Monday, January 5, 2015

Our Experience with Infertility: Part VI - Why I've chosen to share so much about our experience with infertility

As those of you who follow this blog know, Oscar and I have never successfully gotten pregnant without the help of serious, expensive science. We've had over 5 years of trying to conceive on our own and 6 failed intrauterine inseminations (IUI). This inability to conceive has caused me a great deal of heartache, which has now been eased considerably following 2 highly successful invitro fertilization cycles. Our first baby was born in May of 2013, I'm now 4 weeks pregnant with baby #2, and we have 3 more viable embryos that have been cryopreserved for future use. I always wanted a large family, and it hurt me so much to think that my unexplained infertility would make that impossible. It was an incredibly joyous moment when we found out 2 weeks ago that our struggles haven't prevented our dreams from coming true. I literally jumped up and down when I got the call, and I still feel like shouting my happiness from the rooftops.

As for why I've decided to open up so much about it, I've discovered that honesty and openness makes me a much happier person than hiding my feelings for fear that others might be uncomfortable hearing them. About 5 months before I became pregnant with Tyler, I began reading the Addiction Recovery Program guide my church sponsors as part of my own personal gospel study. Although I don't have a major addiction, I found the guide incredibly useful for issues like compulsively eating carbs when I'm feeling negative emotions and my difficulty moving on from things people have said or done that have hurt me. The more I read the guide, the more I realized I needed to address the hold my infertility had had over me, and I put it through the 12 step test.

The 1st step is honesty - I finally admitted to myself that my infertility was a much bigger issue than I'd realized. It wasn't just stopping me from getting pregnant. It was hurting myself and others in countless ways I hadn't even thought of. The 2nd step is hope - a hope that I could be healed, whether I had a child or not, from the immense grief of losing my chance to become a mother every month I didn't get pregnant. The 3rd step is trust in God, realizing that I couldn't cast this off on my own simply from the realization of how damaging it was. I had to recognize my dependence on a higher power to close up the wounds that even time and finally being able to have a child could never heal. I had to start with a realization that this trial was controlling my life, have a hope that it didn't have to continue hurting me, and trust that the atonement could heal me.

The 4th step, and in my opinion the most crucial, is truth - I made a fearless moral inventory thoroughly detailing just how my infertility had impacted my feelings and my actions from the moment I began suspecting it might be a problem. I wrote up an extensive 3 part blogpost explaining everything we'd been through emotionally and detailing the ART processes (assistant reproductive techniques) as much as I could. Those posts were a part of my fearless moral inventory concerning my infertility, but I did not publish everything I wrote. Far from it, actually. Most of it was only saved in my own personal files. I only shared publicly those things which I felt others might benefit from. Writing it was very liberating for me. I felt so much shame and grief lifted off my shoulders. Yes, knowing I was finally pregnant gave me joy which helped ease the pain, but getting pregnant did not cure me. Healing from the grief of infertility didn't start until I opened up and shared what I was going through. It's funny how powerful I felt after admitting to my own powerlessness. I hadn't wanted to admit just how difficult this trial had been for me. In writing those posts I'd stopped lying to myself and everyone else that "we're not really trying" and "we're okay with it. We'll just adopt someday." Now that'd I'd gone public with it, I'd never feel tempted to lie about it and put myself through that internal conflict again, which went right along with the 5th step of confession. I was finally breaking free of the bondage infertility had shackled me with.

The last 7 steps of the program do apply more to those with serious addictions, but I still took them to a smaller extent. Steps 6 and 7, change of heart and humility, helped me realize I'd been overly judgmental towards those who'd said insensitive things to me. Steps 8 and 9, seeking forgiveness, restitution, and reconciliation, helped me stop feeling bitter and apologize for having said spiteful things towards those who are able to conceive without difficulty, and step 10, daily accountability, helps me recognize when old feelings of resentment pop up so I can deal with them in healthier ways than stewing in self pity. Step 11, personal revelation, helped guide our decision when we were considering pursuing adoption, ART processes, or both, and step 12, service, is what I strive for now and forever. I share my experiences in the hope that people can gain more hope and understanding of how they can get help and healing for themselves and their loved ones. 

