Back in the saddle: Restarting IVF

Well, kids, here we are. The year is 2021 — nearly 2022 — and somehow I have a 2(!) year old.

And slowly but surely, a number of the insta-friends who had their donor-egg IVF (DEIVF) miracle babies around the same time as we did have started trying for (and in some cases already having) miracle #2. I feel bad for even admitting this, but it’s been making me a bit envious, if I’m honest.* And yet, despite being in the extremely fortunate position of having three more donor-egg embryos in the freezer, we haven’t quite managed to get back in the saddle ourselves for a number of reasons that I’ll get into now.

First off, it turns out that babies are incredibly poor sleepers. Apparently there are some people who can function on 4-6 non-consecutive hours of sleep a night, but I’m not one of them. I’ve been barely able to spell my own name, much less find the time/energy to consider adding another infant to the mix. Especially when this involves coordinating the logistics of an international embryo transfer.

Because despite having tackled one of the biggest obstacles to pregnancy (namely, having viable embryos) thanks to our egg donor, Marie, the practical details of another transfer are still non-trivial. Our embryos are at our clinic in Belgium, while we live several hours away in the Netherlands. For our first three DEIVF embryo transfers, I managed to convince a local Dutch clinic to do the monitoring (ultrasounds and blood tests) during the early part of the cycle so that we only had to drive to Belgium for the actual transfer. Unfortunately, the Dutch clinic we used before has said they will no longer help. This means I will either need to find another local clinic to do the necessary monitoring (no luck so far) or resign myself to making multiple long drives back and forth across the border.

Additionally, there’s the fact that I’m still breastfeeding MB. It’s only a little bit (and only before bed). Nevertheless, the official advice is that you must stop breastfeeding before a cycle since the prescribed hormones are transmitted through breast milk. I haven’t wanted to rush the weaning process, however, since — as a mom via donor eggs — the chance to breastfeed has been so extra special.

Small steps

Since we didn’t know what other steps would be needed prior to a new transfer attempt (eg. rejoining the waitlist, protocol changes due to my current use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), etc), we made an appointment at our clinic a few months ago to ‘start the process’. In our horse analogy, this isn’t getting back in the saddle, exactly, but it is taking time to figure out where the heck you put the saddle last time you used it.

At the appointment, we learned I needed to redo my bloodwork for thyroid monitoring and a number of standard checks. We also filled out a metric ton of paperwork — approximately the same amount I imagine you’d need to fill out if you were acquiring a small nation state.

Excitingly, we got the great news that our remaining frozen embryos are good quality. (There was so much going on during our first few transfers that we couldn’t quite remember.) We have a 4BB and two 3BBs. These are all better grades than MB, who grew from a scrappy 3BC. That doesn’t guarantee any of them will work, of course, but the doctor seemed quite optimistic that we at least have a shot.

Page 2 of our embryo report, where you can see two of the three remaining frozen embryos (both 3BB) as well as the embryo that became MB!

Lastly, we learned that there’s no waitlist to start, so it’s up to us (ie, whenever I’m ready to stop breastfeeding MB and sleep even less again). They sent us home with the prescriptions for the hormones, and instructions that I could simply start them as soon as I stop the HRT and start my period. Easy peasy.

Spoiler: It was not easy peasy

Reader, I had a gut feeling it would not be so simple. You see, I’ve been bleeding almost continuously on the HRT, which is an annoying but apparently not-unheard-of side effect. Between that and my post-menopausal ovaries, I was quite skeptical that I’d get my period after stopping the HRT (despite the doctor’s assurance it would come ‘within three days’). So after worrying uselessly about it for a few weeks, I staged my own test run by stopping the HRT and waiting to see what happened.

I waited one day. Two days. One week. Two weeks… Still no period. At that point, I was starting to feel the (very unpleasant) effects of stopping the HRT, so I gave up and started again, figuring I’d simply ask the doctor to clarify the protocol in such a circumstance. It may seem like a minor point, but I didn’t want to submit myself to the physical and emotional stress of strong fertility hormones and international trip logistics if the timing wasn’t right to start a cycle in the first place.

