5 years. 5 rounds of IVF. fibroids. endometriosis. adenomyosis. surgery. a miscarriage… and that’s the short version.
#TheAndersonTwins. They didn’t just happen. It was a long, long road. When I reflect back on my life, it was one of two of the longest, hardest and unending paths I’ve walked that will forever shape my life. I was that 1 in 8.
These were some of the hurdles we dragged ourselves over along the way – with what felt like our very last bit of strength… time after time. There’s so much more that happened in between all of this… basically living at the Drs office, dozens upon dozens of injections/pills/blood tests, days of not being able to/wanting to get out of bed and so, so many tears.
This is definitely my most procrastinated blog post ever. In fact I didn’t think I would ever write it. I swore in my head for a long time that I never would. Why should I tell anyone? Pity? No thanks. To explain my absence from this blog and life in general? This ain’t corporate – I don’t owe anyone that. #ByeFelicia! I also didn’t want my struggle to alarm my close friends in any way… I didn’t want friends who had kids to tip toe around me. We’re all kind of around the same age give or take and many haven’t met their person yet I know for sure many did want kids some/one day.
So then why now? I still don’t know for sure. I just know that while I have my babies, infertility never really leaves you… but it is a relief that its no longer a dirty secret I have to manage 24/7 dragging me down. In my head, I knew it wasn’t my fault (or was it?!) but what you know and what you feel/do doesn’t always correlate I learned… As I write this post which I first started drafting last year, I still don’t know exactly what I want to say about all this. What I do know is that it didn’t feel authentic to just come back on here and get into hair care/food/travel reviews – so let’s see where this goes…
People fall pregnant all the time. No, I mean… People. Fall. Pregnant. All. The. Damn. Time! This wasn’t supposed to be a big thing. People who don’t want to fall pregnant fall pregnant. People who’ve been told they can’t fall pregnant fall pregnant. People who are trying their damnest not to, fall pregnant… The random lady in front of me the queue at Woolies. Even children fall pregnant. The homeless woman at the robot was pregnant… Everyone, it felt like, except me.
I spent my teen years socialised into fearing that if I as much as looked at a boy (that wasn’t my father or brother) I’d fall pregnant. And in a middle class Muslim family from the Cape Flats, like in many similar communities that was the biggest shame you could bring on your family as a daughter (because boys were held to a different standard as you know!). And I’d seen it go down, quite a few times even if I was too young/innocent to properly understand what was happening – I could feel the shame. I’m sure this was part of the reason I was sent to an all girls high school. At home, sex education consisted of a few handed down Danielle Steel novels and being sent to next the room when that kissing scene come on Days of Our Lives – even when I was 19/20.
So when we finally decided it was time to start our family I felt like I could just chill while this took care of itself. I was on a break from corporate and I knew I’d never feel 100% ready – that no one did. But I’d done all the “right” things… I’d studied, graduated, had a good career, lived on my own, worked hard, seen the world, somehow made it in the big city, was generally healthy and I’d even met and married a great guy! Tick, tick, tick. I definitely did not want to get married and have a baby immediately like my parents and most of my family did (I was a honeymoon baby, sans the honeymoon!) and in the way that social & cultural expectations set out I should. We had fun living in Jhb CBD for the first few years and then went on to buy the home for the family we wanted someday. We took out an education policy years in advance for our future kid(s) (while we were still dating) and one day, newly married on a whim saw an antique crib we loved, bought it on the spot & put it into storage because we knew that we wanted this some/one day. Like, we were proper adults hey…
Month after month after month and soon years… I was stumped. It felt like everyone was pregnant from the cashier at our neighbourhood butchery to Kim K! It really hurt but I didn’t let on to anyone – children are everywhere & its not like you can avoid the world but I did my best to anyway.