Unfortunately my attempts to help the infertile community haven't always been taken positively. I've made many people feel awkward and been unfriended by other infertile friends who found it too painful to hear about our success with IVF and pregnancy. Yesterday I bore my testimony in church expressing my gratitude for the prayers that others have said on our behalf and testifying that those prayers have been answered in the results of our most recent cycle. There were at least 3 people who walked out of the meeting feeling I'd gone too far talking about something so sensitive and personal. This saddens me deeply since I understand the pain of infertility and the last thing I would want to do is make that worse for someone. I am so sorry for anything I have said or done that has caused someone else additional pain. I apologize if my zeal in celebrating our successful IVF cycles is a painful reminder to those who've endured the process with more heartbreaking results. I would never share our news with the intent of rubbing it in someone else's face, but I understand why it would be taken that way. I remember similar times that I felt the same way. I initially felt a pang of grief when my brother called to announce he was having twins after they'd barely started trying to have another baby while we'd been trying to get pregnant for over 2 years. Maybe I was more understanding because he is my brother and these were my nieces he was announcing, but it was easier to let go of that grief when I reminded myself that he was calling to share and celebrate his wonderful news, not mocking me for my own lack of children. And the more effort I made to share in the joy of others, the less power my own pain had over me. 

On the positive side, in addition to helping me heal tremendously, I've had more people than I can count, some I barely know or don't know at all, thank me for everything I've written and telling me my story gave them hope. I've had people ask me questions they were too scared to ask their infertile friends. They are now better able to support them because they understand it's such a bigger issue than their friends will admit to. My story has helped educate people about infertility, making them less likely to inadvertently say something those experiencing infertility would find offensive. I feel compelled to continue, even if my story causes pain for some to hear, because I've seen how much good it has done. However, I do feel the need to make some clarifications about what I believe concerning faith and its impact on fertility and conception. The last thing I would want is to be mistaken for saying "we finally are able to have babies because of faith and prayers, so obviously you haven't been faithful or prayerful enough." 

If you read Part I of my infertility posts, it's pretty clear I do not believe faith and prayers bring about fertility and lack thereof brings about infertility. There isn't some magic amount of righteousness that will send down a baby, but our prayers, fasting, and faithfulness will bring us closer to God, which will in turn guide us in understanding and following his will for us. Particularly in the LDS community there is a strong emphasis on having families and raising children in righteousness, so couples are often looked down upon for not having children. It's hard not to be hurt and frustrated by this. More than once I prayed something along the lines of "I'm doing everything I can to follow thy commandments and all I get is heartache, failure, and disappointment! Shouldn't striving to follow the commandments bring me blessings, not pain? Where is the reward for my faithfulness?"

Compound this with people making comments along the lines of "you should be grateful you don't have kids right now. You'd never get to sleep in or take vacations, and you'd be stressed 24/7 from taking care of them."Although these types of comments are often said with good intentions, a friend merely trying to distract you from your longing, this can be much more hurtful than helpful. Because you happen to enjoy sleeping in and taking vacations and feel some annoyance whenever you're around a whining child, you now feel unworthy, like you simply couldn't deal with the difficulties of raising children and that must be why God made you infertile. How could he trust his spirits with such a fallible person as you? Even now that I have a baby, I still have people insinuate that I must not have been ready to handle them for those 5 years of trying but now I can and that's why God's just blessing me with them now. We really, really need to quit equating faith with fertility. Responding to our trial of infertility based on this false belief is damaging and incredibly counterproductive to our progression. You don't have to learn patience and other virtues before you have children. Earnestly striving to be a good parent teaches you those things. In my faith people receive callings from their leaders which they are invited to accepted voluntarily, many of which they don't feel qualified for. For example, someone who's never been good at public speaking might be terrified at the prospect of being called as a Sunday school teacher. But there's a common saying in our church "the Lord doesn't call those who are qualified. He qualifies those he calls," meaning that with enough faith and work on our part, the Lord will help turn our weaknesses into strengths so we can fulfill the duties he's asked of us (See 1st Nephi 3:7 and Ether 12:27). I've found the exact same thing applies to parenting. Although there are many ways I am a better parent because of the lessons I learned during my infertility, they're nothing compared to the ways the Lord has helped me become a good mother since I had a child.

