“Mommy, can we get a new house?”
“Why,” I questioned back to my 4-year-old. “Don’t you like living here?”
“I want to live in a different house. One that has kids in it — you know — friends? Who live there all the time? I want to get rid of this house, and live in a house that has friends.”
Poor girl. She thought it was the house.
It wasn’t of course. It was my body that was failing to produce the siblings she didn’t have the words to ask for.
When we found out we were pregnant with Maddy, I was scared of being a mom, and more than a little intimidated by the ways my life was about to change. But I had this little moment, holding the positive test in my hands, in which I thought, “At least I know now that I’m not infertile.” But that was before we tried to have a second baby and suffered through an ectopic pregnancy and recurrent miscarriages. Was I infertile? Turns out, I was. I had secondary infertility — a rarely discussed, rarely acknowledged condition in which a person is able to give birth at least once, and then struggles to conceive or carry their next baby to viability.
Like many of my sisters struggling with secondary infertility, I had assumed that getting pregnant easily the first time meant I had captured the holy grail of family planning. Having four kids, which was my original plan, would be a breeze. As I gestated my little girl, other friends were struggling with primary infertility — the inability to conceive or carry a pregnancy to viability prior to a successful birth. In laymen’s terms — primary infertility usually means childlessness. Primary infertility is a beast — but that is not my story to tell.
Secondary infertility is. I was an infertile mom: a living walking breathing contradiction. Here’s just a few things I felt on my journey to grow our family the second time around . . .
Heartbreak at the prospect of not providing a sibling for your child.
I grew up with three siblings. My sisters and I swapped clothes, did each other’s hair, and played together constantly. When my brother came along, the baby of the family, we doted on him as though he were a little prince. Through the remainder of our childhood, our relationships waxed and waned. But as adults, we became best of friends. I cannot imagine a life without them in it. So it makes sense that I wanted the same for my daughter.
When we got pregnant with our second, we were eager to share our news with her. I loved it when she put her tiny hands on my still-flat belly and cooed, “She’s just so cute!” in reference to the itty bitty little baby-bean I assumed was growing in my womb. I couldn’t wait to watch her attach to her sibling as my bump would grow and we would deliver. But that was not to be. My baby was ectopic, and all our dreams of our baby died when my tube ruptured. When we lost the baby, we had to have conversations with my daughter about why babies go to heaven, why mommy was so sad all the time and why she would not be a big sister — at least not yet.
When you have a child in your family and are struggling with infertility, you and your partner are not only dealing with your disappointment in how things are turning out. You have a child who is grieves your losses with you, experiences loneliness when they want that built-in-friend, and repeatedly asks you for a desire of their heart you are simply unable to fulfill. It’s heart-wrenching.
Triggers, triggers, everywhere.
As a mom, a huge part of my identity and day-to-day existence was wrapped around the fact that I had procreated. And naturally, this meant I was constantly around other women who also had children or were pregnant. Play dates, school activities, parks, pediatrician offices, libraries, community events, Sunday school drop offs, moms groups, kids’ birthday parties — all the places I went in order to be a good mom to my child were packed with triggers. Fellow mommy friends began having their second child and then their third while we went through five losses. In our case, adopting and fostering eventually settled the fear that my daughter would be an only child. But I have to admit — seeing another pregnant belly was always triggering for me.
Related: When the News Triggers Your PTSD
Oh, the societal pressure to reproduce again. As soon as you have created one cute babbling baby, grandmas, friends, the clerk at the grocery store all want to know when your little child is going to become a big brother or sister. As the years wear on, and your delightful child ages, the pressure mounts. Some well-meaning folks will tell you that only children are spoiled, and your son or daughter needs a playmate to keep their character in check. Family members miss having a baby in the house, and are looking to you to supply their baby fix. Because you’ve already given birth, people assume that you are in fact fertile and can easily reproduce again, and so they do not hold back on their comments on how they’d like to see your family grow.
Guilt topped with a healthy serving of shame.
