I have (mostly) kept some life-altering things in the vault. A handful of close loved ones know about these life events, but I’ve been feeling the need to open up about them and just let them be out in the universe. I’m just tired of keeping them secret, because I feel like it prevents healing to be so secretive. I’m backing into things because I need to say that I’m not looking for sympathy or advice or anything more than just to get it off of my chest, I guess.
So there are two really big things that happened last year. They are both really huge and I think I’ll talk about them in the order they happened to us, and for today, just share this one, not so little secret.
On the fence
I am 42. My husband just turned 40. We’ve been together for twelve years and married for ten years this fall. We have always been completely on the fence about having children. We were both sort of 50% in each direction, for a very long time. The thing is, we just weren’t ready. And I had lots of questions and wanted to live a married life with my husband before we considered becoming parents. We had goals and dreams and plans. So, I got to work on making them happen and we just decided we would get there when (and if) we were ever ready to get there.
As soon as you say you are engaged to be married, they will ask “when are you getting married, have you set a date yet?” and as soon as you are married they will ask “when are you having babies?” Around my mid-thirties, a few years into our marriage, our corporate careers were cruising and we were constantly finding new ways to brush off the inappropriate comments and prying about our reproductive (or lack thereof) choices. I remember one time we were out at a roller derby match and saw a couple we knew there. They are parents of two girls. They were heading home after to relieve the babysitter and we were trying to persuade them to join us out for a drink after the match. That’s when they called us something I had never even heard before, “DINKS.” Have you heard this term before? Double Income No Kids, is what it means. It wasn’t an insult, and they were laughing and calling us this because they envied our freedom. We didn’t know anything else. We were oblivious, us DINKS.
I spent the vast majority of my corporate career life in healthcare and although I was still on the fence about having children, I was always gathering information and researching my options. I was working in PR at Vanderbilt Medical Center, covering the School of Nursing, where they have a very reputable Certified Nurse Midwifery program. I was so impressed with this approach and the unique and more personal relationships the providers and patients developed. I knew that when (and if) we decided to have children, I would probably choose to use their services. I even voiced this to one of the providers in passing once. Fast forward to a year later, I was working as a Speech Writer for the Commissioner of Health, who was a former nurse at Vanderbilt. We both went back to the School of Nursing for a speech or some event together one afternoon, when the Assistant Dean of the Midwifery program approached us to say hello and she patted my tummy. Now, I may be fat now, but back then I was not fat. I didn’t have anything to pat. And even if I did… She patted my stomach and said, “What’s this?” I kid you not. She said, “Is this all you? Because I heard you were trying to get pregnant!” Umm, no. I’m not. Who told you that? And yes, this tummy is all me. I tell this story because it is just one example of the dozens of ridiculous things that people have said and done over the years of being a woman of “childbearing age” who was not bearing children and not sure she ever would and people reacting in wildly inappropriate ways.
A few years later, I started feeling pressure from my gynecologist. At my annual visits, she started asking what our plans were and began communicating to me that we needed to start making a decision if we wanted to try to conceive, because of my “advanced maternal age.” The first few times she brought it up, I just said I wasn’t sure yet. This dance went on for several years… because I still wasn’t sure. Here’s the thing: I am the kind of girl who makes an entire lap around the fair before she decides which place to grab a bite to eat, because I want to first weigh all of my options. I just needed to feel 100% sure I would be able to handle all of the changes having a child would bring, and I still had some things I wanted to get in place and do before we got there. If I was going down the road to motherhood, you can bet this type A overachiever was going to do it with a thoroughly crafted plan.
I bought and read about five books about being a mother, do I want to have children, how it changes your relationship, about pregnancy, and everything in between. It’s not something women really talk about. Most women get pregnant a nanosecond after they get married. Some skip the marriage step. Some don’t have a plan whatsoever and just find themselves pregnant way before maybe they ever really wanted to get pregnant, but they would never dare tell you or anyone else that. Some women know their entire lives they want to be a mother and get pregnant right away. No women I knew or could talk to ever voiced anything to me about waiting or being unsure. I started trying to ask women I know to be honest, and share with me three things they wish they could change about being a mother. I wanted to know those things they learned, in hindsight, and would share with someone who wanted to know both sides of the coin before stepping into the ring. Most women took the chance to sing the praises of motherhood and encourage me to do it (even though I never said I was going there, still just researching). Some women told me life was incomplete and without meaning until they had their children. All but one refused to answer my question. One person, a cousin by marriage, told me sometimes she wishes she could just be (insert name). She said she is always Mom and sometimes just wanted to be (insert name). A thoughtful and brave response. I was so thankful someone had answered truthfully. This is the kind of stuff I wanted to hear. I needed to hear more than most women were probably even willing to tell themselves. Why? Why can’t women talk about the downsides? It doesn’t make you a bad mother. No one is saying you don’t love your children or have regrets. I just wanted some honest truths from the trenches of motherhood. What I deduct here is that women are so damn judgmental of eachother that no one could actually speak their truth out loud, let alone to themselves.