The fact that wanting to have children is "a righteous desire of our hearts" also does not guarantee that we'll have them if we just have enough faith. That'd be like saying if you simply ask and pray to get a specific calling and stay faithful enough, you'll be rewarded with it. I have always wanted to serve in the Young Women's organization, and in spite of mentioning this to multiple bishopric members in multiple wards, I've never been called into it. I've also known plenty of worthy priesthood holders who seem like the perfect "make and model" for a bishop who will never end up becoming one. Sometimes things that we see as righteous and something we'd be good at is not part of the Lord's plan for us, and it doesn't mean it's because we wouldn't have been good at it. All it means is that our Father in Heaven can see beyond our limited abilities into what experiences would be best for us. This also applies to bearing and raising children. I know it's painful to hear, but the Lord may know that we can progress more and influence others for greater good by not having children, or in my case, at least not in the common way.

Rather than equating my trial of infertility as God's way of testing me until I was ready for motherhood, I came to a point that I was ready to accept whatever the Lord wanted for me, even if it meant complete childlessness. I doubted it would mean that, though, since my patriarchal blessing refers many times to children I would raise with a husband on this earth, and I trusted that the Lord would fulfill that promise to me. I became closer to the spirit and began listening very intently to what the Lord wanted me to do. This state of mind took years to come to, not something I suddenly decided to do one day. During a visit to the temple I received a very clear impression that the IVF process, something we'd already been looking into but hadn't done yet, would be successful for me, and that I would carry and give birth to multiple children.

This was 4 months before we tried IVF, and as time passed I began to doubt this impression. Although our first cycle was successful, it didn't start off looking so great. My follicles were not growing as quickly as they would have liked to see, and it was questionable whether I would have enough mature ones to justify performing an egg retrieval. Seattle Reproductive Medicine has one of the highest rates of successful pregnancies in the country, and a large part of that is because they play the odds. They won't perform an egg retrieval just to make the money for it if they don't believe you have a good chance of becoming pregnant, and they won't freeze embryos if they don't believe they can survive the freezing process. I was told by the nurse who examined me at what should have been my final ultrasound that I barely qualified for egg retrieval, and she was clearly not very optimistic about it. This crushed me. Although my insurance would cover 90% of two more cycle attempts, I wasn't going to get any younger, and since fertility declines with age, I knew another cycle wouldn't necessarily go any better. Fortunately my personal infertility nurse felt one more day of drugs would help me, and they gave me some samples to take that evening. That night I prayed and prayed for my follicles to grow. I'd felt guided to choose the IVF path. Why would God have directed us on this path only for the cycle to go so poorly? The thought of not being able to have a baby was devastating, and yet it was also equal to the pain I felt that maybe that spiritual impression I'd received in the temple was wrong, that it'd been nothing more than wishful thinking, and that I was living in a delusion believing I'd ever be able to get pregnant. But I stayed true to my belief that the Lord would direct my path. I prayed for my follicles to grow, but I also prayed for comfort and direction to know my next course of action if the cycle failed. I remained willing to listen and follow the Lord's direction even though doing so hadn't worked out for me so far, and that's when I began to see miracles.

I took those final shots and had another ultrasound the next day. To my great delight, my follicles grew more in one day than they had in the previous 10. The nurses were thrilled! I now definitely qualified for egg retrieval. All 9 of my follicles produced an egg, 8 of which fertilized. I did not know this at the time but those numbers are incredibly high. For comparison's sake, the 2nd time around my follicles grew well from the beginning. I ended up with 13 total, but only 8 produced an egg, and only 5 fertilized (although I say "only," these numbers are actually pretty standard, though my overall egg count is well below average for a woman my age). All 9 follicles producing an egg on the 1st cycle when they'd all been slow to grow is practically unheard of. My 2nd cycle, which also contained miracles of its own but of a different kind, has made me realize just how much of a miracle that 1st cycle was. The reason I share all these facts, statistics, and scientific probabilities is only to emphasize how much I've seen the hand of God work within this already mind-blowing scientific achievement, a witness of my belief that God brings to pass miracles governed by scientific laws. My fertility doctor told me she wouldn't mind if every one of her patients had low egg count if their cycles could ultimately turn out as successfully as ours. God had directed us to have children with IVF, and I needed to have faith that the direction I'd received was true in spite of my low egg count and stubborn eggs working against us.

That is what I bear my testimony of - that God will guide and direct us on the path he knows is best for us. That is what our miraculous IVF cycles have taught me. I do not believe we have been blessed with children because our faith has finally measured up to God's standards, and I will never tell another infertile couple that they will eventually have a baby if they would only have enough faith. All I can do is encourage other couples to pray for faith, direction, and willingness to accept whatever the Lord has in store for them, which could be having children naturally, with IVF, adopting, fostering, or never having children. For those who've tried IVF only to have it cause them more heartbreak, my heart grieves for you. I had a small fraction of understanding what that might be like when my follicles refused to grow. I will never try to invalidate the intensity of your pain, and I absolutely do not equate our success with IVF as the result of being more prayerful or faithful than anyone else.

