In early 2011, my then husband and I sat in front of a fertility doctor at a clinic in London. We had been trying for about a year and, after several tests and exams, the doctor said there was no real reason I wasn’t getting pregnant—I just wasn’t. He explained that I was getting older (36), and since it wasn’t happening naturally, fertility treatment was one of our main options, specifically IVF as we shouldn’t delay moving forward.
The thing was, I was always the A-student growing up, the hand-raiser, the go-getter. That drive stayed with me long after school. At that moment, I didn’t just have a successful banking career, but an international banking career. Yep, I was the overachiever who didn’t fail. I had a plan, and I executed. Well, at least until then.
“Wait, did he just say I can’t get pregnant?”
The words sunk in. I would likely not be able to get pregnant naturally. So, I problem-solved as I always had. I leapt into action, “If IVF is our option, then let’s go. When do we start?” I was ready to crush this IVF thing and have a baby.
My first round was hopeful. I listened to others around me who had gone through the process successfully. I probably read (way) too much online. I managed the chaos—the travel back and forth to the clinic for blood tests and ultrasounds, the needles and the shots, the bruising and the bloating, that “swollen” feeling that wouldn’t go away, the emotional and hormonal roller coaster and the walking of that thin, thin line between pragmatism and hopefulness. Reflecting on this time, I feel so, so lucky my mom flew to London for the first egg retrieval. She was my rock—she still is—and having her there brought a little “home” to the isolating, strange experience. When I look back at pictures from that visit, whatever I posted on social media, of course we look all smiles. Behind those smiles was fear, doubt and exhaustion.
Despite the bloat, nausea, constipation and constant dread, the egg retrieval was a success. We retrieved over a dozen eggs. A few days later we got that call that we had two plausible embryos. Boom. Another success. I was definitely crushing this IVF thing. We had our implantation and took home a black-and-white photo of those two little embryos they implanted. We hung it on our refrigerator, determined that one of those (or both) was our little baby.
Two weeks later, after an agonizing wait, I took the test: not pregnant.
My husband and I stared in disbelief. I cried. I called my mom. I texted my sister-in-law, who had been through it before.
The next day I called the clinic, and they told me to take another test just in case, so we did:
I took three more tests. All positive. I was pregnant. It worked. I called my mom. I texted my sister-in-law, and I jumped in a cab to the clinic.
But by the next day, my hCG levels were falling. I did a few painful progesterone shots over the next few days, but they didn’t work, and we didn’t get our baby. The doctor informed us that given my low hCG levels, chances were dim it would have ever “stuck.” And still, everyone told us to be hopeful. “You got pregnant, that means you can get pregnant again,” and we listened. We believed it. We were going to be successful. You’re still going to crush it, Cate.
Over the next few rounds, I grew tired of everyone’s advice. I knew people were just trying to help, but every time I heard a new tip, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. I would see that look in their eyes questioning if I was still working too hard or traveling too much or taking hot baths. It felt like judgment over and over and over again. Was my career the priority or having a baby? What was I going to do once I did get pregnant? How could I have this big job and raise a family? That was a whole new level of judgment on top of everything else. I beat myself up day after day. The guilt became too much. After a while we stopped telling anyone we were trying. I didn’t want to hear about another doctor, a better clinic, a new procedure or a different drug. Or I should stop working and focus 100 percent on getting pregnant. Seriously? I was told (more than a few times), If this is really what you want, you have to do everything you can to make it happen. Wasn’t I already doing that? This journey was hard enough without the shame. I was prepared to do everything I could to succeed, for myself and for those around me. I thought I was doing everything, and yet around every corner was always something I failed to do.
At that time, most of my friends were having or already had children. Between my two brothers, I had five wonderful nephews and nieces. My mom and I always talked about her being the grandma to my children, how it was different with mothers and daughters. I couldn’t wait to share that with my mom for so many reasons. She was my best friend, my confidante and the most wonderful and loving mother I could have ever asked for.
Before I was born, my mom had a baby girl named Mary. Shockingly, she died shortly after she was born. I don’t know how she and my father survived that loss, but they did. After Mary died, and my mother miraculously overcame that grief, she had another girl: me. My mom would always call me “her little miracle baby.” How could I disappoint her like this? What about the baby showers and baptisms, the school plays and Christmases at Grandma and Grandpa’s? The weight is enormous when you can’t get pregnant. My husband, my parents, my family, my friends—I was disappointing everyone around me.
“You are going to be a great mom one day,” everyone said, over and over and over again as if the more they say it, the more you believe it, the more it will come true. And yet, five rounds of IVF, more than six figures spent and two years later, there was no baby.
“Unexplained infertility” is what they said after that fifth round. My body and my mind were exhausted. I felt angry, ashamed, like a complete failure—the one thing my body was made to do, I couldn’t do. I would later find out from a new doctor that I wouldn’t be able to conceive. The emotional potpourri of embarrassment, guilt, fear, sadness, pressure, isolation and jealousy when others got pregnant lingered and overwhelmed me. And, since I’m here to be honest, they still do.
I’ve spent the last few years defending “why” I don’t have children when people ask. You can just see the questions begin to rise by their reactions. The “You’re not getting any younger,” “Maybe you just work too hard,” “Why wouldn’t you want children?” and “She must only care about her career” accusations have been pelted my way from every direction. At first, I never knew what to say. I was ashamed. It took me years, but now I speak up. I can’t be responsible for my body physiologically not being able to carry a child. I know this. And I know that I could no longer carry that burden. And while I can accept those things, it doesn’t lessen the pain. I know many people reading this will say I could have had a surrogate or adopted, and that is true. Those routes weren’t part of my journey, and that’s OK.
Today, I’m an aunt to eight nieces and nephews, as well as a great-aunt and godmother to many. I’m no longer married. I left a long career in banking and launched my own company. I have a happy, fulfilling life with a wonderful partner, and I still call my mom almost every day. Yes, I still wish that I could post pictures of a sonogram, a baby bump, first days of school, Christmas mornings and Mother’s Days, but I’m now trying to focus on bringing awareness for infertility and sharing my story, even if it makes others feel uncomfortable. Here, I will note that my experience has taught me that you cannot assume you know a person’s fertility journey. So, unless they choose to share, please don’t ask. I’ve learned that it’s hard enough without the judgment or questions.
My truth isn’t easy to hear. It’s not a story that I can wrap up with a pretty bow. But it’s my truth. And like my mother, I’ve decided to grieve, then heal and then move forward share this story.
Cate Luzio is founder and CEO of Luminary, a workspace and collaboration hub for women and women-identified who are passionate about professional development and expanding their networks with an emphasis on community, investing in self-development, wellness, flexibility and giving back.