It started over thirteen years ago with the decision to stop trying to not get pregnant.
We were both comfortably established in our careers, we had a house, a dog, and my sister-in-law’s pregnancy convinced us that maybe it was time; after all, we had been married eight months longer than she and her husband had. If they were ready for parenthood, shouldn’t we have been as well?
I knew I wanted to be a mother, but I wasn’t sure I was ready for it. Then again, I also wasn’t ready to wait until I was 30 to have kids and I was already closer to 30 than 20. The clock was ticking and we weren’t getting any younger. I decided that if God wanted us to have a baby and we were truly ready to be parents, we would be blessed with a little one sooner than later.
Then a year went by and nothing. I brushed it off. Sometimes it takes awhile for the body to get back to normal after going off of birth control and between teaching and directing two plays a year, I was a busy woman. I spent most of my time in high gear. That had to be the explanation for why I still wasn’t pregnant. Maybe we weren’t really ready to be parents and we just needed more time. I was disappointed but not devastated. I wanted kids but I wasn’t sure I was entirely ready for the responsibilities of motherhood.
But time continued to tick by and we both grew impatient, the longing growing with each month. I choked back tears every time an overly nosey female student eagerly asked, “Mrs. Styf, when are you going to have a baby?” My heart hurt every time I watched a baptism in church, wondering if that was ever going to be us. I fumed when I would see former students on Facebook announcing their pregnancies, wondering why my former high school students were able to so easily get pregnant, often unintentionally, and I was still childless. A younger cousin excitedly announced her pregnancy, becoming the first granddaughter to bear a great-grandchild. I wanted to share in their joy. I wanted to join the chorus of “congratulations.” I wanted it to be me. And then our friends started having babies.
During all of this, Jeff finally sat me down and said, “You need to talk to your doctor.” But to do that I was admitting that there was something wrong with me. For some reason my body wasn’t doing what it was made to do and I wasn’t ready to admit that I might be deficient.
At my next annual exam I finally admitted to my doctor that I had concerns because after nearly a year and a half, I still wasn’t pregnant. She said that there were tests we could do to see how my body was functioning but first Jeff would have to get checked out because there is usually only one thing wrong with men; the female reproductive system is so complicated that it could be nearly anything.
When Jeff got the clear bill of health, my doctor scheduled a hysterosalpingogram to make sure that my fallopian tubes were clear. While I was happy that the test came back negative, I also spent that night curled up on the couch experiencing some of the worst cramping of my adult life. It was that night that I finally called my mom to tell her just a little bit of what we were going through. I wasn’t ready to tell family everything, but I knew it was time to at least start letting family know that we weren’t still childless by choice.
I discussed options with my OBGYN, who had limited capabilities in the world of fertility treatments, but she could at least give us a chance to increase our odds by prescribing Clomid. A combination of lack of understanding the process (my OB wasn’t particularly good about explaining the details of the process that we needed to follow and then following up on it) and an uncooperative body resulted in zero results after three months of regularly taking the Clomid.
Shortly after our last month of Clomid, we celebrated the coming of spring with our closest friends, and with two babies now thrown into the mix, the question finally came around to me: “Sarah, what are you and Jeff planning on doing?”
Unlike my nosy students who wanted to know when Mrs. Styf was going to finally have a cute little baby that they could all gawk over, this gentle question came from close friends who weren’t wondering when we were going to get with the program; they wanted to know where my heart was so that they could support me, kids or not. Suddenly everything came tumbling out. Our desire to have kids, the more than two years that we had been trying, the frustration and lack of direction and questions that just kept piling up. While my husband hung out with the guys and all-together avoided baby talk, my girlfriends listened as I poured my heart out.
I learned some things that night. One, good friends will walk with you no matter what. Two, holding things inside is detrimental to your mental health and personal relationships. And three, I was a member in one of the biggest silent clubs in America.
Jeff wasn’t thrilled that I had bared my soul to our friends. While I felt a feminine need to share and not feel alone, he felt the masculine need to take care of the problem ourselves. The problem was that we couldn’t take care of the problem ourselves. It wasn’t that God wasn’t answering our prayers; He was showing us that we couldn’t do this all on our own. Before I knew it I had the name of a friend’s fertility specialist and we were sitting in a doctor’s office answering every personal and embarrassing question that he asked us. After seeing our previous test results he looked at us and said, “I don’t know why you can’t get pregnant. There is no visible reason for it. But unexplained infertility is pretty common. Don’t worry, I have a plan.”
Within weeks I was taking Femera (a breast cancer drug that is used to induce ovulation when Clomid fails) and in just over a month I was back in the office to have my first appointment with an ultrasound tech who would determine the next phase of treatment. It was at this point in my pre-pregnancy journey that I discovered that everything I had ever seen on television and in movies regarding early pregnancy ultrasounds was a lie. There was no jelly on my belly or a gentle wave of a wand. Instead, the tech pushed an ultrasound wand through my cervix to see how many ovarian follicles had formed as a result of the Femera, measuring each growing follicle to see which ones may be forming a healthy egg.