Fertility has never been an issue in my family. My mother is one of eleven kids. Eleven! So I took my temperature diligently. Added a folic acid supplement into my diet. I had all the fertility apps. I bought the ovulation kits. Google was my bff. Saw the homeopath. Nothing & I mean nothing sucks the joy out of sex like trying for a baby. I still remember clearly the day, two years in, that I told A I’d gotten my period – again. He looked as tired and defeated as I felt and finally agreed that we’d go see a Dr. I didn’t even have a Gynae in all the years I’ve been living in Jhb. I got my GP to do a pap smear when I happened to be there anyway for the flu or whatever – I didn’t really care – I just wanted those Vitality points! Now I’d been nagging him for a while, so by the time he agreed I knew exactly which fertility clinic I wanted to go to. I called and the 1st available appointment was an excruciating 6 weeks out! Six weeks! I sent A a calendar invite, filled out the forms meticulously, paid the 50% deposit and waited…
September a few years ago we sat in front of a fertility Dr for the first time. We knew nothing and hung onto every word he said. Not too much happens in that first appointment outside of them mapping your medical history & fertility journey up that point. They send you off with forms for a barrage of blood tests & I was booked for an office hysterocopy (telescopic camera is placed through your cervix & a TV monitor allows you and your doctor to visualize the inside of the uterine cavity) & a HSG (to check that your tubes aren’t blocked). A was booked for semen analysis – all standard stuff. Then we regrouped a week later once all the results were in to look at the overall picture and finally get some friggin’ answers dammit!
The results said I had some fibroids but they small and so therefore pretty normal & not a problem. Well except for “advanced maternal age” (I was 33 at this time *rolls eyes*). Given that we were already two years into trying we were told should get started with IVF (specifically ICSI but I generally just say IVF just for simplicity) asap. Well how does this all work? How much does it cost? How long does it take? It was still September and all we really heard the Dr say was that we could be pregnant by Christmas. Best. News. Ever!
Mapping out the months left to that year, we had our wedding anniversary (October) and A’s 40th birthday (November) coming up just a few days apart so I remember us laughing that this would be the last time we’d be celebrating these occasions child free and that we should really enjoy it. If only we knew what the universe had in store – what a LOL. After consulting with our Dr & some careful planning, I booked a surprise trip to Thailand – travelling was our thing and had kept us distracted on this journey so one more trip seemed appropriate. I got a Drs letter to travel with all my meds (errrr I did not want to be stopped with a bunch of drugs & syringes – not in Thailand!).
Of course we had a blast. We ate and swam and planned the future and in between I took my meds like clockwork by setting reminders on my phone. Did we want a girl or boy (who cares, we’d be happy with anything!)? What names did we like? What were we going to teach them about life? What would our approach be to schooling? Discipline? We got back to Jhb, tanned, tired and happy and reported to our fertility clinic the next day as scheduled.
Oh. Em. Gee. This was really happening now. “you could be pregnant by Christmas” were the words we hung onto, the words reverberating through our hearts & daily lives. We didn’t tell anyone – we just got on with it, thinking we’d share our good news soon enough. I know the meds is tough for most people but I actually found it ok. I’m not really afraid of needles since I’d been a blood donor through high school and nothing was bigger than those needles. A was a trooper and helped with injecting me whenever he was home to but mostly I just got on with it, often excusing myself at some or other blogger event to do it in the loo or in my car at the very worst. Often the medication needed strict refrigeration and I’d have a day jam packed with meetings and launches so I carried it with an ice pack in my boot. Yeah I was black and blue in places and moody & lethargic at times from all the hormones but it was all going to be worth it & life went on. We went for our scans at the crack of dawn so A could still be in the office by 8am. Things were moving along well.
The (first) big D day was egg retrieval day. Scans showed I’d grown +- a dozen eggs which was pretty much a textbook perfect result (you don’t want too many or too few). On the day I went under they got out 14 eggs. We were ecstatic. That was 14 potential babies. Fourteen! Well of the 14, around 8 were mature (& so usable). Of the 8, only 5 fertilised. Of the 5 that fertilised, only 3 embryos made it to day 5 (the final day). Disappointed but still optimistic, we transferred two embryos back (i.e. inside me) in the hope that one would stick (i.e. we’d get pregnant!) and froze the third one.
