When Heather Pollock and her husband Matt Neidert decided to start a family five years ago, they quickly learned the truth. For someone like her – at the time she was 39 – who had never been pregnant, the odds were firmly stacked against conceiving.
Pollock went to her OB-GYN for a pre-conception checkup to assess her reproductive health a few months before their marriage. A blood test showed a slightly elevated follicle-stimulating hormone level. After more extensive testing, she was diagnosed with endometriosis, a condition she learned she had for years that can make conception difficult.
The news was sobering. The condition, combined with Pollock’s age and lack of prior pregnancies, meant that her fertility rate was at meager 3 to 5 percent.
“When I heard that, I was comparing that as if normal fertility was 100 percent,” Pollock says of what she thought was a very bleak outlook at the time.
She adds that she then learned even under prime circumstances, fertility rates are about 25 percent — and that rate is for a healthy 22-year-old with a previous pregnancy.
The challenge of infertility isn’t the monthly rollercoaster of disappointment or the invasive medical testing that comes with the condition, Pollock says. Nor is it the expense.
Infertility remains a “pointless stigma,” she says — a stigma that needs to come out of the shadows.
Though the news didn’t sound as grim after Pollock considered the overall odds of conception, her endometriosis, along with an issue with her husband’s own reproductive health, meant they were headed down a challenging road with no guarantee of success.
Despite the news, Pollock said she and her husband remained upbeat during the next two years.
“What’s the point of being married without kids?” she says. “I didn’t actually feel hopeless; it might have been naiveté on my part. I just knew I was going to be a mom. It never occurred to me that I’d live into old age with no kids.
“I didn’t tailspin,” she adds. “I just had a really serious recognition for the first time of how misconstrued our ideas of getting pregnant are.”
A handful of friends and acquaintances also were going through the struggle. Like her, they were surprised to find that getting pregnant isn’t all that natural for many people.
“We’re taught so seriously to work against getting pregnant for 30 years,” Pollock said, adding that doctors remind people to get mammograms and colonoscopies, but they rarely talk about assessing reproductive health.
Pollock’s singular regret is that she and her husband underwent seven rounds of intrauterine insemination over two years. She said because of their situation, they should have jumped immediately to in vitro fertilization, which manually combines the egg and sperm in a laboratory dish and transplants the embryo into the uterus. For them, IVF took only one try.
Parents at Last
Pollock’s doctor harvested two embryos. The couple learned April 24, 2012 that she was pregnant with twins. At 23 weeks, Pollock lost one. The pregnancy continued without complications.
Their daughter, Harper, who turns 3 this month, was born two days after Christmas, making her the ultimate gift.
She’s healthy and robust, easy and calm, Pollock says. “We went through such a hard time getting her here that now she’s easy.”
Pollock’s outgoing personality helped her share her experience during that time with supportive friends and family. She quickly realized that the struggle she and husband were experiencing was surprisingly common — that many people have trouble conceiving, but few people talk about it.
The classics professor is on an informal mission to share her family’s story and to offer advice and encouragement. It’s not hard to find an audience. Pollock, 44, says women reach their teens and 20s with the false idea that conception is easy.
To that end, Pollock encourages younger women to be tested early and to take steps to preserve their fertility. In some cases, it might mean harvesting eggs for future use or getting treatment for hidden conditions — like endometriosis — that can hamper conception.
“With each failure, I realized…I will never ask anyone, ‘Hey, shouldn’t you have kids by now?’ You never know what they’re going through,” Pollock says.
Set the Stage Early for a Successful Pregnancy
Getting pregnant — and staying that way — can be difficult for many women.
Pre-conception counseling can target fertility issues and help launch a successful pregnancy. Dr. Rima Bachuwa, of OB/GYN of Westlake, offers the following tips for couples who want to have a baby
- Start early. Visit your OB-GYN either alone or with your partner to discuss your health history.
- Smoking, drinking, weight and chronic health issues such as diabetes and high blood pressure all can have an effect on fertility.
- Update vaccinations.
- Stop or find substitutes for certain medications. Some forms of birth control can stay in your system for a long time. Depo-Provera users may not ovulate for up to nine months after their last injection, for example.
- Take prenatal vitamins 6 to 12 weeks before you plan to get pregnant. The extra folic acid and DHA (omega-3 fats) have been shown to nurture healthy fetal development.
- Chart menstrual and ovulation cycles. Women generally can get pregnant only during a single 24-hour ovulation cycle each month. Try an app on your phone to help keep track.
- Too much sex can be a bad thing — or at least hamper conception. Every two or three days is a good frequency to allow time for sperm counts to build.
Infertility is defined as one year of having frequent intercourse without conception (six months if the woman is 35 or older). Between 10 and 15 percent of couples are infertile. Don’t let a timetable keep you from seeking help.