Fertility Story: Part 4 – The Third IUI

This is the fourth installment of six about our struggles with infertility. Read parts one, two, and three. This is our story, nothing more, but we share it to add another voice to this often unspoken struggle.

Our third round of IUI would be our last in Chicago.

We had always intended to depart from the city after I graduated, but the specifics of a move were unidentified for months. For the last year, my husband and I had debated possible relocations. He wanted to be somewhere warm. I wanted to be close to an airport. In the end, we settled on the Twin Cities. It wasn’t warm, but it was more affordable and offered us the ability to be right in the city, continuing our urban life, but out in the far stretched suburbs for a more relaxed feel. Being closer to family and free rent were also main draws. My brother and his wife live in a charming house in the suburbs, and they said we could stay in their basement while we plan the next few steps. Minnesota it was.

In the spring, though, my husband heard from a good friend about a teaching job in Wyoming. The same friend had tried to lure my husband out to the Cowboy state a year prior with a similar job. My husband applied but did not get an interview. This job seemed more promising, though, and my husband wanted to see where it led. Now, Wyoming was in the mix.

The last few years have been hard on my husband professionally, and we thought things were starting to turn in 2020 when he was offered a new job in a different field. However, a month after his hire, the pandemic started. He was furloughed a month later and then laid off. He took a retail job while applying to positions in other cities, but rarely did he hear back. At one point, it looked like his former company was going to bring him aboard in their Minneapolis location, but after weeks of interviews and stalling, they changed their mind.

I wanted to move to Minnesota. I wanted to live with my nieces and buy a kayak. If we moved to Minnesota, I figured I could find a job fairly quickly. I had even been in contact with several therapists and had an information meeting with someone on the Minnesota licensing board. His job path was less known, and the more he learned about this job in Wyoming, the more he was interested. It had been such a long few years for us, but specifically for him, and I owed it to him to wait on moving until he knew what was going to happen with the job in Wyoming. 

However, the uncertainty of our next steps was making me unravel. Many of my classmates had secured jobs before graduation (one of my professors noted that this is not normal and likely due to the current high need for quality therapists), and in anxiety-riddled impulse, I reached out to the owner of a private practice in a Twin Cities’ suburb. We chatted for an hour, and a few days later, she offered me the job. I turned it down for two specific reasons: 1) it did not come with health insurance, and if we were going to continue on our fertility journey, we needed employer-provided, affordable health insurance; and 2) taking that job would derail my husband’s own ambitions, and I couldn’t do that.

From there, I refrained from applying for jobs while we waited to see what happened with the job in Wyoming. The bonus was that it gave us time to see how many rounds of fertility treatment we could squeeze in at our current clinic.

By the time the second IUI had failed and we were about to start the third cycle, we knew that my husband was a finalist for the job in Wyoming and was planning to fly out for a second interview. We knew what day he would know if he got the job, which allowed us to set a leave date, still unsure what state we would be going to.

One drawback to leaving Illinois was its generous laws regarding fertility insurance. Each state has different laws regarding what they cover and what they do not. Some states, like Illinois, mandate insurance companies to cover fertility treatments. Others, like Minnesota and Wyoming, do not, forcing patients to pay out of pocket if their plan doesn’t cover it. Even in these mandates, insurance often doesn’t cover medications related to fertility treatment, which are often costly. Also, most insurance companies will not cover visits to a fertility clinic unless you have been trying for a certain amount of time, depending on your age. To begin treatments, insurance companies also want to see a diagnosis of infertility. Because that diagnosis is based on heteronormative standards, same sex couples and single women often can’t get the diagnosis and therefore will not be covered by insurance. Insurance can also dictate how many rounds you can do by what they will cover, and some plans require so many rounds of IUI before a couple can move to IVF. IVF also is more complicated with insurance. Of the 19 states that have passed laws regarding fertility coverage, just 13 of them include IVF.

Our plan in IL, with the infertility diagnosis, offered us unlimited IUIs and up to four egg retrievals, if we decided to go to IVF. The state laws also dictate that IVF would be covered if we were unable able to conceive through other, less costly, methods. 

We wouldn’t have the time to do IVF, but under IL laws and because we had already met our deductible, we wanted to try one more round of IUI before leaving the state.

Once my period arrived, the doctor started me on a new medication to stimulate my ovaries— Letrozole. Anytime the doctor made adjustments to my treatment plan, it had to be sent to and approved by the finance department. Basically, they make sure it’s covered by insurance and that I understand and commit to any costs associated with treatment before they move forward. Then, I had to sign a waiver indicating that I understand the associated risks of the medication. Letrozole is actually used to treat breast cancer, but studies have shown it can also help with stimulating ovaries. This seemed a bit weird to me, but with all things fertility, I shrugged my shoulders and signed the papers trusting that the doctor knew what he was doing.

The cycle was the same. Two pills a day for five days. Initially, we were slightly worried about the timing of the cycle with my husband’s trip for his interview. I did not want my follicles to be ripe and ready to go while he was out of town. However, I had a follow-up appointment three days after the end of the medication on the day he was supposed to be flying home. I figured it would still be a couple of days from there anyway, and we would be in the clear.

