I Finally Got My IVF Baby, So What Right Did I Have To Be Depressed?
There was that stubborn voice in my head that said I had no reason to be unhappy now that I got what I wanted.
Ten years ago, I gave birth to my first child. My pre-delivery experience was a string of three-letter words: ART (assisted reproductive technology), IUI (intrauterine insemination), D&C (dilation and curettage), IVF (in vitro fertilization), and HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin, aka the pregnancy hormone), all of which yawned, stretched and twisted themselves into a pattern spanning several years that somehow ended with a baby. When the nurse placed my doughy, swirly haired son on my chest, I remember staring down at him for long minutes, in awe of his innocence and jealous of his complete ignorance of every difficult moment that had led us here.
In many ways, I was no different from every other mother in the hospital that day: exhausted and overcome, swept along on a hormonal undertow. But a smaller subset of us were united in our status as mothers who had conceived their children through IVF. We’d witnessed our social media feeds being taken over by pregnancy announcements and held it together through those conversations with friends without stabbing anyone in the eye (“We started trying a few months ago, and it happened the very first time!”). We’d attended classes to practice self-administering injections, numbly poking a rubber ball with needles before going home and trying to pinch the soft flesh of our stomachs the same way. We’d compared blurry pictures of blastocyst embryos, wondering “Which one?” and “How many?” and “How much longer can we afford to keep the rest frozen?” We’d passed months, more often years, vacillating so wildly between hope and despair that being told we were pregnant felt indistinguishable from watching another miscarriage disappear down the drain. And while we’d spent nine months convincing ourselves that all pregnancies are the same despite how they begin, I now believe that we do ourselves a disservice in this insistence. Attempting to normalize the IVF experience is a defense mechanism to protect our trauma.
Early in our fertility journey, my husband’s urologist said to me, “Don’t let anyone tell you how this should feel. After three miscarriages, my wife refused to believe she was pregnant until she actually delivered our daughter.” The knowledge that the experience of infertility and IVF are inherently traumatic is only recently being fully understood, not just by experts but by society at large. In addition to feeling like your body has let you down, there’s a nuanced shame that sets in once you’ve undergone successful treatment — the voice in your head that says you have no reason to be unhappy now that you’ve got what you wanted.
The cost of fertility treatment can be yet another dirty word people don’t want to talk about. Those that enter the maws of this beast are incredibly aware of how much money they’re sinking into the endeavor after wrangling whatever pennies their health insurance company deigns to dole out. But it’s important that the cost conversation not start and end with privilege shaming. Pressure and desperation multiply exponentially as the dollars add up. And women shoulder the majority of the emotional burden that comes from quite literally putting all their eggs in one exorbitantly priced basket. Where some women are able to go through pregnancy relatively free of worry, every step of carrying a child created through ART can feel like dodging potential landmines.
I didn’t know then that symptoms like mine were common in 1 of every 4 women who conceive through IVF (higher than the 13% incidence of postpartum depression and anxiety seen in women who conceive naturally).
All this to say that once my son actually made it out of my uterus and into my arms, it was inconceivable to me that there could be yet another three letter word headed our way. My PPD was never officially diagnosed, but there’s no doubt in my mind that postpartum depression was what I experienced. I was constantly upset or anxious. A stranger’s kind smile on our morning walk morphed into pity in my brain. Even the most mundane decision-making, like choosing what to wear or make for dinner, felt impossible. Simmering on the back burner was an irrational, sometimes frightening resentment towards my newborn for putting me in this position. More than once, I texted my husband things like “I’ve fed, changed, and rocked him. Would it be terrible if I put him down in his crib and just left the house for a while?” Reading those words back now, I’m shocked how clear the signs were that I wasn’t myself. I didn’t know then that symptoms like mine were common in 1 in every 4 women who conceive through IVF (higher than the 13% incidence of postpartum depression and anxiety seen in women who conceive naturally).
While my postpartum stress levels were at their peak, the early stages of being a mother also brought other challenges. I had difficulty breastfeeding and allowed myself to be pressured onto a hamster wheel of pumping and feeding in order to boost my milk supply. I’d also made the choice to stay home for a full year after delivery — a decision made with the best of intentions but one that in reality only deepened my sense of isolation. When our son was almost 2, his pediatrician finally told me he fit the classic profile of a “fussy, high-needs baby.” It helped explain why he had seemed unhappier than other infants I saw on the park swings or at Mommy and Me classes. (I had assumed his behavior was simply a further indictment of my own.)
As a person who prides herself on pragmatism, I’ve wondered many times over why I didn’t seek help or even fully acknowledge my depression. But I know the internal monologues running in my head at the time acted as a powerful deterrent to common sense. They were a combination of emotions all-too-familiar to IVF moms: doubt (“What else could go wrong?”), anger (“I thought the hard stuff was finally over”), and numbness (“I don’t know what’s happening, again”). Also in the mix was a false sense of resilience, resulting in self-admonishments like “You’ve dealt with so much already; what’s the big deal? You’re better than this.” And then there was the Fear I didn’t want to vocalize: Maybe I never deserved to become a mother after all.
I’ve only recently been able to separate the process of creating life from the experience of actually making a life.
Many cultures have baked-in traditions to keep postpartum darkness at bay. Expectant mothers in India routinely decamp to their parents’ home a few weeks before delivery, staying until the baby is anywhere from 3 to 6 months old. Fathers are allowed to visit sporadically but not linger too long. For weeks on end, women luxuriate, plied with special foods and tumblers of murky herbal concoctions, barred from domestic labor. Apart from feeding time, some rarely see their infants. I’ve always thought the point of this practice is to allow new mothers to regain physical strength before returning to their own households, but this doesn’t give the elders enough credit. Surrounding a woman with robust support systems is as much about ensuring her emotional well-being. She and her young are released to the wild only when she is fully ready.
For immigrants from these cultures, distance is just one of many barriers to keeping this tradition alive. Women today have careers, routines, and no desire to disrupt their lives. Rather than make a long journey as the due date nears, it’s become common to have their mothers come to them instead. I’m guilty of having done this for both my children’s births, but I now see that prioritizing my convenience had its price. Although unflinching in her support, the ins and outs of the IVF beast were alien to my mother. She was cut off from relatives, friends, and neighbors — the community she would have otherwise relied on while tending to me. In flying her to me instead of letting her host me in India, I rendered her incapable of sharing the full breadth of her wisdom, unintentionally silo-ing us both.
I’ve only recently been able to separate the process of creating life from the experience of actually making a life. My newly minted 10-year-old is one of my most favorite people on the planet. I find him endlessly funny and fascinating. (Of course I do.) Some of us just have a bumpy start to motherhood, with no say in where the starting line is drawn.
Children force you to embrace the present, which is part of the beauty of it. Every day is the chance to begin anew. As we drive down to the beach on our first clear afternoon in weeks, there are no three-letter words in my rearview. Instead, we toss the dog a Frisbee and look for shells to add to our castle. We eat egg-salad sandwiches and giggle as the wind claims our blanket. I hold my son’s hand and watch my toes sink deeper into the sand as the waves wash over them.