Walking the gauntlet

“Let me give you one bit of advice…” Since we announced we were expecting I’ve heard that phrase more than any other. Now, don’t get me wrong, I know that everyone’s advice is completely well-intentioned, but from the perspective of a soon-to-be-mom, it’s very overwhelming.

One of the most overwhelming experiences for any soon-to-be-parent – and one jam-packed with advice – is the Genesis Clinic Open Day. As we were interested in taking as natural an approach as possible, we thought it would be a good place to gather some info about the whos, wheres and hows of it all.

We arrived at Genesis about halfway through the four-hour open day to find a veritable gauntlet of midwives, doulas, antenatal and postnatal clinic sisters, cloth nappy manufacturers and maternity-wear salespeople… every manner of pregnancy- and baby-related profession and paraphernalia was on display.

We tentatively made our way towards the reception desk, careful not to make eye-contact with anyone, to find out when the next facility tour would be. Fortunately, we didn’t have long to wait, but once that was done, we’d have to venture back out into the trenches.

Genesis, as a birthing clinic, is truly stunning. If you have your heart set on a natural delivery, do yourself a favour and take a tour of the clinic. It gives you an opportunity to ask your questions without feeling self-conscious about your lack of knowledge, because even the mom-of-three-heavily-pregnant-with-her-fourth across the room from me during the tour had questions, which the nurse giving the tour graciously answered.

After going through the tour, we were both comfortable that Genesis would be a good fit for us, now all that remained was to find a midwife to do the delivery. Easy right? Ja right.

Walking back out into the gauntlet, tightly gripping each other’s hands, we were immediately targeted by a jovial, friendly-looking woman who thrust her card into my hand. I glanced at it just long enough to take in that she was a doula. Her eagerness to sell, not only her services, but those of her midwife partner was palpable and not the least bit reassuring. Within seconds of her initial assault I was withdrawing into myself, seeking a safe place where this lady couldn’t reach me. Becs, sensing my apprehension, began wrapping up the conversation. We thanked “over-eager lady” for her card and the chat and quickly moved on.

The next thing I saw was a lady wearing a shirt proudly emblazoned with the word “placentavore”. What? Exactly what you’re thinking it is, that’s what it is. As in “let us help you eat your child’s placenta.” I say again, what? I caught Becs’s eye and discretely motioned towards the self-proclaimed placentavore with my head. Her eyes widened, she lookeds back at me – horrified – and as one, we changed direction.

It wasn’t long before we were descended on by the next person eager to be our midwife / doula / caregiver – a friendly older woman with – based on her clothing and the bushy state of her unbrushed hair – a clear passion for all things natural. We chatted to her for a while and, not really feeling her vibe, thanked her for her time and moved on.

For whatever reason, we were then given a bit of breathing room. Becs turned to me and said, “How the heck do you choose a midwife?” “Who knows…” I replied looking around at the little tables that still stood between us and the exit. At which point a kind-looking woman made eye-contact with us and we instinctively moved towards her as if being drawn in by some invisible force.

Becs repeated her question to the lady, “how does one chooses a midwife?” The kind-looking lady, who turned out to be Sr Lindsay van der Walt from Infinity Babies – our future midwife – smiled knowingly and replied, “it’s a bit like a first date, really. You chat to a couple of people and see who you connect with.” We smiled and glanced at each other knowingly – it had been a while since either of us had been on a “first date”. We chatted to her for a bit longer, gave her my number so she could contact me on the Monday to set up a free “first date” and made our way towards the exit.

On the way out, we discussed how much we’d liked her, how she’d made us feel reassured, rather than overwhelmed, which – we both thought – was a good sign. We agreed that we’d go on that “first date” and take it from there.

When it comes to advice, it’s important to remember that everyone has – and is entitled to – their opinions. Everyone believes what they did was best and will vehemently advocate one course of action over another. But, quite honestly, the best advice anyone will ever be able to give you is to listen to everyone, and then do whatever you feel is right for you and your child. The same can be said about choosing a midwife / gynae / doula / caregiver. Chat to a few people, listen to the advice of others that you trust and then find one that you fit with.

Confirmation

Two days after the first blood test came back positive and we’d shared our big news with the family, I had to go for a follow up test to make sure the readings of hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) had at least doubled. On Sunday, 24 April I duly headed in the direction of the hospital for a repeat of the test.

Form in hand I entered the pathology lab and eagerly sat in the waiting room. I was an understandably different person to the one I’d been two days previously. When my name was called, I bounced up and headed into the consultation room. I jovially chatted to the nurse while I pumped my fist, bringing my veins to the surface. I smiled happily as she poked a needle into my arm and drew the bloods. I thanked her emphatically as I secured the plaster, rushed out the door, and bounced up the stairs and out of the hospital.

