When the Dream Doesn't Happen... An Infertility Story
Today, Tina speaks with her sister-in-law, Michelle, about her journey with infertility.
As Mother's Day approaches, a special day for mom's, we will hear many stories of women's paths to becoming moms, as well as raising their children. We will even hear inspirational stories about women who struggled with infertility and had miracle babies! While these stories are absolutely amazing and precious, we will most likely NOT hear many about the experiences of long, difficult journeys with infertility that didn't end with pregnancy and birth. But these stories deserve to be told, and need to be heard.
Listen in as Michelle vulnerably shares her story about a dream that didn't happen. A dream that deserved to be acknowledged, explored, and grieved... so that her future could still be full and wonderful.
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Welcome back to another episode on Life’s Seasons Speaks. Listen, ya’ll were so supportive of Michelle getting OLD, that when I asked her to join us again, and she said YES! So, thank you for being wonderful listeners. We appreciate your feedback and the encouragement you give us. You’ve been so safe to be vulnerably honest with, that I felt safe asking Michelle to share with us a very delicate, but important topic.
So first, I say thank you Michelle, for agreeing to return... after I called you OLD, several times. That was okay since you are older, and I truly appreciate being invited back! I really do appreciate you and how much you put up with me. But I also very much appreciate your honesty and willingness to talk about tough things. And I want to emphasize that this is a tough topic. I need to say that, because I know you’re going to speak in such a way that people could forget it’s tough. You’ll likely make it sound much easier than it normally is, because you’re just good at speaking. You are a teacher. You might even have a teacher mode, in which you share info in.
It is like you know me! LOL....I often go into work mode to avoid tough emotions but today I am going to try to be present, authentic and genuine about my experience. Every individual who has any experience with this topic truly has their own story. My intent today is to vulnerably share MY story. I am not naïve enough to think others would have the same story, feelings, emotions, thoughts or even behaviors around this topic but I am hopeful that people can learn, reflect and have some perspective.
So again, even though you are going to deliver what you share with us today, well, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. I want to acknowledge that specifically. I don’t want to lose sight of that.
And I asked you to be here and share with us on the topic of infertility on the week of Mother’s Day. I know why I’ve done that. You know why I asked. But even in understanding the why, please tell me, was that insensitive of me? Because I want to be the first to say that I have no experience in this. I have good intentions, I have respect, and I of course have tons of love, for you specifically, but I also run the risk of offending, hurting, or just being ignorantly insensitive. I know that. I apologize now and ask you to please teach me as we talk, about anything I need to do better in.
For me this wasn’t insensitive of you at all, truly the opposite. As someone who has struggled with infertility it is usually the time of year that is avoided. People haven’t always known how to act around me regarding Mother's Day. I am very thankful to be here today to discuss this. Actually, last week was National Infertility Awareness Week and this coming weekend we celebrate all moms, so this is a perfect time.
I feel like there have been so many stories of the struggle to get pregnant, most of which have a happy ending with a baby. But I am here today to tell you that is not always the case and the stories of the woman who do not have babies rarely get told. When the years of struggle amount to just sadness instead of that happy joyous moment of having a baby. But that doesn’t mean you can’t heal, and it doesn’t mean your life can’t be full.
I’m going to take a guess that you knowing that healing, and having a full life is possible... wasn’t an instant realization. Or even something that you thought you might have to find out. Is it something you just always knew? Or something you learned while healing?
When I was in the moment, I did not think I would ever be okay again. My story may not have the happy ending of a biological baby, but it definitely has a happy ending and today I realize how truly blessed I am BUT I did not always know that I would have a full life or a life at all. When I went on this journey at the age of 30, I was already geriatric, regarding pregnancy. Talk about feeling OLD when I wasn't old at all unlike today...lol.... attempted for a year with no luck. Started on meds. Still no luck and was referred to a clinic in London. Did 10 IUI’s and 2 rounds of IVF. Pain, sadness and trauma to the body and mind.
Ok, that was about 5 sentences in reality. But if that were a show, that would have been probably 5 seasons. So, if we can back up just a little bit for a minute.
A year of trying. Full of constant hope? Waves of hope? Fading hope? What does the calendar do to you in this situation?
The year of trying started with so much hope, so many plans and a bright future with my baby in my arms. About 6 months in, the hope started to fade with each passing month. Every month when my period was supposed to come, the date became an obsession. Paying close attention to my body to see if there were any changes...were there any signs of possible pregnancy? I went to my family doctor to ask questions, see what next steps there were. I was referred to an OBGYN and anxiously waited for that first appointment. They suggested medication as sometimes our ovaries may need a little push...who knew?