The next D day was 12 days away, December 1st I’ll never forget, when we were due take a pregnancy test and know our fate. I can positively tell you this is the loooooooongest most excruitiating 12 days of your life. You don’t really know what to do with yourself. Aside from taking your meds “live life as your usually would” was my clinic’s advice. I took it easy and tried not to think about it too much (impossible). I carried on blogging, went to events, hung out with friends but all I really wished for was that I could see into my belly and make sure that our embabies (embryo babies) were sticking & growing nicely.
So 1st December we dutifully & nervously reported to our clinic. We did the blood test and then went to wait out the hour in their reception area. I didn’t think anything was worse than the12 days we’d waited till then but that hour killed me. A nurse called us in and as soon as we sat down she said “I’m sorry” and booked us an appointment with our Dr for the next week to discuss the results. I was doing my best not to cry – I didn’t want her (or the waiting room filled with people I had to pass on our way out) to see me like that. We left quietly and just sat in the car in the parking lot sombrely for what felt like hours. Naively we decided that they’d absolutely made a mistake. We knew there were no guarantees going into this but we’d done everything right so it had to have worked. We agreed we’d give it a few more days and then just do a pregnancy test of our own and then we’d call our Dr with good news. Guys, the denial was real. I woke the next day and my period had arrived. And then the tears followed.
We still had one frozen embryo, our Dr reminded us. We were still in the game! In the new year we pulled ourselves together and got ready to put our third (last) embaby back. We got back into the swing of the medication and scans. We were on track. Our spirits were back up. One day during a routine scan with a Dr that wasn’t our regular one (our clinic had a policy to rotate Drs), things went eerily quiet. My fibroids were bigger. So big, they now had to come out as they were in the way of a potential embryo attaching. The options were either surgery or medication in the hope of shrinking them sufficiently (no guarantees on the latter). And so I, who’d never had as much as my tonsils removed or broken a bone in my life I now needed surgery. So yup, more tears.
I booked in asap for February – this was about the only part of infertility that my medical aid actually (mostly) paid for. I was feeling strong again & my attitude was “let’s get this done so I can get my baby already”. The surgery, luckily was just a laporoscopy, so minimally invasive and I could go home the same day. I woke up sore but mostly swollen to the news that everything had gone well but it had taken longer than expected because they also uncovered stage 3 endometriosis while I was under so it had to be excised at the same time. And then there was my adenomyosis for which there is no cure (if it sounds familiar its because Gabrielle Union has shared this as her struggle too). The only downside of the surgery was that I had to wait 6 weeks to heal before we could put that last embryo back. I was so tired of waiting but wait I did. On the upside research showed that fertility rates typically increased after surgery – something about the scratching around there regenerating new cells which made the lining super receptive to an embryo implanting. I was feeling good…
So 6 weeks later we put that third and last embaby back. Meds, scans and then we wait 12 days – you know the drill by now. “It’s positive” the nurse said smiling, sitting across from us. I wanted to run out to the waiting room screaming and telling everyone its possible, to hang in there. That if it can happen to us it can surely happen to them. I did the calculations (its much easier/more reliable to calculate with IVF – no guessing when your last period was) and I was due in January – on my birthday! This was surely, surely meant to be! You couldn’t wipe the smile off our faces. This was it, our home run!!!
But our high was very short lived. Weeks, no, days later I woke up one Monday & I’d started bleeding. A was abroad for the week, having left the night before. Panic. I called the clinic. They sent me for bloods. My HCG (pregnancy hormone) level was declining fast when at the time it should have been doubling every second day. I was told stop taking all my fertility meds. And then I really bled. And every single time I looked at that blood I cried for the baby it was supposed to be, the child we’d never know.