The in between
In the meantime, we were starting to talk more about what it would look like to get pregnant and change our lives, and although we were still not 100% sure we wanted to have children, we also weren’t 100% sure we didn’t. So we began to set the stage for trying to get pregnant. I was at a new job that I hated. I worked long hours and had crazy clients who hated my work. It was a toxic environment, and the company had no maternity leave plan. They had a whole manual for the workplace about everything from sick leave and holidays, office hours and perks, but no mention of maternity (or paternity for that matter) leave. So, for all of those reasons, not just the maternity leave situation, I was looking to get out of that job. I actually landed two job offers. I gave notice and accepted a job I never wound up taking. I wasn’t supposed to start the new job for a few weeks because I was giving myself some time off in between. During that in between, a lot happened. I was offered job number two. This was a dream job! It was the one I really wanted… or I thought I did. It was another huge hospital corporate job. It was working in the cancer arena in a big way, being a boss girl and a huge corporate paycheck, office with a view, right by the interstate, it was beautiful… on paper.
During that in between, I was just enjoying the in between so much. It snowed and I was stuck at home for a few days. There was no guilt for not making it into the office.
I was really struggling with the idea of accepting another “important” job that would be so stressful, so demanding and probably not the best arena to immediately get pregnant and go on maternity leave as soon as I accepted the job. I turned down the job I had accepted and was supposed to be reporting to in a few days.
While working in the corporate field, for years I had been secretly researching opening a bakery business. I spent lunch breaks looking at spaces to rent or own on all sides of town. I wrote a business plan. I played with recipes and received rave reviews from all of my colleagues. Baking was my fun release. My stress reliever. I was the girl who made the cakes for every friend, the birthdays, their children’s birthdays, the work parties, even a wedding cake for a friend.
I really wanted a cupcake shop of my own and as I contemplated accepting another stress-filled corporate job with a two hour roundtrip commute in hellish traffic each day, it finally clicked. I could open my own little empire. I would be the boss of me, decide my own hours and commute, have no guilt about taking a snow day to play, and make up my very own maternity leave plan. It would be perfect! I would have a little playpen in the back of my shop, a baby on my hip while selling cupcakes. It would be the perfect scenario.
I gave up both job offers and my husband and I decided together we would become business owners and I wouldn’t bring home a paycheck any more, we would live on his, until my little business plan began to make a profit, if ever. We weren’t naive about it, we knew it would be at least five years, maybe more, before we ever saw a profit. I had done my research. In no time, I found a spot I could rent and afford and we began renovating it and putting my little dream, our dream, for a future plan in more ways than one into place. We borrowed nothing, and spent only what we had saved and earned to make it happen.
Then we started looking at all the other areas we needed to address to bring a child into our lives. We needed cars that would be kid-friendly. My husband got rid of his two-door bachelor car he had been hanging on to, with more stereo equipment loaded in it than the car was worth itself. And I drove an impractical two-seater convertible. We couldn’t put a carseat in that! We both needed new, parent-friendly vehicles. We had so many ducks to get into a row, and we felt we were getting there. We were putting all of the pieces together to be ready to get pregnant. When I felt like those wheels were all in motion, we even started having unprotected sex. I remember the first time we did so vividly. It was a conscious choice and a special night.
It’s not like the movies
In the first year, I didn’t worry too much about not getting pregnant. I was juggling a new business and so exhausted doing it all alone. I had no employees. Working in a bake shop brings lots of families in. There were always kids and pregnant women coming into my shop. And there were always inappropriate and very personal comments and questions about whether I had any. I have always been someone who loves children. I may not have been 100% sure I wanted to have any of my own for a long time, but I was never unsure if I liked children. I was THE babysitter when I was younger. I mean, I babysat more children than I can count. And I loved it. I adored all of the little ones who came into my shop, too. I guess it showed, and maybe that’s why women felt so compelled to pry about my child status. Every single day of owning my shop, a woman would come in and ask if I had children. It was assumed a person running a family friendly business had to be a family person. The thing is, I was. I am. I don’t think you have to have a child to have a family or be accepting and welcoming to families with (or without) children.
