I wrote on Sunday about my gratitude toward the readers who have responded with stories of their own. I did so in part because I had just heard from a childhood friend, Jenna, about her own frustrations surrounding preconception care. It turns out that Jenna has her own blog, and she’s been writing about the grief she has experienced and the faith that has gotten her through about six years of “infertility.” I use the quotes because, like many couples, Jenna and her husband Jason don’t have the money or insurance to cover every single test to find out why they haven’t been able to conceive. They don’t know if one or both of them is actually “infertile” or what, exactly, to do about it. They do know what it’s like to wait for a desperately-wanted baby. Jenna and I are the same age, by the way, and I have to say that I am so impressed with how she and Jason dealt with so much so young. I’m sure you’ll agree that they have made some incredibly wise choices. This post is much longer than anything I usually put up, but Jenna has written her story so beautifully that I just can’t find anything to cut.
Background: Jenna and I were close friends as children. We used to ride our bikes around Grand Rapids, Minnesota, have sleepovers, go to the playground. Neither of us actually remembers how old we were when we met or started spending time together, but we think it was fourth grade. We parted ways at some point, but we can’t remember much about that, either. We are both glad that we have reconnected. I had no idea that she’d be such a good writer, by the way, so reading her answers to my questions was pretty exciting!
Two things: she explains “charting” really well, but I’ll do a post later about what I think about this, and the Fertility Awareness Method or Natural Family Planning (not the “rhythm method”). I also asked Jenna both questions I have for her and questions I suspected other people would ask her and/or her husband. For example, while I was curious if Jenna and Jason had considered adoption, I didn’t need to know, personally; I wanted to know how she responds to this question, though, because I figured it had come up a lot. And for the record, I offered anonymity, and this couple basically said no need, bring it on.
Why [did you start trying to conceive] so early? Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I’m from a small town and went to college in a small town. At our college it is normal to get married after your sophomore year and even your freshman year. I met my husband on the first day of my sophomore year and we were married at the end of that school year. We were dating for 7 weeks when we were engaged! With young marriages in a small Christian community also comes lots of babies early on. After about six months of marriage we decided we wanted to begin trying and see what happened. I had always wanted to be a young mom, not a teen mom but early 20s because I wanted to be fun and run around with the kids for as long as I could. I imagined raising my babies with other young moms at college and having this great community experience.
What did you do before you first started trying to get pregnant?
Honestly, I just threw out the pills. I was working under the assumption that babies come naturally for everyone. Some of the things that I did incorporate into my lifestyle in the beginning were taking prenatal vitamins and reading about pregnancy — not infertility. I have always stayed away from alcohol, smoking, and prescription pain meds.
My husband didn’t really change anything when we started trying. He was also taken aback that babies weren’t going to come easy for us.
How did that change when you realized it wasn’t going to be easy to conceive?
As the wait grew longer I began to make small changes in preparation for conception. I wanted to believe that the wait would end next month, in a few months, by next year…and six years later I’m still in the preconception stage. It’s more like a way of life now. I slowly integrated more lifestyle changes: fish oil, more regular exercise, eating less processed food, consuming less dairy, charting, taking alcohol-free Rubitussin around my most fertile times for its ingredient Guaifenesin which is an expectorant and is used to loosen and thin mucus (it works for all mucus areas), magnesium, acai, ovulation predictor kits, sperm-safe personal lubricant (TMI ?), reading even more. I still stay away from smoking and drinking all the time. I made a commitment to my children that they would not have fetal alcohol syndrome, or even fetal alcohol exposure. When a new diagnosis was thrown around I would read up on it as best I could and change my diet again. It took me a year and a half to type “infertility” into my search engine. It took me 2 years to say it out loud. I wanted to pretend that I was somehow still going to be normal. This was a difficult and slow process for me to realize that “normal” does not exist.