I emailed the clinic to clarify. I won’t bore you with the details of everything that followed, but the short version is that I spoke with three different other doctors/nurses at the clinic and got three different answers to this very basic question. As I was getting increasingly frustrated, I finally demanded that our doctor — who I had yet to hear from, and who I like and trust more than anyone else there — call me.

That’s when it came out that our doctor is not currently ‘there’…. As in, she’s missing in action. As in, they don’t know ‘if or when she’ll be back’. And when we said we hoped she was ok, they replied, ‘We do too.’

So to beat a dead (horse) analogy: we’ve found the saddle, we’ve dusted it off, but now the dang horse has gone missing.

xx

* This feeling of envy is itself difficult to reconcile with the deep-rooted notion that I should be grateful for what I already have. This is probably some form of post-infertility-trauma survivor’s guilt…but more on this incredibly cheery topic in another post!

Follow me on Instagram: @thebunlessoven

‘Staying positive’ during IVF

A few months ago, I did an Instagram takeover of DefiningMum’s account, run by the wonderful human & fellow donor egg (i.e., DEIVF) mama Becky (blog: DefiningMum.com). If you’re elderly (in spirit) like I am and don’t know what a ‘takeover’ is, basically Becky gave me her trust (i.e., Instagram password) for a day and allowed me to post on her stories.*

There, I recapped our long journey to parenthood and answered related questions submitted by followers, including: Did I ever question our decision to use donor eggs? Did I bond well with baby? What’s my relationship like with our egg donor?** For anyone who wants to check it out, my answers are saved as a story in DefiningMum’s Instagram Highlights reel.

One of the first questions I got is something that multiple other women have also asked me in private: How did I stay positive from one cycle to the next during our grueling, multi-year IVF & DEIVF journey? I answered as best as I could in a single story, but since this is a topic that so many people are clearly interested in, I want to expand on my answer a little more here.

How did I stay positive during IVF?

To jump straight to the punchline: I didn’t.

Seriously — I was never optimistic about any given cycle working, except maybe the very first one. That was the cycle I only grew a single follicle, but it miraculously fertilized and managed to grow into a ‘perfect’ (according to our doctor) 8-cell embryo by day 3. As my microscopic miracle continued to pass each hurdle with flying colors, I started to become more and more hopeful. Maybe we would be one of those rare IVF success stories that beat the odds. Maybe, just maybe… <cue romantic orchestral overture> …this one precious egg was meant to be our baby!

Of course, anyone who follows this blog knows that first cycle ultimately failed. Unfortunately, so did the one after that, and the one after that… and etc, etc. With each new failure, I developed the cynicism that’s pretty standard amongst long-time infertility veterans. Our dream of a baby was slipping further and further away, and even within the larger IVF community — the very people who should most relate to my struggles — I felt increasingly alone. Not only could I not get pregnant without IVF, but it seemed I couldn’t get pregnant with it either.

I’ll be honest — that was quite a dark time. I’ll spare you the painful details, but there was a good amount of ugly-crying with a fair share of social media blocking and a sizable dose of self pity. I definitely wouldn’t characterize my mental state during that time as ‘positive’ or ‘optimistic’, nor do I think that’s necessarily the right goal to strive for in the first place. When your infertility journey is full of so much loss, it’s important to let yourself grieve in whatever way you need to.

What kept me going?

If I wasn’t feeling positive from one cycle to the next, then how (and why??) did I keep going? Was it sheer willpower? Masochism?

It’s true that I was never particularly optimistic about any given cycle, but Mr. Bunless and I were both determined that — somehow, someway — we would end up with a kid to love eventually. One thing that helped with this was to always have the plan mapped out at least 1-2 steps ahead of where we currently were.

At the beginning, we decided that if IVF with my own eggs didn’t work, we would move on to egg donation. Later, we decided that if our known egg donor didn’t work out, we would try an anonymous egg donor in a country with an egg bank. In case none of that worked, we had already started researching adoption laws in various countries. Of course I recognize that we were very fortunate to be able to afford these options, which is not something everyone can say. (Or at least we thought we could probably figure something out once we got to that point, which is still a privilege.)

