*Heads up-this post is long, will be about infertility and early pregnancy loss, and will likely require a solid cup of comforting coffee to get through.*
*Cover and maternity photos by the incredibly talented Jessica Hurtubise Photography*
A few years ago, during a brisk hike with one of my closest friends, I said out loud for the first time that Walbert and I were trying to make a tiny human.
I have this fun habit of making big life announcements while talking about something altogether mundane. I believe the topic of conversation at the time was something about haircuts. While we talked about cool haircuts and hopped over muddy trails, I said “So any who, I’m trying to get pregnant right now, isn’t that WILD?!”
My friend stopped and gave me the look of bewilderment she always does when I do this to her. She followed it up with the BIGGEST hug. She was so happy for us! In part because she was also ready to start growing her own family. We laughed and talked about how amazing it would be to have growing bellies together and little people we’d take on hikes with us ❤️
Walbert and I were married for about four years around then. We just bought a duplex house in Port Richmond, made some solid career moves, and enjoyed being relatively free to adventure as we saw fit.
We’ve always been great at adventuring together, Walbert and I.
Even before we dated, we just knew how to have a damn good time together. We both do silly things for fun. We ride our bikes blasting a little speaker from the handlebars. Walbert took up electric unicycling. For a little while, I’d drive to Race St. Pier at the crack of dawn, and he’d meet me there with his unicycle, and we’d watch the sunrise together. Maybe drink a mug of coffee. We go on little trips to find good burgers and tacos, as often as we can. We once rode our bikes naked during Philly Naked Bike Ride and giggled like children THE WHOLE WAYYY. Our butts were cold but our hearts were warm.
All of this to say that by this point in our marriage we felt pretty good about the time we’d spent together, kid-free.
But now, we were starting to settle down a bit. Our bed time grew earlier and earlier and we no longer went to bars until they played “Closing Time” and we HAD to go. My biological clock was yelling at me every time we passed a baby stroller. We decided that it was indeed time - let’s make us a baby.
We were SO excited. We thought once we made up our minds about it, it would happen fast. And why wouldn’t it? We were, healthy, youngish (I emphasize the ish here), ready, and up until this point, manifested what we wanted pretty well.
Welp. After the first year of trying with no luck, we got a little less excited.
We heard that it’s normal for couples to try for a year before success. So we weren’t thinking that anything was wrong. It was mostly annoying at this point. Maybe I didn’t feel like trying to make a baby, exhausted after shooting three days in a row. But ovulation was like nah, do it now, RIGHT NOW, let’s go. The magic of the whole thing was fading fast. It’s honestly not a very sexy business making little ones after a whole year of trying.
After a year and half of trying, we started to get a little tense about the whole thing.
We were regularly greeted by ’negative’ on a pregnancy test stick. I started to have more anxiety than I’m used to. Talk about visiting a fertility clinic began. At this time, both our work situations didn’t include insurance so a fertility clinic wasn’t in the cards yet.
But even more than the financial situation, it’s just really difficult to admit there’s a problem. It’s a funny thing, the ego. Especially one the has had the good fortune of health up until now.
After the second year, we were emotionally EXHAUSTED.
Every month was a rollercoaster of excitement, followed by deep disappointment, followed by the questioning of everything in life. By now, my anxiety was INSANE. I was struggling even though I downplayed my building panic to friends and family. I also swore that on more than a handful of times I FELT pregnant. I felt food aversions, nausea, and generally just had this innate feeling that I was pregnant. Which of course was crazy because I kept getting negative test results. Was I going insane? Is it possible to want something so bad that you trick yourself to feel you have it? It must be possible.
And then? COMMENCE PANDEMIC and the dumpster fire that was 2020 🙃
When Covid hit the US, I was on my way home from a girls trip to Costa Rica, where I was very proud of myself for finally letting loose a little.
The airplane ride home was movie-like. Airports were full of masked, hurried folks trying to get home knowing something big was happening. When my husband picked me up from the airport and we drove home, the city was abuzz with constant sirens. You could see people coming out in stretchers in our neighborhood-hooked up to breathing machines. If you guys remember, that first wave was no joke. We were scared.
Walbert printed this quote by Frank Herbert and put it by our bathroom sink next to our soap dispenser:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
I love him deeply for doing this - even while he was going through the same amount of stress with me, he found humor in it and gently nudged me to stay calm in his Walberian way.
Because we lost all income that year, Walbert eventually began working with Amazon to keep us going while things settled. As it turns out, Amazon offers fertility insurance.
So by the end of the year and after a ton of soul searching through everything that happened in 2020, we finally made an appointment with RMA of Philadelphia.
When we first went there, I felt a wave of relieve. I thought for sure, we’d be able to find some answers here. Our doctor seemed knowledgable and the nurse we were assigned was sweet and informative. We began the rigorous testing procedures to see what was going on.
Once the results started coming in, we still had no solid answers. By most accounts, we were healthy and there was nothing physically wrong that would interfere. Walbert’s motility test came back on the low end, and he was prescribed a supplement that would help with that, in addition to some vitamin changes for me. We continued testing for the more subtle things. Nothing out of the ordinary appeared. We moved onto genetic testing. Again, nothing that should interfere was there.