Jason was at first a little reluctant to change his lifestyle. When we were still assuming marriage automatically lead to a baby carriage it was the unspoken rule that everything before labor and delivery was all about me. I think most couples operate under that same rule. I kept talking about everything that I was learning. After a while he was more and more interested and eager to make changes. He also took fish oil, a multivitamin, CO-Q 10, ate more colorful food like tomatoes and fruit, ate less processed food and exercised. We also started having sex in the recommended baby-making positions and in the morning. After waiting for so many years it’s hard not to wonder if any of these methods, techniques and tricks really work. But I think my research is pretty solid and I know others have gotten pregnant because of these small changes.
Can you explain what “charting” is, for the uninitiated? Just the basics, please.
“Charting” is a method of keeping track of fertility health. Each month there are several indicators of the most fertile days in a woman’s cycle. Once these indicators are known and followed or “charted” a woman can follow her fertility and know fertile days, non-fertile days and if there might be any problems during cycles such as anovulation (when an egg is not released so ovulation does not occur). It is quite fascinating and amazing how our bodies are made. Usually basal body temperature (waking temperature), cervical mucus consistency and cervix opening are charted. When all three are charted consistently and properly a woman can have a pretty good picture of which days during a cycle she is most fertile. You should also keep track of days of intercourse, period start and stop, health issues such as antibiotics taken or migraines. These are all important pieces of information to have when using this method of birth control or pregnancy achievement. When put together in a pre-designed fertility chart, you can have a pretty clear picture of your fertility or fertility problems. Charting can be used when one is preparing or trying to get pregnant, trying not to get pregnant, or just wants to keep track of fertility health. A really great resource, probably the best out there, is Taking Charge of Your Fertility. She is amazing. There is so much information and sample charts are included in the back. These charts can also be downloaded online but make sure you know the proper way to check temp and cervix or all the effort of charting might be misinterpreted.
Can you describe your experience with charting?
Haha, well it wasn’t until the second year of trying that I started charting. I was so young and people around me just didn’t talk about fertility or charting. I wish I had known about it earlier. I charted consistently for about two years. There were months that I was certain I would be pregnant — everything in the chart was perfect. Other months I threw my charts against the wall out of sheer frustration. After two years of anal-retentive, OCD chart keeping my husband and I threw it out the window for the most part. I still keep track of some things mentally. I write the dates of my cycles in my planner. I know when my cervical mucus is “stretchy.”I did it for so long that I pretty much keep track in my head but the constant writing and charting and measuring…it was too much added stress for the overly stressful infertility crisis we were enduring. My husband and I reached a critical meltdown point. Our sex life was over-scheduled and mechanical. Instead of looking to each other for passionate signals, we looked at the calendar. It was just too exhausting and all-consuming for me. It got to the point where I was feeling guilty if I missed something — forgot to take my temp, didn’t write something down. I would constantly wonder Was this the month and I messed it up? What if this was the only month?? I also found myself living for the future. My future happiness was somehow dependent upon this little, floppy piece of paper. I wanted to live for today and enjoy what was around me. I saw myself headed for a downward spiral and I pulled out. Now, for my sanity and health, I am more laid back. We have time, though sometimes it seems like time is running out. And I never know what God has in mind.
Charting was very helpful in increasing my understanding of myself and my fertility. It was also helpful in discovering possible fertility issues such as my low body temp, ovarian cysts and a miscarriage. I can’t imagine myself continuing that for another two years without success and completely exhausted. Other’s experience might be dramatically different. This is just me and I don’t want to discourage anyone from using this valuable technique. It has helped countless women achieve pregnancy and avoid pregnancy. With that in mind, we are responsible for our overall health. Just because I am not charting does not mean I am eating crap and living in total disregard for my well-being. I do believe God is in control but I also have freewill to make my own choices, and I want them to be good choices.
Can you explain how your lack of access to comprehensive health care coverage has influenced your decision making? What would you like to do that you cannot afford without insurance?