Before we knew it, several years of trying to get pregnant were well under our belts. We were doing all of the things you see in the movies and read about when a couple is struggling to get pregnant. I had a fertility tracker on my phone (I still do) and knew to the day when I would be ovulating. I became so aware of my body’s signals of this, too. I never paid attention to the fact that a woman’s body actually gives her signals for conception until I needed to. It’s pretty amazing, the female body. I had the home test kits, and I even had some basic blood-work done at my gynecologist’s office. After a few years of not getting pregnant, she suggested a fertility clinic for in-depth testing on both of our parts. I filled out all the paperwork in advance of our visit and then they called me to tell me what it would cost for the very initial tests. We just couldn’t do it. Our insurance didn’t cover a dime of any kind of fertility treatments, and we were no longer DINKS. In fact, people think owning a business must mean you’re rich and pocketing all kinds of cash, but anyone who has actually opened a business knows differently. You don’t pay yourself a dime. Any money made is used to keep the lights on and the door open, if you’re lucky. And honestly, even if we had the money, we had already discussed that we really didn’t want to and wouldn’t go down the costly fertility assistance road. It just wasn’t for us. We would do this if it was meant to be, or we wouldn’t do it at all. That was OUR choice. No judgment if you made another choice. Everyone has their own journey.
Time went by and several times I thought I might be pregnant. My period was late. I mean, significantly late, many times. The first time it happened I remember even letting myself fast forward in my mind about things I would do, what it would be like, how we would announce it. We had talked about names, as every couple considering children does. My husband liked to joke that our children would be named Tickle or Freckle Newman. I have no idea why. He just thought this was hilarious to say. I am not prepared to say what I had chosen, because… well… I am just not ready to yet. When your period comes, late, when you are trying to get pregnant it is an extra special kind of kick in the lower gut.
My 40th birthday came around and I really felt the clock ticking. I knew, as my doctor kept reminding me, that we needed to get busy and get pregnant with our first child, so we could hurry up and get pregnant with our second, because we didn’t want to have an only child. This was a lot to digest, but true. After all of those years trying to figure the whole thing out, trying so hard not to get pregnant, using condoms and the pill, yes BOTH, we now needed to hurry up the process because time was not on my advanced maternal age and eggs’ side. I was now hoping we might just have twins, so I could be one, well two, and done right off the bat and stop worrying about two pregnancies at once when I couldn’t even get to the starting gate of one.
During this time, we made the decision to close my shop. It wasn’t making money and I had started another business as an offshoot of the bake shop, a cotton candy cart business, and it was taking off. It was doing so well that it was paying to keep the shop doors open and I was struggling to juggle running two small businesses and be in two places at once. I couldn’t keep throwing money away on the building we had spent so much renovating, so sadly, we closed our doors. It was a very hard decision, but I knew I had my thriving cotton candy business and I knew sooner or later we would get pregnant. Not long after closing the shop, we started getting our house ready to sell. We began fixing up things to put it on the market and looking for a place we could build our new life.
It never crossed our minds
I always assumed the struggle to get pregnant was because of my aged eggs. It felt like a punishment for waiting so long to try. And I wasn’t the healthiest person ever. I had been diagnosed with cancer twice in my twenties. I was always the one with the crappy medical news. I went back to the doctor to talk about what she could do for us that wouldn’t cost us so much or be too invasive, but just set us up for better chances. She had some suggestions, and one of them was actually described as painful, but she said a high percentage of women get pregnant after the procedure. So, here I was, willing to go through with said painful procedure. I left the office with instructions of what to do next, and in the meantime, they said my husband should get a test because it is very simple to do, not very costly, and we didn’t want to start my procedure without knowing for sure his swimmers were all ready for the deep end, so to speak. We never for one second dreamed our fertility issues might be on my husband’s side. It never crossed our minds. I remember when he told me that the doctor said he had something called azoospermia. This is a fancy and ugly word for no sperm. No sperm. It wasn’t that he had a low sperm count or sperm with low motility. We are talking about zero swimmers.
