PHOTO: CATHERINE LI-ABRAMS
We’ve heard it all before: it gets harder for women to get pregnant after 35, and chances drop precipitously after 40—but that doesn’t mean younger women are immune to fertility issues. From Chrissy Teigen to Kim Kardashian, more millennials are sharing how tough it can sometimes be to conceive.
In Canada, an estimated one in six couples face infertility, and it’s not just because people are waiting longer. A survey by HSBC from earlier this year found that 21 percent of millennials are prepared to delay having children to save up for a home. But there are also a whole host of reasons for infertility aside from age.
“When you start your family later, it can be harder. But for everybody, there are other risks such as tubal diseases, like endometriosis or sexually transmitted diseases,” says Dr. Sonya Kashyap, medical director at the Genesis Fertility Centre in Vancouver. “There could be anovulation [when], either due to BMI being too high or too low, or there could be environmental effects leading to lower ovarian reserve.” And then there’s the unknown. Between 10 and 20 percent of fertility is unexplained, says Dr. Kashyap.
But the problem with infertility is that you might not know you’ll have trouble until you start trying—and let’s be honest, it’s not exactly something you can casually test out. Difficulty conceiving is also something we don’t often talk about, either. Thankfully, more people are opening up about this isolating experience. CBC is launching an online comedy series, premiering on Nov. 13, called How to Buy a Baby, that follows a 30-something couple who have given up on making a baby “the fun way.” And real-life couples struggling with infertility can now find each other through Facebook support groups such as The 16 Percent (named after the estimated statistic of couples in Canada who have trouble conceiving).
But still: it’s absurd that in a society where nosy questions like ‘when are you having a baby?’ are somehow considered normal conversation, the topic of infertility remains shrouded in taboo and silence. So, we asked five young women across the country to tell us what it’s like to try for months, or even years, sometimes experiencing multiple miscarriages along the way.
On the insensitivities same-sex couples face
We have one son who turns three in January—my wife carried him, so she is the gestational mother. We’ve always known that we wanted a second child, so when our son was about 6 months old, we started trying. I went for the regular tests to make sure everything was clear and good to go. I tried to be a realist, because I knew from my wife’s experiences you don’t get pregnant right away, but now it’s been two years and I’m still not pregnant. I’ve done countless IUIs (intrauterine insemination), I’ve done IVF (in vitro fertilization). I’ve been off grains, off sugar for a year and a half, no caffeine for almost a year and I’m taking a ridiculous amount of vitamins to “improve my egg quality.” I ovulate on time and I don’t lead a very stressful life. I’ve done everything right and I feel like I’ve done all the tricks in the book. I have no known fertility issues.
And, in addition to our own struggles, we also have to deal with people saying stupid stuff all the time. “Sometimes people just get pregnant on vacations, maybe it will happen for you,” one ultrasound technician said to us. It doesn’t happen that way in same-sex relationships. People just say insensitive things without thinking. When I went in for IUI, I’ve had the clinician say, “Tell your partner to come in for his sperm.”
I think the most difficult part will be when we go back to my wife trying in January and, if she gets pregnant, being her partner through it. In heterosexual relationships, the male doesn’t take over and become pregnant. But in same-sex relationships, there’s a dynamic where I’ll have to support my wife in the pregnancy, which of course, I will, because I want a second child, but it’s going to be a different dynamic for me now, knowing that I won’t get this experience. I’m going to try one more time in December because that was my timeline, but that’s it because I can’t emotionally do it anymore.
On miscarriages and asking yourself why you want to be a parent
I got married at 29. Before that, my husband and I never really discussed children but as soon as we got married, it became a priority.
We were just going with the flow, but at some point, I started having miscarriages. The first and second one were three months apart. I knew it was relatively normal to have early miscarriages when you first start trying, but after two, you start wondering. We did some diagnostic tests and everything seemed fine. I thought, if everything is supposed to be working, eventually it will.
After I had three more miscarriages, the doctor said we should try insemination. We did it twice and the second one took, but then I had another miscarriage, so I decided to stop trying the insemination for a little bit because the hormones and pills you take aren’t easy on the body.
What’s really hard is the hope I immediately lose after each miscarriage. It’s very sad for me, because it means if I ever get to have a biological child, I’m not going to be excited like other moms—not until I see a heartbeat or see a baby on the monitor. I’ve lost the excitement of learning that you’re pregnant. It’s hard every single time and I can see that the news doesn’t have the same impact on the people around me. The first few times it happened, people would say, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” but by the last miscarriage, people were saying, “Well, maybe you should think about not getting pregnant anymore.” The most recent one was harder because of lack of support. After six, I thought, “Well, now it has to be my turn. I’ve lived through so much that now it has to be it.” But, no, it wasn’t.
It was particularly difficult since there’s lot of silent taboo surrounding miscarriage, especially for men. With each miscarriage, I had friends who were taking care of me, but nobody asked my husband how he was. He was going through a grief that he wasn’t sharing with anybody. He was ashamed and felt like a failure too. Yet, it seems like it’s easier for me to talk about infertility than him.
We decided to stop treatments, and I got pregnant again, and had another miscarriage. That makes a total of seven miscarriages. So now we’re looking at the probability of chromosome incompatibility, which means when my husband’s sperm and my egg meet, it creates chromosomes that are either not complete or have deficiencies that will automatically provoke a miscarriage. It’s the logical explanation, but we have to do a lot more testing—and, well, these tests are expensive.