A few hours later, I called the number our doctor’s receptionist – Muneerah – had given us to get the results. She said to say I was calling from the doctor’s rooms and they’d give me the results. I dialled the number as I nervously paced around the garden. When the lady answered, I told her I was calling from Dr Patel’s rooms, requesting results for a patient. My heart was in my throat. She then asked me for the practice’s account number… My heart sank.

Starting to panic that I’d have to wait until the next day for the results, I told her I didn’t have it with me. She then told me to get the patient to call and she would give the results directly to the her. Sweet relief. I called back almost immediately, resolved to disguise my voice if the same lady answered, which she did. I didn’t disguise my voice, my heart was racing too much to think of anything other than getting those results.

She must’ve known it was me, her voice had a “hmmm, you again?” quality to it, which I studiously ignored. I told her what I was calling for and she said she’d email the results to the email address on file. I thanked her and hung up, and headed back inside while opening the email app on my phone.

I must’ve refreshed 100 times a second until the email eventually came through, what seemed like ages later. I called Becs and the two of us read and reread the email. At the first test, my result had been 103. This one was 319.5. That meant it was definitely positive, right? Becs and I looked at each other and back at the mail, I read the results out aloud, we looked back at each other and immediately burst into tears as the reality of our situation began to sink in. We were for sure pregnant!

amateur-mommies-blood-test-results

The best and worst day

During the agonising two weeks that followed the embryo implantation, we had a number of ups and downs. Having committed to being positive and trusting in the universe to bring our little bundle of joy to us, we tried not to focus on the downs, but sometimes that was easier said than done.

I had occasional sharp pains – similar to period pains – which caused panicked moments for both of us. We consulted a number of blogs and forums, absorbed every bit of information we could find, hoping to find solace in knowledge. A lot of the blogs and forums said post-implantation pain was totally normal and that it could be the embryo burrowing its way into the lining of the uterus, creating a more permanent home for itself. We took this to be a good sign and tried to keep ourselves distracted with our day-to-day lives.

Twelve days after the embryo implantation date – the day we’d been told to go for the blood test – happened to be my mom’s birthday. Wouldn’t that be an awesome birthday present for my mom?! I had a series of meetings in the morning, which meant I’d only be able to go for the test at lunchtime. Knowing we’d likely to die of anticipation if we had to wait until the afternoon to find out, Becs had bought a stock-standard pee-test for the morning before we left for work.

As you would on the day you’re due to leave for holiday, I woke up early, thanks to the excitement the day promised, and could barely contain myself. At about 05:30, I decided I couldn’t wait anymore and Becs woke up to the sound of me scratching in the medicine cupboard for the pee-test. She immediately knew what I was up to and eagerly perched herself on the edge of the bed to wait for the results.

In case you were wondering, peeing on a 1cm wide piece of plastic in near-dark with half-open eyes is no mean feat, but I managed. I placed the stick on a piece of toilet paper on the bathroom counter, washed my hands and went to wait the instructed 5 minutes. Let me tell you, that was the longest 5 minutes of my life!

Becs and I read and re-read the instructions and eventually, unable to contain ourselves, went back to the bathroom to check the results. Negative. What? My world crashed down around me. We consulted the instructions again to make sure we’d read the results correctly. How could it be? We’d been so sure this was it. We were totally convinced this was our time to get it right, so how could the test be negative? But there is was, as clear as day, only one little red line. We were devastated. We crawled back into bed, curled into one another and cried in each other’s arms until the alarm went off.

The rest of the day passed in a blur, the tears never far from my eyes. I sat through my meetings, adding little-to-no value, barely managing to keep it together. But, the doctor still needed a blood test to confirm the results – after all, she hadn’t seen the pee-stick. So at lunch time I got into my car and drove to the hospital.

I walked into the hospital, across the reception and down the stairs to the pathology labs in a total daze. I walked in, half greeted the sister and handed her my form. She called me through almost immediately. Sensing my apathy towards the process (and possibly seeing my puffy red eyes), she didn’t make the usual friendly banter with me. Having filled the vials, I thanked her and walked out, up the stairs, across the reception and out to my car. I don’t even remember the drive back to the office, I was on some other planet.

About two hours later, my phone rang. It was the receptionist from the doctor’s office to give me the results. Worried I’d burst into tears again; I went into a private meeting room to take the call. Dejectedly, I answered, “Hello?”