We thought, is it possible we're too stressed to get pregnant? Maybe it's the type of work I do? Wedding photography has long hours, unpredictable schedules, many days where there’s barely any time to eat, and lugging around bags upon bags of heavy equipment. Maybe it was all too demanding on a body? Maybe it's the food we eat? Maybe it's the city air we breathe? Maybe we’re not taking the right vitamins? Maybe this, maybe that, maybe every thing.
Living in limbo takes such a heavy toll on the spirit. Why wasn't my body letting me have this? I had taken care of it and loved it my entire life. And now it felt like it was betraying me with every negative pregnancy test, every month, for years. It became hard not to resent it.
Eventually, we agreed to pursue IVF. I readjusted my post-pandemic, newly back-to-life work schedule and stocked my fridge with the giant boxes of medicines I’d have to take for a couple of weeks to prepare for IVF. I was starting to see an end in sight here. This HAD to work, I thought.
When you start IVF, your first round of medicine happens on the first day of your cycle. So as soon as my period started, I called the hospital. They had to do one more last-minute blood test, and then I’d get the green light to start with my injections later that day.
I had a very quick little shoot to do that day, after which I took a couple of weeks off to do this process in peace. As I put my shoes on and grabbed my gear, the hospital called. I can tell right away it wasn’t good by the tone of my nurse’s voice.
“Hey, Mariaaa. How are you hun? So, uhm. This isn’t what you want to hear, I want to start with that. But it looks like you were pregnant this month and we have to put your IFV on hold. What you think is your cycle, is actually…well….it’s a termination of your pregnancy. You’re having a miscarriage hun. Your HCG levels are very very low and will most likely continue to get lower and lower in the next few days.”
First of all. HOW did I miss this?! By this point I was watching my body like a hawk for any signs of change. Although if I was really honest with myself, this was one of the months were I FELT pregnant, like I had many times before. I guess since this was happening so regularly, I never took that feeling seriously anymore. It was ALWAYS followed up by a negative test result. I thought I was imagining things out of desperation.
I was devastated on the one hand and had me a good long cry. But at the same time, I was also weirdly hopeful. So I COULD do it, I thought. Interesting.
When we went back to the hospital, my doctor told us to put IVF on hold for a minute. She said she wanted us to keep doing what we were doing but test for pregnancy earlier than I have before, and call with the results.
And so I did. Sure enough, I got the faintest of faint pink positive line next month. A week later (normally the week I’d take a pregnancy test on) I got my “period” and the test was negative again. Another lost pregnancy.
Same thing the month after. And the one after that.
It became incredibly clear that my exhausted body was not betraying me at all. It was actually doing exactly what I wanted it to, month after month for who knows how long.
I was suddenly very ashamed that I had disconnected so deeply with Maria body that I assumed my very valid feelings of being pregnant were imagined. When all along she wanted to do exactly what she was designed to do.
Now we were in new tricky territory land. So it seemed we were getting pregnant often, but still I was extremely efficient at not staying pregnant. It started to feel more like an anatomy issue with me and less of a fertility issue with us.
They still thought IVF was the best course of action but were very transparent that with our situation, anything could happen - which I translated into don’t get your hopes up.
Since we figured out what was happening, I had 5 miscarriages. It feels so weird to say that number. Feels even weirder to know that it’s probably no where close to the actual amount I’ve experienced since we started trying. The constant hormonal tsunami of getting pregnant and then not staying it, month after month, is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
But at least now I knew what was happening and that’s SOMETHING. It was enough information for me to grasp at and begin reframing our situation with more compassion.
For instance, it’s so silly that I thought my body was fighting me. Me and her, we are one and the same. If things weren’t going well, that’s just how life goes sometimes-it’s not some hidden grudge my body held against all the rest of me.
There really was no reason for it, it just happened. I was searching for answers that were not answerable. Even more, I was breaking my own heart over and over again, trying the same thing and expecting different results.
We decided to take a break from the whole thing, regroup, and rest up for a couple of months. I needed a break.
While on said break, I was able to get my bearings a little bit and take some pressure of myself. I thought it through and realized we could live a perfectly good, happy life without children. Yes, we wanted to have them SO badly. But if it wasn’t in the cards for us, our lives would not just spontaneously combust. We started talking about sailing and possibly taking some time off in the next 5 years to live on a sailboat. We could become foster parents, adopt, or volunteer in programs that help children.
We truly started to accept things as they were, that this may very well never happen for us. And that’s ok. We’d get through it and keep on keeping.
Still, we would give IVF a couple of solid tries or as far as our insurance and finances could handle it. And if it didn’t work, we would no longer put our lives on hold, waiting in limbo land. We’d just do our best to move on.
To make sure we were giving our IVF treatment the best chance, we decided to seek the opinion of one more clinic-one that was more familiar with unexplained infertily. It was based in Colorado and scheduled a virtual consultation.