Because of a few opportunities to see a doctor I have found out I have ovarian cysts, bicornuate uterus — which is very minimal — and there is suspicion about endometriosis. What a cocktail! So I have some idea of what is going on, but I would really like to know more. Our decision making and options have been very limited to say the least. It is extremely frustrating most days. Other days I am thankful. If we did have great health insurance I might have jumped at fertility treatments out of desperation and anguish rather than rationality and confidence in the best choice for us. Having limited options has allowed me the time to process through my grief, grow in my self-awareness, and know where I stand and how far I would go to get a baby. I know where my moral line is and where I am willing to be flexible. I know a couple who immediately went through one round of IVF (invitro fertilization) and later wished that they had taken more time to consider their options. I wanted a baby so bad I would have done most anything. Because our options are so limited I have been taking advantage of all the natural and herbal “remedies” and treatments I can.
Now, I am glad I couldn’t do anything because it allowed me to have time and space to work through this process and learn from this journey. It is still a daily frustration — wondering if our six years of waiting might have been avoided with one simple test. But again, I know there is a purpose in this and I know that it is all in God’s timing. When I think about it I realize that had I not gone through the past six years, I would not have the strength and voice I have about fertility issues nor would I be writing to you now. If the growth and knowledge I have gained in my six years of waiting will help another woman in her struggle, who’s to say that wasn’t God’s plan all along?
I would definitely like to have the basic tests done for both me and my husband. I would be overjoyed and so grateful. Though I do not necessarily agree with all the aspects of the IVF procedure, I have less reservations about “adopting” donated fertilized embryos. This is something I have been thinking about but would still like more information about if I were given the opportunity to go ahead with it.
What tools do you and your husband have to help you deal with the emotional fallout of this?
Each other. We’ve pretty much been making our way through this process clinging to each other for dear life. No one around us was talking about infertility so we had to talk to each other and figure it out together. In northern Minnesota there aren’t many support groups for infertility. There was time when we easily could have gone either way. We made a decision together that no matter what we were in it together for the long haul. We started talking more, supporting and encouraging each other, taking every opportunity to laugh together and made ourselves available to cry together.
Our faith. Infertility has shaken the very foundation of our faith. How could a God who is love allow us to go through such pain and sorrow? Together we have seen the amazing blessings that have come out of this process in spite of the sorrow. Our relationship is stronger than I could have ever imagined. We’ve made some great friends. And here I am, writing on this blog and speaking out more and more about infertility issues. Even though life seems unfair and has crappy moments or years, we know that God has a purpose in everything.
If you could go back six years and give yourself some advice, what would you say?
“God is good and just, even when life is unfair. Yes, this is happening. Yes, it will hurt a lot. You will survive. Keep talking and writing.”
Name one thing you found more helpful throughout your process. Is it a book? A relationship? Keeping a journal? Medical professional? Anything.
All of the above. I have made some AMAZING friends throughout this process that I probably would not have connect with had I not been dealing with infertility. I am forever grateful for these women who get me through the worst moments. I Will Carry You by Angie Smith was the most powerful read for this crisis. But the most helpful thing, BY FAR, has been journaling. I have always been writing and journaling. I stopped in high school. But when I hit a wall in coping with infertility I bought a journal, started writing and never stopped.
Two snippets of advice I would give about getting through or coping with this process are 1.) Don’t try to fit with other people’s ideas of coping strategies. Find what helps you cope; what gets you through the day. I’m talking the simple things. A cup of tea, your favorite socks, a good book, a sad movie…It’s the little things that make the biggest difference. 2.) KNOW YOURSELF and be confident in this knowledge. Know your body. Don’t assume that because doctors have the fancy degrees that they know more about you than you know about you. You will meet great doctors and frustrating doctors. Know your concerns and voice them even if you have to change doctors or clinics.
What’s the most obnoxious, invasive question anyone has ever asked you about conception, fertility etc?
Haha! I love this. . I do have two questions that stick out:
“Are you sure you are doing it right?” — my mom, and I’m afraid she was dead serious.
“What kind of underwear does Jason wear?” — a girl that at one point had her eye on my husband before we were married.
What advice do you have about keeping a relationship strong even while trying to get pregnant?