“Barbara, it’s Muneerah from Dr Patel’s office. Your results have come back and it’s positive. The reading should be more than seven and yours is 103, so it’s definitely a positive.” It took a while for her words to wash over me, to sink through the blur of my heart-broken psyche and into my consciousness. When they eventually did, I sat straight up.

“Pardon Muneerah, could you please repeat that?” I asked, barely willing to believe my ears.

“It’s positive – congratulations! Now you need to go for another test in 48-72 hours to check the levels have doubled, but it’s definitely a positive.”

I thanked her emphatically and immediately dialled Becs’s number. She answered in much the same way I had answered Muneerah’s call – half-heartedly and with a tone of abject dejection. I asked her how her day had been. “Terrible,” she replied. When I asked her if I could make it better, she hardly perked up, the possibilities unlikely to have even crossed her mind. “Sure,” she said, “you can try.”

“Muneerah just called, the blood tests results are positive – we’re pregnant!” She was silent for a second before almost screaming down the phone, “I knew it! I knew that stupid pee-test was wrong!”

The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur of who-knows-what. We were pregnant, nothing else mattered to either of us! That night we were going to be able to give my mom the best birthday present ever!

How many did you say?

After a series of scans to make sure everything was “just so”, we scheduled the embryo implantation day, which happened to be over a weekend (guess that’s why we pay these doctors the big bucks, hey!). On Sunday, April 10th, we arrived at the clinic ready to welcome, what we hoped would be, the newest addition to our family.

Our doctor was (as most doctors are) notoriously late for everything and, true to form, she arrived late for the implant appointment. But to be fair, we did drag her and her staff away from home on a Sunday, so we couldn’t really be upset with her, and it’s not like we had anything else planned for the day. When she arrived, we followed her into the procedure room, where she briefed us on the process.

Her assistant would hold the ultrasound wand on my tummy, allowing the doctor to see where the implanting needle and tube were, to make sure she implanted the embryo in the right place. Once everything was in place, she’d tap on the little window in the wall, and the umpa lumpa behind the one-way glass would open a hatch and pass our embryos through. She would then implant the little guys and we should look out for a “flash of light” on the ultrasound screen, which would signal they were in. Awesome sauce. We were ready.

“Just one other thing…” she began tentatively, “we froze the four embryos that successfully fertilized last month and, when we thawed them, one didn’t survive the process.” OK, I thought, not a train smash, we’ve still got three, right? Right. The embryos had been thawed two days previously to enable them to continue to develop into 5-day embryos, or blastocysts, which statistically have a better chance of implanting. She continued explaining, “One of the embryos has developed perfectly and is exactly on track, the second one is a bit sluggish, but not far behind. But the last one is a little further behind and won’t survive being refrozen. So, either we implant all three, or we lose the last one.” Becs and I looked at each other with worried faces. Ummmmm…

We asked for the room and started discussing the pros and cons of implanting three embryos.

Pros:

  • If we don’t implant the third one, what if that’s the one and we effectively chuck it down the drain?

Cons:

  • THREE BABIES!

“Let’s play rock, paper, scissors?” I said. Cool. “I’ll be three, you be two.” I said to Becs, assuming the position, with my clenched fist behind my head. We played, best of three rounds. I won. Almost simultaneously we said, “No ways, only two, three is just madness.”

We called the doctor back in, told her our decision and the rest of the implantation went off without a hitch. We watched our little flash of light on the screen as we cried like little girls, clutching each other’s hands. I lay there for about 20 minutes after the procedure before I dared to move. We spoke about our miracle as if it was a sure thing – we knew, this was going to work, no doubt in our minds.

We headed home and I spent the rest of the afternoon lounging in my hammock while Becs gardened around me. The next day was business as usual, we both went off to work and carried on our days as if nothing extraordinary had happened in the previous 24 hours. When people at work asked how our weekend had been, we nonchalantly responded, “chilled, thanks. Yours?” All that was left was the waiting game…

The back-up plan

The two weeks that followed that eventful day passed by in something of a blur. Our doctor had called to say it wasn’t necessary to continue the various medicinal protocols they had put me on immediately after the egg harvest. Without question, we accepted her advice and I stopped all meds – not really thinking about the maybe-fertilised eggs that were now floating around in my uterus.

The days stretched on and soon it was the magical window 12-14 days post-insemination window – time for the dreaded test. During my lunch break, I printed off the form the doctor had provided me with and dashed off to the hospital for the blood test.

