Photo above by Danica Donnelly: Holly Palkowitsch of Eagan gave birth to her daughter, Wilhelmina, with her partner, Chris, by her...
Finding a path to family
As I walked into work, I held the door for two different coworkers sporting different progressions of baby bumps. I smiled wide and simultaneously winced as my work bag swung against my backside — sore from rounds of painful progesterone shots. Sitting down at my desk in my classroom, I sipped my decaf herbal tea and opened my email.
My stomach dropped as I saw the subject line “Big News” from another expecting coworker. I was so happy for their family, but I began to wonder how much more I could take.
Having been through infertility treatments to have my first child, I was no stranger to this game. A diagnosis of endometriosis a couple months before my wedding led to a quick progression of surgeries, tests, Clomid, blood draws (hundreds), shots and eventually IUIs (intrauterine inseminations).
After two chemical pregnancies — in which the egg and sperm connected, but didn’t “stick” — we set off down the road to IVF (in vitro fertilization).
Luckily on my fifth IUI, in planning for IVF, we found out it worked and we were pregnant. I remember feeling so relieved and thankful and terrified all at once.
I wasn’t terrified at the thought of parenting. (I’m a teacher; I’d been “practice parenting” for years.) I was terrified that something would go wrong.
Worried and anxious
I realized, in hindsight, I should have bought pregnancy tests in bulk. I went through a phase where I took multiple tests a day — just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. My need for constant reassurance became amplified by the time I was far enough along to get ultrasounds.
Feeling like something was “not right,” I’d call the doctor’s office for a checkup. One day I confessed to a kind nurse practitioner about my consuming anxiety that something would go wrong. I’ve held tight to her wise words the entire last decade.
“Oh, honey,” she said sweetly, looking in my eyes, “being a mom means always worrying about something. When they’re born, you worry about SIDS, then you worry when they’re toddlers, and then they’re driving.”
After that, I tried to let my faith and trust lead me more. I made the choice to be thankful for morning sickness — glad for the reminder that all was normal. I celebrated through rites of passage like prenatal yoga and hospital parenting classes, and I got regular massages.
Our sweet girl arrived almost four weeks early — a healthy, perfect and ready-for-the-world 6 pounds, 12 ounces. Choosing to get an epidural, I loved being pain free enough to be truly present for her birth. I pushed through four contractions and she was here.
I figured since I struggled to get pregnant, I was paid back with an easier pregnancy and delivery. As I was rocking my miniature miracle at 2 a.m., I shook my head in disbelief that my parenting dream had come true.
Too many IUIs to count
When it came time to try for a second child, I assumed it would follow the same timeline: We’d struggle, have to do some interventions and then it would work again. Right?
And then there’s all the things people tell you. Everyone knows someone who went through infertility. The woman who couldn’t get pregnant for forever, and then cranked out seven kids. The couple who had difficulty with their first, but after that, “Your body just knows what to do.”
And the worst one ever: “It just happens when you relax.”
Looking back on the entire process has led me to realize no two journeys are the same. When you’re struggling, it’s so hard to wonder why things happen easily for some and not for others.
When we were trying for our second child, I lost count after our 10th IUI. I know there were more — I really just stopped counting. There were more surgeries. And waiting. I began to look at making diet modifications — gluten-free and dairy-free — and exercise.
Our insurance kept changing, so we kept finding coverage for a couple more IUI rounds, and paid for a couple out of pocket, too. (IUIs for us cost $1,000–2,000.)
The longer time went on, the harder the mind game became. Our daughter kept getting older, lessening the “close in age” sibling experience. And, of course, I kept getting older, too. Terms like “advanced maternal age” (35 and older) are not comforting.
IVF ups and downs
Convinced that the only way I would get pregnant would be IVF, we began the expensive and invasive process. And we were overjoyed when the first one worked! But then, at eight weeks, we miscarried.
I was numb with shock and devastation for weeks. When it happened, it was Memorial Day weekend, and I couldn’t bring myself to go to the cabin with the extended family because my sister-in-law was pregnant, and here I was heartbroken and surviving on extra-strength Advil to get through the cramping pain.
I know people miscarry. I didn’t feel quite as alone in that. I’d had friends who had miscarried, too, and had seen its crushing blows. But it’s a whole other level to miscarry after paying over $10,000 and going through months of preparation and fertility drugs (and their side effects).
