Your Infertility Stories Have Many Different Endings
Michael: I think the moment I realized that becoming a parent would be more difficult than I imagined was after my wife’s second miscarriage. After one, we told ourselves, I mean, this is probably a fluke. The second one was a little more ominous, it started to feel like a pattern. And by the third, we were a couple with a fertility problem. And by the fourth, I was just numb. I had to wall off my hopes to protect them because it was just too painful.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
LISTENER: This is my life. My life of infertility.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
LISTENER: All the frustration of going through the treatments and the waiting and the ups and downs.
…and need to talk about more.
LISTENER: The thing is, we feel so called to be parents.
I’m Anna Sale.
Back in July, we put out an episode with author and podcast host Doree Shafrir about her experience with infertility and IVF. Going through the process...going into over a hundred thousand dollars in debt...and ultimately, having a kid.
In that episode, we asked you to tell us about how you started your own families, and for people who have struggled with infertility, about the moment you realized having kids was going to be harder than you anticipated.
We heard from a lot of you. Including this listener, Declan.
DECLAN: I have been thinking a lot and doing a lot of research about infertility since I was diagnosed with a condition called premature ovarian insufficiency a few years ago.
It’s a condition that means Declan rarely ovulates, so it’ll be nearly impossible for her to have a baby using her own eggs. And after she got that diagnosis she spent a lot of time in online support groups, reading whatever she could get her hands on and trying to figure out what she wanted to do next.
But in all that reading—and in our episode with Doree—Declan says she didn’t find what she was looking for.
D: I have just been thinking so much about how the narratives around infertility all kind of seem to go two ways, both of which I have a lot of questions about. So the first narrative is, "I did IVF and now I have a baby and, you know, problem solved. Everything's great." Or, "I found out that I had a fertility problem and it ruined my life. And now I'm just a sad person." And I really would love to see more narratives about infertility that offer other ways of thinking about it.
So in this episode, we’re going to hear some different stories about what happens when you hit speedbumps on the road to having kids.
LISTENER: It honestly never really occurred to me that it would be this complicated.
We’ll take a look at the many ways some of you have started your families—with medical intervention, or other, still complicated, methods.
LISTENER: The number of barriers that have been put in front of us makes me wonder if it’s something we’re supposed to do at all.
And we’ll hear from people who ultimately decided that the money, the physical toll, and the heartbreak isn’t worth it.
LISTENER: If I choose not to continue pursuing pregnancy and motherhood in that way, what does that mean?
A listener named Lorena and her wife had their first baby last summer. Her wife gave birth to him after five rounds of unsuccessful IUI, or intrauterine insemination. Now, Lorena wants to carry their next child, but she's also having trouble getting pregnant.
LORENA VOICE MEMO: And luckily our insurance does cover the IUI procedure, but our insurance does not cover IVF. And so now I am in the process of trying to conceive and I have gone through four failed IUI procedures, and I'm going to keep trying the IUI because our insurance covers it. But I definitely wonder about IVF and our insurance not covering that.
By the time I called her, Lorena had had two more unsuccessful IUI procedures.
LORENA: So I had a uh, sixth failed IUI. Um, unfortunately. I was hoping that maybe the sixth try would also be the successful try for me, but it wasn't. And, um, I'm going to take a little break, actually. And then probably in December, hopefully, um, I will be able to start again. And then if that doesn't work, then definitely IVF would be the next step.
ANNA SALE: Would that change what it would cost your family, to move to IVF?
L: Yeah, that's something I stress out about because we're really lucky with my health insurance, I work for a school district, and our IUIs are covered other than the cost of the sperm, which is actually pretty expensive, but, but that's been really nice. You know, I just go in and I pay my tiny little copay and I can do the procedure. But for IVF, it's not covered. And I do stress about, you know, putting in 16 to $20,000 and yeah, the odds super go up and I'm young and healthy and hopefully it would work, but if it doesn't then, then, you know, depending on how many frozen embryos you get then I could keep trying from that cycle. Otherwise I'd have to go right into another IVF cycle and we don't have that kind of money. We have maybe money for one of those cycles.
