Trying to conceive is a secret battle for many women that involves thousands of dollars, insensitive friends -- and often -- shame.
Ronda Kaysen: As soon as Mary Katherine Kennedy decided to have a second child, she went on Prozac. After all, she'd been through a grueling fertility treatment process before and knew she was in for another emotional roller coaster.
"It messes with your body, your mind, your bank account," says Kennedy, 41. She spoke to momlogic from her home near Chicago, where she is in her third trimester and on doctor-ordered bed rest because of pre-term bleeding.
Despite the seemingly endless amount of baby bumps around, infertility is not uncommon; it affects 15 percent of couples. (Among women over 40, the number jumps to 25 percent.) For people struggling to get pregnant, the emotional toll can be enormous. Couples who spend more than a year trying to have a baby find that the struggle to conceive overwhelms their entire life. They often talk about sex becoming methodical and regimented; about fertility treatments that aren't covered by insurance and end up costing a couple their life savings; about hormone treatments that wreak havoc on a woman's emotions -- and about friends who are often insensitive.
A recent survey of couples suffering from infertility found that more than 70 percent of female respondents reported feeling "flawed," and 50 percent of men said they felt "inadequate." The study, funded by Schering-Plough and Merck & Co., also found that couples experienced marital strife and withdrew from friends and family.
"For the first time in their life they're up against something they can't overcome," says Dr. Hal Danzer, a reproductive endocrinologist at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles and a co-founder of the Southern California Reproductive Center.
The first time Kennedy tried to get pregnant, she was 35 and single. After four failed attempts with intrauterine insemination (IUI), she learned that she had a rare congenital condition (caused by medication her mother had taken during pregnancy) that rendered her nearly infertile. It took Kennedy seven rounds of IUI -- including one miscarriage -- to conceive her son.
"It's hard enough that I've been dating for 20 years and have not found the right person," Kennedy says. "Not only do I not have a partner, but I can't even have a baby."
During the grueling process, Kennedy turned to her large circle of friends for support. Even with so many supporters cheering her on, every time a cycle failed, she felt like crawling into a cave. Now she keeps a blog where she posts updates of her ups and downs, so she doesn't have to make a round of phone calls each time there's bad news to report.
Kennedy is unusual in how open she's been about her infertility. Many women retreat into their marriage while they struggle to get pregnant. Going to baby showers and watching friends have one, two and three babies -- while they're still trying to conceive their first -- is often devastating. And fielding questions about why they don't have babies yet can be painful and awkward.
"There's a lot of secrecy," says Irina Firstein, a therapist in New York City who works with infertile couples. "People feel very private about this, because you don't really know the outcome .... You retreat further into the couple and the couple can't oftentimes maintain and sustain this kind of pressure without any support."
Not everyone goes into lockdown, though. During the two years Elizabeth Hurchalla, 41, struggled to get pregnant, she talked about it freely. "I feel like there's kind of a stigma attached to doing IVF," says Hurchalla, who started trying to conceive when she was 39. "I felt no shame about it. I felt like this isn't something I chose to do. I felt like it was a medical thing."
After several rounds of IUI and two rounds of IVF, Hurchalla conceived. Her son is now four months old. "I feel lucky in a weird way, even though I had to spend my house down payment and go through hell and high water [to] have this baby," says Hurchalla, who lives in Los Angeles. "I know so many women who have it worse off than me."
Infertility can strike at any age, but the odds of getting pregnant without any outside help drop as a woman passes that magic age of 35 -- and they drop dramatically when she hits 40. As a woman ages, treatments like IVF are increasingly less effective. A woman over 43 has less than a two-percent chance of getting pregnant during any given IVF cycle. Compare that to the 65- to 70-percent chance that a woman under 35 has, and you've got yourself a serious age-related problem.
The solution? "You've got to try to decide to get pregnant in your early 30s," says Danzer.
For many women, that's not so easy. Kennedy, for example, was 40 by the time she married and was ready to try to have another child. In addition to going on antidepressants from the start, she also jumped straight into fertility treatments. The second time around, she was pregnant in 10 months -- but trying to get pregnant with a partner was in some ways harder than going it alone.
"Not only are you having to deal with your own emotions and the physical side effects of the treatments," she says, "but you also have this person who you love so desperately -- and he is going through this, too."
Kennedy found out last August that she was pregnant with twins, only to lose one of the twins eight weeks into the pregnancy. Her pregnancy was further complicated by placenta previa, a condition in which the placenta grows over the cervix. "I cannot get a break," she says.
There are techniques for easing the strain. Magnacca suggests taking a break between cycles and coming up with a game plan about how far you're willing to go to get pregnant.
A little good old-fashioned pampering can also make a round of hormone therapy more palatable. Dr. John Jain, a reproductive endocrinologist, runs Santa Monica Fertility Specialists -- which he likens to a "fertility spa." Women who come into the center are given a "mind-body wellness" certificate on their first visit, which they can use to get a facial, a massage, acupuncture or a counseling session with a therapist.
Does it help get a woman pregnant? The research is inconclusive. But it sure doesn't hurt. "I know my patients are happier," says Jain. "They're calmer. They have a sense of control and optimism. I think that really helps."
|Ronda Kaysen is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, BusinessWeek.com, Architectural Record, Huffington Post, The New York Observer, Babble.com and AM New York. She lives in New Jersey with her family. Follow her on Twitter.|