Health

The Fertility Outcome No One Talks About

I thought I wanted kids. It turned out it wasn’t that simple.

An illustration of a white woman with dark hair alongside images of clocks and calendars

(Illustration: Ness Lee)

I knew I wanted my fertility journey to be over the day I walked into the clinic for a shot of Lupron that would put me into a temporary menopausal state. It was a pre-op requirement for my fourth surgery in two years, required to correct complications from a pair of failed pregnancies. It was an invasive measure needed to hold on to the possibility of eventually having something to show for all my efforts. A baby was the obvious, eventual outcome I had in mind.

But on that clear day in June, I didn’t care if motherhood was still on the table. I just wanted this nightmare to be over. I wanted to go back to a life where fertility was not all I thought about. To wake up in the morning and go to the gym before work, instead of the IVF clinic for cycle monitoring—the daily blood work and ultrasound that had been my routine for the better part of the last 18 months. To fill my evenings with Netflix instead of acupuncture. To not feel pitied by those who knew what I’d been dealing with, or like I was leading a secret life when I spent time with those who didn’t.

I had started down this path after my first failed pregnancy. I still felt hopeful at the time, given I was in my late 30s; when the pregnancy ended, I was disappointed but familiar enough with the odds to know it wasn’t unexpected. I also understood that time was of the essence, and that I should maximize my efforts in order to build a family as quickly as possible.

With a fertility specialist on board, I set out on an accelerated course to make motherhood a reality. But from there, things got complicated, with new interventions and considerations at every turn. I’d never imagined becoming a parent for the first time in my 40s, but the clinic professionals I was surrounded by constantly reminded me I was among the younger patients they were treating. They were making miracle babies happen and mine could be right around the corner, too. Nurses provided constant reassurance and doctors were confident they could overcome whatever complexities arose. Every challenge was met with a new form of hope.

Unlike the daily hormone injections I’d been able to administer myself during a round of IVF, the Lupron shot required the hands of a trained professional. I pulled up at the clinic I was so familiar with, took a deep breath and went inside. I questioned every step I took and every word that came out of my mouth. I was following the path my doctor and the surgeon had outlined, but every part of me screamed, “Walk away.”

I had delayed the Lupron injection as long as I could. I had just celebrated my 40th birthday, and started to question whether potential parenthood was worth the mounting challenges on the path to that goal. I grew up in a tight-knit family—with few role models who were child-free—and had always expected I would have kids of my own. A life without them simply wasn’t one I could picture. While my partner was supportive of our attempts to conceive, he maintained that he would be happy with children, or without. This decision was all mine.

So today was the day. I walked into the nurse’s office and tried to stall: I wanted to better understand the possible side effects of the shot, as Lupron was known to have many. I was thinking about not going ahead with the surgery, and I wanted to delay the injection further; I couldn’t. If it wasn’t done by the time the clinic closed that day, it would have to be rescheduled—and I’d already waited six months for the appointment.

We agreed I should take the day to think, so I went to work, where I got nothing done. Instead, I called the surgeon’s office to inquire about wait times if I rebooked (another six months). I called my husband to talk about what our life would look like if we just stopped trying. And I spoke to a colleague who knew about my fertility struggles. Mostly, I tried to make sense of my thoughts. Did I still want to go through with these efforts to have a child? Had my desire to be a parent changed based on my fertility challenges—and what did it say about me if it had?

Under the gun to change course on a life I’d spent 20 years imagining, I drove back to the clinic later that day and cried while the nurse injected me. She told me a story about another patient she’d seen earlier. A woman who had gone through three rounds of IVF, without ever resulting in an embryo to transfer. Her fourth cycle had produced an embryo and she cried tears of joy—and the nurse cried with her. She told me the reason she and the other nurses in the clinic continue doing this heartbreaking work is because they see the hope.

The waiting room of the fertility clinic was literally brimming with it. The walls were covered in family photos—parents, infants and toddlers—with captions on how long their journeys to parenthood were: six months, two years, four years. The message to the standing-room-only crowd of women studiously avoiding eye contact was clear: Try long and hard enough, and you too will have your miracle baby.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the women in that waiting room would actually leave with a baby; not everyone would. I thought about the woman the nurse told me about, who, after four costly rounds of IVF, had produced a single embryo to transfer. I wondered if anyone had told this woman about the odds of success in her scenario. If anyone had talked to her about what life without kids could look like. That while it would change her identity, she would still have one. I doubted very much that any such conversation had taken place.

Over the next four weeks, the drugs kicked in and I lost my mind. I experienced hot flashes, mood swings and general hysteria. I felt more on edge than ever—and that was saying something, given my mental state over the previous few years. The medical challenges, and the growing internal debate over whether these efforts were worth the possible outcome, had consumed me. The Lupron injection left me a sobbing mess, unable to make a decision or feel any sort of confidence in why I was continuing along this journey.

But for every hesitation I had, there was a trained professional who wanted to help me overcome it. Experts who could see the potential in the glimmer of hope—no matter how small—but only if I kept on trying.

