More often than not, the quest toward motherhood includes a few unplanned bumps, but for some women, the difficulties start with the first step: getting pregnant. If you’re having trouble conceiving, there can still be a happy ending in your future—even if your path to parenthood looks a little different than you imagined.
Light in the dark Once you’ve decided to start or add to your family, you can’t help but feel a charge of excitement. When your mind wanders, you’ll think about potential names and where the crib would look best. You’ll start to window shop for tiny clothes and maybe create a new Pinterest board to house your baby-related inspiration. But for some couples, the thrill begins to wane as month after month passes without a positive pregnancy test in sight.
Samantha Busch, wife of NASCAR driver Kyle Busch, in Charlotte, North Carolina, dreamed of being a mother, but it took years to get to where she is now—a mom to a 3-month-old baby boy. “Struggling with fertility is something many women of all ages go through, but fertility treatment was a path I never anticipated having to take,” she wrote on her blog in November 2014. “With [my husband and I] being young, fit and healthy, we just assumed we would have no issues when we were ready to start our family.”
Busch’s experience is far from atypical. According to the National Survey of Family Growth, one in eight couples has difficulties getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy.
Jennifer Gravely in Martinsville, Virginia, didn’t have a diagnosed fertility issue, but she and her other half chose in vitro fertilization (IVF) for different reasons. Her husband has Stage IV colon cancer, and the pair was advised not to conceive naturally because of his chemotherapy treatment.
“It kind of zapped some of the excitement out of the process,” she shares. “But disappointment turned to awe and joy when we learned we could do genetic testing on our embryos.” They were able to screen for the genetic mutation that triggered her husband’s cancer.
Staying positive through the negatives
When you’ve lost count of the number of pregnancy tests you’ve taken, it can be discouraging as yet another one reminds you that you’re still not pregnant.
“I really struggled with being depressed and embarrassed that I was having so much trouble having a child,” recalls Busch. “I came down very hard on myself and was upset that I could not have a baby ‘normally.’”
For Busch, that waiting period was especially trying because so many of her friends were getting pregnant. “One day I found out that seven of my friends were having babies and that four of my Pinterest announcement ideas were taken,” she says. “I promptly had a Stage 5 meltdown.” The new mom is clear that she was happy for her girlfriends, but she longed for a baby of her own.
Looking for support, Gravely joined a few online discussion groups and recommends others do the same. “No one knows what you’re going through besides other women who are in your shoes,” she says. “There are countless awe-inspiring stories of women who’ve had multiple miscarriages, failed IVF cycles and so forth, who now have babies or babies on the way. It feels less insurmountable when you share your story, get feedback and connect with others.”
If you’re struggling to conceive, try to remember these two things: (1) There’s no use in comparing yourself to others. (2) It isn’t your fault—or anyone else’s.
“Although it’s not fun sticking needles in your stomach, there is a silver lining to everything,” says Busch. What good could IVF bring about (aside from a baby)? After leaning on her husband more than ever before, Busch believes IVF brought the duo closer together. “Just to see and feel the unconditional love and support he gave me was really what made me stronger and able to get through each day.”
The next step
There are a number of fertility treatment options available, but what works best for you will depend on your individual diagnosis, which is why it’s important that you feel comfortable with your chosen physician and embryology laboratory, says Mindy Berkson, an infertility consultant in Dallas. “Sometimes just knowing what to ask can be difficult,” she says. “Being able to consult with a fertility consultant can be helpful in guiding you through the course of treatment.”
One of the most common causes of infertility is delayed childbearing, says Berkson. A woman is born with a finite number of eggs, and from the onset menstruation, that supply steadily decreases. “By the time a woman reaches 30 years of age, her egg supply is diminished by approximately 90 percent,” she explains. (Older women can improve their chances by using an egg donor.)
If egg quantity isn’t an issue, IVF is a common route that couples take. In this procedure, a woman follows a regimen of hormone injections to stimulate egg growth. Afterward, eggs are retrieved and fertilized in a lab with partner or donor sperm to create embryos, which are then monitored for growth and appropriate cell division over three to five days. One or two will then be transferred to the woman’s or surrogate’s uterus.
“Seeing the ultrasound pictures of my growing follicles brought me to tears,” says Gravely. “I called them my half babies. Knowing that we have embryos that could become our children is incredible. I am so grateful that this was an option for us, and I’m thrilled beyond belief that we are making a family.”
Gravely confesses it took her a full 30 minutes to stick the needle in her stomach the first time. “The needle wasn’t very big at all, but looking down at your belly and knowing you had to plunge in the needle was a hard hurdle to get over,” she says. Aside from the burning sensation of one drug and a little tenderness, Gravely quickly realized it didn’t hurt that badly. By the end, she’d injected herself with four drugs 22 times.
When Busch was told she’d have to go through IVF, she felt a mix of anxiety and, surprisingly, joy—she finally had an answer and a plan in place. Having a good support system, she notes, makes it bearable. She and her husband made light of the situation as best they could. (When a nurse explained to Kyle that he should inject the needle fast at a 45-degree angle, she offered him an apple to practice on. But he saw the panic in Busch’s eyes, and he calmly said, “It’s a piece of cake,” took an alcohol wipe, lifted his shirt, and jabbed the clean needle into his stomach.)
“To be honest,” Busch adds, “the second you hear your child’s heartbeat for the first time, the memories of all those injections—or any other side effects you may have—seem to disappear.”
The end of the tunnel
Just when you couldn’t feel more like a pincushion, it will be egg retrieval day. You’ll find out how many eggs were collected, but be prepared for that number to drop—usually drastically. Only a limited number will be able to be fertilized, and not all will grow as they should. If you opt for genetic testing, you could end up with even fewer.
Busch’s doctors collected 34 eggs, but only 14 were fertilized. Eventually eight came back as having the correct number of chromosomes—five male embryos and three female embryos. (You can let your doctor randomly choose which to implant, so baby’s sex is still a surprise.)
Before implantation, you’ll have a strict regimen of estrogen patches, shots and more to prep your body for the big day. Then it will be another 12 to 14 days of waiting before a blood test can confirm whether the implantation was a success.
Busch’s patience didn’t last that long. On day eight, she took an at-home pregnancy test. “We put the test on the other side of the room, so we wouldn’t keep checking it,” she recalls. When the timer on her phone went off, they ran over to see two pink lines. “We knew we shouldn’t get our hopes up too much until it was confirmed by the doctor, but we were still over the moon.”
Whatever circumstances lead you to seek out fertility treatment options, try to keep an open mind. “My best advice: After gathering information, be receptive to all treatment options,” says Berkson. It might not be how you imagined your pregnancy beginning, but the end goal is still the same—a happy, healthy baby in your arms.