The Woman Who Isn’t Sure She’ll Be a Mom

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Because no two paths to parenthood look the same, the Cut’s How I Got This Baby invites parents to share their stories. Want to share yours? Email gotbaby@thecut.com and tell us a bit about how you became a parent.

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStoc/Getty Images

Amy thought that freezing her eggs was the best way to ensure she’d have biological children of her own. About a year after undergoing the procedure at 38, Amy met the man who’s now her husband. Divorced with children from a previous marriage, Amy’s now-husband told her that he was definitely open to having more children. But after a cervical cancer scare jump-started their plans, the process has proven more complicated than anyone could have guessed. Amy discusses the words you never want to hear a doctor say, failed IVF cycles, donor eggs, moving on to “tandem” IVF, and how she might have to come to terms with not being a mom.

On envisioning a family. I always imagined myself as a mom. It was never a matter of if, it was just a matter of when. In my head, the “when” was always a pretty traditional idea of marriage, kids. My parents got married young, and when I was in college, I remember thinking that I’d get married after college, have kids before 30. I really thought I’d get married within a few years of graduated. That didn’t exactly happen.

At 38, after about two years of looking into egg freezing, I actually did it. In that first retrieval, we got seven eggs, which is an okay number. But my doctor at the time recommended doing another retrieval — he said that it could take about ten eggs to get one baby. I waited a month, then did a second retrieval, and got 15 eggs. Combined, I had 22 eggs, and I felt pretty good — I’d done what I could while I was single. Now I just had to wait for when I met the right person and we were ready to start a family.

On moving from theoretically having children to actually trying. About a year after I froze my eggs, I met the man who’s my now-husband. It was actually pretty early on when we first talked about kids. We’d been talking for about a month online before we even met face-to-face, and we had a lot of very long conversations, about a lot of different topics. He has two children from a prior marriage, and I remember asking him: Would he be open to having more children? He said he was completely open to the idea, but our transition into actually trying was a little random: I had a cervical cancer scare.

Like many women, I’d had a couple of irregular pap smears. I had what’s called a LEEP procedure to remove precancerous cells, but the precancerous cells came back, so my gynecologist was concerned and sent me to a gyno oncologist. Of course, no one wants to hear the word “oncologist.” That’s not a doctor you want in your Rolodex.

One of the first questions the oncologist asked was whether I had or wanted to have kids. And I said, “Well, I’m 40, I don’t have children and I’d like to have a baby.” he said, “Well, I’d really love to give you a hysterectomy and we’ll just call this a day.” It was tough. No one wants to hear that.

In place of a hysterectomy, the doctor recommended having a surgery that would remove a small piece of my cervix. But then he explained that I’d be at a greater risk for late-term miscarriage, meaning a miscarriage at five or six months of pregnancy. He said I would probably have to have a cerclage, where the cervix is stitched shut so — for lack of a better way to say it — nothing falls out. The doctor even said I could “just get a surrogate” like it was no big deal. In the span of 15 minutes, I heard the words hysterectomy, late-term miscarriage, and surrogate. Needless to say, I left that appointment in tears and devastated.

On receiving a “fair” grade. We decided to talk to some doctors and gather some information and figure out what would make sense given this potential risk for later-term miscarriage. The general consensus was to have the surgery, then thaw my frozen eggs, fertilize them, and ideally, we’d get embryos we could genetically test before transferring.

About two years ago, we ended up thawing all 22 eggs, but unfortunately my eggs didn’t fertilize very well — we ended up with only four Day 3 embryos — all graded as “fair.” Our doctor said he would transfer them, but that he would give us only a 25 percent success rate. This was so defeating, considering I was now told I have a higher risk for miscarriage. All I could think was that I’d spent all this money freezing my younger eggs as an insurance policy … and now you’re telling me they’re shitty eggs?

On a plan that initially seemed crazy. A few months after fertilizing our embryos (I had just turned 41) we did our first embryo transfer — using the best two of the four. They didn’t stick.

Afterward, my doctor told me our best shot was to use donor eggs. I really wasn’t sure about it. I was frustrated that our doctor wasn’t willing to suggest other options — he finally relented and suggested IUIs, which we did try, and which did not work. I felt like he had a two-word answer to every question I asked, and those two words were “donor eggs.” One of my friends put it really perfectly. She said, “No one says, ‘When I grow up I want to use donor eggs.’”

We took a few months to sit on the idea, and research the donor process. It was a bit dismaying to find out how expensive and complicated the process is. All told, that’s another $18,000 to $20,000 to procure the donor, and then of course an additional IVF cycle and meds for the donor plus the genetic testing … It was another mind-numbing amount of information about what it would take for me to get pregnant.

A friend of mine who’d gone through infertility asked me whether we’d ever considered doing a tandem cycle. This is when you have a retrieval at the same time as a donor has a retrieval, then they do genetic testing on both sets of embryos at the same time to save money. I said, “No. That sounds crazy; it sounds really expensive. No way.”

But as I thought more about it, I wondered if it did make sense. I liked that you’re working on plan B while you’re still attempting plan A. My friend introduced me to a friend who’d done a tandem cycle, who was very knowledgeable — she’d found there are only three doctors in the U.S. who do it. We had a phone consultation with one of them, and he was the first doctor in this process who I felt like really treated me like a patient and a human instead of a statistic or a number. We liked his approach so much we decided to pursue treatment with him.