I also spent a lot or time — like, a LOT — visualizing what our announcement would say when something finally worked. Each time we’d embark on a new IVF cycle, I’d update the text in my head to reflect our new statistics (‘After 5 embryo transfers’ -> ‘After 6 embryo transfers…’). Each time, I’d imagine adding new needles to the picture, and how exactly I wanted it to look. I knew that each hurdle we had to overcome would just make our story that much more amazing, and I’d imagine how proud I’d be sharing it with everyone.

Announcement
The announcement photo I visualized during our IVF/DEIVF attempts.

And speaking of sharing, we also got a lot of support once we started sharing our story with family and friends. Starting this blog, in fact, was one of the best things I ever did.*** In addition to gaining our own cheering squad, I discovered two additional benefits: 1) It allowed me to share the details of our story with family and friends in a way that felt open and yet simultaneously private (I could write it out alone in my room), and 2) It allowed me to own our story, taking back some control over a process which is littered with uncertainty. (One doesn’t have to start a blog to do this, of course, but for me it was the best vehicle.)

In short, I admire those people who can stay positive even while facing the soul-crushing despair of infertility, but I am not one of them. For me, it was less ‘I know this will work!’ and more ‘Let’s just get this over with so we can move on to the next thing.’

xx

* Becky must have a lot more trust in people than I do. Thankfully, I turned out not to be a crazy internet weirdo.

** Clearly not everyone is an avid blog reader or they would know that our egg donor, Marie, is a close friend from high school.

*** Technically, the best decision I ever made was marrying Mr. Bunless, followed closely by switching to the flute from the glockenspiel in the 5th grade. But this blog is definitely in the top three.

A conversation with my egg donor

As I’m writing this, our donor-egg IVF Miracle Baby (MB) has just turned 1 year old(!). I had big plans to continue posting regularly once MB arrived, but you know what they say about the best-laid plans…

Daycare closures aside, we’re feeling pretty lucky that we haven’t been strongly affected by the coronavirus. The main thing that has impacted us are the travel restrictions, as we had various friends and family from the US booked to visit our long-awaited MB. In particular, our good friend and egg donor, Marie, had tickets to fly over in March with her husband and kids. Living so far away, Marie has yet to meet MB (except over zoom), and unfortunately, with EU borders still shut to non-essential US travelers, it looks like that will remain the case for some time. (Go home 2020 — you’re drunk).

When I thought that Marie was coming in person, I had solicited questions from you all (via Instagram) to ask her about her experience as a (known) egg donor. Since we no longer know when she’ll be able to come, I decided to ‘interview’ her virtually instead. At this point, I’d like to give a big thank you to Marie, who not only gave us the gift of life, but who apparently now also has to put up with me peppering her with questions.

Before we dive in, there are a few things I want to make clear. Firstly, Marie didn’t get paid to donate her eggs to us. You’re actually not even allowed to pay egg donors here, so Marie did it purely out of the goodness of her heart (though I was happy to learn that she also enjoyed other perks of the experience, as you’ll read below). Secondly, Marie mentions researching surrogacy, but please note that she never followed through with this, so the opinions voiced are purely speculative. Finally, since Marie hasn’t met MB in person yet, I’ll focus on the questions about the beginning of the process (namely, why Marie volunteered to donate and what those around her thought). I think you’ll find her perspective quite interesting, so let’s get to it.

Allie: Ok, there are tons of questions that people wanted me to ask you as an egg donor, so let’s just start at the beginning. Donating your eggs is a big deal, both physically and emotionally…What made you want to donate?

Marie: I think I told you this before, but right after I had [baby #2], I was actually researching being a surrogate. I had such easy, uncomplicated pregnancies that I thought it would be an easy thing to do. I specifically thought it would be a no-brainer for those close to me (should the need arise) because I had such an easy time with my pregnancies. In the end, I didn’t pursue it. Then [2.5 years later], we knew you guys were struggling to get pregnant, but we didn’t know the details, and I remember that I sent you a message asking how it was going. You said that your only option left was egg donation, and at the time, I didn’t even know that was a thing! I showed your message to [my husband], and said “Should I offer?” And he was like “Sure, if you want to!” It was decided in like 10 seconds.* Because I had already been considering surrogacy, it seemed almost like a step down. It seemed less physically and emotionally taxing. Pregnancy is such an emotional process, and you get so attached to the baby after growing it and giving birth, that I actually think I would have had a harder time with surrogacy than egg donation. With egg donation, I know it’s my genetics, but it actually seemed physically and emotionally easier than what I’d already been considering.

Allie: I could definitely see that. Do you think that if you had known egg donation was a thing earlier, you would have ever considered donating to an egg bank?

Marie: I probably wouldn’t have donated to an egg bank, no. I don’t know that I would have seriously researched surrogacy for an anonymous person either, just because of the invasiveness of the procedure. I was much more willing to go through with egg donation knowing there was a personal connection. Especially because I wasn’t doing it for money. Maybe that sounds creepy to bring up money, but I think that’s probably why a lot of people do it (at least in the US). Like, for example, I found out once we started the process that my OB-GYN had donated her eggs to put herself through medical school (and then later she ended up needing IVF and had twins!)

In our case, you could see me go through the donation process, so we were really going through it together. Like whenever I’d get a test done, I’d call you right afterwards with the results, and it made it more exciting, if you know what I mean. It made it more special.

Allie: Totally — for me too obviously! Related question: If you wouldn’t have donated anonymously, would you have considered donating to someone you didn’t know already as an ‘identifiable’ donor?

Marie: Maybe? I guess if I was able to facebook-stalk them and sort of get a feel for them, then maybe I would have considered it? In our case, since it’s technically my genetics, I liked knowing that you would be good parents and that they would have a supportive grandparent system. Knowing the kid would be raised by a happy, healthy family made it easier. So I guess if I could get that feeling from someone new, I would have maybe considered it. I’d also want to know to keep track. You know how you hear those stories about guys who were sperm donors and discover years later that their sperm has been used for like 40 kids? Well I would want to know where all of my eggs went!

Allie: Yeah, I think that’s a very reasonable answer! Ok next question: What does [your husband] think about it?

Marie: He was sad he couldn’t be involved too! He was super excited. But it’s also because he has such a strong connection to you guys.**

Allie: Ahhhhhh, that’s so nice. I do remember him telling the clinic’s psychologist that he would donate eggs if he had them – HA! What about your extended family, to the extent that they know about it?

Marie: They were all really supportive. Initially my parents were just concerned for me that I would be attached. My dad was particularly concerned that if you were to have a difficult pregnancy, to the point where you lost the baby, or died yourself, how would that affect me knowing that I contributed to that.

Allie: Oh wow, that’s so interesting — I never even considered that angle!

Marie: Yeah, they were concerned that if something were to go wrong, would I be able to handle that. My mom was also concerned for my health going through the egg donation treatment — how I’d react to the IVF drugs and procedure. But she also said she thought it was such a selfless thing to do, and that I was being a wonderful friend.

Allie: You were! And thank goodness that nothing happened to me or the baby, but for the record, if anything had happened, we obviously would never have blamed you. (I really hope you already knew that!) Just one last question for today then: Looking back on it now, how do you feel about your donation experience?

Marie: I still feel great about it, I’m so happy it was successful. It was the best summer, getting to say that we “lived in Amsterdam” for a part of the summer is fun. It was a great experience for the kids too (the traveling part of it and experiencing another culture). I think being able to go through something like this and make a big vacation around it is part of what made it so fun. Also being with you guys as I was going through it, as opposed to doing it alone, sending the eggs on their way, and not having much follow-up, made it more meaningful. The women who do it that way are more selfless than I am 😉

I’ll leave it at this for the sake of brevity, and I’ll close by saying that I know there are many DEIVF mamas out there who used an anonymous donor and who (based on the questions you submitted) are looking for some insight into the type of person who would donate their eggs. While Marie can’t speak for other (anonymous) egg donors, I personally find her practical and drama-free attitude*** about the whole situation enlightening. In her words: “It may be my genetics, but it’s not my kid.” That chubby-thighed baby is all mine!

xx

* Although Marie decided to offer almost instantly, we continued to discuss the possibility in the coming weeks/months, and I made sure to give her lots of outs during that time. Luckily for us, she never took one.