“Looks like we have a good one. Do you have the HCG?”
I handed her the small vial of HCG, she loaded the shot, and then she injected me with the hormone that would force the fully developed egg out of the follicle so that it could be fertilized.
I left hopeful that this would be all it would take. The doctor had warned us that we only got three chances with this particular type of treatment and I wasn’t ready for hundreds of dollars to turn into thousands of dollars of fertility treatments. Nor was I ready for more invasive procedures than those I had just experienced.
But it didn’t work. Another round of Femera, another ultrasound, another shot of HCG, and another round of prayers. Once again, it didn’t work.
I called in the prescription for my last round of Femera and HCG. When I went in the pick up my prescription, the Femera was ready, but the HCG wasn’t. I was told they were working on it. A couple days later and they still didn’t have it but they failed to tell me that they couldn’t get it in right away. I didn’t have time to wait. I needed that shot right away so that I was ready when the timing was right. I was hormonal and desperate and not the woman the person on the other end of the phone wanted to be talking to. Eventually the pharmacy worked out the issue and I had everything I needed, but the third month of treatment certainly wasn’t starting smoothly.
When I showed up at the clinic I tried to be hopeful. I watch the ultrasound technician count the follicles. There were so many, more than I had ever seen before. But then she started to measure them. After carefully watching two rounds of ultrasounds I was familiar with the kind of measurements she was looking for. None of the follicles were close to as big as the last two month’s had been. By the time she was finished, I braced myself for what was coming.
“I’m sorry, but none of them are big enough. They aren’t ready and there’s no reason to give you a shot. There is a slight possibility that they will mature on their own, but chances are pretty good that they won’t. I’ll put in the request for the doctor to make his next recommendation.”
That was it. Three months and it hadn’t worked. I held back the tears in the elevator as I rode down to the first floor, determined to not let strangers know that I had just been crushed by the cold reality of a black and white screen.
It was August and I had a back-to-school faculty meeting in an hour and a half. Jeff was supposed to leave for work in a matter of minutes and I was thirty minutes from home. I thought about calling him, but by the time I sat down in the driver’s seat I was sobbing. I didn’t have the ability to speak. I sent him a text to stay at home and made the questionable decision to drive home on the I-465 loop during morning rush hour. When I finally made it home I collapsed into Jeff’s arms, trying to explain what had happened at the doctor’s office. He tucked me back into bed with our dog Sierra and left for work. I eventually got back up, washed my face, and pulled myself together for long enough to sit through faculty meetings, trying to focus on getting ready for a new school year but my every thought consumed with “now what?”
It was finally time to tell more people, and not just our closest friends. I told a couple girlfriends so that I could keep them in the loop. I sent an email to our parents, grandparents, and siblings to tell them everything we knew, asking for prayers and support as we contemplated the next step. I sat down with my principal and told him that I would very possibly need time off in the next couple months as we looked into more aggressive treatments.
And then we waited. We waited for word from the doctor who was waiting for word from me that my next period had started and now we could discuss medication and timing, which I knew would now include giving myself shots at home, which petrified me. Three weeks after my appointment, irritation set in. Nothing was happening and I was tired of my body not behaving. Superstitiously believing that taking a pregnancy test would get things started (after all, that had worked for many other months through this whole process), I woke up on a Saturday morning, took the test, put it on the counter, and went back to bed. I had seen the words “Not Pregnant” far too many times before. I had no interest in seeing them again.
A couple hours later Jeff woke me up, pregnancy test in hand. “Did you look at this?”
I rolled over. “Why would I look at that? I know what it says.”
“No seriously, look at it.”
Something in his voice forced me to sit up and actually look. Instead of “Not Pregnant” the words clearly said “Pregnant.”
“How?” I mean yes, the nurse had told me that there was a possibility that my eggs would mature but to not count on it. And yes, I knew how, but we had been told it was a near impossibility.
By this time we were practically buying stock in pregnancy tests. Three pregnancy tests later we were comfortable with saying that we were indeed pregnant. We were shocked and thrilled and unsure of what we should do next. Within hours we had told one friend within our close circle, my sister who lived close to us, and then another set of friends within our close circle when they came over for dinner.
That Monday I called the office, went to the closest hospital for a blood test to confirm my pregnancy, and waited. In the meantime, I told my principal that he didn’t have to worry about me missing any school over the next couple of months because I was already pregnant. He went from congratulatory excitement to panic as he pulled out the calendar to see if my due date would be after the musical and I assured him that I would be able to make it through the spring production. I told one of my friends in the office so that she could cover for me if I needed to take a phone call when I got my test results and told my teaching neighbor so that I had someone to go to in case of emergency.
