Back when my husband and I were shopping for strollers, we briefly considered buying a double so that we would be prepared for the two or three children we planned to have. We were in our late 20s and in good health. We had moved into a roomy home across from an elementary school. Everything seemed to be going as planned.
Sometimes I wish we hadn’t been so confident. At least we chose the single stroller.
I had a miscarriage in 2008, and our first daughter, Eleanor, arrived in 2009. Our second daughter was stillborn in 2011.
We began trying for another baby in early 2012, when Eleanor was 3. She loved fussing over her friends’ new siblings. One morning, after playing with a friend and his baby sister, Eleanor fixed her sad eyes on mine and asked, “Mommy, can we go to the store and buy a baby?” My voice squeaked as I tried to hold myself together. I explained that real babies came from tummies, not stores. Tears spilled down her cheeks.
Our street is dotted with young families, so I know that sibling relationships involve the same struggles as they always have. Brothers and sisters shove each other, pull hair and plunder toys. Still, there are moments of companionship — the impromptu backyard soccer game, the delirious unwrapping of gifts on Christmas morning. I wanted all of that for our family.
Six months into our efforts, I was sure that something was wrong. I visited my gynecologist, who provided lab slips to check my hormone levels. She advised me to resume drinking the occasional glass of wine and to relax. I would be back in a month or two with a positive pregnancy test, she said.
As I opened up to friends and family members, they prodded me with questions: “What do you mean you can’t get pregnant?” and “How old are you again?”
I was 32. Advice poured forth. My husband and I should take a vacation, do yoga, eat chocolate. We should quit trying so hard. We should be patient. Each question and piece of advice implied the same thing: The trouble was only in our heads.
That trouble spilled across my life. I became afraid to exercise, and I put off travel because it might interfere with our attempts to conceive. I slept little as I obsessed over any possible sign of pregnancy. Worst of all, I found myself snapping at Eleanor in frustration. I wasn’t enjoying my beautiful, healthy child.
In the time we had been trying, I had watched friends go from announcing pregnancies to toting around babies. My gynecologist, again assuring me that I was fertile, sent my husband and me to a reproductive endocrinologist. Most insurance policies do not cover fertility treatments, and I worried that I was wasting money on something we did not need.
In our first appointment at the fertility center, the doctor discussed our health histories and my previous pregnancies. Then, with a mixture of sarcasm and sweetness, he asked, “You do know how to have sex, right?”
“I think so,” I said, happy to join in the mocking. Relief streamed through my body. He believed me when I said that something was wrong, and he knew that a couple’s ability to have one baby in no way guarantees they can have another. After a year of trying and many tests, this doctor offered a diagnosis: diminished ovarian reserve. The trouble wasn’t in my head. It was in my ovaries.
Rates of secondary infertility are difficult to pin down, because couples often feel guilty seeking treatment when they already have a child, or they are told that their previous fertility proves that nothing is wrong. Just one or two years can change fertility.
In my case, I had healthy eggs at age 30 and was rapidly running out of them at age 32. Had I waited even a few more months to push for testing, our chances of conceiving would have been further reduced.
Receiving a diagnosis has restored my dignity. Instead of stumbling from one negative pregnancy test to the next, my husband and I have a plan for fertility treatments and are researching adoption. More important, our friends and family members ask about our progress with genuine concern. Instead of giving advice, they offer to help care for Eleanor during my doctor’s appointments. I am grateful to finally have the support.