The First Time I Realized I Needed to See a Fertility Doctor

We received the diagnosis at the start of October. We were in the car en route to a rented lake cottage. After a year of trying to get pregnant, my husband and I decided that perhaps a different, less stressful physical environment than New York City might be the determining factor.

As we got in the car to drive north, we received a call from my OB/GYN. We’d gotten checked out at the end of the summer to see if there was a reason why I still wasn’t pregnant. She advised us to schedule an appointment with the fertility clinic she suggested—the same clinic she had used 17 years earlier to get pregnant with her own twins—to determine our next steps. We scheduled the appointment for the end of October, both of us hoping we’d get pregnant naturally during our romantic cottage weekends and we’d ultimately cancel the appointment.

We scheduled the appointment for the end of October, both of us hoping we’d get pregnant naturally during our romantic cottage weekends and we’d ultimately cancel the appointment.

I did not get pregnant during our romantic cottage weekends. I was 32 years old. My closest friends already had their babies, many of whom weren’t even babies anymore. I was already way behind. And now my fertility was in question.

Well, not mine, technically. We were told my husband had a low enough sperm count, with low enough motility, that we could get a diagnosis for our insurance to cover treatment. He had many thousands of sperm, they assured us, but still lower than normal.

The reproductive endocrinologist (RE) advised that we jump straight to in-vitro fertilization (IVF). He felt that because we had good insurance coverage, and because I was already 32, we shouldn’t waste any time.

I was 32 years old. My closest friends already had their babies, many of whom weren’t even babies anymore. I was already way behind. And now my fertility was in question.

I began the process with optimism. I trusted my OB, and she found success through IVF. 32 years old felt young compared to the women in their late 30s and early 40s I saw at the clinic. I felt almost smug: I may need IVF, but I’m a prime candidate, and I have no reason to worry. I was so excited to become a mom, and this was our path to get there.

After my first egg retrieval, my sister brought me pink and blue cookies to celebrate.

We made perfect embryos, which became perfect blastocysts, which passed preimplantation genetic screening (PGS). But we weren’t finding success. As we moved deeper into our IVF journey, our diagnosis shifted. It was recurrent pregnancy loss. It was unexplained infertility.

My younger sister and all her friends were now having babies. This is what was challenging to accept. Before, I didn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed that we were going through IVF. I was open about it, and I found that many other people were going through it, too. But my younger sister’s pregnancy left me feeling humiliated.

Some of my friends’ children were nearing their double-digit birthdays. My weight was increasing with each cycle, I was inching into my mid-30s, and I was nowhere closer to a baby. I was meeting more people who were also going through IVF, and when they each got pregnant, it made me sad for myself, but also renewed my faith that the science worked.

In the thick of things, a wise friend with her own story of assisted reproduction made a wise analogy: IVF is like growing vegetables in a greenhouse, while getting pregnant the old-fashioned way is like growing a tomato plant in your backyard. All conditions must be perfect. That’s why you are constantly monitored, she explained, whereas when you get pregnant the old-fashioned way, you generally aren’t concerned with your thyroid or your FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) or the thickness of your uterine lining.

Trust the science, she told me. It may take a long time to get the conditions right—but eventually, somehow, those tomatoes will grow.

In the thick of things, a wise friend with her own story of assisted reproduction made a wise analogy: IVF is like growing vegetables in a greenhouse, while getting pregnant the old-fashioned way is like growing a tomato plant in your backyard. All conditions must be perfect.

What I didn’t anticipate before our treatment was the relationship between science and emotions. That the hardest part of IVF was its impact on my marriage, not my body—though of course, those aren’t entirely separate entities. I won’t speak for other women, but in my own experience, I felt entirely unsexy and disinterested in sex when my body was being manipulated each cycle anyway. For a while, we lost sight of our marriage with a singular focus on making a baby.

After a long time, my husband and I made some changes. We added dates on our calendar to look forward to, ones that were not IVF related. We found activities that we enjoyed and began attending every year: the orchid show at the botanical gardens, the neighborhood food festival, whatever we could find that seemed like a fun distraction.

We also began to envision a different sort of life. Maybe kids just weren’t in the cards for us. We could travel, we could be spontaneous, we could direct money that would have paid for college and weddings in other directions. That wasn’t what we wanted, but we felt more in control, more stable, when we started planning for our new future.

It was when planning for that new future, when we’d nearly given up, that it worked. Our last-ditch effort before exploring a very different future is the effort when the miraculous happened.

“When I was younger and more arrogant, I would give myself credit for this,” my doctor told us at our final appointment. He was the fourth RE we had seen, in addition to, among others, 2 urologists, a psychiatrist, 2 radiologists, and an acupuncturist. He brought me my babies, but he had the luxury of learning from the previous doctors’ failures, too. “We tried this protocol, honestly, because we hadn’t yet tried it, and it was the only thing left to do.”

I recalled the greenhouse analogy. “Trust the science,” my friend had encouraged me. It took longer than I expected. I thought IVF would be an episode in our life, a one-time hurdle to create our baby. Instead, it took us 13 tries to get our 2 children. Over the course of that time, my smug 32-year-old self was first hardened and then humbled. But the necessary greenhouse conditions were eventually stabilized, and now I have 2 perfect little tomatoes to call me “Mom.”