By this time the school year had started and in the midst of all of this I had to prepare for back-to-school night. Then the right before I left home to meet a new set of parents, I noticed spotting. I panicked. I called the nurse on call and she asked how else I was feeling. She told me that as long as I was still feeling fine I didn’t need to worry. They were waiting for the test results to return before they offered any more treatment advice, which was little comfort to a woman who had spent the last three weeks on the emotional roller coaster of her adult life. The bleeding stopped and the next day I got the phone call confirmation that I was, in fact, pregnant. Relief washed over me as I got medical confirmation of what I already knew: We were going to have a baby.
We made a Labor Day weekend trip home to visit our parents in Michigan, eager to tell them the good news. Jeff’s parents were home when we arrived in town. After we were done telling his parents we walked around the block so that we could surprise my parents and tell them. They weren’t home. Disappointed but not deterred, we decided to have fun with it. My mom had left a whole fresh peach pie (one of my favorites) in the fridge. I ate a piece and wrote them a note, letting them know that their grandchild had decided that he or she needed the pie.
A couple weeks later we were back in the doctor’s office for our first ultrasound. The doctor walked in with a nurse and medical student, welcomed us back to the office, and joked, “It looks like we scared the egg right out of you!” I laughed, because life had taught me that God had a sense of humor that I would never understand. I almost cried when I saw our single baby’s heartbeat on the screen (I had been nervous that there might be more). Two weeks later, the tail was gone and we could see little arm and leg nubs. It was real. We were having a baby.
For all the trouble we had getting there, my pregnancy was pretty smooth. During the first trimester I often hit the worst time of day right before lunch and while I was teaching a particularly difficult group of students. I frequently snuck snacks or chewed gum to keep the nausea away, but once the second trimester started and I finally told my students, my fourth period was more than willing to let me break my own classroom rules and eat in front of them. I stayed active, directed two plays, and with the help of some very experienced stage moms and a sister who was working as my music director, I managed to keep my promise to my principal and make it through the closing performance of the spring musical, despite the increasing frequency of cast and crew muttering, “Don’t tell her, she’ll go into labor.”
Six days later, on what was supposed to be my last day of school before leaving for maternity leave, Jeff and I headed to the hospital instead, where our daughter was born shortly before 9:00 P.M. We were exhausted but thrilled to meet our little girl in person, a little girl who we viewed as a miracle, in more ways than one.
But the story of the unexpected in pregnancy does not end with our daughter’s birth and our first year of parenthood.
Sixteen months after our daughter was born I broached the subject of a second baby. With the amount of time it took us to get pregnant the first time, I was convinced that we needed to start trying in case we needed to start looking for a new specialist, especially now that we lived in a new city. But less than a month after going off of the Pill, I knew. I could feel the changes in my body a couple days before I decided it was time to take a pregnancy test.
This time, I woke him up. “Jeff, I’m pregnant.”
“No you’re not.”
I showed him the pregnancy test. “Yes, I am.”
“How?” Again, we knew how, but experience had taught us that this wasn’t a possibility. Like I said, God has a funny sense of humor.
Unlike my first pregnancy, this one took some getting used to. Jeff hadn’t gotten used to the idea of having a second baby and I was dealing with a changing body, hormones, and all of the other life issues that were facing us at the time (debt, a house falling apart around us, another house we couldn’t sell, grad school, and lack of full-time employment). But it didn’t matter if we were ready, I was pregnant and now I can’t imagine our lives any other way.
Over the past eleven years I’ve often said that we had two planned accidents. Both pregnancies were in the plan but neither happened how or in the time frame in which we expected them to happen.
And while there are many more parts to the story of my two pregnancies and early parenthood, this is the story of how God taught us to be still and trust Him, making it perfectly clear not once, but twice, that He is ultimately in control. We learned that God uses others to give us the answers that we don’t know that we need. And we learned that we were not alone. There are so many couples who were and are like us. I’ve learned to listen to childless couples to discover whether they were childless by choice or circumstance, offering a listening ear when disappointments come tumbling out or affirmation when they confirm satisfaction with their lives.
My own story is not complete without the story of the winding journey to motherhood. God used that journey to make me more aware, more compassionate, and more appreciative of the life I ended up having, one that I never could have planned for. Occasionally, when I am plagued with the “what ifs” – What if I had never been on birth control? What if we had started trying earlier? What if I had been more conscientious with my health? etc. – I have to stop and remind myself of the life I have and the mother that I am because I was almost thirty when I had my first baby.
Now I openly share because I want my daughter to understand just how much she was wanted and that while there are no guarantees in life, I will be there for her regardless of where motherhood takes her. I don’t forget that I was one of the lucky ones who finally had her prayers answered without extreme measures. Living in heartbreaking silence is a lonely, embarrassing space, but it shouldn’t have to be. It isn’t our status as mothers that gives us value as women; our very existence is valuable because we are children of God and as such, we have more to offer the world than expansion of the population. And while that is a difficult thing for the brokenhearted to accept, that is the message women need to hear.