When I wake up, the first thought that goes through my head is “Where’s my baby?” But within seconds I snap back to reality. There’s no newborn boy to track down.
It’s a punch in the face. If my pregnancy had remained viable, I would have been giving birth next week.
When I was barely 28, I learned that an underlying health condition had essentially thrust me into menopause in my twenties. The result, the doctor explained to me, was that my ovaries were fried, and I would never have a biological child. My best hope of getting pregnant would be with an egg donor through in vitro fertilization (IVF).
I was single. I was barren. And I was depressed and anxious from what I now understand was a horrible imbalance of hormones. It was a mess. I was a mess.
A year after receiving that news, I broke the news to the man I was dating, the man I would eventually marry. It was within the first few months of getting together, and he had caught me taking two birth control pills at once, which is how I managed my condition at the time. He asked me, innocently, if everything was okay. I decided to use the opportunity to tell him the truth: that I had a health issue, and because of it, I’d never carry a biological child.
I’d never told anyone I’d dated before, but I saw a future with this person. Still, I steeled myself as I spoke, prepared for him to break up with me, or to say something insensitive and hurtful, or to mansplain my own health to me.
Instead, he said he cared about me, not my ability to reproduce, confirming my suspicions that he was someone special.
Three years later we got married. We spent a year evaluating our options for becoming parents: adoption, surrogacy, and egg donor IVF.
When I was a kid, adoption always felt like something I could see myself doing as an adult. But now, I really wanted a baby who looked like the person I loved. For all of the scary things we know around pregnancy and childbirth and Black women, I still wanted to experience growing another human. My friend’s mother once described pregnancy to me as “being hugged from the inside.” I wanted to feel that.
Given that desire, my husband and I decided surrogacy didn’t make sense for us. We’d need to use a donor egg, and I wouldn’t experience being pregnant. Plus, surrogacy was, and remains, outrageously expensive.
We decided on egg donor IVF. We began the process in September 2016, almost exactly a year after we got married. Our first batch of donor eggs were unsuccessful; not a single one proved viable. We were committed — but devastated and exhausted. After the stress of this failure, we took a much-needed break.
In 2018, we found a new donor. Then an unrelated health condition prevented us from proceeding with IVF that year. My husband and I declared that 2019 would be our year to finally become parents. We were ready.
While I’m not sure anyone’s body responds positively to the onslaught of hormones required to make a woman who is unable to get pregnant get pregnant, my body responded particularly poorly. The regular dose of estrogen needed to prepare my body for the embryo transfer wasn’t enough; I needed bonus estrogen. My doctor called me in for multiple transvaginal ultrasounds a week. At the urging of my reproductive endocrinologist, I went to an acupuncturist, who literally electrocuted my uterus.
Meanwhile, the side effects of these various treatments and medications took their toll, in the form of fatigue, nausea, headaches, dizziness, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. Nonetheless, we persisted. In August 2019, we were ready for our embryo transfer.
After nearly three years, two donors, and 15 eggs, we were confident and hopeful that this one viable embryo was going to stick. I was convinced that this was it. After all, 2019 was our year!
So when the doctor told us, over the phone, that we had been pregnant, but we weren’t anymore, I didn’t believe it. I bought my own pregnancy test, just to be sure. Then I bought two more.
As those of you who’ve been there know, if you are pregnant, once you stop the hormone treatment, you are effectively ending the pregnancy. I was not pregnant — the doctor said it, the pregnancy tests said it. But I felt pregnant. So when I finally stopped all of the hormones, I was emotionally consumed with grief at the realization that I wasn’t going to have the baby I had planned for and made myself sick trying to create.
About three months ago — even before COVID-19 upended all of our lives and temporarily suspended most fertility treatments — my husband and I decided that we would not pursue another round of egg donor IVF. Getting to that point took months.
Over the last nine months (irony of ironies), I’ve had more rounds of bloodwork than I care to track, one unmedicated endometrial biopsy when my doctors feared I might have uterine cancer, roughly half a dozen different combinations of hormone replacement therapy to try and get myself back on track.
Through all of that, I was still down to try again. My husband, however, had been open and honest about the fact that he did not want me to put my body through it. I know from my experience taking care of an ill and ultimately dying mother, watching someone you love suffer, when you can literally do nothing to stop it, is a deeply painful experience.
Ultimately, I had to ask myself, What story do I want to tell a child, especially a daughter, someday? I know from my mother that so much of motherhood is sacrifice. But she also (thankfully) taught me what it means to be a whole person. She taught me to be tough, but also to be kind, and to always remember to be kind to myself. I’m doing that now.
The process is simply too hard on my physical and emotional health. On our path to parenthood, protecting my body and my sanity have to be a priority. It feels selfish at times, like I should be sacrificing everything to make this baby a reality. But I’ve decided no matter how we create our family, I need to be able to exist in the world as a complete person. A healthy person. The pandemic has only reinforced what I’ve always known: that health is a gift to be treasured.
After a period of uncertainty, I am back to believing that I am meant to be a mother. That my husband and I are meant to be parents. I know being a mother is so much more than being pregnant, and that pregnancies can be incredibly trying and challenging experiences. I know that statistically, the odds of me becoming pregnant naturally, the way I was in that vivid dream, are less than one percent.
And yet, at times, I still dream for it to happen.
While COVID-19 will mean our family plans are once again thrown off track, it has also reinforced for us the importance of having a family of our own. We know our baby is out there somewhere.
My hope for all women (and men) battling infertility is that you find a way to coexist with your desire to be a parent and your current reality — to move through this with a sense of love and compassion for who you are, no matter where you are in this journey.
My husband and I are still figuring out how to do that. There are, of course, good days and bad. But we’ve both decided that in this journey, taking care of ourselves needs to come first — and that while the dreams may change, the goal remains the same.
Someday, a family.
Marisa Renee Lee is the co-founder of Supportal, a platform that helps people respond when someone they care about is faced with a life-changing challenge.