A good friend of ours works at an airline and offered my husband use of a buddy pass to get to his interview. It worked like a dream for the flight from Chicago to Denver, but there was an issue with the amount of fuel at the regional airport and flights between Denver and Wyoming were condensed that day. This meant that each flight was full, and they couldn’t accept standby passengers that day. My husband’s next best option was to drive the four hours to Wyoming. As he was rushing through the Denver airport, I got on the computer and booked him a rental car (and there were not many to be had). He picked up the car and made it to Wyoming with enough time to prepare for his interview the next day.

Having the rental car, though, changed his return plans. He would need to drive back to Denver and return the car instead of flying out of Wyoming. Our friend changed his return flight to Denver-Chicago. After his day-long interview, my husband drove three and half hours to Longmont, Colorado. We have good friends there who graciously let my husband crash in their basement for the night so that he could get to the airport early the next day to return to the car. (Seriously, all of the love from our friends to pull off this trip for my husband warmed my heart for weeks.)

My husband’s flight back to Chicago was scheduled for noon, but it was already booked. He would have to wait for a later flight. However, storms were scheduled to arrive in Denver later in the afternoon, so my husband was hoping a seat would open sooner.

That same morning, a Friday, I had my follow-up appointment. The clinic was unusually quiet. An ultrasound tech that I had not had before called me back to her room.

“Have you had an ultrasound before?” she asked.

“Many,” I laughed.

“Great, you can probably do this by yourself at this point. You don’t need me anymore.”

She inserted the probe and began examining my left side first. She found two big black blobs, measuring at 18 and 20 mm. Then on my right, one at 23 mm. It was the first time I had had more than one enlarged follicle.

I knew the drill. I expected a call from my nurse later in the day, around 3-4 p.m., saying that I needed to trigger that night and then come in two days later for the IUI. I called my husband and told him as much. “You just need to be here by Sunday.”

I had to work the rest of the day, and since there was about an hour before my shift began, I had planned to go to the Starbucks across the street and read until it was time for me to go to the store. I was making my way to that neighborhood, taking residential streets, when I got a call from the fertility clinic. This was strange. I had just left there less than 20 minutes ago. I wondered if I forgot something.

The nurse said that my follicles were so primed and ready to go that the doctor wanted me to trigger that moment. I was a 30-minute drive from home, where my trigger shot was nestled in my fridge, but I told her I would take it as soon as I could. “Then, the doctor wants you to come in tomorrow morning for the IUI.”

Crap. My husband was currently three states away without a dedicated flight home. I told her this and said that we may need to use some of his frozen specimen. After our first failed IUI, the doctor recommended that we freeze some of his specimen so that if the specimen he produced on the day of the procedure had low numbers, they could use the frozen sample to offset it. The nurse said she would tell the lab to have it ready to unfreeze, and we both agreed to cross our fingers that my husband could make it home on time.

I called him right away, and said, “We are doing this tomorrow. You have to come home.”

Then, I frantically drove back to my apartment, took the shot, and then back down to Lakeview for work. My husband, in Denver, had gotten through security and was going from airline to airline looking for an open seat on any flight to Chicago. At work, I told my coworkers about this lunacy, and one recommended he drive. “Well, driving from Denver to Chicago would take 18 hours and I need him here in 21.” We all laughed saying this felt like a rom-com, somewhat similar to Jonathan Taylor Thomas’ “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” A few hours later, my husband texted me and said that a Southwest flight had been delayed, and because of that, there was a single open seat on a flight from Denver to Chicago. He bought it and now had a way home.

The next morning, we went to the clinic. It was the first time we both had gone in at the same time. The clinic was starting to relax its precautions (it would ramp them back up several weeks later as the Delta variant raged through the country) and allowed partners to come in for procedures as long as they could show proof of vaccination. Additionally, it was also the first time my husband could produce his sample on site. They still preferred that men bring them in, but you can request to do it there. Knowing my husband’s hectic travel schedule, I figured this would be easier for him, plus it would give us a fresher specimen. This was our last shot, and I was willing to do whatever we could to make this one stick.

After he returned to the waiting room from his part, we waited. I figured it would only be 20-30 minutes, but when the wait grew to 45 minutes, I started to panic. It was that same distorted panic I had experienced before in this same waiting room. My bladder was uncomfortably full, and I was convinced that the nurse didn’t like us.  

Eventually, we were called. I popped up on to the exam table while my husband sat in the chair next to me. Again, this was the first time he got to be with me while having an IUI, which I hoped would make it extra lucky.

To soften the nurse, I made a joke about how the hardest part of the procedure is the full bladder. She then explained why they ask for the full bladder as it makes getting into the cervix easier. I could feel her pushing things in and out of me as she talked, not pausing the slightest. I started to cramp during mid-explanation and grabbed my husband’s hand. In a minute or two, she was done.

She propped my hips up, turned on the timer, and left us to wait the 10 minutes. I was thankful to have my husband there to distract me during the wait. The nurse was gone not even a minute when my husband’s phone rang. It was his friend in Wyoming. He asked if the school had called him yet, and he said no. His friend said to act surprise when they do, but it was unanimous decision. He got the job.

Fertility Story: Part 3 – The Second IUI

This is the third installment of six about our struggles with infertility. Read parts one and two. This is our story, nothing more, but we share it to add another voice to this often unspoken struggle.