As I look back on this now, that was one of the hardest parts: I felt so unrelatable.
But we kept at it — with three more subsequent rounds of IVF. We had another chemical pregnancy on the third, and didn’t even end up completing the fourth due to poor embryo condition before the final placement.
I’ll never forget getting the call from the doctor letting us know the fourth round of IVF was off. As I ended the call, I sunk down on the stairs, right where I stood, and looked up at my husband through a blur of tears and said, “I’m done.”
I know that some people do way more than four rounds of IVF. (And some people can’t bring themselves to morally get to IVF in the first place.) But I needed off the train. I’d been on this ride for over four years. The thought of starting another month of hormone shots and borrowing more money — for something that wasn’t 100 percent guaranteed — made me weak with exhaustion.
That night my husband and I went out for dinner and I had the first two glasses of wine I’d had in a long time. The relief I felt to know that I had my body back and was off the roller coaster was so sweet. Little did we know we’d be getting off one roller coaster and getting on a whole different one.
Deciding on adoption
That very night at dinner we made the decision to adopt. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a feeling of anticipation and relief simultaneously. I knew that eventually, if we were patient, we would add another child to our family.
We quickly found out that the same dynamic of long and winding roads applied to adoption — no two paths are the same. We were encouraged by couples that were chosen by the birth parents within two weeks, and disheartened by the ones who were still waiting. We traded syringes and hormones for paperwork and legally mandated counseling.
We endured having to answer intense questions about the age, race and cognitive and physical abilities of our future child. And then we waited.
After a year, when it came time to update our application (it’s valid for only a year), the old dark anxiety began to surface. I realized our sweet daughter wouldn’t be even remotely close in age to her sibling, and my husband and I kept getting older.
We had a couple leads that fell through, when finally, two and half years since that relieving night out to dinner, we got a life-changing call. My aunt worked in an OB office one state away and had met a pretty amazing birth mom. She was healthy and beautiful, seven months along and had yet to choose an adoptive family.
Meeting our son
The amount of grace and thankfulness I feel as I look back on meeting our boy cannot be put into words. After weeks of meeting and talking with the birth mom, she called me on Labor Day and told me she chose us. In tears of joy, I walked into the room where my husband and daughter were sitting.
My daughter took one look at my smiling tears and asked, “Did she choose us?”
The next few weeks were a whirlwind of elated joy, of preparing and protecting our hearts. We’d heard all the horror stories of birth parents changing their mind. It felt a little like trying to walk confidently on thin ice.
I’ll never forget sitting in the maternity waiting room with our child’s biological grandfather. It was one of the most awkward and heartwarming conversations I’ve ever had. We laughed uneasily at surface-level stories, all the while thinking, “This person and I will forever be connected.”
The biological grandmother stuck her head through the door that connected to the labor and delivery hallway. Her shining smile cut through the tension as she looked at my husband and me and asked, “Would you like to meet your son?”
I will always hold those few days in the hospital sacred. How strange to be fully healthy (not having just survived giving birth) and caring for this beautiful newborn boy. I cried with the birth family as they said goodbye and looked down in complete gratefulness for the tiny miracle we held. Our family finally felt complete.
It’s YOUR family
I don’t know anyone else who has our exact story. Our journey to our family has been painful, and joyful, and the absolute reason I feel closer to God in my life.
My heart will forever ache for families dealing with infertility and the anguish of secondary infertility (having one and struggling to have more).
I’m convinced we need to hold each other up and remember that everyone has their battles — their struggles with fertility, adoption, marriage/divorce, disease, mental health and just life.
Writing this has been hard. It’s tempting to cover those dark times in our lives and pretend it’s always been perfect.
But the truth is, I wouldn’t trade one moment away. I’m so thankful for the growth, perspective and strength I’ve gained in the route to my family.
To those who are in it right now: Don’t worry about anyone else. This is YOUR family. It’s YOUR story — and every step has a purpose.
“In a forest of a hundred thousand trees, no two leaves are alike. And no two journeys along the same path are alike.” — Paul Coelho
Susan Wangen is a Minnesota native and a fourth-grade teacher in the southwest suburbs, who contributes regularly to Minnesota Parent.
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