Kaci Aitchison: When building your family isn't so easy
This is an announcement I never thought I'd be lucky enough to make:
I am pregnant, and my husband John and I are thrilled to announce we are expecting a baby girl this fall!
I debated ending that sentence with an exclamation point -- because of course it's exciting enough to warrant one, but the truth is after everything we have been through to get here, it's not that simple. We both decided early on that if we were lucky enough to get this far, it was extremely important for us to be honest about our journey here, because we know we aren't the only ones.
The truth is, this baby is the result of years of prayers, wishes, hopes, dreams, science, multiple pregnancy losses, more science, and grief. So much grief. And every time I say the words, "I'm pregnant," a voice inside my head reflexively replies, "are you sure?" Once you've lost a baby, you are acutely and painfully aware of the fact that it can happen again -- that you can do everything right and tragedy can still strike. It's hard to convince yourself that it will be fine, because 100% of your personal experience has ended in heartbreak. I don't think we will believe I am actually pregnant until the moment we hear her cry and hold her in our arms.
To say that we are beyond grateful is an understatement; more accurately, we are joyfully terrified, humbly excited, and worriedly optimistic. We still don't fully believe it. I still close my eyes and hold my breath every time our doctor comes anywhere near me with a Doppler wand to hear the heartbeat. Ultrasounds to us aren't joyful occasions to get a glimpse of our little one: They are terrifying black and white movies that just might confirm our worst fears.
That's because our worst fears have been confirmed on multiple occasions throughout our journey to becoming parents. Here is the non-glossy, non-soundbite version of our story, and I am sharing it because I know it is one that so many others can unfortunately relate to:
Reality #1: This is the third summer in a row I've been pregnant, so when people ask if this is our first baby, we hesitate to answer. Yes, I suppose it is- but also, no. To us, our first baby was the one we lost two years ago, in the second trimester, in an extremely rare case. Nothing could ever have prepared us for this kind of loss; it is next to impossible to explain to people the specific grief that goes with losing someone you never had the chance to meet. To connect with this being, to anticipate its arrival and to picture this baby as a part of your life forever, only to have it all completely go away in a literal instant is to this day the most painful thing my husband and I (and our families) have gone through. We still cannot wrap our heads around it, and we think of this baby every single day of our lives, and will never stop. Many people don't understand this; and quite honestly, I'm glad they don't because I wouldn't wish it on anyone. But it sure makes it isolating and terrifyingly lonely at times.
We picked ourselves back up again, and by that I mean, I cannot remember how we got out of bed in the ensuing months but dammit we did it somehow. We became pregnant a second time, but last summer, just after passing the first trimester, I miscarried. It made it almost harder that doctors did not link the two losses -- they were both random, and had nothing to do with the other, meaning we had nothing to "fix" or "look into" other than to absorb the reality that sometimes bad things just happen. Only this time, we unfortunately weren't in such a rare category. Some studies estimate as many as 20% (or more) of pregnancies end in miscarriage within the first trimester. Many happen before someone even realizes they're pregnant; for everyone else, women and their partners are left to pick up the pieces silently, because how do you talk about it? It's so so hard. I am so sorry for anyone who has gone through this as well, and please know you are not alone.
Reality #2: We battled infertility for years before these losses, so we thought getting pregnant at all meant our heartache would end. And yes, we tried everything, including the old standbys of "just relaxing", "avoiding all stress" (because stressed-out people never get pregnant?), and our favorite, "just forget all about it entirely and you'll get pregnant right away." Here's what I will say to this: I understand the well-meaning behind these words. But let me be clear: Not all bodies are the same. Not all bodies do what they are supposed to do, and sometimes all of the yoga and meditation and alcohol-free weekends in the world can't fix what science and medicine can at least help with. We are lucky that we had access to doctors who could help us; we are luckier still that they didn't give up on us when time and time again we fell into the "random" category when things on paper showed everything should finally be moving forward, only to have life throw us a curveball.
Our path to getting pregnant didn't involve romantic candlelit dinners, gazing into each other's eyes, or taking long weekends away. Ours ended up involving hormone injections, timing procedures around family weddings, and a lot of tears. Not to mention the dreaded phone call from the clinic that you wait for all day that tells you, sorry, it didn't work this month. (We always had an unopened bottle of wine on hand so that I could immediately have a glass or two when these calls came.)
You think toasting each other over a bottle of wine is romantic? True love is your husband waking up with you at 4am every day for three months to give you an injection in your hip because you can't reach it on your own. It's finding a way to laugh in a cloud of dark humor when not one, not two, but THREE pregnant women get on the elevator with you as you head up to your fertility clinic (advice for fertility clinics: don't take the floor above the OBGYN in the building). And before you say to yourself, sheesh, why try so hard -- again, this is what we did so that I could help my body do what it was SUPPOSED to do but for various reasons (genetics? bad luck?) could not.
There is such a stigma with all of this. Part of me is still embarrassed to be saying out loud that "I don't work." "My body failed me." But screw that. It did the best it could. If our bodies don’t process sugar appropriately, we treat it. If we break a bone, we try to fix it. And for anyone else who has gone through this, please don't be embarrassed. It is not your fault.
Reality #3: I know a lot of people might ask, why not take the hint and move on at some point? We definitely considered this. We looked into everything, especially adoption. After researching and speaking with several of our friends and co-workers who had, we decided it wasn't the right option for us at this time -- but that's not to say it won't be down the road. And it is an excellent, amazing choice for so many families that deserves to be celebrated as its own rewarding path -- not just an alternative option for people battling infertility. We also considered moving on entirely. Maybe it was time to settle into the reality of living child-free. Many people do this, and it is a difficult decision to make, and yet one I know many people come to and go on to thoroughly enjoy. We did take time off. After a particularly rough few months, we decided to spend a whole year NOT trying to get pregnant. It was very helpful for our sanity, even though we never fully stopped thinking about it. After consulting with our doctors and a lot of long talks together, we realized we weren't quite ready to go down that road. We still had every reason to anticipate that the path we were on would eventually lead us to our family.
Bottom Line: This post isn't just for any of you who have or are struggling to start your families: It's for anyone out there who knows someone who is. Please know that, yes, these things are usually all attempted: De-stressing, getting more sleep, working less, worrying less, "not thinking about it at all" (because that's SO EASY), cutting out caffeine and alcohol, looking into adoption, thinking about living child-free, praying, "letting it be what it will be", reading lots of fertility books, you name it. If you know someone who is having to go about building their family in a way that isn’t familiar to you, I encourage you to be there for them however you can, even if it’s just to say “I’m here, I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I’m here.”
In the meantime, for anyone out there who has ever struggled to start or expand their families, whether your path has involved fertility treatments, pregnancy loss, the adoption process, surrogacy, embryo or egg donation, or even just a longer-than-anticipated wait of desperate hoping and praying: You aren't alone, and you are just as worthy of being a parent as anyone. Do not give up on building your family (and deciding you are done trying is not giving up -- it's an equally important and worthy decision).
In the coming months, instead of just talking about being pregnant, my goal is to find ways to help be a part of this bigger conversation; to give any of you who need it a voice. We’ll be lining up Q & A’s with local doctors, sharing your stories where we can, and hopefully providing a connection to resources and support -- or even just an outlet to battle the isolation -- to those of you who need it.
Here’s a start: