Harder the Second Time Around

nonfiction essay by Melissa Olson Cunningham

“There’s a baby in your belly, mommy,” my five-year-old daughter told me on a recent afternoon as we lay snuggling together on the couch.

“Why would you say that, sweetie?” I asked, startled by her confidence.

“Because I feel it,” she replied. “And I want a baby.”

 ***

All week long, she has been talking about babies, drawing crayon pictures of our new family: there I am with my brown hair, her daddy with his red beard, Leah and the new baby. Leah drew pictures of babies crying, eating and sleeping. She made up stories about how babies are born; her favorite theory is that babies are “thrown-up.” In my mind, I knew it was likely she had overheard us grownups talking about fertility treatments. She had probably intuited our longings to have another child. But at the time, her proclamation seemed like an omen.

 ***

I felt pregnant. We’d finished our first round of fertility shots along with artificial insemination. Everything went perfectly. My body was responding to the hormone injections how we had hoped. Every other day, I went in for ultrasounds to measure my egg follicle growth. First, there were five of them: a seven, two nines, two elevens and a thirteen. Then two of them took off, one on each side, and grew to measure 13 mm apiece. Both looked promising. Finally, they measured 18 mm. As I passed my fertility specialist in the hallway that day, Dr. Jones smiled and asked me how everything was going. “We have happy follicle news!” I announced, thrilled with the results.

 ***

I felt pregnant. I was four days late getting my period which has always arrived like clockwork. My breasts ached and I felt slightly nauseous. To temper my growing hope, I reminded myself that it was probably the shots causing my symptoms.

 ***

Still, I felt pregnant and it was a relief. I could put the past two and a half years of unsuccessfully trying, of tests and of shots behind me and finally start moving forward.

Then late last night I woke up bleeding. “Is it just spotting?” my husband asked. “No,” I answered. “I’m sorry, hon.”

*** 

The first thing I thought about when I woke up this morning was how to tell my daughter that there is no baby in mommy’s belly, that there may never be a baby. I wondered if she would bring it up again and she did. We were on the couch watching a movie together.

“Please be careful of mommy’s stomach. It’s a little sore today.”

“Because there’s a baby in there?” she asked.

I took a deep breath and heard myself saying sorry again.

 ***

It has been a long road since my husband and I started planning for a family. We were married right out of college. Both of us pursued our careers. Then Steve went back to school for his MBA while I worked as a communication specialist for the Michigan Senate and we put off starting our family for yet another two years.

I have two older sisters who both gave me advice on starting a family. The one who had her first child at a young age advised me to wait, to take time for my career and enjoy my marriage. My other sister warned me about waiting too long. She had followed that path and had fertility problems as a result. I thought I could have the best of both worlds. My husband and I had seven years to ourselves before we started trying to become pregnant. They were wonderful years highlighted by fulfilling careers, travel, friends and freedom. I thought I was safe waiting until I was 29 years old. I certainly wouldn’t have predicted the struggles we’ve endured up to this point. Sometimes, I think back and wonder if I made a terrible mistake. I get angry.

*** 

I’m sitting in a doctor’s office. The tall, handsome OBGYN is sitting behind his walnut desk. It is an interview before my first examination with him. I notice there are photographs of children on nearly every shelf. “Are these yours?” I ask, indicating to a picture of a pretty woman and six happy-looking kids. He nods. Yes, they are all his.

I tell him about how painful my periods have always been. “My husband and I are thinking of starting a family now,” I explain. “Do you think, is there any possibility, I could have endometriosis?” I ask. He shakes his head no. Emphatically, his answer is no.

I remember sitting in other doctors’ offices, at least two more times, asking the same question and always getting the same answer. “Some women simply have rough periods,” I recall one of them saying. Then she prescribed Darvocet and sent me on my way.

*** 

It took two years to conceive our first child.  I look at a photograph of myself, in my black beaded dress, singing at my parent’s fiftieth anniversary party, and marvel. You don’t know it yet, I whisper, but you’re pregnant. Oh, how it felt to be filled with another life. It has been two and a half years now, this second time around.

This past spring, at my husband’s and my persistence, we were finally referred to a fertility specialist and I was officially diagnosed with secondary infertility. Secondary infertility is estimated to affect nearly three million women in the United States and is defined as the inability to conceive or sustain a pregnancy after you have had one or more biological children. The causes of secondary infertility are identical to primary infertility, as is the testing. I have had a ton of blood work, ultrasounds, a follicle assessment and an uncomfortable test called an HSG where a radiologist shoots dye into your fallopian tubes to see if they are blocked.

A laparoscopy performed this past October identified mild to moderate endometriosis, a condition where the tissue that lines the uterus is found outside of the uterus. In my case, it was covering the entire backside of one of my ovaries. This news brought a myriad of emotions to the surface. While I was relieved to have possibly found an answer to our fertility problems, I was also angry that it had not been found sooner. I think of all the months we have wasted, all the years we’ve been trying.

I’ll never forget a neighbor once telling me that you truly cannot know how painful it is to have a doctor tell you that you will never conceive until it happens to you. I believe her. I know I will never experience that. But, lately, I have felt something akin to what she described.

My niece, Hayley, and I have always close. Only three years apart, we grew up in neighboring towns and saw each other constantly. I love my niece; I’m not supposed to be jealous of her. Then, right as I was in the throes of my initial fertility testing, we went to her house to celebrate the birthday of her one-year-old son. She also has a three-year-old daughter. My sweet, curly-haired great nephew sat in the high chair smearing his birthday cake all over the tray. Then Hayley said she had an announcement to make. They were being careful, not even trying, she explained, but she was pregnant. They were having another baby.  

After the announcement, I distracted myself playing with the kids until we left. I broke down later, sprawling onto our bed, feeling sorry for myself, my husband and my daughter. I started calculating. My niece and I began trying to conceive our first children within the same year. Now, eight years later, I have one child and she has two with another on the way. Eight years. I never should have done that calculation.

I know that my chances of becoming pregnant decline each year. One chart I was given shows how rapidly a woman’s fertility falls after the age of 35. By 40, a woman’s chance of getting pregnant unassisted is around five percent each month.

As I near my thirty-eighth birthday, I try to remain hopeful but I worry that I may never conceive another child. It’s the part about my daughter that is the most difficult. I worry that I’m depriving her of what is so essential in my own life – brothers and sisters to laugh with, bicker amongst and turn to when the chips are down.

 ***

The other day, we were passing a water fountain in the mall. Leah wanted to throw a penny into the fountain and make a wish. “I wished for a baby,” she told us, then happily skipped ahead. I looked up at my husband and knew he was thinking the same thing I was. More than anything, we hope her wish comes true.

Melissa Olson Cunningham is a Detroit-area freelance writer.

1 Response to “Harder the Second Time Around”


  • This brought tears to my eyes. I also suffered secondary infertility which included two miscarriages. Infertility can affect women on so many different levels and my heart aches for the author of this story.

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