And then started meds. Was this renewed hope? Guarded hope? Fear?
The meds brought renewed hope for sure. These little pills were going to be the answer. But in the back of my mind there was always that fear of what if this doesn’t work?
I was also dealing with the effects of the meds, specifically significant mood swings.
Was that fear ok to show, verbalize, share? Did you have anyone to be scared with?
I knew a couple people who struggled with infertility as well so I was fortunate to have people I could go to and talk with and ask questions. I will forever be thankful for those people who answered the tough questions and gave the great advice. Then they got pregnant and had beautiful babies and I did not. So, I felt alone again.... The meds didn’t work.
Ok, I can see the impact it would have to be with people understanding the same experience. To be seen and heard and in it with someone. But then they get pregnant. I cannot imagine the multitude of emotions in you at that time. Because I would completely understand a bund of negative emotions. But I also know you and how honestly and truly happy you would have been for those women and families. But also feeling left behind? Alone again?
And can I ask more about IUI’s and IVF? Cause again, I really don’t know much about this. I apologize but what does that stand for?
Absolutely! Sometimes I forget that this isn’t common language. Once the meds didn’t work, I was referred to a clinic in London as at that time Sarnia did not have one-they do now thankfully! So, we went to appointments to learn about the options. We started with IUI which stands for In uterine insemination, this is generally the next step after just medications do not work. The process is for the man to produce a semen sample into a cup, and they have their sperm “washed” to get the most viable sperm. Once that is complete, I would have the semen inserted directly into my uterus in hopes to have a better chance of fertilizing an egg.
That sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? BUT what people do not realize is that in order to know the perfect timing for this procedure to occur a significant amount of testing and observation needs to occur. I had blood work and vaginal ultrasounds done regularly to track how my ovaries were doing and to determine the perfect time for the IUI to occur. As you recall, my clinic was in London so this meant driving to London at 5am numerous days each week for monitoring and then returning so I could work. Financially this was the cheapest option. It cost 200 bucks per round for the sperm washing. Fortunately, I had excellent benefits at my place of employment and all my meds were 100% covered. Even though I stated the meds alone didn’t work, medication is a huge part of each of these treatments.
I believe I did 10 rounds of IUI. None were successful so the next option was IVF.
IVF stands for Invitro Fertilization. The monitoring was the same, bloodwork and vaginal ultrasounds in London. The medications were enhanced, I now had to give myself injections on top of oral medication. But the clinic I used in London did not do the actual IVF, so I had to go to Toronto for the treatment. The first part is called retrieval where they take out your eggs and mix them with sperm. The embryos need to grow so I had to go back 3 days later for the implantation of the embryos. Then you just wait for 2 weeks and see if you are pregnant. Financially this cost about $10,000 each time. I did this twice.
Again here, I find myself wanting to ask you, who could really be there for you? But I also feel like, and please correct me here, because I could be out of line assuming, but CAN anyone actually be there for you in this? Because no one else is having that physical experience you are having. They won’t get it. No one else is experiencing the same sadness and grief and fear and trauma you are experiencing either. Maybe they are in their own way for themselves or for what it means to them to watch you have to go through this, but only you are feeling this the way you are.
Sadly, this is very accurate. I had people who had been through the process before, and I was able to chat to them and ask questions but there are so many different variables for each person's experience. This is why I am always available to anybody to talk about their experiences. People have reached out to me once I started telling my story and through word of mouth. Although I cannot know how someone else is fully experiencing their journey, having similar experiences and being open about it can definitely help others and has. I appreciated having people to talk it through with even though the feelings and results may have been different.
Am I wrong? And if I’m not, how lonely was that? And I ask this too, knowing that was a major goal of yours in sharing this. Reaching someone listening to say, “you are not alone”.
Lonely is an understatement if that is possible. The feeling of being utterly alone in my own head was so incredibly difficult. Being a helper, I turned to my work. So, I also knew the importance of counselling and support, so I started searching for that. The clinic I attended had listed support groups in London and Windsor but not in Sarnia and this was before the idea of virtual support groups. So, I wanted a counsellor. This was an impossible mission. I could not find one locally. I ended up going to the States and found a counsellor who specializes in infertility, I felt hope again that someone could help me emotionally. I was so excited and relieved about finding a counsellor who stated that she did understand, and I walked into her office, first saw she had a beautiful picture of her two kids prominently displayed on her desk, it was literally the first thing I saw. I burst into tears and left.
