The Invisible Struggle With Infertility: The Big Lie Women Are Being Told About Having a Baby

by Charlotte on January 21, 2014 · 32 comments


“If you start to miscarry on the airplane, take two of these and then get to the nearest ER,” my doctor said, placing two Vicodins in the palm of my hand. I nodded and tucked them in my purse not considering that I might really need them nor that if I did take them there would be no way I’d make it to an ER as half a Vicodin knocks me out cold. Instead I stood tall, threw my shoulders back and marched out on my way to catch a flight to take me to interview for a lucrative job with IBM in Dallas, Texas. Because I was a strong woman – strong enough to be 17 weeks pregnant with a dead baby waiting to “miscarry naturally” and still interview with one of the largest companies in the world. I could do it all.

Until I couldn’t. It turns out I was a 21-year-old kid who’d just finished graduate school and knew nothing about the real world. I was the top of my class in Computer Information Systems but I couldn’t read the simple map in the rental car to find my hotel. Instead, as the rain pounded down so hard that it bounced back up off the pavement to soak me from both directions, I wandered through downtown Dallas at one o’clock in the morning sobbing and begging someone to help me. Eventually I got someone to give me directions – through two inches of bullet proof glass – and collapsed in a different hotel at 3 a.m., just a few hours before my interview.

As I laid on the bed, the phone rang. It was my husband, calling in a panic as he’d been trying to find me all evening since my plane had landed and I hadn’t called. “Are you having a miscarriage? Are you okay?” he asked. All I could do was sob. I cried so hard I threw up. And then I washed my face, reapplied my makeup and went to my interview to try and convince grown ups that I was one of them.

I made it home without miscarrying but it was a curse as much as a blessing because the baby camped out in me was still dead and I was still in a limbo pregnancy – showing all the signs of it, except, you know, the only important one. And so at nearly 20 weeks pregnant I had to go to the hospital to have a surgical D&C where they scraped out all the dead tissue with a sharp-edged ice cream scoop. I woke up and thought the nightmare was done. The next day was Thanksgiving and I came down with a raging infection, thanks to my careless doctor who had perforated my uterus with his ice cream scoop of death. More pain meds, IV antibiotics and cramps so bad that even today, 13 years later, my uterus shudders with the memory of them. Oh and throw in a few panic attacks for good measure. The next day I got the job offer from IBM: they wanted me for their huge Enron project.

Being as sick as I was gave me a lot of time to think, especially about what I really wanted out of my life and compare that to what I could reasonably do. I had thought that I’d wanted it all – kids, house, fancy job, dog, the whole “dream” – and I’d been told that if I just worked hard enough I could have all that. The Dallas trip had been a major disillusionment (and not just because Enron would just a year later explode in one of the worst corporate corruption cases in recent history). Looking back, I feel like God gave me that experience to help me choose what was really important to me. What did I really want? Did I really want kids? Did I really want a prestigious job with a fat paycheck and a 70-hour workweek to match? Because what was glaringly apparent was that I could have it all… but I couldn’t have it all at the same time.

I had naively thought that having kids would be a simple process for me and I’d sail through pregnancy by sheer force of will but my body wasn’t up to it. My first pregnancy ended in a “chemical miscarriage” meaning the day after I got the positive pregnancy test I got my period. My second pregnancy was the 20-week horror show above. And still no baby. Would there be a third try? After a lot of tearful prayers and conversations with my husband, I turned down the IBM job and accepted a much less stressful position as a professor at a small college in Seattle.

We moved to the west coast, settled into life in Seattle and when I wasn’t teaching – which I LOVED by the way – I worked on learning to manage my stress – particularly in tackling my crippling panic attacks and episodes of irritable bowel syndrome. I volunteered at a battered women’s shelter in my free time, hoping that helping women in crisis would help me put my own problems into perspective. And it helped. It all helped. I didn’t have the fancy career I’d dreamed of but I had finally regained my health. And I got pregnant for a third time.