With all three our embryos now used up, there was no other way to proceed except doing a fresh cycle of IVF (ICSI). So we jumped in. We got 14 eggs again – whoop! This dwindled down to two viable embryos on day 5. Two. I was a little shook. I didn’t think we could do worse than last round’s three. We put both back. We waited 12 days. And it was negative.
With two failed rounds behind us, I was all out of optimism. It seemed almost cruel to keep hoping. But if I didn’t, I didn’t feel like there was a reason to be alive. I was angry at my body for failing me. Angry at myself for not being able to let this go. Its not like I didn’t have other things going for me in life. Its not like I was out on the street starving & homeless. Some people actually have real problems, Wisaal.
We decided to get a second opinion. We did all the investigative tests again from scratch & there was really nothing new. Our new clinic said we just had to keep trying. Its a numbers game. That that’s the only way.
You know that cliched saying about insanity defined as doing the same thing over & over & expecting different result? Well, it wasn’t entirely true. We did change things up a little by tweaking my medication & dosage, transferring frozen embryos a month later (vs fresh ones immediately) & using “embryo glue” & here’s how we did…
Round #3 – we only got 5 eggs out, 3 fertilised, 2 made it day 5. We transferred both. Pregnancy test was negative.
Round #4 – we only got 3 eggs out 2 fertilised, 1 made it to day 5. We transferred the one. Pregnancy test was negative.
My Dr started dropping words like “egg donation”, “sperm donation” and “surrogacy”. “Well which one of the three do you think we need?” I asked. I can’t remember exactly what he said but it felt like “take your pick”. There’s a few times on the journey I’ve felt like punching someone in the face…
It’s now 2016 & I was in the deepest, darkest hole of my life & I wanted everyone to just let me be there in peace… I’d be in bed for days but couldn’t sleep. Why me? Sure, no one deserves this but why me? We needed to take a step back and (re)assess everything. This had taken its toll on our marriage, friendships, finances and had taken over our lives. It made me question my own feminism. I didn’t want to but I knew I needed to – so I dragged myself to therapy. Here I did the heavy work of starting unpack my life from childhood and eventually came around to understanding why I couldn’t just let this go. Why building my own, biological family was a deal breaker for me – and that work is hard and ongoing. I was diagnosed with major depression – probably since teen years (but I was resilient & managed it kind of like a functioning alcoholic does) and recent events was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, really. I reluctantly started anti depressants.
I happened to stumble across a local fertility support group who chatted online and met in person once a month. Just knowing I wasn’t alone in this battle really helped me a lot. I went to my first meeting & just listened not wanting to share much of myself at first. The women I met there were so diverse in age, race, religion, nationality, and even in what their fertility struggle was specifically. Some were battling secondary infertility, many were older than me with much more complex struggles, some spanning over a decade. One or two were even pregnant. I’d found a bit of hope in the world and things started feeling a little lighter.
In this time, not because any Dr told me to but because I felt so completely out of control of my body I decided to get healthy and did so through Banting. If getting pregnant was “the perfect storm of chemicals” I figured this could only help since being over/under weight can throw the body off. It worked and I lost 13kg.
We met with a private social worker and looked into adoption. Twice. “You’d make amazing parents” she said. Cue the tears. I really liked her and I expected that I wouldn’t. I thought she’d be in it for the money (placement fee) but her parting words to us was that she hopes I call her one day soon with the news that we’re pregnant. Everytime we left her office I felt like we should just stop everything we were doing and focus on adoption because there were so many kids out there who needed a good home (in SA most adopted children are abandoned, often in hospital at birth) & blah blah blah. I felt guilty. I even took the first admin step in the adoption process (getting a police clearance), just to keep our options open. But in a few days my feelings would settle and having looked into online adoption support groups, especially in those spaces led by birth mothers and (now grown) adoptees I couldn’t do it. It felt selfish and in the end I didn’t think it would satiate my yearn to parent.