They say athletes should have short-term memories. To continue after a setback, you must forget the failure. You can learn from it, but do not let it taint the path forward. Marathon runners are experts at this, especially after a particularly painful race. They train for months, but then race day doesn’t go accordingly to plan. They shuffle and scoot forward, in physical and mental anguish, for hours. They finish tired and defeated, swearing that they will never do this again. The next day, though, they are browsing races and planning their next marathon. (As a marathoner, I have lived out that exact scenario.)

This selective amnesia also exists in the fertility world and accurately explained my transition from the failure of the first cycle to the hope of the second.

My husband and I went to that party while I tried to keep it together, draining beer after beer, and then I broke down when I got home into shaking sobs. I didn’t sleep much that night, and I cried on my way to work the next day when I saw women pushing strollers on the sidewalk. It felt so cruel for all of my hopes and big dreams to be ripped away. For two weeks, I had been thinking about that Monday pregnancy test and how I would pass the time until the nurse called with the results. If positive, I had planned to go out and get a sweet treat to surprise my husband. I cried and cried for having just that piece of my dream ripped away.

However, instead, when Monday came, I was frantically calling the clinic, hoping to speak to a nurse before my appointment so I could change it from just bloodwork to a baseline ultrasound and bloodwork. I wanted to move right into the next cycle. The nurse agreed, and then asked if we would continue with an unmedicated cycle. While that was the original plan, things were changing. My husband and I were planning to leave the city in the next month or two (timeline and location still TBD), and we wanted to put more effort behind this cycle. She suggested that we meet with our doctor to revise our plan. We met with him Tuesday, virtually, and after explaining our situation, he agreed that we should try a medication that would stimulate more follicles for ovulation, releasing more eggs, and increasing our chances of conceiving. This could also increase the probability of twins, which was a risk we were willing to take.

Suddenly, we had hope again. It was unlikely that the first cycle would work, anyway. It was a practice round. We just needed a practice round. 

I started with five days of Clomid, dosages twice a day, to stimulate my follicles. I also started on another medication that seemed to be for women in menopause. My doctor never explained why I was on it, but I also didn’t question it and took that twice a day as well. Dr. Google says that a patient will be ready for ovulation about five to 10 days after finishing the medication. Three days after I stopped the Clomid, I had a monitoring appointment. At this point, I’ve had all of the ultrasound techs at the clinic, and yes, I do have a favorite. She is in her 50s and has an accent that I can’t place but assume belongs somewhere in Eastern Europe. Part of the reason she is my favorite is that she has a bathroom attached to her room, so I can empty my bladder, change, and then hop on to the table. On this day, I was randomly assigned my favorite tech and she led me into her spacious room. With the probe inside, she started looking for enlarged follicles, with the ultrasound monitor pointed towards me so I could look with her. On the left side, we saw a few measuring at 10 to 12mm. Those are decent, but I now know that I would only be ready for ovulation once they are greater than 18. We moved to the right side, and a big black blob appeared. We both gasped. The tech recorded it at 21mm. “That’s your baby,” she said.

My fertility clinic typically calls between 2:30 and 4 p.m. to discuss that day’s appointment. I had to go to at my retail jo work, but I kept my phone with me on the sales floor, waiting for that call. I had assumed we would be doing another round of IUI over the weekend or that I would need to come in again the next day, but I wasn’t entirely sure. At 4:00 p.m., I still hadn’t received a call from the clinic. I was worried and didn’t want to wait another day, so I went to the patient portal to send my nurses a message and saw an unread waiting for me. Don’t worry, it said. We haven’t forgotten about you. We will be calling soon.

Finally, at 4:30, the nurse called. It was time. She instructed me to take my trigger shot that evening and then schedule the IUI for Saturday morning. This round seemed to move so much quicker than the other, which it did. In the first cycle, we waited for my body to be ready to ovulate. This time, though, the medications dictated the cycle.

That night, I pulled the trigger shot out of the fridge. I had bought it for our first cycle (at $200 a pop) but did not use it. Luckily, it was there waiting for me. Like most people, I had never given myself a shot before, however, poking yourself with needles is just another part of the fertility world. I watched the demo video that my doctor sent a couple of times, and then followed the instructions, my hands shaking with nerves. My husband wasn’t home, but he isn’t good with needles and would have been useless. I cleaned the insertion area. Tapped the air bubbles out of the test tube. Grabbed a piece of flesh from my abdomen. Inserted the needle at a 45-degree angle. Pushed the clear liquid into my body.

Another prescription of the IUI process is sex. With instructions of what medications to take and when, the doctor also indicates what days we should, as the fertility forums call it, “baby dance.” It seems a bit silly, but it is actually very stressful and removes the intimacy and romance. We felt pressured to do this now, and that if we fail, it will be on us. Sometimes my husband doesn’t get home from work until 10:30 or 11, and by that time, we are both tired and not in the mood. Or, we are stressed about other things. With fertility, sex becomes forced and a means to an end, and for most couples, this is a damning part of their relationship. Honestly, scheduled sex is not that much fun, and it’s hard not to get in your head. There are times when we can follow the doctor’s recommendations, other times it just isn’t going to happen. That’s a really sucky feeling.

