the belief that I was more than capable of having another child.
I also knew I needed to break down the wall of fear that for so long had prevented me from discussing our struggle and previous success with others. My husband and I were proud that Cecelia was an IVF baby and were grateful for the opportunity to have a second child through the same process. This time, however, we didn’t want to take on the challenge alone. We wanted to have conversations with others who were experiencing the same things; I especially wanted to ask how they were feeling physically, emotionally, and spiritually, knowing those same questions would have helped me feel less isolated during my first IVF journey three years earlier.
As part of this quest to foster discussion, I began to get more involved in our community fertility group, Conceivable Dreams. While I had been a silent member of the IVF advocacy group for many years, I now began to actively reach out to other patient members and participate in the conversations that were happening on the group’s social media channels and at monthly meetings. I also began to use the time that I was spending at our clinic to ask other patients how they were doing and congratulate them on where they were in their fertility journeys, because, having been through the experience myself, I know how important it is to acknowledge and celebrate each and every moment along the way.
Shortly after I decided to change how I viewed my fertility, my husband and I were blessed with the wonderful news that we had been selected by our local clinic to receive a funded IVF cycle through the Ontario government’s newly-launched IVF funding program. Besides filling us with immense gratitude, the news rejuvenated our spirits and reminded us of life’s wonderful unpredictability. This past January we began our IVF cycle and completed our egg retrieval procedure. Through the process our doctors were able to create five beautiful embryos, which we decided to freeze in order to give me enough time to recover from the procedure before proceeding with the embryo transfer. At present, we are waiting for my full recovery and are filled with hope that we will be able to have an embryo transfer that will lead to a successful pregnancy in the near future.
As my husband and I continue on our journey to grow our family, we recognize more than ever the importance of sharing the story of how our family came to be. We are hopeful that by talking about our experience, we may be able to help lessen the stigma surrounding the topics of infertility and assistive reproduction treatments present in our society. By letting others know that they are far from alone in their struggle, it is our goal to help decrease the feelings of shame and self-blame both men and women are known to feel as they navigate their own fertility journeys.
While our path to parenthood may differ from that of others and our experiences are unique to us, we are proud of our story and grateful for the journey we are presently pursuing to grow our family. If you or someone you know is set to embark on their own fertility journey, or interested in connecting with other fertility patients to discuss shared experiences, I encourage you to learn more about Conceivable Dreams by visiting www.ConceivableDreams.org.
Taunya Wideman-Johnston is an advocate for issues related to living with infertility, chronic illness, and disabilities. She recently completed her PhD in education investigating the extraordinary gifts received from living with a chronic illness. Taunya shares her life with her husband, daughter, and their dog. Follow her on Twitter at: @WomanwithDIGITS or Read her blog Manifesting Wellness.