Feeling like an old hand at this, I quickly passed through reception and went down the stairs to the pathology labs. For whatever reason, although we knew this attempt had as much chance as any of the others of success, we weren’t putting too much stock in it. We were so much more comfortable with a potential negative than before. Maybe it was because we knew, deep down, this wasn’t Plan A – it was the back-up plan – so it didn’t really matter too much if it didn’t come off.

Coming out of my reverie as the nurse called my name, I handed her the form and followed her into the little cubicle, already rolling my sleeve up and beginning to tighten my fist. A few minutes later I was done, taking the stairs two-at-a-time and heading out the automatic doors at the hospital’s reception back to the office.

A few hours later I received the call that a huge part of me had been expecting since the 10th of February – the results had come back negative, I wasn’t pregnant. Our doctor said I should wait until I started my period and then call and make an appointment for a scan so we could plan the next steps in the process. I thanked her, hung up and called Becs to let her know.

We weren’t heart-broken, in fact we were hardly affected at all. It was as if we’d been expecting this all along. When my period started a few days later, I called our doctor as instructed and made an appointment for a follow up appointment and scan.

At the appointment, she outlined the medicinal protocol I’d be going onto in the next few days and gave me the relevant prescriptions. Pills to thicken the lining of my uterus, injections to help with that, more injections to stop my body producing an egg, other pills to tell my body it had produced an egg when in actual fact it hadn’t… She went on to explain that, of the 11 egg sacks they’d harvested, they had managed to take four embryos to day-3 maturity before freezing them for future use.

Over the next two weeks I followed the protocol of daily injections and tablets and, when the lining of my uterus was deemed to be a suitable thickness to welcome an embryo, we scheduled Plan A – the embryo implantation.

IVF: the start of the process

In January, after three failed attempts at IUI, we had a consultation with our doctor where we told her we wanted to step things up and move on to IVF. We discussed how the processes differed and agreed I would start the meds in my next cycle. For the next few weeks I injected myself, took pills and injected myself a bit more. All in preparation for the big egg harvest.

The day before the harvest – more as a matter of course, than thinking anything could possibly go wrong ­­– I emailed the cryobank to ensure our chosen donor’s swimmers were ready. But, I received a response saying there were no more of his samples left. Crap. Now what? I called my wife and explained the situation, Whatsapped her a picture of the donor list with the 2 remaining shortlist candidates. They were virtually indistinguishable – both had blonde hair, both around the same height and weight, both had similar academic backgrounds – the only difference was their eye colour. One had blue eyes, one had green. That decided it. I have blue eyes, so does my wife. Let’s go with that. And so we made the quickest decision we’d made throughout the process. It would turn out to be one of the most important decisions we’d ever made.

On 10 February, I went into the clinic to have my eggs harvested (sounds very “farm life” doesn’t it). After the procedure our doctor came to tell me they’d harvested 11 egg sacks, but some of the sacks had been empty, which meant it was possible some eggs had already released into my system. She said they had an extra sample of swimmers and explained that, given the possibility some eggs were left inside me, she suggested we try one last (unscheduled) IUI attempt. Without much consideration, we surged ahead.

Because I was in the theatre ward and not in the normal procedure rooms, she didn’t have her usual equipment. So she borrowed a head lamp from one of the orthodontists who share the ward, gathered a tray of instruments and closed the curtain around my bed in the recovery ward. Looking more like a coal miner than a gynaecologist, she tucked herself down between my spread knees and began the procedure. As she’d done so many times before, she handed me the vial, instructing me to keep it warm until she was ready. I nervously clutched the vial in both hands, knowing the discomfort that was coming next.

When she was ready, I handed her the vial, which she took in one hand turned to face and said, “Now boys, you’re going into the arena – time to perform!” I suppressed a giggle and tried to keep myself relaxed as she finished up.

Fifteen minutes later, we were on our way home with (what we hoped would be) as close to an accidental pregnancy as we were ever going to get. We still had the obligatory two week wait before we could do the test, but we were happy in the knowledge that we had a back-up plan if this didn’t work – well, we had a primary plan we could go back to if this didn’t work.

The move to IVF

When we set out on this journey, our doctor suggested we commit to three attempts at artificial insemination – or as the pros call it “IUI”. After the first failed attempt, I was tempted to pull the plug immediately and make the move to IVF. The feeling when that test comes back negative can only truly be understood by someone who has walked this road. The disappointment is palpable – it’s unlike anything you’ve experienced before. It’s harder than failing an exam, worse than tanking your driver’s license. The disappointment fills you up, it’s like a weight in your soul. It compresses your lungs and pushes all the air out the room. Your tears are hot – they sting and burn the backs of your eyes and your heart feels like it is literally splitting in two. Those two little words – “It’s negative” – have the power to bring you to your knees, to push you down so you feel you might never be able to get up again.