This second round of IUI came on a weekend when family had decided to visit us. While everyone was still sleeping Saturday morning, my husband and I snuck off to the clinic. I fell asleep in the car while I waited for him. When it was my turn, I went into the clinic expecting to be called within a few minutes, like last time. However, 10, 15 minutes passed, and I was getting anxious. Some of the other waiting patients started to annoy me, including one woman who was very upset that her nurse did not tell her that she needed a full bladder. I watched other women get called before me, and I couldn’t help but think I was being denied something. It had been nearly three hours since my husband produced his specimen, which is when sperm outside the body start to die, and I panicked. Surely, it was stress and anxiety speaking, but each minute passed felt like an opportunity slipping through my fingers.

Eventually, it was my turn.

The procedure was similar to the first time. I verified mine and my husband’s info. A probe and catheter were inserted. It was all over within a few minutes, and then I waited 10 minutes. The worst part of all of this is the full bladder, which is required because it makes the cervix easier to access. However, I am worried about losing my restraint as I sit there for those 10 minutes (and honestly, in the waiting room beforehand) and forget about cramping from an irritated uterus.

After, we went sightseeing with our visitors. I was in pain much of the day, and often had to take breaks and sit, which put a slight damper on the day. Also, I couldn’t enjoy cocktails with my brother and sister-in-law and ended up insisting they drink all the booze in my house, hoping that I wouldn’t be able to anyway. By the next day, I still had slight cramping but was better.

In addition to booze, I gave up running during this cycle. My doctor confirmed that I shouldn’t get my heartrate above 130 and that the bouncing up and down motion of running is not good for implantation. I’ve been a runner most of my life and very consistent with my mileage in the last few years. It was hard to take a step back, specifically after I had already reduced my running due to finishing my master’s degree and studying for my licensure exams. Had I not been desperately trying to get pregnant, I would have probably been training for a fall marathon, excited like all runners to have in-person races back. Now, I was not running at all. Thankfully, a few of my running friends invited me out on walks, giving me an excuse to be outside and social. Still, I missed running, and it was now another item on the list of things I’ve had to sacrifice for fertility treatments.

During this two week wait, I decided to stay off the fertility forums. They gave me false hope and no amount of Googling could predict if I was pregnant or not. I did fairly good with this refrain up until the final days. As I got to 10, 11, and 12 DPIUI (days past IUI), I wanted to know what symptoms to look for and tried to gleam any information that could indicated pregnancy without taking a test.

Around 10 DPIUI, I thought I could feel my period coming. I was crampy in a different way and my breasts were sore, as they usually are before my period. My menstrual cycle was to begin in three days, and I cried that night, thinking it was all over.

I was expecting spotting in the morning, but there was none. Same with the next day and the day after. Maybe it wasn’t my period after all. Maybe I was really pregnant.

When the day of my expected period came and went, my hopes started to rise. It’s been 13 days. No period. I was tired and crampy at times but mostly fine. All things were pointed in my favor. There was one small shred of doubt, though. The progestogen that I take is known to delay periods, and it can be inconsistent at times. Meaning, because it did not delay my period last month, doesn’t mean that it would prevent it this month.

There was only one way to know for sure: take a pregnancy test.

My bloodwork, or beta test, wasn’t until Monday, but my husband and I agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to take a pregnancy test two days before. We were visiting family in another state, and I had packed one. Up until that point, I had only ever used “cheapie” tests purchased on the internet, and this was a Clear Blue test, which could predict more accurate results. I had bought this many months ago (not yet expired), and I wanted to save it for when I knew I could get a positive. This seemed like that day.

I woke up before anyone else, hoping to get that early morning urine when the HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) levels are the highest. I pulled out the stick and went into the bathroom. After the test was activated, I stared at it. Waiting, finally, for two lines to show up. I kept my eyes fixed on it. Several minutes passed, and still only one line. Negative.

The desolate white that is next to the control line on a pregnancy test is one of the most heartbreaking colors.

I didn’t want most of my family to know that I had taken the test. I had gone out to the living room to hang out with my early-rising nephew who was busy snacking on toast and playing with cars. Other family members woke up and joined us. When my husband came into the room, I shook my head and held back tears.

Infertility brings out an irrational side, such as going back to the test hours later, hoping it had magically changed. Or, Googling stories of women who received negative tests at 14 DPIUI but then got a positive a day or two later through bloodwork. Or, researching to find out that First Response tests are actually more accurate than Clear Blue. Infertility drives you to attach on to hope, even when there is not much. But I found that hope, and I prayed that the negative test was an error, that my bloodwork would bring me different results.

When I went into for my appointment, I still did not have my period. I needed a miracle at this point, but a small piece of me knew that the miracle was a possibility. Unlikely but still. I went to the appointment, watched as they searched for my minuscule veins before deciding to go in my hand for bloodwork, and then tried to figure out how to spend the rest of my day. I did some grocery shopping and went on a walk with a friend. I was napping when the nurse called.

“You HCG was zero,” she said with a flat tone. “So, the test was negative.”