** My husband and I were roommates with Marie’s husband during grad school and actually introduced them. (Karma, right?)

*** I’m far less practical, as well as being highly sensitive and — frankly — a bit emo at times. I guess it’s a good thing that nobody ever needed me as an egg donor (for multiple reasons) 😉

Why we’re open about using donor eggs

Recently, I posted on Instagram about how I had explained egg donation to my new osteopath. (That particular post was about the correct terminology when discussing third-party reproduction, but that’s a topic for another day.)

My post apparently hit a nerve with one woman, who commented that she discovered as a pre-teen that her parents had used a sperm donor. She was clearly in a lot of pain still, saying that she wished she had never found out, and that she wished others didn’t know that about her, as she didn’t think it was anybody else’s business.

Obviously we want only the best for the baby we fought so hard to have, and I appreciated her point of view, so I wrote a long response acknowledging her pain and explaining our carefully considered reasons for our openness. However, when I went to post it, I discovered that she had deleted her comment. I still don’t know what changed her mind about posting, but I’ve been meaning to write a blog post on this topic anyway. So here I will explain our reasons for being open with our daughter, our friends/family, and the wider community, with the acknowledgement that every situation is different.

Should we tell our child?

When I was first researching egg donation, my googling quickly led me to articles on whether or not to tell any child conceived this way, as that’s obviously the first concern for most people.

What I learned was that if a person discovers at some point that their origin story is not what they thought (like my commenter), this sudden realization can indeed be quite traumatic. The discovery may be on purpose, such as if the parents have chosen some set time to reveal the information, but it could also be on accident, such as from a discrepancy in their medical history, from a relative letting it slip, or from the genetic testing (e.g. Ancestry.com) that’s becoming increasingly popular. In order to best avoid any (intentional or unintentional) traumatic revelation, the experts therefore recommend ‘early telling’, where you tell your child from a very young age (using, for example, the wonderful children’s book Happy Together: An egg donation story). This helps ensure that your child doesn’t have a specific moment in their life when their whole identity suddenly changed.

Should we tell our family/friends?

Once you’ve decided to tell your child from a very young age, you can’t guarantee that the information will stay private. We’re talking about little kids, after all (like my friend’s 5-year old, who recently emerged triumphantly from the bathroom announcing “My dad went POOP!”) But should you actively tell your family and friends?

In our case, our egg donor (Marie) is a close friend from my childhood, and her husband is my grad school roommate. Our families are friends, and many of our close friends are mutual. Partly due to the logistics of getting she and her husband to Europe for the donor screening — and then again (+2 young kids) for the several-week-long egg retrieval process — we were open with our families and friends from the beginning. In a true act of support, Marie’s mother even generously paid for their flights.

Even if logistics weren’t a factor, we were excited to tell our families and friends because of the beautiful gift that Marie was giving us. We didn’t even know if it would work at that point, but Marie’s offer had made us feel loved and supported — the importance of which cannot be overstated after a lonely four-and-a-half year battle with infertility. Our family and friends rallied around us all, waiting with bated breath to see if it would work. And now that it has worked, our daughter will get to meet the nice lady, “Aunt Marie”, who helped mommy and daddy have her (and who has already mailed her a Christmas present for this year!)

Should we tell other people?

I read somewhere that 10% of IVF pregnancies in the US use egg donation, which is non-negligible. Yet when we first started considering this path, I’d never heard of anyone who had done it. Marie told me later that before I mentioned needing donated eggs (not hers, but generally), she didn’t even know it existed.*

It was a scary new path to embark on, and one of the things that helped my husband and I decide to pursue it was finding other women who had children through egg donation. Seeing the relationships they had with their children — and how their children (some of them now adults) were thriving — gave me hope, and it made me want to give back in the same way by sharing our story with a wider community. In the words of a friend of mine, I wanted to help those who came after us by making the path a little less scary.**

With that said, it’s not like there’s a banner flying over our house saying “Come see the donor egg baby!” I would love to show my face on here, as well as that of our baby (because guys, she’s gorgeous), but for the sake of our daughter, I’ve made the choice to keep our identities semi-private. (This may come as no great surprise, but my name isn’t really ‘Allie’, and our egg donor’s name isn’t really ‘Marie’.) Because Marie and I both post about it on social media, it wouldn’t be too hard for mutual friends who don’t already know to make the connection. But while I don’t plan on volunteering additional identifying information to the world in general, it’s my hope that our story will help other people even if all of my Instagram photos feature giant emoticons plastered over our faces.