A few months on we went to get a third opinion at another clinic. More tests. Nothing new. Nothing new except that I kept feeling like time was running out and I wanted to smash any Dr’s face when he referred to “advanced maternal age (I was now 34)” – but I was worried about it and especially since round 3 & 4 at Clinc #2 had gone astoundingly poorly. He put forward what he thought we should do and it all sounded fine – but no different to what we’d already done & well, going back to that definition of insanity…
I cannot with absolute certainty explain what it was, but something in me nagged me that we needed to go back to our first/original clinic where we’d started but we needed to now see a different Dr, the one I happened to see that day when he picked up my fibroids on a routine scan. A wasn’t keen. At all. I persisted. He caved.
It was weird being back there some two years after we’d left. Like a familiarity but an uncomfortable one… I lugged my files, tests & recommendations from the other subsequent Drs with me and we laid out.. The. Whole. Long. Story… to our new Dr at our old clinic. He listened, asked questions and for the first time I felt heard by a Dr. To our surprise he didn’t come up with a plan there and then and said he wanted to look over all the info (& there was a lot of it) and give us an opinion on a way forward in a week.
So we went back that next week. I loved the plan. It resonated with me. It was longer (boo!) and more complex but we were trying some new things (some I didn’t even think were available in SA but I’d read about online) and not just for the sake of. It made sense. He explained everything thoroughly, was on time, didn’t rush and answered all my questions (I had a lot of them!) and not in that I’m-the-Dr-so-don’t-question-me-or-I’ll-bombard-you-with-medical-jargon-so-you’ll-shut-up kind of way. I believed in this plan.
The plan started off in February 2017 with my stimulation (course of medication to grow eggs). We got 11 eggs out. My hopes were already up. This wasn’t as good as the 14 we got with each of our first two rounds but it was a heck of a lot better than our paltry numbers on round 3 & 4!
So here’s what round #5 looked like:
11 eggs out
by day 5, 6 eggs had survived. 6!!!!!!
The best we’d ever gotten (& therefore could hope for again) was 3 eggs on the final day. But we got 6! We were back on a high. We sent all 6 for genetic testing – something we hadn’t done before which took about a week (more waiting!).
A whopping 5 of the 6 came out as genetically normal. 5 whole perfect babies ready to be put back in me. 5!!!!!!!!!!!!
We also got to know the gender as a by product of the genetic testing (btw gender selection is illegal in SA) – and of the 5, 4 were girls and 1 was a boy. Now generally once you have genetic testing in the mix, Drs are more cautious and only put back 1 embryo at a time (because the odds of it working are higher and multiple pregnancies carry a higher risk) but in our case, given the road we’d been down, our Dr suggested we put back two in the hope, once again that one would stick.
So on the 4th of August 2017 we transferred back 2 embryos – 1 girl and 1 boy. The wretched 12 day wait never ever gets easier. On the morning of the 16th August we woke up bright and early and went to the Lancet Head Office to do the pregnancy test. We went there because after some research I found out that they process bloods the fastest since the labs are on site. A had taken the day off work & our plan was to grab breakfast while we wait for the call from our clinic. As we were veterans now we decided not to go into the clinic to get the results in person but that we’d rather deal with it over the phone (I also felt very sorry for the nurses who had the job of having to give us bad news time after time). At 10:31 am I saw our clinic’s number flashing on my phone. I’ll never forget we were standing in the middle of Woolies “shopping” to kill time and I nudged A that this was it.
“You’re pregnant” the nurse said. “Are you sure?” I replied and she laughed. All the while A was trying intensely to read my face to know what the news was. I hung up the phone and just laughed and then cried and we both collapsed on a nearby couch in the store and gave zero fucks who was watching us cry – happy tears for a change.
And the rest, as they say is history.
Imma leave you with our family’s theme song (turn up the volume)…