If “just adopt” is the platitude given to couples struggling with primary infertility, then “just be grateful” is what secondary infertility moms hear. And trust us — WE. ARE. SO. FREAKING. GRATEFUL. Not being able to carry another child reminds us every single moment of how precious our child is. We think of our sisters struggling to have their first, and our heartaches, and we wonder why us? Why were we given this beautiful child to love and call our own? And we honestly love our kid so much, we’re ready to do it again. We’re ready to love another child and be just as grateful for them as we are for our first. And when we express our remorse that we can’t have another child, we are told we are selfish for wanting more than one. Which is, of course, ridiculous. Mothering is giving of yourself, not getting. And last I checked, fertile moms are not routinely told to “just be grateful” when they go to have their second, third, or fourth. So please tell me, why is it that we are not allowed to be both grateful for our existing and longing for more children at the same time?
Platitudes still suck.
Couples with secondary infertility still hear all the normal platitudes women with primary infertility hear all the time. “Just relax.” “It will happen when it’s time.” “This is God’s will.” “Have you tried . . . ?”(insert any of the following: hand stands after sex, temping, Chinese herbs, acupuncture or IVF). We’ve been told to adopt, because that is so easy. One person tells us to “quit trying so hard,” and then someone else says, “maybe you’re not trying hard enough.” Everyone seems to have an opinion on whether we are healthy enough, spiritual enough, grateful enough, financially sound enough, strong enough, or resilient enough to deserve having a second child. Oh, and speaking of secondary, moms who can only have one child are not second-place mothers. So please do not say how easy they have it as a mom to one. Life with one child is still as hard as it is rewarding. No one “gets off easy” by only having one. Multiple losses, infertility testing and treatments, and chronic disappointment are not easy. Sure, we don’t have sibling fights to break up. Instead, there is a lonely child who is looking to us to meet their every need, including the need for a playmate. Tell me again how easy that is?
There’s little chance for a do-over.
My pregnancy with my oldest daughter was hard. But as a first-time mom who conceived easily, I took the pregnancy for granted. And then I had a traumatic birth that could have killed both my daughter and me. I left that pregnancy with PTSD and postpartum depression which robbed me of being truly present with my newborn daughter. And you know what? I wanted a do-over. Now that I knew how much I loved being a mom, I wanted to get pregnant and relish in the miracle of it the way I didn’t with my daughter. I wanted a chance to redeem the act of giving birth and the moments of having a newborn. Plus, mothering had taught me a few things through the years. I knew more of what I was doing at this mom-business, and I was ready for a second chance to parent again. But infertility threatened my dreams of second chances. It also threatened my ideas of family planning. I had wanted my children to be born close in age, and I also would have loved to have raised a son as well as a daughter. With infertility, these hopes were simply wishful thinking.
It turns out, secondary infertility isn’t secondary at all.
It is simply infertility. It is the two-week wait . . . then the two-week wait to try again. It is the pregnancy tests that go from positive to negative without a baby in the arms as a reward. It is the anxiety that claws at you, even after your miracle child is in your arms. It is the disease that changes you from the inside out. It is female factor and male factor. It is spreading your legs for OBs and reproductive endocrinologists and ultrasound techs. It is filling that medication, getting those shots, suffering those side effects. It is the traumatizing blow to your identity as a woman. It is financing and refinancing. It is keeping on through one more loss, one more treatment, one more cycle. It is saying “enough is enough,” and ending your journey after heartbreaking loss. It is the forfeiting of hopes and dreams. It is the intentional remaking of your self-worth. It is explaining to people for the millionth time why your family looks the way it does. It is crying on your husband’s shoulder as another year passes without the hope of your much-wanted child. It is the heartbreak, the fear, the hopelessness, the depression. It is realizing that you’ll never be the same again.
Related: Secondary Infertility?
It took my husband and me five years of trying and five losses to end our fertility journey with a second live baby in our arms. Since I was now in my mid-thirties, and was unprepared to walk through recurrent loss again, we chose to take permanent measures to make sure we didn’t suffer anymore — even if we would have readily welcomed another baby to our family.
Even with the rainbow baby in our arms, infertility got the final word after all.