AS: Mmhm. It's interesting because that could move to the set of questions about how much money you are willing to invest as a family in the idea of you becoming pregnant, as opposed to your wife trying to carry again.
L: Yeah. We've sort of started to have those conversations, but we haven't really come to a resolution. We're trying to take it one day at a time and say, okay, I'm not out of the game yet. And we're still doing IUIs. And, you know, we kind of planned for me to be able to do one IVF cycle. But if that doesn't work, we'll have to talk about if we're financially able to have me try to continue or otherwise I don't know, Erin would have to consider if she would be willing to carry another child. [Laughs]
AS: Can you describe the feeling you had, that you wanted to carry the next child?
L: I just really want to experience it. I, I I've thought about it since I was a young child. And, you know, I would think, you know, someday when I'm an adult, I'm going to, I'm going to be pregnant. I'm going to be, I'm going to be a mother. I am already a mother and I wasn't pregnant. So that was something I didn't actually really think about as a child. But yeah, I always envisioned myself getting pregnant and I just, I just think that would be so cool. I mean, I loved feeling our son kicking while Erin was pregnant and I'm like, I want to feel how it feels like to be pregnant and feel that, you know, from the inside and. And yeah, I also just want to share my genes and yeah, I dunno.
AS: Yeah. And, um, did you use the same sperm donor?
L: No, we didn't. Um, and I kind of still wonder if, you know, I've made the right decision, but at this point I've come to terms with it. But, um, that's where like race and cultural heritage kind of came into it. Um, so I am Peruvian and my wife is Caucasian and, um, we wanted our children to share both of our cultural backgrounds. And so Erin was the first to get pregnant, so she chose a Peruvian donor. And with myself, if I had chosen the same donor, then that then the next kid would have been fully Peruvian. And I'm like, well, how is, how is, you know, that future child going to themselves in both parents and both families of ours? So I, I, you know, I just had a strong urge, I think, to, to, to choose a Caucasian donor that then both of our kids would be half and see themselves in both of us and both of our families.
AS: That's interesting because it's like, um, you know, to, to have similar DNA from, from, from sperm and each of your children would have been one way they're connected, but you, but you sort of like expanded the canvas a little bit and said, we want them both to, to know what it's like to move through the world as, uh, someone who has a white biological parent and a Peruvian biological parent. So that's something they share.
L: Yeah. So move through the world that way. And also, you know, like our families—like, I don't think that our families would have cared what our kid ends up being, but I want them to like, see my side of the family and, you know, see their Peruvian side and like, you know, hear all the Spanish and be like, okay, I'm part that, but then also see my wife's family and be like, okay. Like, I'm part them too. And I know a lot of people don't want to talk about what like "white culture" means exactly. But like, that's the fact of the matter. I, you know, I married a white woman and like that's part of who we are as a family.
Lorena and I were talking over FaceTime, and as we started to wrap up the interview...someone else popped into the frame.
L: I think we'd have to talk about it a little bit more. I don't know if Erin...
AS: Oh, there's Erin right there! [Laughs]
ERIN: Hi. I've been listening this whole time.
AS: Hi Erin, do you have anything you'd like to add?
E: Um, about anything in particular?
AS: I don't know. She's been, she's been telling all your business from her point of view. Is there anything -
E: I was letting her have the stage. [Laughs]
L: Well, yeah, now that Erin's on, I think she should ans - I mean, would you be willing to carry a child again, or a baby again? Did you even imagine yourself doing it? [Laughs]
E: Well, if you had asked me this right after I gave birth, my answer would've been a hard no. [Laughs] After the first few months of breastfeeding and all that, that was very, very challenging. But, I don't know, after getting a little bit of time and space, I would, I guess I would consider doing it again. We love him so much, our son, and it would be amazing to have another one. But I hope that Lorena is able to - to carry them. Because it's a lot. And I want her to be able to experience everything that I did because it's beautiful.