Before the phone call, I had received an email about an online fertility support group. There is a lot of ways for one to connect with others in the infertility world via social media. However, I couldn’t feel at home in those places. I followed infertility Instagram accounts and listened to other women’s stories, but I did not see myself in them. In sharing my own story a few months ago on social media, many people—from friends to former colleagues to acquaintances—had reached out about their own struggles. While their encouragement and support embraced me like a warm hug, I still felt like I was missing something. Someone had suggested a RESOLVE group, and I found one in Chicago that was conducting online meetings. I hadn’t been able to make the previous sessions, but on the Monday of that negative test, I received an email for tonight’s meeting. The timing was kismet.

The RESOLVE group was very similar to AA meetings. All members were invited, but not required, to share their progress and what had been going on with them. Each member had their own struggle, from several rounds of IVF to exploring surrogacy. I shared my story, how I had learned that day that my second IUI had failed. I explained our long journey and how if we do another IUI and it fails, I do not know what’s next. I expressed grief for missing running. I even told them that the first thought I had when I saw that negative was about how many people I know who have good jobs and are financially stable get pregnant on the first try while we are already financially limited and yet we are pouring more and more money into these treatments.

These strangers on a screen listened. They nodded their heads in acknowledgement. They understood. We were all at different points in the journey, but we held the same pain. They couldn’t tell me that everything would work out, and they could not point to babies as notes of perseverance. Yet, together, we quietly encouraged each other to keep going. It’s the only thing we could do.

I stopped the progesterone, and my period came a few days later. Then, I went to the clinic to prepare for our third round of IUI.

Fertility Story – Part 2: The First IUI

This is the second installment of six about our struggles with infertility. Read part one here. This is our story, nothing more, but we share it to add another voice to this often unspoken struggle.

Early into our relationship, before we were ready to try conceiving, I made a declaration. “If we can’t have a baby naturally, I don’t want to do a bunch of fertility medications or treatments. We’ll just accept our fate and consider other options.” My husband nodded in agreement, and we changed the subject.

That’s an easy statement for a naïve woman who doesn’t understand fertility to make.

You don’t plan for infertility, unless you have had some major health issues, such as cancer. You expect to get pregnant like others around you, easily and naturally. Most women are taught their entire lives to avoid pregnancy until the exact moment you are ready (aka, married), and then it should just happen.

Before my infertility diagnosis, I saw women undergoing fertility treatments as desperate and wasteful. Why would you spend all of that money and put that medicated stress on your body when there are other options? If that was me, I thought, I would either lean into adoption or simply embrace my childless life.

Then I was put in that spot. My attitude flipped, and I realized how catty, mean, and judge mental my previous opinions were. After two and half years of trying naturally, it was clear that my husband and I could not get pregnant on our own. We would need medical intervention. I simply couldn’t accept that becoming a mother was not my path, and I wasn’t ready to consider adoption. I wanted, and still want, to be pregnant, and so we would dive into the world of fertility treatments, completely disregarding what I had said previously.

IUI, or intrauterine insemination, was the first step. I was OK with IUI. It seemed less invasive, physically and financially, than IVF (in-vitro fertilization). During the IUI process, a man’s specimen is washed down to the strongest and most capable sperm. It is then inserted into the woman’s uterus, cutting down on distance and giving the sperm and egg a better shot at connecting. Our fertility doctor agreed that with a male factor infertility diagnosis IUI was a good first step.

Our first cycle was unmedicated, meaning we did not use any medication to stimulate the follicles. Rather, they developed and matured on their own. I went to several appointments within the span of a week to see how they were growing. The ultrasound tech often pointed the monitor toward me as she moved the probe around, showing me what she saw. We were looking for big black blobs, which were follicles that held my eggs. My doctor wanted at least one to measure around 18-20, and on my final appointment, one on my right side was clocking in at 20. It was time.

The nurse called with instructions (fun fact: this 15-minute conversation cost $150). I needed to track my ovulation with strips, and if I had not ovulated on my own by the next morning, I would need to give myself a trigger shot. Also, I needed a rapid COVID test. The fertility staff wouldn’t not administer the IUI unless I produced a negative COVID test. She gave me more instructions about what to do, and then we scheduled the IUI two days later, on Sunday morning.

All of this was exciting but also stressful. I was on my way to work at my part-time retail job when the nurse called, and there were several things we needed to do before businesses shut down for the weekend. I did not have a trigger shot, so my nurse sent a prescription to a specialty pharmacy. It took a few hours for them to receive the order and double check insurance (most fertility medications are not covered by insurance), and then I had to sign a waiver for it. By the time it was ready, I was already at work, so my husband had to take the train for 30 minutes to get the prescription and then haul it back home in packaging that included an icepack.

Then, I needed to take a rapid COVID test. The clinic had given me one, as part of their now standard procedure for patients undergoing treatments, but it had since expired. The nurse explained that I would need to present my negative results at my Sunday appointment before they would move forward. The test at the clinic was my first COVID test. During the pandemic, my husband and I were fairly safe, and we had not come in contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus. There was never a need for us to get one. I’ve been fully vaccinated since February, and so my fears around getting COVID had been low.

However, the day before the nurse called to say we were going forward with the IUI, I had learned that a high school kid that I sometimes work with recently tested positive. He tested after a football teammate announced his positive status. I had just worked with the kid the weekend before, prior to him testing positive. Even though I was vaccinated and showing no symptoms, there was a chance that I could have contracted COVID, therefor producing a positive result and further delaying our procedure.

