Whether you want to blame rom-coms, magazines, or Boomers, people grow up learning that conception will look like marrying the love of their life, deciding "it's time," then "pulling the goalie," and soon thereafter, doing a happy dance in a bathroom upon seeing double lines on a plastic stick. Or they're told pregnancy will just happen spontaneously — perhaps even when they least expect or even want it to.
Yet, according to the latest data, one-third of U.S. adults find themselves on a different path to parenthood — one involving endless tests, countless hours spent in doctors' offices, a gazillion injections, and thousands of dollars, not to mention the mental and emotional toll of fertility treatments like egg freezing and in vitro fertilization (IVF). As much as I always hoped I might find my way to motherhood via the former scenario, I always had a sneaking suspicion I'd be part of that one-third.
All of these ingredients add up to a big, blaring neon sign that read "IVF or bust."
I've dealt with hormone imbalance and wonky cycles ever since I hit adolescence. (Initially diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, PCOS, I later learned I have a genetic condition that mimics PCOS called nonclassical congenital adrenal hyperplasia, or NCAH, as well as hypothyroidism.) Plus, because I'm extremely career-driven, I figured I wouldn't start trying to conceive until I was on the "older" side — at the youngest, in my 30s, but maybe even early 40s, a point at which medical intervention is often recommended if not required. For those reasons, in my 20s, as I watched several of my friends go through intrauterine insemination (IUI) and IVF, I paid close attention and asked a lot of questions, suspecting that I'd be in their shoes at some point.
As it turns out, at 39, I am. While my cycle is more regular than it used to be (thanks to thyroid medication and acupuncture), it's still super sensitive to stress. If I overschedule myself, struggle to get enough sleep, and/or am going through an emotionally tough time, I might experience anovulation — aka a month in which an egg isn't released, meaning I wouldn't be able to get pregnant naturally. Anovulation is something that can be addressed with stress management, but as fate would have it, I ended up falling in love with and marrying someone who, before meeting me, had a vasectomy. And all of these ingredients add up to a big, blaring neon sign that read "IVF or bust" — if we want to be parents, that is, which we very much do.
Perhaps it's because I had always intuited that I would end up going this route, but I feel at peace — not only with the fact that my husband and I have to try to conceive, but we have to do so with medical intervention.
Unfortunately, there's a chance that peace won't last. This is how I feel after two fertility cycles, both done within the last year — one to freeze eggs (which was far easier than I anticipated), the other to freeze embryos (which was much more physically and emotionally challenging). We're aiming to have our first embryo transfer in the fall, so depending on how that goes, I realise I might feel very differently about the cards we've been dealt.
But as of this moment, ahead of our second attempt at making embryos and first attempt at getting pregnant, I accept that this is what our journey looks like. I'm super motivated and even heartened by the fact that it often feels like there's more in our control than it would be if we were to try naturally. For example, I appreciate that we can do pre-implantation testing, which will check an embryo for the correct number of chromosomes and reduce the chances of a failed IVF cycle and pregnancy loss. And as an astrologer, I'm not mad that we can schedule our embryo transfer when I have some lucky transits (in other words, not because it will result in our baby being the "right" sign, but because it looks like a fortunate one for me to conceive).
We're just doing what we have to in order to become parents. And while that might involve a whole lot of science, it's nothing short of deeply human.
This isn't to say that there aren't lots of huge, lingering question marks, potential roadblocks, and headache-inducing stressors along the way. What if we're not taking the right or enough lifestyle measures to ward off age-related DNA damage that could inhibit the creation of healthy embryos? What if our insurance covers next to nothing? Will my usual exercise routine work for or against my chances at conception? Is it better to have a reproductive endocrinologist with a good bedside manner who can minimize my stress or someone who stresses me out but has a stellar reputation? You can literally go down anxiety-inducing rabbit holes if you think a little bit too long or hard about almost any aspect of this process (and oh, I have!).
But I don't see "what-ifs" as something that we'd avoid by trying to conceive naturally. No matter how you pursue parenthood, you're going to have worries and fears — as you should, because it's a big freaking deal. But isn't it also one of life's greatest illustrated examples of, "No risk, no reward"?
Image Source: Maressa Brown
As sure as I am about this being my journey, I know that the path to having a baby for some might look more like that Hollywood ideal, welcoming their little one nine months after their honeymoon or being excitedly caught off-guard by the news that baby no. 2 is on the way when they thought they were "one and done." It would be easy enough to slip into brief brushes with jealousy, but I'm happy for anyone who has never had to try to conceive or to try medically. That's their individual experience, and their own beautiful, unique journey.
What I am not OK with, however, is any shaming, stigmatizing, or ignorance — especially in 2023, when we've come so far. The truth is that conceiving naturally is still considered ideal, while other methods are regarded as lesser-than or a last resort, which imparts stigma, shame, and disappointment on parents-to-be who are forced to (or choose to!) go this route. In reality, all methods of conceiving are equally valid and magical, and it's time we shed beliefs that imply anything else. After all, many queer couples don't have any other option but to become parents through fertility treatment. We're also living in a time when we're inundated with soundbites from celebs-turned-IVF parents, like Chrissy Teigen and Amy Schumer. More and more tech start-ups, like Conceive and Cofertility, are offering support for fertility patients. And if you're not offered fertility benefits by your employer, you have every right to be like, "Excuse me? This needs to change STAT."
And yet, even health-care providers are guilty of it. I've read comments on social media from fellow IVF patients who say their doctor told them they "waited too long" to try to conceive. I myself have been at the receiving end of borderline-bullying remarks about my age and conception chances, usually delivered under the guise of science, data, or peer-reviewed evidence. But what might be conventional and well-researched isn't everything. Who is anyone to say how long is "too long" to wait, or what someone else's experience should have been?
Here's the thing: The road to becoming a parent is anything but one-size-fits-all. And once you know the road you're on, you own it. Yes, we're trying to conceive, so very hard, with so many of our resources — physical, emotional, mental, and financial. We're just doing what we have to in order to become parents. And while that might involve a whole lot of science, it's nothing short of deeply human.