It was unthinkable. So many things rush through your head when you learn this. We had been trying to get pregnant for years. All that time spent tracking, counting, waiting, and all the things in between and we were never going to get there. All those years spent worrying about birth control and we were never going to get there. All those dreams and plans and we were never going to get there. We sold our house in the suburbs and bought a house on five acres in the country because we thought we’d be raising a family here. I waited to decorate the second bedroom because I wanted to know if I should decorate it for a girl or a boy. I bought an antique piece of furniture I envisioned painting and hanging little girl or boy clothes in, in the room we waited to decorate. I had all the ducks in a row. I planned so well. I studied. I waited. I was sure now, we were ready, and it wasn’t going to happen.
The healthcare writer and researcher I used to be kicked in and I began devouring information about azoospermia. And just in case you’re thinking, wait, you never noticed there weren’t any swimmers? The answer to that is no, because there is still something called ejaculate, meaning, there is something there, but without a microscope, we didn’t know it was missing the most important parts. Each bit I learned was worse than the initial diagnosis. See, this condition is either caused by a blockage or a hormonal issue, possibly even an issue present since birth, and both of them come with their own set of problems. If we were able to have tests done and find a blockage, surgery is the only way to fix it. And aside from surgery on your testes, an invasive procedure we already decided we wouldn’t have done long before we knew this, just fixing the blockage isn’t the end of the story. If the blockage could be undone, it’s not a guarantee there will be swimmers. And if there are swimmers to be found, there usually aren’t many, would require assistance, and they typically carry some very serious issues. Sperm from men with azoospermia are linked to a greater chance of the woman carrying a baby with cystic fibrosis. And rewind to my advanced maternal age, and that already greatly increases our chances of having a baby with serious health issues. So, if we even could get in there and find some sperm, using it to conceive our child would be a very risky undertaking. It was a double blow. We both knew in our hearts this was the end of our journey to have a child.
Just Us Two
I think I cried for the rest of the summer. The thing that was, and is, the hardest realization is that there will never be a little piece of my husband and myself walking around in the universe. I really would’ve liked to see that. Can you imagine a little freckle-faced redheaded person that is the best pieces of me and of my husband?
That one is hard, hard, hard to get over. I am not sure I ever will.
When someone tells you that you can’t have something, how much do you then want it? It’s not that it took having it taken away from us for us to get there, it just makes the outcome that much harder to bear.
Going through something like this is so isolating. First, no one talks about it. Not the stuff trying to get there, not the stuff before you get there, not the stuff when you can’t get there. I think we chose not to, until now, because we didn’t want everyone feeling sorry for us. We didn’t want people judging us for not trying when we were both younger (but honestly, we didn’t even meet and get married until I was already considered advanced maternal age anyway), we didn’t want people judging us for not trying fertility treatments, we didn’t want people throwing suggestions at us for alternatives to try, we didn’t want people saying you can always adopt. Because here’s the thing about that: adoption is a completely different conversation and thought and journey than conceiving a child. You can’t skip from one to the other. And it’s not a consolation for not getting pregnant. It’s another story altogether. And it is insensitive to minimize our journey by suggesting it is the answer. I’m not saying it is off the table. It isn’t on the table right now, and may never be, but it’s not the thing to say to someone grieving not being able to conceive a walking example of their love.
I think the biggest reason we chose not to tell many people about our entire journey, until now, is because we don’t want anyone to think we are living a life less full or meaningful or joyful because we can’t have children. Yes, there are still tears. It is hard to hold the newborn babies of friends when you will never hold your own. It is hard to throw baby showers for all of your friends and not wish the shower could one day be thrown for your family. I still can’t seem to decide what to do with that room we had hoped to bring a baby home to. I’m selling the antique furniture I thought would hold tiny onesies and little socks.
But we are not broken. We have a new mantra. We are really committed to appreciating and celebrating what we do have, rather than focusing on what we don’t. And what we have always had is a strong partnership. I am married to my best friend.
I won’t say that the journey hasn’t been trying on our marriage. We struggled through this last year together, though, and we’re slowly coming out of the woods into a new year with a renewed hope for whatever exciting journey is yet to come for us, together. It’s going to be just us two… well, and cats and dogs and countless strays and all of the wild kingdom that seems to find us in between… but we’re okay with that. We are okay.