Hannah Sung: Due Date?

Hannah Sung on the struggle to conceive

The Struggle to Conceive

Photo by Edwin Tse

After years of focusing on school and career, and youthful detours fuelled by vodka sodas, many of my friends hit their 30s and took leave of the adult world, to be ruled by gurgling, bald cuties. Babies change everything, and to my dazed delight we’re surrounded.

However, an almost equally large number of my friends, women who popped the pill and worried about late periods for so many years, are finding that now that they are finally ready, they simply cannot get pregnant.

Catching up over margaritas recently, my friend Laura* let it all come tumbling out—the extreme stress of trying to conceive for over a year to no avail. While the stroller set are making it seem so easy, her own experience has become emotionally complicated.

“It’s the most painful thing I’ve ever gone through,” Laura admits. The wondering, the self-blame, the cycle of hope and devastation every month, the feeling of being a failure—she has internalized it all and hit a brick wall of frustration.

“But I’m so happy for all my friends who are pregnant!” Laura assures me. Still, she admits that one of the hardest things about her ordeal is that she feels so alone.  

But is she? According to the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society, seven percent of Canadian couples are experiencing infertility issues. That’s almost a quarter million women who are having trouble conceiving.

I turned to my friend Debra*, who tried for seven years to create a family—starting in her early 30s, like Laura—without success.

“You think you’re the only one,” Debra says. “But then you mention it and it starts to come out through your friends and their friends that so many more people are experiencing this than you thought.”

The bright side is that most couples will succeed. The Globe and Mail reported on research that shows that 85 percent of couples become pregnant after a year of unprotected sex, while half of the remaining couples will go on to conceive naturally over the next three years. Some couples may have to wait longer than others, but by my math, that’s a 92.5 percent success rate for the baby makers, which is a rallying cry for patience.

But having patience is easier said than done. Debra kept trying to conceive au naturel for two years. She went on to two rounds of IVF, which didn’t take, then finally navigated the Byzantine bureaucracy of international and domestic adoptions.

Now, she and her husband are parents to a beautiful little bean of a baby girl who came to them through adoption. Looking back, Debra says the biggest shock of the whole ordeal was that it was the first time her life didn’t go according to plan.

Being ambitious is normally rewarded with success, but in this case, it can make things even tougher. Used to a correlation between hard work and achieving our goals, it’s hard to accept that our own bodies can be out of our control. We control our careers, our finances, our social calendars. We think we control our bodies through what we eat, how we exercise and what colour we dye our hair. But the truth is we don’t. Only the unlucky few of us who have dealt with illness have an intimate understanding of that. Cancer, for example—no one asks for it. Infertility too.

“It’s awful to feel out of control,” Debra says, recounting her emotional days of IVF, when her body was coursing with hormones and stress. “If I have any regrets, it would be that I didn’t try to get pregnant earlier.”

Debra, who is about 10 years older than me, has said this to me many times, and it isn’t reassuring. Every woman I know wants to be ready for having children, which can take time. But because we’re free to pursue the lives we want, it’s easy to forget our eggs have a best-before date. Youth isn’t a panacea for fertility issues, but as Debra insists, it does buy time to try all your options.

For my friends who want families, I know it will happen one way or another. And while they keep trying, I plan on connecting them so they can discuss. After all, they aren’t alone. It just feels that way.

*Names have been changed