Michelle: Hi Death, Sex and Money, I'm Michelle, I'm 42 years old. I'll be 43 in about a month. Um, I am single and Black. And I did want to have a child and I know my biological clock is ticking and I'm getting up in age. Uh, in the month of May, I had my first IUI—that's intrauterine insemination, the turkey baster method, basically. I got pregnant and yeah, I was pregnant for about three weeks before I miscarried. So that was hard, unexpected, a little bit of a roller coaster. Um, I'm about five days out now from my second artificial insemination. And yeah, I have a few more days to wait to take a pregnancy test and see if it worked or not. Um, I'm crossing my fingers that it works and this time it sticks. Um, because I'm really nervous about failing again. And yeah, it's just been a whirlwind because I'm an only child. And so after I lost both of my parents within two years, I was quite depressed for a while and thought, all right, you need to really get it back on track. And I thought, the - I'm alone in the world. And, uh, I would love to have a close blood relative. And I always imagined that my mom would be around for help and advice, but yeah, I'm very much doing it alone. So. That’s more than scary. Um, but if I want to make it happen, then I just have to do it. This is step one, preparing me for what eventually could be the most spectacular thing that has ever happened to me. So please wish me luck.
Michelle wrote us back later to say that soon after she sent in that voice memo, she found out that she was pregnant. But after about eight weeks...she miscarried.
Since turning 43, Michelle is now considered too old for fertility treatments at many clinics in the Netherlands, where she lives. But she has one vial of sperm left from her donor, and she says her doctor is seeking special permission to let her try one more time.
JAKE VOICE MEMO: You do grieve over the death of what you thought was going to happen.
Nearly two decades ago, a listener named Jake in the Bay Area and his wife were struggling to get pregnant. And eventually, they came to accept that it was not going to happen without help.
JAKE VOICE MEMO: You had an idea in your head of, your wife will get pregnant and you’ll go through the pregnancy and the birth, and all these experiences. And you realize none of that’s going to happen. It’s a whole different scenario. So you have to come to let go of all those and then accept the new experiences, the different experiences.
They decided that IVF was too expensive, and that the money would be better used for a college education. So they chose to adopt, which for them would cost less.
JAKE: We found a support group uh, with a few other couples that were pursuing that and, and then the paperwork and going through, uh, interviews with social workers and, um, so it was, I think from the time we started pursuing it, uh, it was at least over a year before we got approved. It can be done faster if we dedicated more time. And then by the time we were approved, it was two years before we had a child.
AS: And how long, how much notice did you have before -
J: A day.
AS: Oh, a day!
J: We suspected that'd be a possibility because the agency said that once people have been on the list for a long time, you're more likely to get a sudden placement where, if they get a last minute placement, often the people—you make these brochures, they push the people who have been waiting a long time.
J: So I got a call on a Friday afternoon at work and, uh, we went into the—and fortunately it was in San Francisco. So we went in Saturday morning and picked him up.
AS: What was that car ride like on the way?
J: It was, yeah, I mean, it was incredibly exciting. And we were also just thinking of our good fortune. I mean, we assumed we'd have to fly across the country and then we didn't know how long we'd be out of work or out of - staying at a hotel or something. Oftentimes you meet a birth mother beforehand. And so [laughs] we drove the next morning. We were heading right into the city. I mean, how fortunate. We had to wait two years, but we got to just drive across the bridge and go right into the hospital. He was in the NICU because his mother didn't have any prenatal care. So all the nurses around were happy to have a healthy child in the NICU since they don't get many of those. So everyone was excited when we walked in and showed us right to him immediately. So, it was, the whole experience was great.
AS: Hmm. How old is your son now?
J: He's 13.
J: Going on 14 soon.
AS: Does he ask about that time? Like when you all were deciding whether -
J: Yeah. We've talked about it consistently throughout his life. So he's always known and he has met his birth mother a couple of times, but we don't have any contact with her. We, I mean, he met her twice in the first year, so that's a distant memory for him.
AS: Um, do you think at the time, thinking about what you know now about parenting and, and money, um, do you think thinking about the cost of IVF and comparing that to saving for college was an apt way to think about it?