On finding some sense of satisfaction in a difficult process. About a year ago, we did another retrieval (on me). And we actually had much better luck, this time around — we had better results with my 41-year-old eggs than the 38-year-old eggs. We had four embryos that made it to what’s called “day five blastocyst,” which means that the embryos are large and mature enough to genetically test. After my original doctor made me feel like using my own eggs was such a worthless endeavor, I did feel some sense of satisfaction in getting further along in the process.

But ultimately, when we got our genetic test results back, mine were all considered abnormal. From the donor, we had 13 that reached blastocyst — and three came back as genetically normal. That was somewhat surprising to me. I thought that her age — 29 — would mean we would get more embryos.

On encountering one more obstacle. In preparation for the transfer with the embryo from donor eggs, we found out that my uterine lining needed to be thicker. I went off the hormones, I had to wait for my period, and then I had to start again. During the next attempted cycle a physician monitoring me locally (our primary fertility doctor is located elsewhere in our state) asked whether I’d ever been diagnosed with adenomyosis. I went for a second opinion with our fertility doctor, and he said, “Well, I don’t like this, but it’s true.”

Adenomyosis is less common but very similar to endometriosis. It’s basically an inflammation of the uterine tissue, which prevents the uterine lining from being thick enough to transfer an embryo. Adding estrogen into the body — the way you do during fertility treatments — just adds fuel to the fire. I felt so frustrated. This whole time I thought old eggs were my issue — I didn’t think I had other uterine issues that would prevent me from getting pregnant. All I could think was, Great.

My doctor told us that the only treatment for this was three months of Lupron Depot injections that basically shut down your reproductive system, the idea being that you start from a clean slate. Finally, after the injections, after waiting a little longer for my lining to be ready, we finally, finally did another transfer this past May. It also did not work.

This was incredibly disappointing. We’d done all the things we were supposed to do to improve my lining, we had donor egg embryos that were genetically tested. We truly thought this was our ticket. I remember just crying and crying on the phone the weekend when I knew that the transfer hadn’t worked. I felt so hopeless.

On encountering yet another obstacle. We decided to take the rest of the summer off in terms of attempting a next transfer. We had a big trip planned and I didn’t want to be on hormones for that. I asked my doctor about being tested for immunology issues — I knew that women who continued to have difficulty often tested for immune issues next. My doctor said we certainly didn’t have to do it, but that it might help and couldn’t hurt.

Right before our trip, I had immunology tests done — 18 vials of blood, plus blood from my husband, so our blood could be compared. A few weeks later, we got the results: There were issues, which I had no previous idea about. Because my body was immuno-compromised, it was rejecting anything foreign — like an embryo.

There are three ways to treat this kind of issue. The first is called LIT (Lymphocyte Immunization Therapy) — and it’s no longer legal in the U.S. I’d heard of it before, and always thought it sounded insane: Women travel to Mexico or Canada to have blood from their partner or husband inserted into them as a kind of allergy shot. Upon hearing our immunology doctor explain the process though, it sounded less crazy — basically it’s like giving me an allergy shot of my husband’s blood. It’s supposed to help the body build up a tolerance for his DNA, to help my body accept it. Part two is Humira, what many people know as an arthritis/anti-inflammatory drug. The last part is called IVIg which basically involves having immune-boosting substances pumped into you through an intravenous drip, similar to how chemo is administered.

On leaving the country for fertility’s sake. A few weeks ago, we flew to Tucson to do this crazy blood treatment. The next morning, we woke up at 5 and drove down to Nogales, Arizona, where we met a driver from our doctor’s office, along with two other couples who were also pursuing LIT therapy. My husband and I were thinking, This is the craziest thing we’ve ever done.

It’s a long story, but basically: After making it all the way to the clinic, we were told some antibodies in my husband’s blood meant we couldn’t do the therapy. They hadn’t read our charts and results close enough before we made the trip — so we’ll have to go back and try again. When the doctor said I couldn’t have it, I just thought, Are you fucking kidding me.

Our doctor is taking responsibility for the error and helping us defray some future costs, and my husband had his blood retested a few days ago. If we can’t use his, we can apparently use a friend’s to desensitize me. This is where we are right now. I wish it weren’t the case. Based on what I know about this immunology therapy, it seems like it will be several months before we can attempt another transfer. It feels like we’re on borrowed time, with us both being in our 40s.

On what might be next. I feel very aware that I don’t know how much more of this I can take. I don’t know how anyone does this for ten years — some people do. What I’m thinking about now is how and when you decide you’re okay without having kids. How do I get myself to that point, if I need to? I’m sure it won’t be overnight. I think it will definitely take some time and I’m sure some therapy. Frankly, at this point, my husband and I are worried about feeling old as parents. We could still research and consider adoption, but adoption takes time, more money, and if we do that, it will be at least a year or two before we have a child.

I feel like no one prepares you for the possibility of not having a baby, no matter how much you want one. People say, “IVF! Donor eggs! Adoption! Surrogacy!” But here we are, many thousands of dollars later, and we’re not much closer to having a baby. That’s what I keep thinking about these days: Knowing and preparing for the fact that motherhood may not happen.

The Woman Who Isn’t Sure She’ll Be a Mom