This time everything seemed to be going miraculously perfect and my husband and I were thrilled when we saw the first little kick on the ultrasound. He put together a crib and I hand-painted a changing table. We discussed names. And then before the paint even dried we found out that she too was dying, of a genetic disease that only affects girls (that had probably also killed our previous baby although we didn’t have her tested so I can’t know for sure). That night, as I lay feeling her hiccup happily in my womb, my husband brought a children’s book into my room and started reading it to my tummy. “What are you doing, silly?” I asked him.

“I want to read my daughter a book so she can hear my voice, in case she dies before she can hear me tell her how much I love her on the outside.”

We held each other and sobbed. For months. We waited through endless tests, hoping for a misdiagnosis or if not that, a miracle. Miracles happen, right? Not for us, not that time. She died at birth. After hours of grueling labor we finally held her in our arms. We waited for her to breathe and even though her little lips looked ready to try they remained in perfect stillness, poised for life but perfect in death. We all inhaled. She did not. That moment is the heartbreak of my life.

Three pregnancies, three years, three million tears, no babies. I felt angry and sad and betrayed. I’d given up everything! I’d sacrificed so much. And for what? A broken heart? Yet we’d named her Faith, a symbol of our dedication. And so we tried again. Which is how I found myself, nine months later, finally holding a living baby boy in my arms. It had taken us four years to get him here and we could not have been more happy. Or scared. See, once you know a baby can die your innocence is lost. Pregnancy will never not be fraught again. Even so we had two more sons and finally got our girl – our miracle girl, in spite of the doctor’s warnings about the genetic disease we still carried in our traitorous cells.

If you were to simply look at us now, a snapshot on any given day, you’d see a happy family. You might even think it was easy for us to get to where we are. But you wouldn’t see the two missing children. And you wouldn’t see the decade of tests, trials, medicines, and other indignities I endured to bring them here – living or dead.


I tell you all this not to make you cry at your desk or make you swear off ever having children but because I was reminded of the need to share my story and stories like it when I read an interview with Tanya Selvaratnam, the author of the new book called The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock that’s been making some major waves. Of her book, she says, “The Big Lie is that we can do things on our own timetables. The Big Lie is that we can manipulate evolution. The Big Lie is that we don’t need feminism anymore. And in the book I ask and attempt to answer: Are these lies or willing deceptions?”


From Message With a Bottle

Then in the interview, she speaks of her own multiple miscarriages and how they were a rude awakening to her, saying, “I was one of those many women who looked at celebrities and friends having babies seemingly without any difficulties in their late 30s and 40s and thought I would be like them. Those who struggle often hide their stories.”

I recently interviewed several doctors for a piece for Shape about what women need to know before getting pregnant and I was surprised when one doctor candidly admitted that the main thing she wished that women knew was that they don’t have unlimited time or fertility. “Due to social media, we see 46-year-olds giving birth to twins and it’s misleading. Those are probably not their own eggs. You have a window of fertility that ends around age 40, and after that the miscarriage rate is over fifty percent,” she said. “But women don’t want to hear that. They still think they can do things on their own time frame but nature doesn’t work like that.” The doctor went on to explain that not only does she wish more doctors would be upfront with their patients about family planning (in all senses) but that she wished we could all candidly discuss options like egg banking, fertility treatments and the effect the father’s health has on conception.


From Message With a Bottle

“It’s become a kind of taboo for a woman to say that she wants to have a family before her career,” said another doctor. “We’re encouraged to have this ‘if it is meant to be it will just happen’ attitude when the reality is that it can be a lot of work and sacrifice to have a baby. You have to really decide if you want kids and if you do you’d be better off to plan for it. We teach women plenty about how to plan to prevent a pregnancy but then we teach them almost nothing about how to plan for one because we don’t want to offend them? It’s not politics, it’s science.”

Now, I’m evidence that things often do not go according to plan and that you can have difficulty having a child even in your 20′s but I think their points are well made. Just like we’re supposed to make being thin and pretty look easy, we’re also supposed to make pregnancy and motherhood look easy. I understand why many women choose not to tell people they’re pregnant until after the first trimester is successfully completed and the major risk of miscarriage is past but part of me is sad that we feel like we can’t trust other women with our loss. Selvaratnam says, “Even though it is so common (25 percent of clinically recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage), we still feel like failures when it happens to us. It’s a deeply emotional and physiologically trying experience, and it’s hard in general to talk about pain.” I would add that fertility treatments and struggles are equally taboo topics as well. What are we so afraid of?

