In the small puebla of Concepcion Chiquirichapa, Guatemala, Mayan midwife Antonina called on me to tend to the mom as childbirth was imminent. She gowned me, noting that I would be the one to catch the baby. At the mom’s legs, I stood dumbfounded at the threshold of new life…the first one to lay my hands on the baby in the moment when he breathes his first breath – and to welcome him into the world. With Antonina’s guidance, I supported the mama’s perineum and soon felt the baby’s head. And, in an instant, with little work on my part, a healthy baby boy emerged. The thick ropy cord that sustained him in his mama’s womb followed. I swiftly laid him on Mom’s chest, wiped his skin caked in vernix and blood and encouraged the familiar lusty cry that signals new life. And when I looked at his face, I found him innocently wide-eyed, beautiful, and completely content to be there. Mom tenderly touched him; fascinated by his tiny nose, ears, mouth and hands; as did her husband, who hovered closely above the two, inhaling every moment. To have experienced this ceremonious moment and to stand among these Mayan healers I was humbled and so touched, I wept with joy.
This blessed event, for which I am forever grateful to Antonina, validated the reason why I became a postpartum nurse and doula and set me dreaming about my own pregnancy and childbirth. Along the very convoluted path to discovering myself and my calling, I had finally found a home as a caregiver, a nurse and a lactation consultant to soon-to-be mamas AND brand spankin’ new mamas and their newborns. Touched by the blessings of childbirth daily, never in my wildest imagination could I have predicted my five year struggle with infertility.
In October 2015, after my 42nd birthday, I married my best friend. Matt and I complement each other well. I’m the right-brained bleeding heart, introvert, and nurturer. He’s the left-brained pragmatist, extrovert, and intellect. I’m a baby whisperer. He’s a toddler’s best pal. He has belly-aching wit and humor. And I have a contagious laugh that reverberates even in open spaces. We would make amazing parents!
In the early years of our 10 year relationship, I sensed my biological clock was growing impatient, but wanted to give the relationship time to mature. During that time, kids gravitated towards me without invitation, effort or fail. Was my biological clock that transparent? After several years, Matt and I relocated to Asheville for my job, and bought a house. Shortly thereafter we decided to start trying to conceive. I was 38. To the medical community, I was three years beyond the age at which chances of conception diminish significantly. In my work, I’m very familiar with this age category whose acronym AMA translates to “Advance Maternal Age.” I always resented that term, but had a special resentment towards it when it became personal. It implies “geriatric” and I don’t feel old. Unfortunately, after a year, we did not conceive.
Deep in denial, I made excuses. “Matt’s traveling overseas too much for work. No wonder we can’t conceive.” “This nightshift work is confusing my body’s natural rhythms, I need to switch to dayshift.” “Though this is my passion, the unpredictability of doula work, as well as the sleep deprivation is straining my body.” One by one we remedied these three factors and yet still no luck. By the 3rd year, the inability to get pregnant took a toll on us — on our relationship to each other and to ourselves. I, especially, felt defeated and defective. The inevitability to harbor thoughts of inadequacy and failure was paralyzing. I often wondered if it was karma for a wrongdoing from my past. And had trouble conceiving what that might be.
As a Mother-Baby nurse, lactation consultant, and birth doula who saw childbirth as a spiritual rite of passage, not being able to conceive made working with my patients/clients very difficult. Because despite bearing witness to the awe-inspiring strength of a birthing woman, crossing the threshold into motherhood; to the intimacy of new parents staring at their newborn with tear-filled eyes; and to the sweetness of an infant lying on his mother’s chest and lulled by the sound of her heart, my own heart was conflicted and hurt. And in times of deep sadness and regret and unforgivable shame for my inability to conceive, I had often wished that my desire to experience childbirth and become a mother wasn’t so strong. Perhaps, then, the lack of success in trying to get pregnant wouldn’t be so painful.
It is mentally exhausting to be on the long emotional roller coaster of infertility struggle. With each intervention came hope — a lot of hope hinging on the performance of my body. Each time my ego was knocked down by disappointment after disappointment, I retreated from friends and family and at times even my husband, sobbed deeply, iced my swollen eyes, slept for hours midday. I saw a therapist regularly, as well as an acupuncturist weekly. We tried medications and IUI, neither of which resulted in pregnancy. We began to contemplate adoption. Fortunately through it all, we were surrounded by the most supportive community of friends and family.
IVF was never in the plans from the beginning. We never thought it needed to be. And didn’t imagine we could ever afford it. But my mother-in-law witnessed our struggle firsthand and with unimaginable generosity, she gave us an incredible wedding gift — the opportunity to pursue a cycle of IVF. We had one single chance to make this work so we wanted to work with the best— which for my age range happened to be a clinic in Atlanta. The IVF process is an intense one—taxing one’s body both physically and mentally. The daily hormonal injections were unpleasant but necessary. I was no longer in control of my body. These exogenous hormones were. And through the process we watched eight potential follicles become four eggs, two of which were mature, and only one of which resulted in a fertilized embryo. There was no denying now, that the reason for infertility was my age.
We’d been told that the chance that our single embryo will result in a pregnancy was 10 – 15%. A disappointing outcome that left me sobbing, again. I felt as though we had exhausted our options. Or did we? I needed time for my body to heal from the process, and my mind to gain some clarity. After three months of research and discussion, Matt and I decided we would pursue the use of a donor egg. This time, through a crowdfunding campaign, we received the selfless support from our families, friends, and even strangers who felt they could relate to our cause. But the biggest thanks goes to Matt’s younger brother Aaron, Matt’s father, and my mother, whose heart ached alongside her oldest daughter’s through this process. In January of this year (2017), one single embryo (the result of a donor egg fertilized with Matt’s sperm) was transferred into my uterus. Two weeks later, I wept with joy for the first time during this process as I heard the voice on the other end of the phone line state “Congratulations, Dana! You’re pregnant!”
I am proud to say that I am 30 weeks into the pregnancy and have welcomed every pregnancy discomfort without much resistance. There are times when I’m joyous in disbelief. At 16 weeks, I purchased a home baby heart monitor and laid on a couch surrounded by all my Filipino aunties, my mom, my sister, my sisters-in law, and Matt. I learned then how squirmy this little nugget is, shying away from the monitor at every opportunity. But when I located her heartbeat set against the slower pulsating rush of my own blood to the placenta, the crowd of aunties rippled in giggles, shouts, and hoots. I smiled and laughed too, then the realization hit once again. Oh my God, I have a baby in my belly. My baby. Our baby. And as is true to my nature, I wept.
Despite my knowledge about childbirth, the recovery period, and how to support a mom through (potentially) the most vulnerable experience of her life, I have my doubts. The same ones that have lingered since the start of the infertility process. Can I do this? Am I strong enough? How will I be as a mother? I don’t doubt that they will be hard to shed. But I, and Matt, and this baby have received so many blessings on this journey that (along with the most amazing doula team) they will be enough to sustain us through parenthood. There is no shortage of love.