I’m going through a process right now of asking myself: Why do I want to be a mother?’ And ‘what kind of mother do I want to be?’ Because it raises questions like if I have a sperm donor, for example, it compares to adoption to a certain point where my husband wouldn’t be the biological father—is he ready for that? Am I ready for that? Is that what we want? If we’re going towards that, is that because I want to carry a child? If I really want to be a mother, then where the child comes from doesn’t matter, so would adoption make more sense when there are kids who need loving families? Through this experience, my husband and I are having to think clearly about what kind of parents we want to be and why we each want to be parents.
My friend gave me good advice: make sure you remember that there are two people in this situation. You’re not going at it alone, so when one of you needs to stop, you need to listen and stop. For instance, I was pushing for adoption after all my miscarriages, and he needed to stop thinking about it and take a break. It’s important to go at the same pace—and that is one thing in this whole unpredictable process that we can control.
On not knowing what’s going on inside your body and starting earlier
I’ve been married for seven years and we started trying for to get pregnant six months after getting married. Because I actually work as a receptionist at a fertility clinic, Pacific Centre for Reproductive Medicine (PCRM) in Vancouver, I see patients struggling to get pregnant every day. I knew it wasn’t anything to get alarmed about if you don’t get pregnant within six months. But after we tried for a year, there was still nothing, not even a miscarriage.
After a year, I had a consultation with PCRM, they sent me for all the regular fertility check-ups. They checked if my tubes were blocked and checked my bloodwork for any signs of infertility. Everything came back normal, which was frustrating. I started a medication called Clomid, which makes you ovulate better and regulates your cycle. I got pregnant right away.
After my baby was born, life carried on and I forget about my infertility scare. When we decided to try for a second child, I went back on Clomid—but this time, nothing happened. That’s when I had to consider IVF treatment. The first round of IVF failed, but the second time I got pregnant.
On the outside, I still felt the same, as if I were 25, but something in my body has already changed without knowing. I already had a problem, which has not yet been diagnosed, and after three years, the problem has gotten worse. I don’t have any known issues with my uterus, but I have a limited number of eggs left so I’ve frozen my eggs just in case.
I keep telling my friends around my age who are thinking about having a child, that if you’re serious about having a child, you should try earlier, rather than later. There’s no time when you’re actually ready for the baby. Lots of people say they have to save up for this and that, but when you’re at the age where you’re ready to have a baby, you might have to spend money for IVF, which can be an even bigger financial burden. Planning to get pregnant is one thing, but no one plans to have fertility problems.
On the emotional toll of fertility treatments
When I was 23, my doctor told me that it would be difficult for me to have children in the future because I have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and other issues with my reproductive organs. In 2016, I had a surgery on my fallopian tubes because of an STI from a cheating ex-boyfriend, which made IVF my only option to get pregnant.
You have to be trying for a baby for one year before they refer you to a specialist—even despite sharing what my doctor told me when I was younger. They took a sort of ‘Oh, you’re young, you have time’ attitude. I was 26. It ended up taking two years before my husband and I saw a fertility specialist, because there was such a volume of people.
While they were doing all the tests to figure out what was going on with my reproductive organs, they gave me five cycles of Clomid, which makes you ovulate more eggs than usual in a cycle. Those drugs were our first large expense. Unfortunately, it turns out that my fallopian tubes were blocked, so the drug was kind of useless. When they figured what was wrong, I booked a surgery as soon as possible, and we started our first IVF cycle.
The process requires about two weeks of stimulation injections with estrogen and progesterone. If I had to see anybody, I would warn them beforehand that I was extremely hormonal and they’d say, “Oh I can handle that, I had a pregnant friend once.” But for a normal menstrual cycle, a woman will peak at an estrogen level of 400. In a pregnancy, a woman’s estrogen level will peak at 7,000. But on day 10 of injections, my estrogen level was over 19,000. If my dog looked at me funny, I would start crying. It was a wild ride.
Since doing IVF, the financial struggle and the emotional struggle have really taken over our marriage. We didn’t know who we were anymore because we had been trying and focusing on this for so long. We lost sight of the other goals in our life when we got married. We weren’t being good to each other so we decided to take some time away from each other, and the longer we were separated, the more we realized we were happier apart than together.
On losing friends and finding support
My husband and I met when I was 21 and he was 22. We started trying to conceive a year later.
I have had regular cycles my whole life so we thought this would be a breeze. A year comes and goes, nothing. We both went for testing and nothing appeared out of the ordinary—my doctor actually said my husband’s test results were the best she’s ever seen. We tried timed cycles with Letrozole, a drug that can induce ovulation, and were still unsuccessful. We then moved onto IUI with Clomid through a clinic here in Regina where we did two cycles, and still no results. After some tough decision-making, we decided to not only take a break from trying, but from each other. We needed space to figure out ourselves. Fast forward six months, we are back together and the happiest we’ve ever been—and again back to casually trying to get pregnant naturally.
We started this experience feeling so hopeful and optimistic at the beginning of each cycle, and crushed at the end. Despite enduring this for 46 months now, the results never get easier. It’s tough to not break down when people in our family and friend circles are announcing pregnancies almost weekly.
Through this whole process I’ve learned how strong of a woman I really am. There are times I absolutely crumble, drop to my knees and lose it. But what makes me strong is, getting back up month after month to face life. Each time it doesn’t work, I accept that it wasn’t our month and we’d have to try again. Through everything, I learned how strong and understanding my husband is. He’s there when no one else knows how to pick me up.
People say they understand, but that’s not possible until you’ve experienced this. My close family is as supportive as they can be. I’ve lost friends over not attending birthdays or showers, but for the couple of friends I’ve lost, I’ve also gained an entire support group who understands what I’m going through.