Personally, I am immensely grateful for the way my life has turned out. I think IBM would have given me ulcers (and also: ENRON. ahem.). My kids are also probably giving me ulcers but they give me so much back it’s worth it. I don’t regret any of it – except perhaps the ice cream scoop from bell – but In the end whether or not we want kids, how we choose to bring our kids into our families, and how we feel about all of that are deeply, intensely personal experiences.  And I would never dream to tell anyone how to make those decisions for themselves. But I agree with Selvaratnam and the doctors I interviewed that the conversation needs to be happening a lot more than it is. We can’t make the best decision if we don’t have all the facts.


From Message With a Bottle



{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Darwin January 21, 2014 at 12:50 am

All of the painful perseverance and determination a midst searing sorrow and sacrifice…all…that you went through…heartache and death and emotional trauma…the physical and psychological toll…even when the pregnancies succeeded and resulted in your wonderful sons and daughter…

…and the woman who makes $100,000 a year with stock options…

…which one is the HERO?

…It’s you…


Janet January 21, 2014 at 1:02 am

Thank you for sharing. It is funny how people don’t share these details with others. Sometimes it just seems too personal. Plus it leads people to assume things, such as that it’s the woman’s fault, and then it just gets to be TMI.

Btw, I’m impressed that you finished grad school by 21. Most of us don’t even finish college by then.


Annabel Adams January 21, 2014 at 2:19 am

Charlotte, thank you for sharing. You make the world more honest for all of us. <3


Cort the Sport January 21, 2014 at 4:56 am

well I did “cry at my desk” here at home. How remarkable that you made it through all of that and emerged to refind happiness and give so much of yourself to your children, others…all of us. That was a choice you obviously made, because you had the choice to be bitter and unhappy too. You are SO strong!!

I have faculty friends who put off children….far too long…and I’ve watched them suffer with infertility and adoptions falling through. I feel very fortunate to have two awesome sons and meaningful work that has left room for other people and things :-)

Thanks for posting this.


Naomi/Dragonmamma January 21, 2014 at 6:07 am

“Even though it is so common (25 percent of clinically recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage), we still feel like failures when it happens to us.”
I had a miscarriage in my first pregnancy at 16 weeks. I was mind-boggled when I discovered the statistic quoted above, and it actually kept me from feeling like a failure. I had no idea, and found it comforting that it was so common.


Abby January 21, 2014 at 7:43 am

Thank you for posting this! It’s really timely for me since we’re just starting to try to get pregnant. I’m hoping everything is smooth and easy but prepared if it’s not. So glad you have your happy family now!


Valerie January 21, 2014 at 7:44 am

I so agree that we should talk more about our losses! When I had my stillbirth, I was so glad people knew. I had people praying for me like crazy. I wouldn’t have made it without those prayers. I tell people I am pregnant as soon as I know. I need the support.


DW January 21, 2014 at 8:00 am

Oh Charlotte, how do you always seem to post about what’s going on in my life? I’m 31 and we have been trying for almost a year and a half with fertility meds, shots, etc. “Invisible struggle” so aptly describes it. I feel “invisible” sometimes … next to the moms at work, reading the FB status updates from everyone who seems to get pregnant so easily, around my in-laws when they coo endlessly over my nephew (their first grandchild). Sometimes, reading stories like yours gives me hope. Especially your comment about anyone who saw your photos now would just see a happy family and not know what you had to go through to get there. I sometimes wish I could talk to the DW from 10 years out, just so I’d know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Because things look pretty dark right now.


Joemama January 21, 2014 at 8:36 am

Hang in there, love. It sucks SO HARDCORE to deal with infertility. Like it’s the unfairest of the unfair hands to be dealt. Know that so many of us understand and hope the very best for you.


