Clinical psychologist and play therapist Dr Jo-Marie Bothma talks about her experience with fertility treatment.
Like many women these days, I got married a little later and spent the first few years of married life trying to prevent falling pregnant.
Changing diapers while writing a thesis did not sound like the best of plans, so embarking on my PhD made me postpone parenthood for another few years. Then, suddenly, I hit the age where I realised that if I still wanted to have a family, I needed to start right away. I was 32.
Starting out with excitement
I can remember the absolute excitement of buying my first home pregnancy test. There was no sign of me being pregnant. I was only halfway through my very first cycle of trying, but I was sure that we would have success on the first try!
I made sure nobody saw me navigating my way through the various pregnancy tests available on the shelves. I hid it underneath toilet paper, two cans of insect killer and a bag of crisps and routed my way to the checkout point in-between strangers in the queue.
Planning was crucial as living in a small town made it difficult – if not impossible – to go shopping without bumping into family, friends, or colleagues. I did not initially plan to be so secretive, but as the unsuccessful months started to roll by, it became my shameful secret. I was battling to fall pregnant.
After our first home runs yielded no positive results, I started reading a few books on fertility and realised that I had done it all wrong. What a relief! It wasn’t me that was broken, but my planning skills that had failed! I should have started off the task to become a mom with a visit to the doctor. So off I went to check out the basics.
With a huge thumbs up and the famous words of “come back if you’ve had no success in six months”, I started the journey with renewed excitement and reassurance that all was good to go.
Another four months went by. This may not seem long, but with friends and family members announcing their pregnancies on social media platforms and my inbox receiving a stork tea invitation every few weeks, the pressure was mounting.
Coming to terms with infertility
It became all encompassing. Each month started to feel like a new heartbreak. Hormones are slinky little buggers. They lift you up exceedingly high during certain days of your cycle and then wear you down in the end when all hope is destroyed. And so, it was.
Months came and went. Seventeen to be exact. It was then that my husband and I realised that we needed more help. We went to see a fertility specialist. Although it started off as a very daunting experience, it also made me realise that I should have done it a long time before.
The journey up until then started to feel lonely and out of our control. The fact that we had an expert on our side made me feel relieved and took so much pressure off us as couple. It was reassuring and gave us direction and reignited our hope.
And so more tests were done, invasive and some painful. Laparoscopic surgeries followed, and the reading on my bedside table changed – it wasn’t only PhD-related research material, but also articles on topics such as myomectomies, sperm motility and endometriosis. We had way more answers, but not a definite reason why we were battling.
Medicated cycles followed, and timed intercourse ruled our lives. Now, if you ever want to kill the passion – that is the way to go. It is not at all like in the movies where a giggling couple shares a quick text message and then rushes out of a meeting during working hours to seal the deal.
For us it might have started out a little like that. There were times where we did indeed drive back to work with a blush on our cheeks and a naughty spark in our eyes. But it quickly changed. It became like another task on my to-do list, and I can remember not feeling so happy anymore. In fact, I changed my mind about wanting to have a baby altogether.
I decided to accept our childless fate and buy a cat. And so I did. I bought a cat. What I could not manage to do was accept our fate.
Facing it together
Of course, my husband and I were in it together. We were a team, and he also did not want to accept our so-called childless fate.
At that time, it had been two and a half years since we had decided we wanted a baby. We came to realise that our chances of conceiving on a natural level seemed not to be working. We decided to move on to assisted reproductive technology (ART). Although it changed the romantic notion of getting pregnant into a scientific and clinical process, I experienced it as a huge relief. No more timed cycles!
In fact, it changed things for us on so many levels. We not only grew stronger as a couple, but we also purposefully aimed to keep our focus on the long-term perspective. We also started to cope better if we could find some humour in it all, and treasured the little hidden moments in-between. I can remember laughing so hard one day while rushing to a clinic with a semen sample under my arm.
I still have the picture of my first hormone injection, and I shared many significant moments with clinic staff along the way, some of whom became close friends as we journeyed this road together. Many more months followed, and when intrauterine insemination (IUI) cycles didn’t work, we moved on to in vitro fertilisation (IVF).
The most wonderful gift
We needed to save hard for the procedure, and since I was still studying and working at the same time, it was not easy. I did not respond very well to the stimulation protocol and ended up with only three follicles. Those who have ever done IVF will know that this is not good. IVF cycles get cancelled for poor responders like me.
We decided to go ahead. Only two eggs were retrieved. The stakes were high. A few days later and 38 months after I started trying to fall pregnant we were left with only one viable embryo for transfer.
I will be planning her eighth birthday soon.
Continuing full of hope
Our fertility journey did not end there. Nine months into motherhood, and while still breastfeeding our IVF miracle, I naturally conceived our second baby. At the age of 37 we became parents again, and without even trying.
That conception healed my damaged fertility-image and fixed so much of my brokenness. Our children managed to put so many of our issues into perspective that my husband and I decided we wanted to grow our family.
The journey to fall pregnant with our third was not uneventful. We faced many other tribulations along that route. Even though I was much older, I did manage to fall pregnant naturally while on medicated cycles. In fact, our third baby changed that “infertile” status in my mind to that of “very fertile”!
I managed to conceive six times over the course of 17 months, but unfortunately all pregnancies ended in miscarriages. It was a devastating time in our lives and we nearly lost all hope. I could not, however, stop the constant thought in my mind of “trying just one more time”. Our third baby was born just three months before my 41st birthday, after a healthy pregnancy. She makes us wants to live forever.
All three of our children healed some aspect of our inner selves during our fertility journey and looking at them now makes me so extremely happy that I did not stop trying after I bought my cat. They were worth every single tear I have cried.
You are not alone
When you start trying for a baby, you hear many stories. There is the one about the person who had a baby they did not plan for. There is the one about the couple who fell pregnant after returning from their honeymoon. There is the one about the person who had a baby even though they were in their forties – and there are the stories of the people who struggled a bit but got pregnant before full fertility treatment started.
People love to share stories about fertility when it is easy. The truth is that there are lots of people out there who do not find it easy. It is only when you are in it, that you find out there are others in your town or community in the same position.
There is relief in discovering that several others out there have similar stories. It encouraged me along my journey. I realised that for every person who did not know what I was going through, there were so many others going through the same situation.
Many are in it together. You are not alone.
What a story! I’m so glad these stories are being told because so many people are struggling and so many in silence. I hope stories like this help to show couples that this is more common than we realise and that there are several options to take to have that family you hope for.