The first time our doctor called to give me the results I was completely shattered. We’d been so convinced! I’d been sure I’d felt… something happening in there. I was adamant I’d felt life. And who knows, maybe I did. Maybe for some brief moment I was pregnant, but the timing was wrong and the universe decided it was not our day. Either way, we’d been so sure and when the results came back negative, we were completely and utterly devastated and totally unconvinced that I’d be able to go through that disappointment again. I felt like I’d completely let the team down. Like it was somehow my fault it hadn’t worked, like there was something I could’ve – should’ve – done differently to give us a better chance. Of course there was nothing I’d done – or not done – to affect the outcome, it just wasn’t our time. Some time later I learned a friend had fallen pregnant at roughly that time and I remember thinking to myself, “that’s why…” It gave me a sense of comfort to believe that our little miracle hadn’t just disappeared, it just simply hadn’t been our miracle.

Whether it was self-preservation or that it really was different, I’ll never know, but the second time we tried I was nowhere near as convinced that we’d have any kind of success. When the doctor called me to say it had come back negative, I was prepared – expecting it even. It didn’t affect me nearly as much as the first time. By the time the third negative came back I was an experienced hand. I took the news in my stride, thanked the doctor for her time, wished her well over the festive period and committed to enjoying our December holiday. We’d look at it again in the new year and when we did, we’d try IVF.

Anonymous, but not entirely

After we’d selected our donor of choice, we moved forward with the process of artificial insemination. The process itself has the future oven mommy (in this case me), taking a variety of hormone supplements to ensure the production of a good healthy egg or two. Once the doctor is satisfied that you’ve got enough eggs in the slow cooker, you have an injection into your tummy, which triggers the release of said eggs down the tubes an into the uterus. The next day, and the one following that, they implant the swimmers and you hope for the best.

And then, you wait. The most agonizing two-week wait of your life. Then you have a blood test, the results of which either makes you jump and shout for joy or make you close your eyes and whisper, “maybe next time.”

During that first two-week waiting period we were chatting to friends, who casually mentioned they’d been chatting to other mutual acquaintances (one of whom I happened to date in a past life), who had mentioned they were also trying for a baby. The conversation had progressed to the point where they had shared the code assigned to their “anonymous” donor by the cryobank. Heart stopping shock – we’d used the same donor! Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are hundreds of couples out there right now considering using the donor we were eventually successful with, the difference is we don’t know them and we definitely didn’t date them.

Although sad the attempt was unsuccessful, I was – at least in part – relieved. Both couples agreed to choose a new donor and move on from there. We’ve had a good laugh about it subsequently, but at the time, the thought of our child and the child of one of my exes sharing biology was one to make us shudder.

The first (tentative) steps

Amateur Mommies Wedding

We got married in a beautiful country setting in March 2015 and, being a little further along in our lives than most of our friends when they got married, decided after four amazing months of married life to start thinking about a family. For most couples this is a fairly simple process: stop taking contraception, carry on as usual. Sure we over complicate things and put unnecessary pressures on ourselves, but in most cases, biologically speaking, it’s pretty simple. For a us — a same-sex couple — it’s significantly less so.

Before we could start thinking about baby names, or picking out colour schemes for the nursery, there was a whole process to go through. After a bunch of complicated blood tests and a variety of medical procedures, we got to the fun part. And no, it’s not quite the same “fun part” as it is for heterosexual couples.

Until now we had avoided looking in too much detail at potential donors incase we found ourselves in the situation where we wouldn’t need one, but now we knew we were in the clear, we started shopping around. And that’s literally what it felt like – shopping for a new pair of shoes. There are few medical things to be considered – like blood type compatibility – but other than that it’s very much like picking an item from a catalogue.

And so began the shallowest activity of our lives to date – evaluating men based on nothing more than a description of their hair and eye colour, height, weight, skin tone and heritage, and qualifications and hobbies. I think it must be how some people feel when  walking into a bar (except we probably had more info to base our judgements on). We narrowed it down quite quickly to those best suited to my blood type and then further whittled the list down based on physical traits. Within a matter of days, we had it down to a shortlist of three potential donors. We requested extended profiles, which included baby photos and more details about their parent’s physical traits, for our shortlist and so we began round two of the eliminations.

Now when I said this was the shallowest activity of our lives, I wasn’t joking – I mean we cut one donor based entirely on the fact that his mom was a ginger. We eliminated another one because his extended profile didn’t contain a baby photo, and so we were down to one.

We’d chosen our donor and now it was on to the next phase in our journey.