There is a former Mini-Cooper dealership in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood that’s been transformed into a COVID clinic that offers tests and vaccines. It wasn’t far from my work, and they took late appointments, so I went after my shift. The nurse was skeptical that I even needed the test, as I was fully vaccinated and not showing symptoms, but I explained that I couldn’t go through with the fertility treatment unless I did a rapid test. She shoved the q-tip up my nose anyway. It was more than a bit ironic that I had avoided this this virus for more than a year, and to have my biggest scare right before fertility treatments seemed cruel (not to mention that my graduation was a week away, so if I was positive, I wouldn’t be able to attend the ceremony). I joked to my coworkers that if it was positive, I would quit, which was more of a threat, as if it was something they could control. I called my mom on the drive home as a distraction while waiting for the results. When I parked the car, I had a text that my results were in.

Negative.

Our IUI appointment was for 7 a.m. on Sunday morning. I didn’t sleep well the night before, wondering if we had completed the preparation instructions properly. My ovulation predictor test showed a clear positive, but I went back and forth if I should still give myself the trigger shot. I tried to call the clinic, but it was a Saturday, and they would charge me $50 for a non-emergency call. I Googled it as much as I could, but as per usual, the answers were inconclusive. The window to take the shot was only a few hours, so after rereading the nurse’s instruction, I decided against the trigger shot.

We expected the clinic to be dead, but it was not. There were several other cars parked outside, hazard lights on, dropping off and picking up. My husband needed to go in first and present his sample. Because of COVID, we couldn’t go in together, and I stayed in the car and read a card that a dear friend had sent me. I received it a few days prior but had saved it for a time when I knew I would need some support from a loving person. He wasn’t gone long, though, and said that I needed to wait 30 minutes and then go in. We got some coffee at a nearby Dunkin and then he dropped me off at the clinic.

I am used to long waits at the clinic, but as soon as I checked in, they called my name. A nurse took me back into a part of the clinic I had not been before and started to prepare me for the procedure. I showed her my negative COVID test, and she asked me to read and confirm my name and my husband’s name. Then, I laid back and she did the insemination. I clutched a small keychain with a pineapple and vial of “baby dust” that a dear friend had sent. There was mild pain but not bad. It was done within minutes.

My husband and I went to breakfast after, filling in gaps of time before either of us had to be at our retail jobs. When the waitress came around with coffee, I declined. My body wasn’t yet pregnant, but it could be soon so I must act pregnant.

The next week was my graduation, followed by a short trip to see family who we hadn’t seen in more than a year due to the pandemic. I figured these big events would be enough commotion for me to forget about the two-week wait and what was happening in my body, but it was not.

It’s easy to forget that not all women understand the ins and outs of conception the way couples with infertility do. For those desperate to get pregnant, the two-week wait (TWW) is a necessary angst. For other women, those who are surprised by their pregnancy, the TWW is an unfamiliar term. Once, I mentioned that I was currently in the TWW to a friend who had recently had a baby. She scrunched her face and shook her head in lack of understanding. She hadn’t had to wait like I did.

The two-week wait is the necessary 14 days between ovulation and the start of the next menstrual cycle. During this time, a sperm and egg meet to form an embryo that is then implanted into the uterus, causing enough of a spike in hormones for a positive embryo. Implantation often occurs at six to 10 days past ovulation and some women notice signs of cramping and spotting. Doctors often instruct patients not to test until those two weeks are up to avoid a false negative.

In previous cycles, I had notice that there was a shorter passage of time between when my body ovulated and my cycle began. This is often known as a luteal phase defect, meaning that the body is not producing enough progesterone which is needed for pregnancy. I initially explained this concern to my doctor, and he told me that in every cycle, including the non-medicated ones, that he would put me on a progesterone supplement. This seemed appropriate to me. I had heard a few stories online of women who had experienced luteal phase defect and were able to get pregnant with the introduction of progesterone. My doctor did not officially give me a diagnosis of luteal phase defect but did start me on a progesterone medication two days after my IUI.

The progesterone medication was a vaginal suppository that caused a mess and was uncomfortable to take at times. It also cost $300. But, it was necessary.

The other downside of the medication was that it caused bloating, soreness in the breasts, cramping, and nausea—all symptoms of pregnancy as well as an upcoming menstrual cycle. About a week after the IUI treatment, I was feeling pretty awful. I had tons of cramping and nausea. A nasty habit of the two-week wait is to constantly monitor symptoms and google them. In the second week, I spent hours researching symptoms on trying to conceive (TTC) and infertility message boards, all looking for women who had similar symptoms that lead to their BFP (big fat positive—the fertility world has its own lingo). One day I would be convinced I was pregnant, and the other not. Because the symptoms are so similar between pregnancy, period, and the medication, it was never clear what I was experiencing. The only true measurement was a pregnancy test.

When I scheduled my IUI, I also made an appointment for a pregnancy test via blood work two weeks and a day later. My nurse did not mention that I shouldn’t take a home pregnancy test, and at first, I resolved not to do so. However, on days 9, 10, and 11 past the IUI, my temptation increased. This is still quite an early time for a positive, but it is not unheard of. On day 11, I couldn’t hold my patience anymore and took a “cheapie,” which is a thin piece of paper that one is to dunk in urine. It’s less reliable than the pregnancy tests advertised on TV but, as the nickname indicates, cheaper. It was negative, but I wasn’t discouraged. It was still early, plus I had taken it later in the day when tests should be done in the morning for the most accurate results. Also, the test was old and expired. Although negative, my curiosity was met enough to wait for my bloodwork, and I knew I wasn’t out yet.

