What it's like to have fertility problems in your 20s
Growing up, I never had a second thought about how or when I’d conceive, I just knew I wanted children someday. In my teens, I had irregular, painful menstrual cycles and was eventually put on the pill to regulate. Only, it didn’t. In fact, my symptoms became worse the older I got, and eventually, I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (or PCOS) which the Mayo Clinic describes as a“a common endocrine system disorder among women of reproductive age.” It is often accompanied by enlarged ovaries, prolonged or irregular menstrual periods, acne, and in my case, painful re-occurring cysts on my ovaries.
In the beginning, we tried many treatments to help ease the discomfort of such a mysterious disease while I battled side effects like depression, anxiety, sleep apnea, and the big one—possible infertility. As I progressed through high school, and into my 20’s—a time for self-exploration and discovery—sexuality was something I struggled with. I couldn’t seem to come to terms with past traumas and frankly, sex hurt. I wanted no part of it.
Luckily, I found an understanding and compassionate partner (my now husband) who didn’t make me feel worse than I already did. Though, once we were serious, I wondered if these issues would be something I’d have to deal with for the rest of my life, or worse, would they prevent me from successfully becoming pregnant and carrying a child to term? I felt abnormal and wasn’t comfortable talking to anyone about it. Thus, I ostracized myself and became very lonely.
A few years later, even on birth control, I did become pregnant with my now 9-year-old daughter. My doctor was elated, and so were we, but pregnancy wasn’t anything like I imagined. I was sick the entire time, had severe hypertension, and after delivery, developed postpartum depression that nearly killed me. I fell into such a dark place, I’m still not sure how I found my way out. But somehow, there I was. A 24-year-old with this beautiful baby I wasn’t sure I’d have at a time where severe mental illness prevented me from fully appreciating her.
Once I sought treatment and felt like a whole person again, the time came we wanted another baby. Because I was able to carry to term once, I thought my ovarian issues were far behind me. Three years later, we tried again and some months after that, I discovered I was pregnant again.
The joy was short-lived when I miscarried that baby.
I still clearly remember sitting in the corner room of the gynecologist’s office. The way the paper crinkled beneath me as I waited to hear everything I suspected. The moment the nurse grew quiet, hopelessly searching for a heartbeat on the ultrasound, I knew. Panic set in, but I remained hopeful. After the doc walked in, I couldn’t tell you what was said through my tears. Only that it was one of the worst days of my life and that the pang of wanting another baby only strengthened.
After that, I became obsessed with having another baby. Sex became this mundane job we had to do, even if neither of us wanted to, because I wanted to prove I was “normal” and could do this totally natural thing of becoming pregnant. The doctor assured me one miscarriage wouldn’t mean infertility but given my history, it certainly didn’t help.
In amidst all of this baby fever, my right ovary grew bigger cysts than before. I’d have them removed but they’d grow right back. We tried to get pregnant through this for two years and for two years, nothing happened except more pain and disappointment. It was affecting my marriage and more than that, my self-esteem.
Just shy of having my husband’s sperm tested and my next doctor’s appointment to discuss a fertility treatment plan, I miscarried again. It was so early, I didn’t know I was pregnant. The guilt drudged up memories from the prior loss and thus, sent me into another deep depression. I couldn’t understand why this was happening to me or what I had done to deserve any of it. I began to feel inadequate and it consumed me to the brink of near divorce.
Then, a few short weeks later, I felt the urge to take a pregnancy test. It was positive. Immediately, I made a doctor’s appointment and because of my history, the pregnancy was labeled a “threatened abortion.” They wheeled me off for an ultrasound and to everyone’s surprise, there was a heartbeat. And it was strong. I cried tears of joy all the way home.
I was put on bedrest and every step was taken with extreme care. I would not lose this baby even if my life depended on it. I promised myself this, as if I had any control over the situation, because it helped me accept the pregnancy and the losses.
Upon delivery of my son, the umbilical cord snapped in the uterus and I began to bleed out. He was not breathing, and I stopped breathing, too. I was told the cord was moments from snapping in utero, meaning, I could have bled out at home. I still struggle with my need to have that 2nd baby and how it could have left my firstborn motherless but I’m grateful we made it through to the other side. I have accepted there can be no third.
Two years ago, my PCOS got worse and I had my right ovary removed. The pain subsided for a while but came back with a vengeance. Now, at nearly 34 years old, I watch my two babies play happily together, while thinking about the next step in my reproductive health—a possible full hysterectomy. This doesn’t make me less of a mother, less than a woman. This makes me 100% human. I realize now, there are many ways to rule at being a mother or woman and it’s not dependent on having a traditional pregnancy.
At 16, the beginning of my reproductive journey, I couldn’t know I’d deal with it well into my 30s. But looking back, all the times I felt inadequate, I was anything but. I am strong, fearless, and determined. I fought for all four of my babies and even in the moments of hearing “there is no heartbeat” or “I’m so sorry, I’ve come to realize the losses and pain have done more than help me grow as a mother. They’ve helped me grow as a person. And for that, I am thankful.