Jasmine January 21, 2014 at 9:47 am

Oh goodness DW, I feel you. We’re three years and a lot of tears in, still no loving bundle in my arms. I wish I could hug you from over here. :`(


Mandy January 22, 2014 at 1:07 am

I’m there with you – almost 2 years in. I feel you!! Especially this week when we’ve had to cancel a cycle for a few reasons.

I do believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel – I’m proof of it! My mother tried for 9 years to fall pregnant and stay pregnant and I’m the result. So it happens and I know it’ll happen for me and you!


Heather C January 21, 2014 at 8:22 am

I miscarried my first child at 13 weeks and was devastated. Years later, at a play group with my son, somehow amongst the moms the topic of miscarriage came up. I mentioned that I had miscarried a baby and talked a bit about how hard it had been. A few days later a woman who had been at the play group called me and told me she had miscarried a few weeks before that play group and how hearing me talk about my experience, really made her feel reassured that everything she was feeling was normal and she thanked me for it. I do think sometimes as women we so ourselves a disservice by not being more open about our feelings, whether it be sad experiences or talking about how hard motherhood is sometimes or so on.

I think the fertility stuff really speaks to this notion we are sold that you can, and should, have it all. As women we do have lots of opportunities but you can’t necessarily have it all at the same time. Sometimes you have to choose and know that not all of it is within our control.


Heather C January 21, 2014 at 8:28 am

My last paragraph there sounds a bit judgey. What I mean is that as women we shouldn’t feel like that if we can’t, or choose not to, have a glorious career, kids, etc that we are somehow failing or doing something wrong.


Joemama January 21, 2014 at 9:29 am

It is amazing the amount of people walking around who have dealt with such heartache, yet soldier on. You don’t realize it fully until you personally face a tragedy and start talking with people about it. Then you start to see just how many of us have wounds that never fully heal, but we all just bind up our hurt in whatever feels best, family, faith, friends, drugs, alcohol, whatever it might be, and continue on.
I did cry when reading this out of sadness for you and me and others who have faced the death of their child, but it was also with gratitude for what I have now. This was a lovely post today, and I second your thoughts about letting the truth about pregnancy and motherhood be known. I’ve always been brutally honest when asked about it. I feel like the more honest we can be with other parents or parents-to-be, the more support we’ll all have, because raising kids and being a grown up is mad hard.


Darwin January 21, 2014 at 10:14 am

As a Dad’s perspective in this type of situation…

…I had ALWAYS wanted kids…as a kid I knew I wanted kids and to be a Dad…

I just wanted to marry the girl next store preferably not long after high school probably sometime in university. But the girl next door never moved into the neighborhood, and after a much longer time than I would have preferred I did finally get married. She had already given birth to someone else’s child, a child the other guy did not even want…so I thought it would be easy-peasy for someone like me who longed to be a Dad for all of my life.

In my life up to that point I had the experience of being attacked and harassed repeatedly by wolves through the night…I had faced bears…I had thrown down against fraternities and a gang or two…I fell off a mountain briefly…(miraculously saved), gone on a rescue with a police mountain search and rescue team…have been lost in a blinding blizzard on a lake and in a blinding raging forest fire…been TERRIFIED of deep water and being a lousy swimmer…
and dove in to help someone anyway…

I assumed that I could handle anything.

Up to that point NOTHING…EVER….literally…buckled me…in body…and soul…with terror and fear and grief and heartache like the loss of our first child.

King Kong could have picked up a giant redwood and whacked me with it…and I am certain it would not have hurt as much…nor been as terrifying….as that moment.

I got up and comforted my then-wife…she did not ask if I was “okay”…she knew.

…as did my parents.

Nobody else asked.

Other guys were like…let the women deal with that…we’ll talk about sports.

*rolls eyes*


Norma Pellett January 22, 2014 at 2:29 pm

I’m sorry nobody asked how you were doing. Someone losing a child scares people and they don’t know what to say, so they say nothing. Men are often taught by society that they have little to do with children and so they shouldn’t feel pain when the child isn’t “real ” yet because you didn’t get to raise him or her.