The weekend before my pregnancy test, I had two social engagements, which were again nice distractions. Both would involve alcohol, which would be a bummer to refrain from but necessary. The first was a meetup with my internship co-workers, most of whom I had known a year but never met in person due to virtual work. An hour before the get together at a colleague’s house, I noticed some spotting. It was light. Maybe it was related to implantation. It was late in the cycle for that but not unheard of. There was a chance it was my period, which was several days late, but the progesterone medication was known to delay menstruation even if I was not pregnant. To keep my anxiety in check, I went to the bathroom several times throughout the evening. The spotting was light, if at all. Each time there was nothing, my hope spiked that it was indeed implantation.

The next morning, the spotting was about the same and I noticed a bit on the progesterone applicator. I cried a bit thinking maybe it was the period, but then after a pep-talk with my husband, I was again hopeful for implantation. We prepared for our second party, and I bought non-alcoholic beer.

The party was a small celebration with friends to recognize my graduation. The city was slowly starting to open up, and we were resuming social activities. We had planned this as an outdoor gathering by the beach, which allowed us to safely socialize. However, it began raining while we were shopping for beverages and snacks. I panicked a bit, hoping I didn’t have to cancel my party, and thought about moving it back. Because of our overly anxious dog and small apartment, we couldn’t host this gathering. A good friend, with a bigger and nice condo, offered her place for a meeting location. Getting ready for the party, I felt hopeful. I was going to see some good friends to honor my three years of hard work, and there was still a chance I was pregnant.

Right before we walked out the door, I ducked into the bathroom for one “just in case” pee. There it was, red. Lots of red. Despite the medication, my period had persevered.

I was not pregnant. Our first IUI had failed.

Fertility Story – Part 1: The Diagnosis

A wintery night in Chicago.

This is the first installment of six about our struggles with infertility. This is our story, nothing more, but we share it to add another voice to this often unspoken struggle.

Part 1

As part of my wedding to-do list, I called my gynecologist and made an appointment to remove my IUD. My husband and I were entering into a marriage, and we wanted to get started on the next part: having a baby. When I told my primary care physician that I was hoping to be pregnant within the next few months, she instructed me to not go off birth control until I was ready. “It could happen very fast,” she said with her lightened European accent. We waited until after the wedding, in June of 2018, but not long. I had the device removed not even two weeks into our life as husband and wife.

We have been trying to have a baby since. I have attempted to write this story before, even hinting in other blog posts and offering a condensed version on social media, but often the emotion and heartbreak overwhelms me to abandon a half-completed Word Doc. I have talked about our fertility struggles to many friends and family, but I haven’t been able to put the whole story together, to look at it piece by piece. Yet, I keep feeling that writerly call to do so. I have to get this story out. Maybe it will help someone else, but hopefully it will help me.

This is our story as honest as I could write it. If you or someone you know struggles with infertility, you may recognize pieces of them in these words, but please know that this is my story alone. Infertility impacts about one in eight couples, and it stings in many ways. From infertility after one or two children to those who don’t have the resources to go beyond a diagnosis, and the fertility world is not just for married heterosexual couples but also women wanting a baby without a man and same-sex couples. It’s a cruel reality, one that comes with layers of heartbreaks and hefty bills, but I am writing this to claim this situation as my own.

Because it is.

When we started trying to conceive, I was on the precipice of a major life event: graduate school. I was planning to quite my salaried job with good medical benefits to enter into a three-year graduate program to become a therapist. I was nervous about the prospect of having children while in school and whether we could afford it on just my husband’s income. Also, I wondered if I should stay at that job and focus on becoming a mother, knowing I didn’t love the work, but the salary, benefits, and 9-5 life would be more ideal for motherhood than a graduate student. It even came up in a psychic reading I had as part of my bachelorette party with a few close friends, and the woman guaranteed me that going back to school would not disrupt my path to motherhood.

Also, there was my age. I was approaching 34 and would be 36 by the time I graduated. I was terrified that if we postponed pregnancy until after I graduated, time would steal my ability to get pregnant. I would never forgive myself if I let that window close.

So, despite my hesitations, we began trying to conceive.

Our trying in those first few months was unpressured, without specific strategy. We weren’t charting cycles or using ovulation strips, rather just doing the thing that we thought would bring us a baby. We had no reason to question that it wouldn’t happen for us, easily and naturally.

Then, in November, my husband lost his job. This was our safety net, the reason I could quit mine and go back to school. So much of our world came crashing in, including trying to have a baby. We no longer had health insurance or a steady income. Verbally, I said that we had to put pregnancy on hold because I thought that was the responsible thing, but it was not what I wanted. Even at 34, I felt like I couldn’t waste much time, but we were also not in a good financial or emotional state. This was a colossal blow to our marriage and our life together. We backed away from the baby idea for a bit, but I hoped the new year would bring another job and a pregnancy. 