J: Yes, but the big mental change was, what is most important? And thinking about having a biological child and why. And you know, why you want a biological child. And when you sort of get past the idea that it doesn't have to be a representation of me or us, then you just think you just want a child.
After the break, listeners who have built families...without kids.
LISTENER: You know, you get to this point where everything is about having a baby and it's easy for couples to get lost in that.
Most of the people we heard from while putting this episode together were parents...or people hoping to become parents. But not everyone.
BEC: Uh, I'm an IVF baby.
Our listener Bec is a triplet, but she said she and her sisters didn’t find out how they were conceived until they were in their early 20s.
B: I don't remember how we got onto the topic, but my mum said to me, uh, you're IVF babies. And I thought for a second, and I was like, what? Excuse me? And I just remember being really just kind of shocked and a bit confused and mad at the same time. Because, a huge part of my identity is being a triplet, but another part I think, was my brain being like, you're a natural baby. And that's so exciting. And you're natural triplets. Um, so to have that kind of, the rug pulled out from under you was really, uh, unexpected.
Bec’s mom told her that she had gotten pregnant on her third try, after two unsuccessful rounds of IVF. And after the initial shock, Bec said that she did a lot of research about what it meant for her mom to go through that.
B: I went away and found out that it cost a lot of money and, um, it was a lot of time and a lot of exhaustion and I then had a thought, oh God, I'm going to cry. Um, I had a thought that, mum going through that three times - to me that just shows - it's the ultimate act of love to me.
On the next episode:
AMANDA: Dead people don't have any secrets. In fact, really sick people don't have any secrets.
A conversation with a woman who found out her husband was cheating as he was dying.
AMANDA: Just because somebody's dead doesn't mean they're a saint.
This is Death, Sex Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
DECLAN: After my diagnosis, it just seemed to be such a common narrative, this representation of people with infertility as just being really desperate and feeling a real sense of disempowerment.
This is Declan, the listener from the beginning of the episode who’s not satisfied with a lot of the stories out there about infertility. When she first got her diagnosis, she says the message she got from her doctor was: yes, this is a problem. But there is a solution.
D: I was originally told, you know, without really, even fully understanding what this condition really meant, that, you know, don't worry, you can do IVF and you don't even have to tell your children that they are donor egg babies that were produced with IVF, which was kind of a shock to me when I was still just trying to process the diagnosis.
AS: That was all in one conversation?
D: Yeah, it was, it was kind of -
AS: There’s this condition, you can secretly get pregnant via IVF, and not tell your children.
D: With a donor egg also. It just felt like the doctor was completely just skipping over the part where I got to actually understand what this condition was, and it was just immediately to like, here's the intervention that I can do for you to quote unquote, fix this problem.
Declan’s got a PhD in English. And in the period of time right after her diagnosis, she found a lot of comfort diving into academic research about the body...especially disability studies.
D: The idea that I got from disability studies, that differences or physical or mental disabilities can actually be a source of valuable diversity and they can actually be a way of questioning certain assumptions that we make about gender and sort of motherhood as this thing that says to be the most meaningful thing a woman can ever do in her life. There's a lot of models for other ways of living in 2021, but I think they're still really dominant.
AS: It's really interesting to think about disability studies, like, in forming your own emotional processing of this, of just giving you a framework for thinking of your body as not "wrong" because it's atypical.
D: Yes. And I think that is part of why it was important to me to not just jump to okay, how can we fix this um, at some time in the future, but like, what does it mean to live with this in the present? And also, you know, how can I see this as a part of my identity and accept it as a part of who I am rather than like, this is just this sort of, um, broken part of me that I eventually am going to fix and in the meantime, I'm just going to be kind of broken.
AS: So right now, and the answer can change. What is your vision for, for the kind of family you want to have?
D: That's a good question. I, I mean, I think the short answer is I honestly don't know. For a long time, I was doing research about IVF and, um, embryo adoption and traditional adoption and learning all about those industries. And I just have a lot of questions about them. A lot of things that I think are problematic about the ways that, for example, IVF is only available to people who either can afford it or who have one of the few health insurance plans that cover it. It's a lot more expensive and, um, difficult for gay couples and trans couples to access these interventions. So I think that, you know, having gone from a place where I was really learning about the ins and outs of these different industries and noticing a lot of problems with them, and then coming to the realization that I do still want to be a parent someday has just put me in this place where I guess the pragmatist of me just wants to keep my options open, even though I know I have a lot of questions with - about, about that, about all of those.
