Kathrin works at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany and has voluntarily shared her story this European Fertility Week:
You know that feeling you get when it’s three in the afternoon, you're just pouring yourself the last instant coffee of your day, and someone turns to you out of the blue and says:
“Oh my gosh! That’s really something you’ve got there. Is there something small coming soon?”
Your world stops. You stiffen, immediately. You want those words to be true more than anything. Instead, you need to reply. Do you pretend you didn’t hear them? Hide?
When this happened to me, I ran. I ran out of the kitchen because I couldn’t bear to reply. I couldn’t bear to answer “no.” I knew they were only trying to be nice; after all, we’d got married only a few months earlier, so it seemed a natural next step. I was just in the middle of a second round of ovarian stimulation. In a normal extra cycle, you try to have one or two oocytes, but with stimulation you’re trying for ten or eleven.
Although the desire to have a baby had taken over my world for, at that point, two and a half years, it wasn’t easy to speak to my family, friends, or colleagues for that matter. I didn’t want to have the pressure of the issue hanging over our conversations every time I saw them.
Since I have been through this journey, I know what it’s like. I don’t want others to experience a silent struggle. Since sharing my story, so many people have come to me to ask me for advice. It’s only when you open up that you realize how many people have actually been through it or know someone who has. Shared experiences are so incredibly powerful, and I really hope that this European Fertility Week, people read my story and see that there’s nothing to feel shy about or ashamed of. I also want to educate others who aren’t directly affected about how it really feels to go through this.
Starting out with hope
Like many women these days, I spent a long time trying to prevent myself becoming pregnant. I took contraception for 16 years. Then, all of a sudden you hit the age and circumstance when you change your mind. You are ready to have a baby. For me that time came when I was 31.
It took about six months to come off contraception before I could see my doctor. She told me to give it another six months and come back if nothing happened. This may not seem long but, believe me, you put a lot of pressure on yourself. In that time, it becomes all encompassing. Every month can feel like a new heartbreak. The excitement you start out with can soon be worn down after the monthly cycle of hope building up, then being destroyed. Getting pregnant turns into a fear of not getting pregnant. And of course, you feel like you see babies and pregnant women everywhere. When friends tell you they are pregnant, you are (of course) really happy for them, but deep down there is also a sadness for yourself. Six months came and went, and in all that time nothing happened.
Coming to terms with infertility
When we realized that it wasn’t happening for us, I sent my husband to get checked. It is really important to understand that difficulties in getting pregnant are not always about the woman. We came away from the appointment with some general advice but no explained data on his condition. Nevertheless, we had done some research on the internet and were convinced that there was an issue, so we went back to my gynecologist who referred us to the fertility treatment center. We call them Child-wish centers in Germany.
As hard as it is to think of yourself as ‘an infertile couple,’ we still felt positive. It meant we were going to get support. Even if we knew we were unlikely to conceive without support, the journey up until then started to feel lonely and out of our control. Having a team of specialists behind us was rather reassuring. It gave us direction and reignited our hope.
Facing it together
Of course, my husband and I were in it together – we absolutely had to be a team. By the time we had our first consultation at the Child-wish center, it had been two years since we decided we wanted a baby.
The bad news was that our chances of conceiving on a natural level were close to zero. The good news was that they were so bad that we could immediately try ICSI (Intracytoplasmic sperm injection), which is a procedure to help cultivate embryos. From this point, the romantic notion of getting pregnant transformed into a scientific and clinical process. We were told our chances of pregnancy were around 60%. Higher than betting black or red on a roulette wheel. We could take those odds.
We had three transfers with two rounds of stimulation. After the second transfer when there were still no signs of pregnancy, I was almost broken. It is a physically and mentally exhausting experience for both you and your partner. A women’s body and emotions rapidly change within days – the uterus grows as a high number of eggs need to grow. Going through this more than once, I can totally understand why people give up at this point. My husband really worked to bring me up again. He said “look, it’s a journey and we will do this together.” Throughout everything my husband was my best friend. We were in this together.
The most wonderful gift
I vividly remember December 2017. It was three days before we would find out our results from the Child-wish center. There was something different this time. I felt so unwell. Thoughts swirled in my head: “Maybe this time you’ve won the jackpot! Don’t wait. Don’t torture yourself. Take a pregnancy test at home.” And so, I did.
I waited, for what seemed like the longest few minutes. I felt like time stood still. I was acutely aware of how the result could change my life forever. The second pink line filled my eyes with tears at once. I was going to be a mother. I took the test stick, and delicately placed it in a Christmas gift box for my husband. As he opened the box, I was consumed by tears of joy – there are no words to explain how we felt. That day will stay with me forever. In total, over several cycles we had six fertilized eggs transferred. The last one, the sixth, is now our fourteen-month-old daughter. The whole process, from deciding to have a child to holding our baby in our arms took almost four years. Our daughter brightens our life every day. She is everything. She puts any issues into perspective and brings us so much joy.
You are not alone
When you start trying for a baby, you hear stories. There’s the one about the person who had a baby they didn’t plan for. Then there’s the one about the couple who fell pregnant after just a few months. There’s the one about the person who had a baby even though they were in their forties (sometimes, fifties) – and there’s the one about the people who struggled a bit, but got pregnant before full fertility treatment started.
For some reason, people love to share stories about fertility when it’s easy. The truth is that there are lots of people out there who don’t find it easy. It is only when you are in it, that you find out there are others in your existing community in the same position. I remember bumping into a colleague at our local Child-wish center. The relief I felt to have someone else who I could talk to, someone who really understood. We could go for a coffee and share our stories. Once I opened up, I discovered that several other friends and acquaintances had similar stories also. I was surprised but encouraged to know that we were not alone. I realized that for every person that didn’t know what I was experiencing - there were so many others going through the same situation.
I kept a diary, so that I would remember my story. I knew that I would want to return to what I went through and what I felt at the time – if somebody else needs my help, I want to be able to remember how it felt for me. Infertility is not something to be ashamed of. It’s just a reality of life, affecting so many people.
I really hope that our story will encourage others to openly talk about infertility to support and simply be there for each other. We are in it together and you are not alone.