Every day I see them, wedged between the mustard and half-empty jar of capers in my refrigerator. They’re the shots that could make me pregnant.
But each morning, as I grab the coffee creamer or the strawberry jam, I bypass the Follistim, a follicle-stimulating hormone that can induce ovulation. The shots don't expire until next October, so I still have time. But I’m never going to use those shots. I’m through with fertility treatments.
When my husband, Steve, and I started trying to get pregnant more than two years ago, I was 34 and Steve was 33. We figured my fertility was like a dammed-up river, held at bay for 15 years by birth-control pills. We had no reason to believe otherwise.
Of course, we'd heard the stories about other couples who’d had trouble conceiving. One acquaintance quit her job to focus on getting pregnant, cashing out her 401K to fund three rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Another friend, who’d gotten lucky with just one round of fertility drugs, advised us to figure out our emotional and financial limits in advance — and stick to them, no matter how intense things got.
We didn’t honestly think it would get that far. I was still relatively young and “sickeningly healthy,” according to my gynecologist. But heeding my friend’s advice, we agreed that we’d draw the line at IVF — too expensive, no guarantee of success.
Looking back, I realize just how naive we were. We knew next to nothing about luteal phases, hip-lifting pillows and spermwashing. And we had no idea how tough things would get.
Trying ... and waiting
Three months passed with no luck. Our friends laughed at our impatience: “Your body's just adjusting,” they said. “Give it at least a year before you start worrying.”
Six months went by. I started poking around the Internet, turning to message boards and blogs written by other infertile women. I learned some tips, and Steve and I grew more strategic in our efforts — charting cycles, trying to plan my most fertile days. But still, my body, which had never failed me before, stayed resolutely pregnancy-free.
“Take a vacation,” friends advised. We went to Hawaii. Nothing.
“Relax,” my mother said. I took up yoga and started visiting an acupuncturist. No dice.
After 15 months, we decided that something was wrong. I went back to the Internet, typed in “fertility clinics” and got pages and pages of results. Clearly, this was big business.
We chose a facility near our house and went to our first appointment. The nurse practitioner assigned to us had an impressive track record, and the first steps seemed proactive, not intrusive. I would get a full workup and Steve would get his sperm tested to see where the problem was. I felt relieved, triumphant over my stubborn, unyielding body.
That feeling didn't last long. Our tests revealed that Steve was A-OK, and that due to lack of regular ovulation, I was the faulty model.
This news devastated me. I felt ashamed. Old. Worthless. My body, which was made to conceive, carry, give birth to and feed a child, just didn’t work correctly, and we didn’t know why.
I started dropping hints to Steve that he should fly the coop, find a younger woman who could give him the family he wanted. To his credit, he was aghast — and insulted — by my suggestions.
“I don't just want a family — I want a family with you,” he said. “Plus, what if the problem was on my end?”
A little nudge from science
Based on our results, our nurse suggested we start where lots of infertility newbies start: Clomid. The ovulation-inducing drug, which is administered orally and is relatively inexpensive, would also help our nurse determine what shape my ovaries were in. It seemed low-tech and not much like a “fertility treatment” at all — just a little nudge from science.
But Clomid was no picnic. I had constant headaches, intermittent nausea and dizzying mood swings. Steve joked that there should be a safe house for Clomid husbands.
Fitting in the appointments that went along with fertility drugs was a challenge, too. As a freelance editor, I’d been able to handle the midday blood tests or the last-minute ultrasounds. But then I accepted a full-time position at MSNBC.com, and I was reluctant to reveal too much about our efforts to get pregnant to my new boss and colleagues. It was too personal, this business with my faulty reproductive system. And work was my only escape from the whole disappointing process — and the only place where hard work seemed to net tangible results.
Then, I got a terse letter from my insurance company. The prescription I’d submitted for my Clomid had tipped them off: My “ovarian dysfunction” was infertility, and as such, they were through covering my tests, lab workups and doctor visits. I was on my own — and on the hook for certain procedures already performed.
Still, we kept at it, with more expensive tests and more rounds of Clomid. At our nurse’s urging, we attempted intrauterine insemination, where a washed specimen of sperm is injected into the uterus. I had five healthy follicles and Steve had above-average swimmers. I didn’t even blink as I wrote out a check for $800. I was so sure we’d get pregnant this time.
After this failed attempt, our nurse told us she couldn't do anything more for us. She suggested some big-name reproductive endocrinologists and we made an appointment, although Steve and I were already starting to verbalize some of our doubts. What were we doing? Why were we trying to force my body to do something it so clearly didn’t want to do? Would we change our minds and try in vitro? And the big question: Was our reluctance to go that route an indication that we weren’t cut out to be parents?
We went to our appointment with the big-time doctor, who seemed chagrined by our refusal to do IVF. She sent us on our way with a prescription for Follistim and urged us to “think hard about our diminishing options.”
When the Follistim arrived via FedEx two days later, packed in ice and with a handbook of instructions, I put it in the refrigerator and told Steve it was there, ready for us.
“Let's take a break,” he said. “I think we need some time off from this stuff.”
We took a break from the fertility treatments — and from each other. Steve and I retreated to opposite ends of the house throughout last winter, stewing in our thoughts, our grief and the knowledge that had been crystallizing for months: I was probably never going to give birth to our child.
Sure, the science existed to make us pregnant, but Steve and I knew we’d had enough. We didn’t want to throw tens of thousands of dollars at procedures that had no guarantee — not when there were so many children in the world that needed homes.
In February, Steve and I went on a cruise to the Caribbean. The winter break from the Seattle gloom is a gift that Steve’s company gives to its employees and their families every year. I had been dreading it for months, sure that I'd be tortured by the pitying looks of the new moms at the company. I was certain I'd feel trapped, a childless outcast surrounded by happy families.
Not just about giving birth
But a funny thing happened on that boat: I loved it. I loved watching the kids play, and playing with them. I delighted in kayaking with our friends' sixth-grader and playing sea monster with another friend's 6-year-old. I realized that in all my feelings of loss and loneliness, I'd forgotten the most important thing: I wanted to be a mother more than I wanted to give birth.
I got an e-mail the other day from a dear friend of mine. His wife had just delivered their third child. I felt a little pang as I clicked on the pictures of their new, beautiful baby girl — but I don't have much time to feel sad these days. Steve and I are immersed in conference calls and mountains of paperwork. We're full-tilt down the path to international adoption.
It's been almost two-and-a-half years since Steve and I started our quest to be parents. And at this rate, it'll probably be another 18 months before we have a baby in our arms. But this time around, we're OK with the wait.
At the end of this long road, there's a child waiting for us — the child we were meant to have.
Kristin Kalning is a technology editor and games columnist for MSNBC.com. She lives in Redmond, Wash., with her husband, Steve, her dog, Sophie, and her petulant cat, Jinx.