AS: Yeah. I mean, I hear you describing a deep discomfort with a lot of the systems around what it takes to get pregnant when you do need interventions and how that has an economy around it -
D: Yeah. Yeah. But I also have to admit that like, there's, you know, all of my assertive political investments, and then there's also, um, being honest with myself about what I want and how those two things, you know, somehow have to be reconciled.
AS: And when you think of, um, like, do you have a vision of pregnancy, childbirth—everything aside, like when you think about what's appealing about being a parent, what do, what do you picture?
D: Yeah. I mean, I just - I think it also goes back a lot to my own upbringing. You know, I had a really happy childhood and I just really remember those moments of just kind of, being - like sharing space together with your family and having those, you know, rituals of, um, you know, making dinner together, and - um, you know - I don't know. It's hard to put it into words. I apologize. I'm kind of struggling.
AS: That's okay. No, I, I, I think what - you've said it. You've said, it's the simplest - it's sitting around a table, you know what I mean? And like, feeling that feeling. It's, and it's kind of weird how big - it's such a big decision for such small moments, you know?
D: Yes. Yeah. Thank you for hearing that in my starts and stops. Yeah. I mean, it's just, it's hard not to sound cheesy when you're talking about this. I feel like I'm a little self-conscious.
For our listener Stephanie… her vision of family never included having kids.
STEPHANIE: But after Chris and I got married, a lot of people got on us about having kids. "When are you going to have kids?" It was all the time. And, uh, you gotta say like, it's, it's very, rude.
Stephanie lives in Racine, Wisconsin, where she works as a welder. She’s 37, and her story about infertility is not about her own struggle to get pregnant. It’s about helping other people get pregnant… by donating her eggs. But that's kind of a misnomer, because those donations earned her a lot of money.
S: The very first one was, $3000. The next four were $3,500. Um, and those were all, uh tax-free. They give them as a gift. Uh, but then when I did it in Illinois, I was getting $7,000 and then my sixth donation was $7,500.
Over the ten years she was eligible to be a donor, Stephanie donated a lot.
S: 11 times, five in Wisconsin and six in Illinois.
AS: Wow. Did you start donating in Illinois because the rates were slightly better?
S: No. I started donating in Illinois because Wisconsin has a cutoff of five. Illinois has a cutoff of six. And then everywhere has a cutoff of age of 30. So my last donation was actually just before I turned 30 or just after I turned 30.
AS: Over the years, what did you use the money for?
S: Uh, paid off credit card debt. That was a big thing 'cause you know, young people are stupid with credit cards, uh, paid for vacations. And uh, also got a, got LASIK vision for my husband.
AS: Oh, that's cool. [Laughs] And so when you were 21, when you first donated eggs, did you know, or were you thinking about at that point, whether you wanted to become a mother yourself?
S: Not really. Um, it's funny 'cause like I, I grew up - I never thought about what my amazing wedding would be like or wanting children. Um, I kind of felt like I was supposed to have children, but you know, it's just a societal norm that women should be having children. So I felt like that's a thing that I should be doing, but as I got older, I'm like, I don't want to go through it. I don't want to go through a pregnancy. I don't want to go through childbirth. When Chris and I, we, we went off on our own, we got our own place. He got into motorcycles. And then I ended up getting into motorcycles. Um, you know, we, we like to go riding often and you, you can't do that with kids. So, I'll babysit for my brother. You know, babysit - uh, my husband has a son who has a son, so, you know, we babysit for our grandson. Um, but it's like, other than that, I don't, I don't, I don't want to take care of a kid full-time. I, I thoroughly enjoy my freedom.
AS: When you think about what your connection is to the children that may have grown from, from an egg that you donated. Uh, do you have a word for that? What your relationship to them is?