Every case is different

Would we have done things differently if we had used an anonymous donor? Or sperm/embryo donation? Maybe. Maybe not. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s difficult to say how you might handle a situation until you’ve really experienced it first-hand. And on top of that, every particular case really is different.

Since we made the conscious choice to be so open about our particular story from the beginning, we are running the risk that some people may indeed look at our daughter differently. I can’t control what those people may say to (or about) her in the future, and like any mother, that thought pains me. But I hope that whatever others may say, our daughter recognizes that her differences make her even more special. Because it’s ultimately a story about love, and how so many people came together just so that she can exist.

xx

* Marie actually volunteered to be our surrogate before she knew exactly what our fertility issues were. I explained that the oven was working just fine — I just didn’t have any dough.

** Like me, Marie is also excited to educate others and recently gave a presentation about egg donation at the high school where she teaches. Just imagine if she inspired even one student (or teacher) to donate eggs in the future!

Miracle Baby’s birth story

Ten short weeks ago, we welcomed our miracle donor egg IVF baby. I’m told that the first few weeks with a newborn are always a blur. In our case, this was compounded by Miracle Baby’s (MB) traumatic hospitalization at two days old and subsequent Hirschsprung’s disease diagnosis. All of this means that the actual story of her arrival has more-or-less been ignored.

So before all of the details fade into the haze of my sleep-deprived brain, here is the story of her long-awaited birth.

An easy start

I was 41 weeks and 4 days pregnant when I went into labor. Being 11 days overdue, I had already tried pretty much every old wive’s tale you could think of to get things going. So when I started noticing a pattern to my cramps around 4pm — a few hours after I’d had a second membrane sweep — I was definitely more than ready.

The contractions ramped up quite quickly from ~15 minutes apart to ~3 minutes apart. Nevertheless, those first few hours were actually almost pleasant. I was sitting on my birthing ball, leaning on the windowsill near the open window and watching rain fall softly through the twilight and onto the canal below. I would moan through the contractions and my husband would apply counter pressure to my back. When the midwife arrived at 10pm to check me, she reported that I had progressed to 3cm dilated, and that she would be back in 3 hours. We were like ‘We’ve totally got this!’

Spoiler: We did not.

Almost as soon as the midwife left, it became clear that it would not be as straightforward as we assumed. I was having intense pain in my lower back, which our doula told me was ‘back labor’. Worse than that, in what should have been the rest period between contractions, I was having…more contractions. This fun little phenomenon is known as ‘double contractions’, or ‘coupling’, and as I was counting on using the breaks between contractions to get me through the pain, it was a total mindf@&$.

The almost continuous contractions meant that it took 30 minutes just to get me down one flight of stairs (scooting one stair at a time on my butt), where I had a romantic vision of laboring in the shower in a recently purchased bikini top (Americans are prudish, recall). After instead crawling into the shower buck naked and spending several hours crying in agony on a footstool, it then took another 10 minutes to transition me the 10 steps to the bedroom. When the midwife finally returned after 3 years* and reported that I was still only 3cm dilated, I threw my idea of a water birth out the window and immediately requested an epidural.

The hospital portion

The midwife got us a room in the nearby hospital, and our caravan of cars set off through the rain (or so I’m told — I wasn’t very observant at that point). After arriving, it took ages before I was prepped and ready for the epidural. They say real labor isn’t like the movies, but I was definitely that crazed woman clutching the rails of the hospital bed with white knuckles and yelling ‘How long until the doctor gets here?!’

The epidural was a huge help. HUGE. Really cannot stress that enough. Everyone’s always warning you, ‘An epidural can slow down labor!’, and I just have to say that a slower labor is exactly what I needed at that point. When it finally kicked in, I could breath again. Make jokes with my husband. I even ate a sandwich. Sure, they had to give me a little boost of hormones to try to get the contractions going again, but once they did, I didn’t notice the back labor or the double contractions. And those last 12 hours were infinitely easier than the first 12.

In summary — Epidural: 5/5 stars. Would definitely recommend.