Just keep talking. There will be moments when one of you is carrying more of the stress of infertility or preconception than the other. Then, unexpectedly the weight shifts. Pay attention to this and keep talking. Talk about what you each need to cope through the bad days and what you would like to do on the good days — and take advantage of those good days when they do come! Pay attention to each other’s stress and grief levels in order to keep encouraging and supporting each other. If you like to plan and enjoy knowing what to expect, this will be an especially difficult time as it is all about changing expectations and plans. Be spontaneous together to make the most of this crazy time. If you have been in the preconception stage for more than six months or have lost a child take time to plan a get-away. It can be cheap. It can be short. Just get away. Take a break. Actually leave your home – not to visit family or friends. Get out of your environment. Talk about what you are going through or make it a point NOT to talk about it. Just get away and have some fun together without the constant reminders of baby-making.
Why put yourselves though this for so many years? How you considered just putting it on hold until you have insurance? What about adoption? Becoming foster parents? What is or is not appealing about “other options?”
Awesome question. I’m glad you asked. I must explain that I have very conservative views in regard to pregnancy and conception. You could call me pro-life if you want. I just value life — old, new; healthy, sick. I didn’t really know where I stood for a while but through this journey of infertility I have gained a value and respect for life that I did not have before. I have thought about going back on the pill to save myself from the disappointment/hope rollercoaster each month but I just can’t do it. I don’t want to miss an opportunity but I also wouldn’t want to lose a pregnancy. Part of the pill’s job is to hinder fertilized eggs from implanting. This is the “back up plan” in case the original plan (to stop ovulation and fertilization) fails. I don’t want to be trying and waiting for a baby and all the while possible babies are being expelled from my uterus. So we might not be trying as intensely as we once were, but we are still trying. We are definitely not not trying.
I also know that I could easily quit school, get a good job, get insurance and pursue more intense fertility treatments but I am certain that I need to finish this out. Every day I make the choice to continue on this path of schooling and set aside, for the time being, insurance and medical care. There are so many fertility facilities here but I am not about to spend thousands of dollars I don’t have to get a baby then have no money to care for this baby. I just can’t justify that.
I have a brother who is adopted so adoption has always been on my heart. My frustration with questions of adoption to “infertiles” is the assumption that is being made. For some reason people tend to assume that the go-to solution for infertility is adoption. Not true. People also assume that those who struggle with infertility should be ready and willing to make the decision to adopt. Again, not true. Adoption and infertility are related but their relationship should not be exclusive. When I am asked if I have considered adoption I respond Have you? Just because someone is free from the stress of infertility doesn’t mean that person is excused from exploring the possibility of adoption themselves. Adoption is not for everyone, but it is also not an option limited to those who are dealing with infertility.
I would JUMP on the chance to adopt. Before we started grad school my husband and I were looking into foster-to-adopt programs in our area. We do dream of one day being a forever home for some great kids who have never had a home to call their own. I would also absolutely LOVE to be a forever home for kids with developmental disabilities who are rarely adopted out of the foster care system. These kids need a stable, safe, caring home too! These adoption programs are relatively inexpensive as the state is looking for immediate placement for these children. Yes, they will not be newborns. Yes, they might have many issues to work through but how great would it be to love a child who had not known what love was? It makes me think of a quote from Martian Child, “I can understand not wanting to bring a child into this world, but what’s wrong with loving one that’s already here?” If I am going to desire so strongly to have children and I value children, I can’t help but live my message and be willing to love every child – and I do.
But for right now, while we are still finishing our master’s programs, we are patiently and eagerly awaiting the day we can bring a child into our home — biological or adopted. But no matter what adoption will be a part of our story. Foster care and working with children with developmental disabilities are two of my greatest passions. I apologize if this was a long answer to your question :)
Advice from Jason to other husbands:
Get involved in her experience. It’s going to seem foreign and uncomfortable at first, but she needs you. Be willing to try new things. They might seem silly but just agreeing to try shows her you are in it together. Every month of a negative pregnancy test is really hard and can feel like rejection. Make a point to spend time with her after this. So much of this process is focused on the woman so you have to be your own advocate. Speak up about what concerns you and keep talking with her. No matter what do not let this struggle determine who you are as a man, a husband, a father.