That detail hits me hard. As a counsellor who needs to be very aware of my space being safe, I appreciate you making that so clear for me to realize... but also, I’m angry and sad too... that in the midst of how much there was for you to deal with, we add on to you, more than is necessary with our thoughtlessness. Sometimes our good intentions aren’t enough.
As a counsellor myself, I understand the desire to have a picture of your family in your office, I really do but it is imperative that people check their environment based on the clients they are serving. Just putting the pic away for my session would have made a world of difference for me at least until I had a relationship built.
Comments from people……just relax and it will happen, you will be such a good mom, God will make it happen because you need to have kids, just have a few drinks and relax and it will happen, stop trying and it will happen
All well-intentioned comments. Meant to comfort and encourage. But in the counselling world we call that secondary wounding. It’s hurting your hurt, with what we tried to comfort you with.
I realize this is a tough topic and a touchy situation and many people do not know how to navigate it, but just being with someone or saying that must be hard is all I would have needed. In addition to the comments, every month, it would feel like a funeral when I would get my period. I felt the weight of the loss over and over again. The constant question around why does God not want me to be a mom? Questioning if I was a good enough person, maybe I was just going to be a bad mom, so God did not want that for one of his children.
And in all those very heavy thoughts and feelings, I’m hearing you refer back to God being the ultimate decider of all this, based on you deserving this or not. And that’s a HUGE topic, that I would love to tackle with you someday, even just over Reece's peanut butter cups, because I know your thoughts are different now and that journey is very intriguing to me... but were you ever able to hear anyone say anything that didn’t back up this thought of you being punished by God, or at least not “earning” pregnancy?
As long as you supply the Peanut Butter cups, I am there! LOL This is a huge topic that I have such a different view of today. And lots of people would say the right things but I could not hear it in those moments.
I can recall the moment when I took a pregnancy test after my first IVF and it was positive, I was so excited. I thought, this was it, I was finally going to get my dream of becoming a mom. Two weeks later I lost that baby. The comments from very close people were - you got pregnant once so it can happen again. I was angry, nobody could understand this. My friends had or were having babies. I was so happy for them but so sad for me. People would tip toe around me talking about babies.
I had a co-worker call to tell me she was pregnant before she told anyone else at work so I would have time to process and not be taken off guard when she announced. This one act of compassion and empathy really cemented to me that I was oblivious in my grief.
Unpack that statement for me if you don’t mind doing that... “This one act of compassion and empathy really cemented to me that I was oblivious in my grief”
I didn’t realize at the time that I was wearing my grief for the world to see. The fact that this coworker realized this and was concerned about my feelings in the face of one of the happiest times of her life was so incredibly heartwarming and so appreciated but it was a realization that I was so sad. I was living this grief each moment and not allowing the time for it as I was focused on what the next step could be. I was totally oblivious to my own intense pain.
A loss is an understatement. Loss of a dream. Loss of babies. Loss of a sense of self. Loss of me as a woman. Loss of me as a wife.
Ok, here is a spot where I am afraid to offend, but I sincerely wonder here... Did your loss ever twist in with the sense or thought or feeling of failure? Because YES, massive loss on so many levels. But did the loss ever feel also like failure?
Oh yes! A huge, massive failure. In every aspect of my life to be honest. First as woman-isn’t that our purpose in life-to reproduce? As a wife-my job was to grow a family. As a daughter-I was supposed to provide grandbabies. I couldn’t give my nieces and nephews a cousin. My body was a failure, what was my purpose then?
Then with every period, every negative pregnancy test, the loss of two pregnancies.... a complete failure. I could not get pregnant, and I could not stay pregnant.
No matter what I did, I was failing. I changed my diet, lost weight, went to the gym, took vitamins, quit smoking, didn’t drink, tried different teas, herbal medication and even tried acupuncture but nothing worked. I couldn’t do it, I was a failure.
I don’t think people are aware of the complexity of impact this has on someone. It’s not just trying to get pregnant and then a period of grief when you don’t and then deciding to move forward.
You’re right. It is big and messy and engulfing. But it does also, at some point, require a decision to move forward or not. And I did choose to. But first I had to learn to accept what was my reality.
All that loss needed to be separated from false guilt, shame, and sense of failure and the old me with my old dreams deserved to be grieved, in order to find and become and get to know the “new” me.
I refuse to allow this to define who I am.