I was surrounded by stories of success. In the news, social media and within various medical clinics, stories of miscarriages were followed by joyful births and infertility was resolved by a miracle baby after multiple rounds of IVF—or a surprise pregnancy after all hope had been lost. I felt like I’d gone as far as I wanted to go in my efforts, and that maybe, just maybe, my life would be okay if I didn’t have kids. But surrounded by these stories of perseverance, I felt like the only woman in the world who had ever contemplated walking away. As someone who had wanted children, I felt ashamed for not wanting them enough.

When I started vocalizing my desire to stop treatments, I was told that it would be hard to move on. And that I might regret it. And that it would leave an emotional scar. But these things are true about many hard decisions in life. And when anyone—a doctor, nurse or therapist—suggested that I needed to focus on overcoming my fears, that suggestion effectively removed any agency I had in the decision. The mounting feeling that I just didn’t want to do this anymore was seen as something to be fixed, rather than explored. I felt like a failure for being unable to produce a baby, and I felt broken for wanting to walk away.

And so I read the Internet—from end to end. I read articles on what having kids was like. On what not having kids was like. On which celebrities did and didn’t have children, and which list was longer. I spoke to friends and family who had children, probing into their joys and challenges. I tried to validate my own choice by understanding the decisions others had made. And I looked for stories on women who had walked away from fertility treatments, unsuccessful, but who felt as though they went on to live full and joyful lives. Those were painfully hard to find, which is surprising, considering that one in six Canadian couples struggle with fertility; surely not all of their journeys result in parenthood.

The fertility industry is built with one destination in mind. From the minute you head down its path, you are likely working against the clock. When age is already a factor, every step is designed to get you pregnant as quickly as possible, and if detours come up, they need to be managed quickly in order to get back on course. When every month feels like another missed chance, there’s no time to think about—let alone discuss—whether your desire for a baby still runs as strong.

For some, desire doesn’t waver, regardless of the cost: financial, emotional or physical. I was not one of those women. But, what kind of woman was I if I didn’t want a child by any means? That question plagued me long after I first started thinking about walking away. I ended up going ahead with the surgery, but it resulted in another set of complications—and that was when I finally drew the line.

After I stopped pursuing parenthood, my mind continued to fixate on what I could have, or should have, done differently. I wasn’t someone to set a goal and not see it through. And so, I continually debated next steps. I contemplated surrogacy or adoption, and then I wondered what was wrong with me for not wanting to go down those paths, either. I saw a therapist who specialized in fertility challenges, and who relayed others’ stories of struggle and choice; they too led to either heartbreak or parenthood. I still struggled to find examples of women who had come out child-free and okay. The stories I found all pointed to women who were left feeling unfulfilled, broken and lesser as women. Who was I to think I would emerge from my quest for motherhood any differently?

Select people in my circle knew pieces of what I’d been going through—a few good friends, my parents and siblings, and a colleague I’d run into at the fertility clinic—but others had no idea. Yet, when I started more widely sharing my journey and the choices I’d made, I felt a form of validation that my nurses and doctors had been unable to provide.

When a pregnant colleague talked about her struggles to conceive through IVF, I told her about my own experience. When a bubbly acquaintance drunkenly confided that she and her husband had tried for a while, but moved on, I said, “Ditto.” I also discovered that other friends had gone multiple rounds on IVF and decided it was as far as they wanted to go, too. And I knew couples who had wanted kids but decided to remain child-free when nature simply didn’t take its course. These stories were all around me—they just weren’t something any of us had openly talked about. Until now. And they gave me the sense of acceptance and connection I’d been looking for.

I started trying to see my own life from the outside in. Objectively, it looked pretty good. I was a loyal friend who was always organizing an event or gathering, or doing someone a favour. I was a caring sister and daughter, and a devoted aunt with patience for sleepovers with my nieces and nephews when their parents needed a break. I had a fulfilling career and a job I loved; people saw me as a passionate mentor and sponsor, and a go-to for career advice and guidance on tough conversations. And I had an amazing partner who wanted to throw dinner parties and travel the world until we were old and grey.

It also looked like the life of so many other amazing women I knew, many of whom had also walked away empty-handed from IVF and other fertility treatments. I didn’t think their lives were any lesser. So why did I think that about mine?

As I’ve made peace with my decision to stop trying to have a baby, I’ve built a strong network of women who are also living child-free—by choice or otherwise. Together, we fill our evenings, weekends and vacations with shared experiences and adventures. Of course, I also spend time with my siblings and friends who are parents; I love their kids and am grateful to have them in my life. But having a circle of friends who can go for dinner without booking a babysitter, travel at off-peak season and lead similar lives is invaluable. In the same way that mommy groups are critical for many new parents, I’ve found my people and surrounded myself with them.

Yes, there are still days when nothing feels as meaningful as it would have been to raise a child. But I also know there are many women like me, carving out this unexpected identity.

I don’t doubt that having kids is a lifelong adventure with joys and rewarding moments—and these are experiences I’m going to miss. But I also believe that my life will be equally amazing without kids. On most days, it already is.


Editor’s note:

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Maureen Halushak, editor-in-chief, Chatelaine

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