My prayers and my faith throughout this process have taught me, though, that I can trust in my impressions and can rest assured that God will fulfill His promises to me, even when the odds seem against it. My mission now is to help others experiencing infertility begin coming to a place of healing as soon as possible, long before they know how large their family can be and what means they will go about to enlarge it. The most counterproductive thing I did was believe what so many others told me "relax, be patient, and it will happen." This merely caused me to push away the hurt I was feeling out of concern that I was causing my own infertility. Earnestly striving to know and follow what the Lord wanted for me is what brought about my healing process. Who knows? Maybe what He wants for you really is to "relax, be patient, and it will happen," but make sure of that first. Don't simply believe it because that's what everyone is telling you. In our case, relaxing and waiting were never going to work and only caused me to waste precious time on my biological clock. If you've been trying to conceive for more than a year, stop waiting, find out what your options are, consult the Lord for direction, and show Him that you are willing to do whatever it takes to follow His guidance.

Some of our family and friends knew about our first attempt with IVF, but we didn't share it openly with everyone until I was coming to the end of my 1st trimester. This time around I decided to be open about it from the beginning. I wrote about our 3 additional IUI's and gave regular updates of our 2nd IVF. I was touched to hear from so many friends and family that they were praying and fasting for us. I did not decide to share our story publicly for the purpose of soliciting more prayers and good vibes on our behalf, but I am incredibly appreciative that they were offered. It was a lovely reminder to me that so many people out there are willing to help in anyway they can as soon as they know you're struggling. And I have to say that this time around, I really felt the effects of those prayers. I didn't have to worry about the follicle growth for this cycle, but I became very worried when we ended up with less embryos than last time. I felt those prayers from my friends and family lift and reassure me that whatever happened would be for the best, even if all that happened was my sharing the process of an unsuccessful cycle. Ultimately we had another miracle - 3 viable embryos out of 5 total, just as many viable embryos as last time when we had 8 to work with back when I was younger with higher egg quality. I don't necessarily believe the results of the cycle would have been any different if I hadn't been open about the process and we hadn't had all those extra prayers, but I do know those extra prayers supported me and helped me more fully appreciate how much the Lord's hand has been a part of the process.

For those that felt I went too far referring to our IVF cycle at the pulpit, I understand where you are coming from, and I may very well have felt the same in your position. I hoped my story wouldn't cause awkward questions from children, so I did try to avoid using terms such as uterus and sperm, but I may have still gone a bit overboard in my terminology out of habit. As my son is only 19 months old, I haven't developed a strong enough sensor to know which words are going to pique a child's curiosity and endless awkward questions. I apologize if it did so.

I also hope this post shows that my testimony wasn't a mere outlet for sharing our good news. It was my way of showing gratitude to God not only for the babies we've conceived but also for the tremendous spiritual progress we've made along the way. I also wanted to thank all of those that have had us in their prayers, many of whom were in that congregation. I've never felt more lifted by the prayers of others than I did this past month, and I wanted them to know that their prayers were answered. Most of all, though, I wanted to bear testimony that faith can and does defy the odds, and that God does indeed fulfill His promises. However it may have been taken, that was my intent. I know there were those that felt sharing something so personal was inappropriate for a public testimony, but I disagree. I believe sharing something so personal shows just how much I've seen the impact of the gospel on my life. I personally get more enlightenment out of hearing testimonies that are followed by a personal explanation of the inner struggle and physical difficulties that brought about their convictions, and I believe that making a topic too taboo to discuss in public only serves to leave those suffering from it in ignorance of what their options are and that there is hope out there. I want people to know that the grief of their infertility can be healed through Christ, and that their or their loved ones inability to conceive naturally doesn't necessarily mean that they never can bear and raise children.

There's so much truth to the scripture Alma 36:20-21, that God can give you joy as great as was your pain. Whatever the Lord may have in store for those who are still dealing with the grief of infertility, even if it means a childless life, remember He has promised that you can find that joy. I've had a glimpse of it, not because I finally have a child, but because I have witnessed the depths of his miracles at healing my pain through the atonement and fulfilling His promises to me. And of that I bear witness, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen. 

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