And I want to repeat... it was your decision. Coming to this place in life required you to make a decision, YOU. Not someone else for you. Not someone else deciding who you were to be, and what you were to do with your thoughts and feelings. And the decision you ultimately made was to feel the grief of all the loss of plans and hopes and dreams. Not to get over them, but to allow yourself a future, and a good future, EVEN THOUGH this loss was so very real.
I had to think about what I was missing without my own baby. This took lots and lots of reflection. I wanted to be a mom but what did that mean to me? It meant giving love unconditionally, being a role model, supporting their dreams, guiding, encouraging, soothing dark moments and fears, being present but then I realized that I was that. I was that to my nieces and nephews and to the kids I had worked with all my life. No, it isn’t the same at all, but I was still giving and receiving the love I had craved. It filled that deep part of me that longed to be a mom. I said for years that becoming an aunt was the greatest gift I was given, I got to be all of the things I discussed above and didn’t have to pay for them.
As you & Jenny have spoken about in previous podcasts, I had to learn to normalize discomfort. I had to accept it. I spent approximately 7 years trying to get pregnant. I had people in my life that also struggled with infertility and were attending clinics in London and one by one I watched them announce their pregnancies, saw how happy they were, how proud they were of their babies, I watched milestones of pregnancies (feeling the baby move) and babies (first words, walking, etc...) and I had so much love in my heart for all of them and I was so happy for each of them as they got their dream. But there was always that piece of jealousy and desire to have the same thing. But I learned to lean into it. After 7 years of taking many drugs, so many injections, so many procedures and so much emotional pain I made the decision to stop trying. My body, my heart and my brain could no longer do it. At my last appointment with my fertility specialist, he told me the chances of carrying a child were extremely slim and I should consider surrogacy if I wanted a biological child. I just had nothing left and I walked away.
Another aspect of this story is the support of your partner. I mentioned earlier, in my first marriage as we did get a divorce. Part of the reason was the lack of support I received in this area. I made the long drive at 5:30am to London 5-7 days a week by myself most of the time. This is why you do not hear a lot about my partner in this adventure.
Because much of this was you alone, and that goes beyond just a feeling of loneliness.
MY HAPPY ENDING……. I found the absolute best man in the universe for me and married him in 2017. He had 2 children who I am the luckiest woman in the world to be a bonus mom to. Today my girls are 13 and 23 and I am so incredibly blessed to have them and their moms in my life. Both of their moms have embraced me as a bonus mom to their girls. As a woman and a mom, I can only begin to imagine how difficult that must have been for them to allow another woman in their kids' lives so openly.
Having a blended family is a whole other podcast though!
It’s a lot of Reece’s peanut butter cups too.
At the beginning of this conversation, I mentioned that last week was Infertility Awareness Week and I wanted to talk about an article that I read that discussed hope and that anything is possible. I know this message is necessary and I would provide it to be honest, but I want to caution people on how much that message is said and for how long because it is imperative to have hope until you can’t anymore in this situation like I did.
I appreciate you providing the space to have this conversation and for people like me who were not able to have a biological child to not be silent. It is necessary that every story gets told.
You are among other things, a counsellor. You know the importance of people being able to share their story. I think sometimes as counsellors though, we can forget that our stories matter too. We are not just good listeners. We get to be story tellers too.
I know this conversation was about not having a biological child of my own, but I also want to take a moment to recognize that the same pain can be felt by people who have had children but try again and are unsuccessful, so saying well at least you have one of your own isn’t helpful.
Every moment of an experience matters greatly. And we can’t diminish the way that moment feels, based on the experience of an earlier one or one that may or may not be coming.
Lastly, I want to wish every single mom out there a very Happy Mother's Day. Whether you are a biological mom, stepmom, bonus mom, aunt, grandma, pet mom, not a mom, whatever your definition of mom is for you-Happy Mother's Day.
And I want to do the same. For our listeners, but for you as well Michelle. Thank you for sharing your story. There is so so much more to this story. It could never be told in one episode, but for the moments we could spend together today, I appreciate your honesty, bravery, and genuine vulnerability.
Of course, in no way are we medical professionals. Nothing we said is a suggestion or guide in any way. It’s just a piece of your personal story.
You’ve let someone know today that they are not alone. You’ve let them know that their hopes and dreams matter, and so do their frustrations, fear, and grief.
I am reminded today of the blessing you are in my life, the life of my brother, and my nieces, and my kids, especially my daughter who you and I have co-parented, and will continue to do as they continue to grow.
Again Michelle, thank you... and Happy Mother’s Day. I love you, and I am always grateful to chat with you.
Until next time, good-bye for now and we’ll speak again soon.