How IVF Shaped Who I Am As a Mother
The other night, I read a journal entry I had written in the spring of 2022. It was the eve of our third embryo transfer following a round of in vitro fertilization (IVF). One transfer had resulted in a chemical pregnancy, the embryo failed to implant in the second. The entry was a letter to my future baby. I wrote, “You are so loved and longed for. I’m so ready to hold you in my arms.” This transfer would fail, too.
“Infertility was becoming a crash course in failure.”
As someone who has tended to view success through an outcomes-driven lens, infertility was becoming a crash course in failure. Another month, another negative pregnancy test, another cycle of grief. Even trying “naturally” for my husband and me included multiple period tracking apps, daily ovulation testing, and a “just in case” infertility appointment after six months of single-line pregnancy tests. I was doing everything right, so why did my body keep getting it wrong?
From our fourth embryo transfer, I became pregnant with twins. The transfer that worked wasn’t any different from those that failed. I didn’t change my diet or exercise routine or add acupuncture sessions or go on a relaxing vacation. It just worked, after so many efforts, procedures, medications, appointments, and protocols had not.
Today, the miraculous blobs of cells from that fourth transfer are eight months old; their names are Henry and Harper. This mysterious victory—and the 20-odd months’ of failed attempts behind it—began my understanding of all the ways IVF has shaped me as a mother.
Learning to surrender
IVF is an incredibly controlled way of getting pregnant—the shot that triggers your eggs to mature before they’re collected is literally timed to the minute. Getting through the process, however, necessitates surrender.
In IVF and in motherhood, success is so often nonlinear. I see it now in Henry and Harper. When they were learning to sit, it started as a tumble, then a slouch, and then one day, they held their cores and sat up as though they’d been sitting forever. This idea of trusting that “the thing” will happen, the act of surrendering to a timeline beyond my control, is something I hold onto constantly as a mother.
“Surrender as a new mom can also look like asking for help.”
Surrender as a new mom can also look like asking for help. When the babies were first born, we had a night nurse as my husband travels a lot for work. On the first night of his first business trip, our night nurse unexpectedly canceled. I read her text and froze; I wasn’t ready to be the only adult in the house with the babies. I took a deep breath and asked myself what might balance my nerves. My knee-jerk reaction was to ask a friend to sleep over. My brain immediately rejected the idea, framing it as: Can you interrupt your routine and sleep at my house because I’m too scared to be alone with my own children? But as I had learned in so many instances through infertility, I had to ask for what I needed and be gentle with myself in the process. I reframed the ask as, Your presence is so comforting to me that just knowing you’re down the hall will give me the confidence I need for my first solo night parenting.
There had been times throughout IVF I’d surprised myself with the directness of what I was willing to ask from others. Things like:
- Will you please buy a gift on my behalf from Suzie’s registry and Venmo me? I’m not in a place to look through baby gifts right now.
- I’m worried about my mental health during the wait between my embryo transfer and finding out whether it worked. Will you come over one night that week and play a game or watch a movie with me?
- I’m taking a break from Instagram right now. Please don’t mention any pregnancy announcements unless I bring them up first.
“While struggling with infertility, I couldn’t hide my grief, I could only introduce it to my family and friends.”
So often as a woman, I feel pressure to do everything myself (and make it look easy and even glamorous!). While struggling with infertility, I couldn’t hide my grief, I could only introduce it to my family and friends. Some people disappeared, but my relationships with those who didn’t are so much stronger because they accepted me at my most vulnerable.
Trusting that I know what’s best for me and now, my children
IVF and motherhood are also about knowing when not to ask for help. When I was first diagnosed with unexplained infertility, I followed a handful of infertility Instagram accounts. For me, the daily accounts of what others were doing only made me feel guilty. Was I not pregnant because I wasn’t eating enough Brazil nuts or drinking pomegranate juice at the right point in my cycle? It was too much to keep up with and made me question how badly I really wanted to be a mother if I wasn’t willing to give up cheese (and for the record, there is no conclusive data on dairy’s impact on fertility!). Similarly, following many accounts of motherhood and even chatting with certain friends proved to aggravate, more than assuage, my anxiety.
“Following many accounts of motherhood and even chatting with certain friends proved to aggravate, more than assuage, my anxiety.”
In no certain order, here is a non-exhaustive list of things I have felt insecure about as a new mom: Stopping breastfeeding, leaving the babies with my parents for a weekend away with my husband and friends, whether they were too old for their bassinets, if it was too soon to take them on a flight, whether they were dressed warmly enough, if it was OK to feed them store-bought baby food.
These were insecurities rather than questions because actually, I knew exactly where I stood on each of these points. I knew when I was ready to stop breastfeeding; I was just worried what other people would think. I trusted that my babies were happy and safe with my parents and that they would benefit most from a reenergized mama; I was again afraid of judgment.
This one is a work in progress, but just like I knew when it was time to undergo fertility treatment (nope, taking a vacation or an extra glass of wine or “relax!”ing was not going to get me pregnant), I know what is best for my family. That trust is difficult, especially in a society constantly badgering us with opinions and “correct” methodologies without considering complexity or nuance.
Gaining perspective through grief
“The greatest—perhaps the only—gift grief gives us is perspective.”
The greatest—perhaps the only—gift grief gives us is perspective. The way I yearned for Henry and Harper consumed my entire life. I closed myself off to friends, I pumped my body full of fertility drugs, I sobbed over countless social media pregnancy announcements. I wanted them so, so badly, and now they’re here. They’re here and I get to smile down at them in their stroller and puree their vegetables and also feed them vegetables from pouches and jars and take a deep breath when their wails wake me up at 3 a.m. There’s no way to say this without sounding like a greeting card, but the difficulties in getting them earthside made it so that not a day goes by I don’t think about how incredibly lucky I am. I’m grateful I have the perspective not to take motherhood for granted.
It feels important to acknowledge here the privilege of building a family through IVF. My husband and I did not have fertility coverage through our insurance plan, and we live in a state that does not require it. All in, the amount we paid out of pocket to get pregnant equals roughly the average annual household income in the U.S. It is grossly unfair that this is a price tag out of the question for many people yearning to be parents.
“Perhaps the greatest lesson of all is that, in IVF, in motherhood, and in life, there are usually multiple competing truths to balance.”
It isn’t fair that I get to be a mother while so many are still in the waiting period. It isn’t fair that it took so much heartache and sacrifice for me to become a mother. Perhaps the greatest lesson of all is that, in IVF, in motherhood, and in life, there are usually multiple competing truths to balance. IVF was my worst nightmare and greatest gift; motherhood is the most difficult and simplest thing I’ve ever done; my journey to the other side of infertility consisted of enormous sacrifice and tremendous privilege and luck.
Last night, after months of sleeping through the night, Henry woke up three times. I sat with him on the couch, frustrated and exhausted, the dark room illuminated only by the faint glow of a sound machine. Eventually, he fell asleep, audibly breathing milky breath through an open mouth, head lolled back in the crook of my elbow. Sometimes it’s in unexpected moments I remember to appreciate that my messy, imperfect reality was once the stuff of my wildest dreams.
Megan Lierley is a writer and editor based in Northern California. She currently leads content for Cora, the women’s wellness company. On any given day, there’s a good chance she’s talking tampons, practicing yoga, writing her weekly culture and current events newsletter, reading a historical fiction novel, or eating a burrito in Dolores Park.