A couple of weeks before the consultation, I had an elopement photo shoot with one of the SWEETEST couples. It was one of those shoots that left me feeling so incredibly fulfilled with my job. On the way home, as I was thinking about how awesome today was, I got SO sleepy. Like, I almost pulled over on the highway shoulder to take a nap kind of sleepy.
Oh nooo, did I have Covid?! I know sleepiness and fatigue is one of the symptoms. I got home and went straight to bed. The next morning my dog greeted me as he usually does with his goofy smile and wiggly tail. The smell of his paws almost made me run away from out house in my pijamas. Pheww, I definitely didn’t have Covid nose is intact. But the smell of him, which I usually love, really bothered me that day.
Later Walbert and I caught up on one of our favorite shows, Raised by Wolves. On the last episode of the season, the kids in the show were young. We just so happened to catch the day when the new season released. As we played it, the same kids had blossomed into teen hood.
I suddenly started to cry about it.
“Walbert!! They’re soooo grown!! I need a tissue, WALBERT!” He looked at me suspiciously. I looked at me suspiciously. Ughhhhhh. I knew at that moment what I had to do. I walked to the bathroom and pulled out a pregnancy test.
Before I could set it down for the three minutes I was supposed to wait, a dark, dark pink positive line appeared. I started shaking from adrenaline.
I knew this one was different in my bones. For starters I had NEVER gotten a positive line so dark before. I knew this meant the pregnancy hormone in my body has already built up a lot more than I’ve ever experienced. It also just felt different. I really don’t know any other way to put it. I didn’t want to tell anyone. I just wanted some time with this teeny tiny embryo, enjoying the feeling that I was it’s home for however brief it might be.
A couple of days later I cautiously called RMA and they told me to wait another week just in case, and then come in for an ultrasound. I woke up each day mentally preparing myself for the possibility that it’s my last one with this pregnancy.
When I walked into RMA a week later, it was hard to catch my breath. How many times have I been in this building, and not once had it been good news. If they started my ultrasound and it showed no signs of life in my womb, I’ll probably loose it. Like truly have a breakdown.
Luckily, instead I got to take home a photo of the sweetest little dot I’d ever seen doing just fine. The due date was August 12th. A little Leo, I thought proudly. Obama is a Leo. So is Elisabeth Moss. NICE.
Of course now that I’d gotten farther than any of my other pregnancies, it felt like there was even more to loose the further along we went. I tried to brush the feeling aside. But it was there, quietly in the background of everything I did during the next 9 months.
The whole first trimester was a blur. I was so sick with nausea for most of it that I hardly had the capacity to worry much about anything. I was just trying to find a way to finish my sandwich.
Every week I had to get an ultrasound because of my history. And every week I was stunned at how much bigger and more developed that little dot got. By the end of the first trimester I transferred into the care of Penn Hospital Midwifery, as a patient with a healthy pregnancy. It felt like I closed the door to 3 and a half years of craziness, and jumped into a new journey ahead - one that was equally stressful and perplexing at times (but more on that next week).
We will never truly know why this time was different from all the others. Nor do we know if we’ll ever be able to get pregnant again after this baby. Although, Walbert has a suspicion, and he wanted me to share it with you in case it may help someone in this type of situation.
Walbert was prescribed medical marijuana for anxiety for years. During this time, we were both screened for complications; Walbert’s tests came back mostly normal but his motility clocked in at 4% (Google said it’s normally 40-81%). During our break from trying, he took an over-the-counter supplement BUT also had to give up smoking as a job requirement after starting work as a CDL truck-driver. After several years, we got successfully pregnant just a couple of months after that. It’s tough to attribute it to JUST that, but he wonders if the THC in his system didn’t play at least somewhat of a role. He said he always felt our issue was never just one of us, but likely a combination of things between us both.
If you’re in the thick of it dealing with infertility right now, I’d love to offer three pieces of advice that kept me sane - I hope they may be of some use to someone out there right now.
One: Meditate. Legit. Meditate and do it with a guided program. It’s the only thing that kept my nerves from exploding. Even when it felt like I was doing it all wrong, or it wasn’t really helping me with my feelings that day, overall it subtly trained my brain to breath every time my heart felt like it was going to break into tiny pieces.
Two: Allow your feelings of whatever you’re feeling to just be. In my experience, some days I was angry, others sad and depressed. All of them were valid, and all of them needed space. It took me a couple of years to realize that trying to fight them or shove them down, only made those feelings bigger and louder.
Three: Don’t put your life on hold. You are a person. Baby or no baby, you will have a life full of so many things ahead. I found that once I stopped putting off doing things I wanted to do until I got some sort of resolve with this fertility thing, it took so much pressure off and made it ever so slightly easier. It’s nice to have things to look forward to. Even if they aren’t the things you thought you’d be looking forward to.
Finally, and I TRULY TRULY mean this. If you need a person to talk to, or to hear you without the talking, I’m here for you. You can always message me and I’ll be there in solidarity with you ❤️
If you made it to the end of this, THANK YOU so much for caring and for your time. Tune in next week for part two of this journey - The Birth.