I know you love that little person as soon as you know they exist. The pain of loss stays in your heart even though you are supposed to “get over it.” I hope you were blessed with other children. They do not take the place of the lost ones. They are joys unto themselves. I have 3 healthy adult children, but I still miss the two I buried and the 3 that ended in miscarriages.

I also hope you ask other fathers of lost children how they are doing. My experiences mean that I know to ask, too.

May you be blessed and comforted.


Darwin January 22, 2014 at 3:20 pm

Thank-you for your kind and loving words Norma…it is true, of course, when you said:

“I know you love that little person as soon as you know they exist.” I talked to my then-wife’s tummy almost as much as I talked to my then-wife…and when I spoke to her, I often directed my voice tummy-ward. *grins*

I know it has an effect, because our first child that survived…a daughter…I did the same thing (as I did for all of them) and I was encouraging my wife in her last push and I said…(directing my voice to her tummy) “Be strong…growl!” And she pushed, and our little (10 lb 8 oz) daughter came out GROWLING HERSELF!!. And our baby looked at me like she was asking if she did it right: “Was that good Dad?”

My wife heard the growl (as did the neo-natel team who were worried that our baby might be in distress and might not be breathing when she was born) and they all smiled and laughed.

I held our babygirl and kissed her and told her that she was wonderful.

That very first previous pregnancy ended with a D&C…a baby boy who was buried. Along with eight miscarriages…but we were also very blessed with babygirl, babyboy, babyboy, babygirl…all ten pounds-plus…in between.

My wife had sciatica, so I eagerly responded when the babies cried at night and thus got to bond closely with them at a young. It would be…”Oh good! Dad is here! Everything is okay now!” I would change their diapers, bring them to Mom for feeding and then place them back in their cribs. I also was the one to walk with them and hold them all night when they were sick and congested. Then I played Barbies and Superheros with equal enthusiasm.

So yes…I have been very blessed…and everyday I think of and send love to the ones who have gone on before.

And, yes…I DO talk to the other father’s who have lost children and ask them how they are doing. And thank you so very much for doing the same, Norma.

May you also be blessed and comforted!


Stephanie January 21, 2014 at 1:15 pm

Charlotte, goodness, so many hard things! I’m so glad you’ve been blessed with four beautiful children, but it doesn’t make the losing any easier.

I actually read a very entertaining blog by a woman who was trying to conceive with donor eggs. She was very funny, but her pain was real. She wrote a kind of tough entry in which she ‘called out’ various celebrities whom she assumed had used egg donors, based on their ages/circumstances. She felt that celebrities ought to be more open about their fertility, that they promote an image of eternal youth and fecundity, when in reality, many probably use very invasive methods to have their children.

It was an interesting topic of discussion, however, regarding celebrity, privacy, etc.

I was quite shocked to learn at 39 that I was almost out of eggs. I had been told in school when we were getting our sex ed. talk that girls were born with all their eggs (true) and don’t worry–you have plenty and will never run out! Turns out that is NOT true. FYI…


crabby mcslacker January 21, 2014 at 1:33 pm

It is weird that this stuff is so rarely talked about, and I had NO idea how common or heart-wrenching fertility and miscarriage were. I’m childless by choice, but I can’t imagine how hard it is to struggle when one dearly wants kids and can’t have them.


Amber January 21, 2014 at 1:44 pm

Charlotte, thank you for sharing your story! I try to not be timid about my stories either. It’s so true that we spend so much time debating the best ways to teach about not getting pregnant and we’re under so much pressure to complete so much before we get to that stage of our lives that we’re fooled about how “easy” it is and how much time we have.
I’m on my 6th pregnancy and hoping for my 3rd screeching healthy newborn in just a few short weeks. I’m forever grateful for my children and count my blessings frequently, but I still think about the 3 babies that never were all the time and don’t wish the heartache of prolonged efforts/time to conceive or pregnancy loss on anyone.


Kellyim January 21, 2014 at 2:18 pm

You seem to be tuned in to what we all need to hear, for one reason or another. I had a miscarriage at 12 weeks at the beginning of December. We’ve been trying to have a baby for 3 years, and I’ve had one chemical pregnancy, and then that miscarriage. It was incredibly rough, and I wound up in the hospital because I couldn’t get the pain under control, even with the Percoset my doctor prescribed.