S: I've never thought of a word, but it's like I - I don't like using this word, but. I feel more of a spiritual connection because I've never met them. Um, I feel like as long as they know that they were an IVF child from donated eggs—'cause I don't know if, you know, all of them even know that—uh, but the, for the ones that might know that, I think about them thinking about me and, you know, I think about them and I feel like we think about each other at the same time sometimes.
AS: There are like moments where you're like, huh. Like, uh, maybe we were just having that thought together.
AS: Stephanie, I'm thinking about, you know, your, your whole twenties you're, you're donating eggs about once a year, maybe a little bit more, more frequently than once a year at a time when you are feeling a lot of social pressure about getting pregnant yourself. Um, and I just imagine like, that must've felt pretty intense.
S: Yeah, I, I guess I didn't really, I always had social pressure to do things and I've always - I've always went against the grain. Um, I was a punk in high school, you know, I had short short spiky hair, and then I shaved it and I never wore jeans. Always wore polyester plaid pants. Um, yeah, it was just, I was totally not, not the norm of a girl ever. [Laughs]
AS: Uh huh. [Laughs]
S: Some friends that I went to high school with that are also Team No Kids, but yeah. Um, most, most women want kids want children. And so, yeah, I, I feel kind of like a loner sometimes in that department.
AS: Did you say Team No Kids?
S: Yeah. Team No Kids. [Laughs]
EVA: Hi. This is Eva. I just wanted to talk briefly about when I was in my early 40s and I had a couple of miscarriages, after much discussion about whether or not my husband and I wanted kids. And after the second miscarriage I went into my gynecologist’s office, and at first the nurse came in and said, “I really want this for you!” which I thought was so weird. I mean, I got it. But also, I didn’t know what I wanted. It was just one more thing from the outside of people being like, you should have a baby! Or that’s how I felt. The gynecologist, who I adore, when we sat down and talked about next steps, she said to me, "If you want this, let me know and we’ll hit it hard." And I just thought—do you want to hit it hard? Do you want to - do you want this enough? Do you want this badly enough to put your body through in vitro and more miscarriages possibly and having a child at the end? And the truth was I couldn't ever get past 50% of feeling like I wanted it. And that just didn’t seem like enough to me. It was really hard. But I knew it was the right thing to not continue. And there weren’t a lot of people for me to talk to because most people who have kids wanted kids very badly. And I do not regret not having children. There is a moment here and there where I think, I wonder what my child would have looked like. But that doesn’t seem like enough reason to have kids. And I have lots of friends who have kids, I have lots of friends who have gone through a lot of trials to have those kids, and I’m happy they have them, and I am glad and grateful to be part of their lives. To be Aunt Eva. And I get to mother in lots of other ways.
That’s a listener named Eva in New York City. Thank you to all of you who sent in your stories for this episode, and for sharing all the ways you’ve created your families.
And, we hear from all of you about infertility a lot...so this is a conversation we want to continue. And right now, we need your help, to build an audio survival guide.
For those of you going through infertility…or who have been through it before...record a voice memo and tell us: is there something you’ve read or listened to that’s helped when things have felt hard? Are there any activities you’d recommend doing… or things you’d say to yourself that would help?
Let us know. Record a voice memo, keep it under a minute, and send it to us, at email@example.com.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Anabel Bacon, with help from Mardy Harding. The rest of our team includes Katie Bishop, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Our intern is Sarah Dealy.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I'm on Instagram @annasalepics, P-I-C-S, and the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
And thank you to Thistle West in Santa Rosa, California, who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Thistle and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
FORREST: Yo, my name is Forrest and I got a vasectomy when I was 21.
We did get one last voice memo I want to share with you...from a listener who chose infertility. In his late teens, Forrest had two kids, and he decided that was enough.
He’s 39 now, and not with the kids’ mom anymore. And he says having had a vasectomy…
FORREST: ...has been an interesting trip as far as my dating life, uh, because especially in my age range, the women be wanting babies and I retired from making babies. So that is always an interesting thing to think about, uh, when I'm out here, you know, trying to find me a spouse.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.