Pushing

The nurses weren’t happy with how MB’s heart rate was dropping (and staying) low during contractions, or how she’d pooped in the amniotic fluid**, so they drew some blood from her head to do a stress test before they would let me push. Thankfully it came back ok, so at 2:30pm on my 12th day overdue, my husband put on my ‘Birth: Energetic’ playlist*** and away we went.

Pushing was predictably intense, with a lot of yelling from both me and my husband. My yelling was from the sheer exertion of bearing down with everything I had, and his yelling included encouraging phrases like: ‘IF I DON’T SEE POOP, I’M GOING TO BE DISAPPOINTED!!’**** At one point between pushing contractions, I even wailed ‘WHY DIDN’T WE JUST ADOPT?!’ (which — like any good insider joke — is something only infertile people are allowed to say about themselves).

After an hour of pushing, they threatened me with an episiotomy and vacuum pump. That was apparently all I needed to hear, because soon after, I started to make real progress. Twenty minutes and three second-degree tears later, our Miracle Baby entered this world. And I’ll tell you what: she is absolutely perfect.

xx

* This is not a typo. Special relativity teaches us that time is relative, and those 3 hours felt like eons.

** MB’s apparent ability to poop was one thing that complicated her Hirschsprung’s disease diagnosis, which essentially means she can’t poop (enough) on her own.

*** In contrast to the ‘Birth: Mellow’ playlist that we’d had playing during the rest of the labor, my ‘Energetic’ playlist featured a lot of early 2000’s screaming punk (much to the amusement of the Dutch nurses).

**** We’d given permission for a young male intern to observe, and between all of the yelling and the blood/tearing that occurred, I think the poor dear was traumatized.

She’s here!

She’s finally here! After making us wait almost six years, and then another two weeks just for good measure, our miracle donor egg IVF baby finally arrived in mid-August at almost 42 weeks gestation. And while she’s currently home and doing well, it’s been a wild ride since then, to put it mildly.

I’ll get back to the actual birth itself later, but the events that followed her arrival are where the real drama occurred. And if you’ve ever witnessed a birth, you already know that’s saying something.

The beginning

We stayed in the hospital the first night after she was born, with no idea that anything was wrong. Miracle Baby (MB) slept through the night after some initial breastfeeding, but I had read that newborns often sleep for a long stretch right after birth. The nurse came to check on us every few hours, but she also didn’t seem concerned.

In the morning we discovered that MB had spit up (or more likely vomited, as we realized later) all over her bed, and her temperature was low. However, the nurse told us that this can happen if they swallow amniotic fluid with meconium in it, as MB likely had. We assumed this nausea was also the reason MB wasn’t interested in further nursing, and we were advised to go home and try some skin-to-skin time.

At home, we were met by our postnatal maternity nurse, which is an amazing after-birth benefit to living in the Netherlands. She was with us for several hours that first day, during which time she tried to help us determine why MB still wasn’t interested in nursing. I also tried to pump, but I wasn’t making much milk at that point, and we eventually resorted to finger feeding formula just to get something in her.

That first night at home was awful. My husband and I tried to wake MB to feed every three hours, but she was super sleepy and wouldn’t eat. She also kept vomiting (which, as I mentioned above, we mistook for spit-up). Nevertheless, it was starting to seem concerning. By the time the nurse had arrived back at our house the next morning, I was a crying mess.

After more failed attempts to get MB to eat, and a home visit from our midwife, we were sent to see a pediatrician at the local ER. At that point, MB had only peed once in >48 hours, was extremely lethargic, and her stomach was hard and bloated.

The hospital did some abdominal X-rays using an adult-size X-ray machine, which required my husband to stand behind it and hold MB straight out in front of him (#RealLifeCrossFit). I hobbled over to a chair, delirious from lack of sleep, and more worried at that point about the long-term effects of radiation on a 2-day old. The X-ray showed a large blockage in MB’s bowels, and they gave her an enema which released a mountain of poop. They also took some blood from her feet to run some blood tests. While we were waiting in our hospital room for the results, I pumped to stimulate my milk supply. At that point, I naively thought the enema was the answer and it would all be resolved soon.