I wish that I had had the opportunity to try sooner. I didn’t get married until I was 31 and then we wanted to wait a few years to start trying so that we could feel more financially stable and I could pay down some of my student loans. Now I’m 37 and looking at not having a first baby until I’m 38, if we’re lucky. I was hoping to be planning my second by now.

I don’t know what the answer is as far as planning careers and family goes, since my answer is going to be different that the next woman’s. However, I do know that talking about my miscarriage has been the best thing I could have done. I have gained so much strength from my friends because I dared to say, “I’m waiting to have a miscarriage” and they responded, “That happened to me too.” For me, talking about it with women who understood what I was feeling was exactly what I needed and I think has helped me recover more quickly that if I’d kept it hidden.


Dr. J January 21, 2014 at 3:20 pm

From the medical point of view I think, miscarriages are there to prevent births of severely unhealthy offspring. Call it God’s will if you wish, but try to respect the importance of the process if you can. This statement is not directed at you Charlotte.


MissCegenation January 22, 2014 at 3:52 pm

Women who have suffered through pregnancy loss are very aware of the fact that miscarriage happens because there was probably something wrong with the pregnancy. But that fact makes no difference to our hearts. The grieving is real and surprisingly painful–especially for those of us who have gone through it more than once. If you ever have to support someone who is going through this, you would do well to care for their feelings, instead of asking them to rationalize the reasons why their joy and hope has been taken away from them.


Heidi January 21, 2014 at 5:12 pm

I still cried at my computer for guys. This is a beautiful step in the right direction. Love you, Char.


Kim January 21, 2014 at 5:39 pm

Charlotte, I think that you are one of the strongest people I know!!!
And reading about your interview at 21 when you said Enron I got chills for the turn your life might have had.
I’m sorry that you had to suffer the way you did for any reason but especially for the reasons you did!!


Gail January 22, 2014 at 12:41 am

I keep a single foil-wrapped Clomid in a drawer in my bedroom as a reminder of what we went through, which was an absolute walk in the park compared with what you endured.


Amy @ Run Mom Run January 22, 2014 at 10:41 am

Great post. My mother in law is so scarred from her D&C that when giving a talk at my nephew’s 8 year old stake baptism she paused in the middle and explained why it bothers her when we call the Doctrine & Covenants the D&C. We were all completely horrified (we knew it was coming as soon as she paused because we’ve all heard it so many times before) but it is obvious that that experience has had a lifelong effect on her.

When my brother’s wife had to have a D&C earlier this week I must admit that because of my mother in law’s experience I was much more empathetic than I might have otherwise been. Although at times she has horrified us with her sharing of her story, it also has blessed me to know.


Julia Kung January 22, 2014 at 11:02 pm

Thank you, this was such an extraordinary post- it brought tears to my eyes. I’m newly engaged at 32, hoping to have a child by 34. I’ve watched some of my friends struggle through fertility issues, and I can only hope that things will work out for me. But I know that I won’t be alone if there’s a struggle involved.


Geosomin January 25, 2014 at 6:54 pm

This is beautiful. One of my regrets in getting cancer is that i will likely not have the family we waited for, and now cannot have. By the time i am clear to if i even can I will be nearly 48…just unwise. I have friend going through invitro too…hearing all you have been through and knowing your wonderful family is so cheering to me. Seeing it work out for some makes things better somehow you know?


Jess January 30, 2014 at 3:26 pm

You have such a beautiful family and it is really wonderful that you shared this. I was just talking about this with some of my girl friends. One had suffered miscarriage privately, only I was aware. Another friend was loudly exclaiming she was having one boy and one girl at 32 and 34. I said it is not that simple. Fertility is not completely within our control and anything can and does happen. I had a chemical miscarriage and then twins. Both were completely out of my control. I know of many women who have miscarried early and some who have lost babies very late in the game. Very sad amd really shouldn’t be a secret.


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