By Risa Kerslake
One of the most idiotic things I did in my twenties was make assumptions about my body.
My husband and I were going to start trying for a family a year after we were married, and my period was never a cause for anything concerning. So many of my friends would complain about debilitating back pain and cramps that would keep them in bed for days, but my period came like clockwork, and was never too heavy, nor too light. Like many women, I didn’t think too much about sex relating to where I was at in my cycle. We just did it when we felt like it and after a few months without success, I started tracking my ovulation.
It took a few months to learn how to use the ovulation sticks, and to become skilled in not peeing on my hand in the process. A smiley face on the screen meant we were supposed to get busy — if you think the whole thing sounds incredibly unsexy, you’re right. Some months it seemed to work, and others, there would be a blank, white space. As time went on, and there was no positive pregnancy test, I began wondering what we were doing wrong. Should we be having sex more? Daily? Every other day? Maybe I should be on top? Maybe I should be doing headstands afterwards?
Every month, my period came faithfully, right on schedule, and I couldn’t understand why having sex and using ovulation strips wasn’t getting me pregnant. Turns out, it’s so much more than that.
It was time to call for backup
According to OBGYN and RealSelf Contributor Dr. Carolyn DeLucia, 80% of couples will be pregnant after one year if they are having sex regularly. For women like myself, there are several issues that could be happening that don’t have to do with an actual menstrual cycle. First, there could be scar tissue in the fallopian tubes, for a variety of reasons, but one of the concerning ones being from a chlamydia infection. Second, a woman may have regular cycles, but won’t actually release an egg. Third, the egg in question may not be healthy enough to be fertilized, or could fertilize and end up in an early miscarriage. Many times women may not even be aware of it.
After my husband and I had been trying for a year, I went to my doctor and explained what was going on. She sent me to an OBGYN, who asked me a lot of awkward questions and it was determined that maybe I wasn’t ovulating properly. Maybe our timing was off.
Getting some answers
After going over my past cycles with the OBGYN, I realized there were some months where my cycle was only 25 days. Not a big deal when you’re hitting keg stands and heading to the Taco Bell drive-thru afterward, but when you’re trying to conceive, apparently, that was an issue.
Instead of ovulating on day 14 in a normal 28 day cycle, I was probably ovulating on day 11, and therefore missing my crucial time to conceive. I also learned that I had low progesterone, the hormone used to maintain pregnancy. If levels are too low, a healthy pregnancy can’t be supported.
“Once we release our egg, what’s left behind on the ovary is an area called the corpus luteum,” Dr. DeLucia explains. The corpus luteum becomes a gland, and that’s what secretes progesterone. That corpus luteum has to remain strong if a pregnancy occurs. If it doesn’t, you can get pregnant and you’ll miscarry before you even are aware.”
The answer to my sometimes short cycles and hormone issues was to get on medications that initiated ovulation, and start progesterone supplements in case we actually succeeded in getting pregnant.
Still, every body is different
Unfortunately, my husband and I found ourselves at the fertility clinic several months later. We ended up going through five rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF), and eventually used donor eggs to conceive our daughter.
As women, our bodies are complex, and we deserve to understand how they work. Having a period that comes every month isn’t the full story. With the technology that exists today, Dr. DeLucia advises couples that suspect a problem when trying to conceive, why wait?
The truth is, most women will get pregnant within a year of trying. In my case, to become pregnant, I had to stop focusing on my regular periods and start looking deeper into all the possibilities. The business of getting pregnant is so much more than textbook-perfect cycles. I assumed having regular periods meant that I was ovulating. I had some issues with my progesterone levels, but as it turns out, both of these things had nothing on that fact that my eggs sucked and were unusable—and I had no way of knowing that until I pursued IVF.
As it turns out, I had a lot to learn about the rest of my body, my eggs, and the fact that they may not work as well as I once thought. However, pursuing these issues, and pushing for answers, got me my beautiful daughter. It was a long road, but it was worth it all.
Navigating fertility is hardly ever straightforward, and the lack of open dialogues surrounding fertility issues can make going through it particularly lonely. In reality, nearly 12% of women in the United States will seek out infertility services, according to the CDC. Help us break this taboo, and share your stories with us in the comments.
Risa Kerslake is a freelance writer from the Midwest. She is parenting a daughter after infertility and trying not to screw it up. Her work has appeared in Tonic, mom.me, FertilitySmarts, Romper and YourTango. You can also follow her writing on Facebook or Twitter.