Then shit got real

What we didn’t know is that the doctors had been consulting with some specialists at a nearby children’s hospital. They said that the X-rays couldn’t rule out that MB had a volvulus (i.e., twisted bowel) — which can be extremely serious — and the other hospital wanted to see us right away. Suddenly they were prepping MB for surgery, with an IV and nose tube, and taking my blood as a precaution in case she needed it. They strapped her tiny car seat to a gurney, which is probably one of the most heart-wrenching things I’ve ever witnessed, and we were rushed to the children’s hospital by ambulance.

Our two-day-old miracle baby strapped to a gurney

I was still in shock when we arrived at the children’s hospital, but I recall them doing some more abdominal X-rays (which still showed a large blockage) and taking yet more blood from MB’s tiny feet. We were then met by a team of doctors and surgeons, who did contrast imaging of her bowels. Thankfully, they were able to rule out a twisted bowel fairly quickly, but they told us they suspected a rare congenital bowel disease called Hirschsprung’s disease, which is also serious*. They started treating her immediately, and it was probably close to 3am by the time we were shown to our hospital room.

To make a very long story slightly shorter, we spent the next week in the pediatric surgery wing of the children’s hospital. MB responded well to the treatment for Hirschsprung’s disease, which consisted of irrigating her bowels twice a day. Still, it all seemed so wildly unfair. First it took us six years and another woman’s eggs just to get pregnant, and now the baby we fought so hard to have likely had a serious birth defect? It was a possibility I hadn’t even let myself consider while pregnant (surely we’d already had our share of bad luck?!), and we felt like we were stuck in a nightmare.

An unexpected result

After a few days, they started slowly decreasing MB’s IV and reintroducing feeding using the breastmilk I’d been religiously pumping. After five days, they began teaching us how to do her bowel irrigation procedure ourselves**. On the eighth day, she got her IV and nose tube out and we were sent home to await her biopsy results. At that point, we had accepted that she would need surgery before she was six months old and continuous monitoring until she was an adult, and we were ok with it. We realized that it could be much worse, and we were finally starting to find some happiness in the small moments. Some of our parents had flown out to assist, which also helped immensely.

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Re-introducing feeding with some pumped breastmilk at the hospital.

It came as a great surprise to all of us, then, when the doctor told us that her biopsy results came back negative. In other words, she did NOT have Hirschsprung’s disease! We could hardly believe our luck, and we began slowly decreasing the frequency of her bowel irrigations.

And that was the end of the drama?

Unfortunately, no.

Cutting back on the bowel irrigation didn’t go as smoothly as expected. MB stopped eating as much and was sleeping through the night, which was worrying in her case. At one point, her stomach was so distended that we had to do the bowel irrigation early. Then, at a follow-up appointment, the doctor informed us that after reviewing the biopsy, it was, in fact, positive. Our Miracle Baby did have Hirschsprung’s disease. We had come to terms with this at the hospital, but after spending the subsequent weeks thinking otherwise, receiving the diagnosis again was a fresh shock.

The good news

The good news is that things could be worse. According to WebMD, “Though the disease can be deadly, modern medicine is able to fix the problem with surgery, and children who have been treated can live normal, healthy lives.” The only way I’ve been keeping my sanity through all this is by repeating the last part of that sentence like a mantra.

We went back to the hospital last week to meet with the surgery and anesthesiology teams and make a plan. Thankfully, MB’s case is not so severe that she needs a stoma, so she will hopefully only need one surgery. The 3-hour operation involves removing the affected part of her large intestine, and it will occur when she’s around 4-5 months old. After that, she will hopefully be ‘cured’, and we can stop doing the twice-daily bowel flushes.

So there you have it — the full saga of MB’s eventful first weeks. If we thought things would be smooth sailing after her multi-year, multi-person conception effort, boy were we naive! But while this has all been extremely scary/stressful, we’re still *soooo* happy that our Miracle Baby is finally here. And we can’t wait until she’s grown so we can tell her what a huge pain she was not only before birth, but also after.

xx Allie

* Lest you wonder, her Hirschsprung’s diagnosis has nothing to do with MB’s donor egg conception.

** The bowel irrigation consists of sticking a 35cm tube up MB’s butt and injecting a huge syringe of salt water. The first few times you see it, it’s terrifying.