We spent most of 2019 crossing our fingers that this month be the month. We were more precise with our efforts some cycle versus others, and I always kept close tabs on what day my period was supposed to start and stalked any potential pregnancy symptoms. My school did not offer health insurance, and the jobs my husband did get were without benefits. Family agreed to help us go through the marketplace to get insurance. It was unspeakably expensive, and not very good, but we knew we needed it.

We kept trying to have a baby because we both wanted one, but each month we didn’t get pregnant, I was met with conflicting emotions, devastated for another month gone but also relief. It seemed so reckless that two people without a steady income would try to bring a baby into this world. There was no guarantee that we could have supported a child, but that wasn’t enough of a reason to stop trying. We kept reassuring ourselves that people with less figure it out, and so could we. Yet, that brought only so much comfort.

Around me, though, pregnancy seemed to come easy to others. People getting pregnant on accident or on their first or second month of trying. Many of these were friends and family, who I was so happy for, but their good news was a symbol of what I couldn’t have. A pregnancy announcement could pull me out of a good mood and remind me how shitty my reality was. One particular month, I had been hopeful when my period was a day late, but then it came. I was sad but used to it by this point. Next month, I told myself. An hour later, I received an email from a former colleague, who had often declared she would never have kids, saying that she was pregnant. I cried so hard my eyes stung. I turned off my phone and buried myself in my bed for hours, and when I eventually restarted my phone, I had a text message with another pregnancy announcement.

We should have gone to the doctor at this point. We were over 30 and had been trying for more than a year, which is six months beyond the recommendation for a couple of our age. We did have health insurance, but it was limiting and hard to use. Also, I was afraid that if we did go and find out that something was wrong with us, we would not have the resources to treat it. Instead, we continued to try to get pregnant on our own and failed without having the knowledge of what was truly going on for us.

In early 2020, things started to look up. My husband got a job and new health insurance, and trying to having a baby, including seeking help from fertility specialist, became our top priority. He was at that job less than a month when the pandemic hit. He was furloughed after five weeks of employment, but he could keep his health insurance in the meantime. It didn’t matter, though, we couldn’t get an appointment due to stay-at-home orders. Eventually, he was laid off. We were back in the exact same position as we were nearly two years prior.

All this time, I was incredibly worried that something was wrong with me. What if my egg supply had already gone bad? What if I was suffering from PCOS or endometriosis? What if having a baby wasn’t something I could physically do?

We did get insurance, again, thanks to family, and I am going to go on a quick rant about American healthcare. It should not have been this hard or this expensive to have basic health provisions. For my husband and I, through the open marketplace, with a tax credit, our insurance was over $800. We had a slightly lower deductible than other less expensive plans, but the difference was not much. We still had to pay a lot out of pocket despite having this insurance. Our income was two part-time, minimum wage jobs. It’s absolutely insane that we have allowed our healthcare system to get this broken and continue to let Congress do absolutely nothing about it. Healthcare should not be tied to employment. It should not only be for those who can afford it. Nearly every person I know is one major health crisis away from completely wiping out their bank accounts. This is not how an advanced country should operate. We were incredibly lucky to have family that can help us, but many, many more are not. As a society, we have to do better for each other.

Anyway.

In the later part of 2020, we attempted to learn more about why we weren’t getting pregnant but ran into several roadblocks with our insurance. We had an HMO initially and had to switch providers several times to talk to someone about fertility. Eventually, I met with an OBGYN who diagnosed me with infertility and referred me to a fertility clinic. However, it took two months for the clinic to approve our referral because we had an HMO, despite me calling nearly every week. They were rude and uncooperative, and even lied to me about not having my paperwork when they did. This came at the end of 2020, during open enrollment, so we switched to a slightly more expensive PPO. In January 2021, we were finally able to get an appointment with a fertility clinic (definitely a different clinic than before).

Our first appointment was a virtual visit with the fertility specialist. He listened to our story and agreed that something was amiss. He explained the routine tests that we would need to take to identify the possible problems, and then we would look to solutions.

The first visit to the fertility clinic was bizarre. The clinic was nestled right next to the Chicago River and in an office building that was mostly quiet now due to many employees still working at home. I checked with the security guard who was doing COVID screening, walked past a waiting room, to another check in spot, and took a seat at the second waiting room. Several other women, dressed in parkas and snow boots, were sitting, spatially apart, and scrolling on their phones. I wondered what their stories were. Were they younger or older than me? Had they been going to the clinic for months? Were they closer to a baby then me? Together, we seemed sad and broken. Something was wrong with us that we couldn’t conceive naturally. I didn’t want to belong to this club of women, and yet, I assumed they had more resources and time, so I also felt like they deserved to be there more than me.

My first appointment was an ultrasound and blood work at the beginning of my cycle. Then a saline ultrasound, in which they shot water into my uterus to determine if any of the fallopian tubes were closed. The last appointment was blood work to confirm that I ovulated. During this appointment, I was also supposed to do a test to assess whether or not I had endometriosis. Before I started any of these diagnostics, I reached out to my insurance, and they confirmed that all procedures were covered. However, the nurse who called me to schedule this procedure said that this test was not covered and would cost us $700. If I only knew that this would not be the last time an unexpected cost of several hundred dollars would pop up and be barrier to learning the whole picture.

The first gynecologists I saw, when we had the HMO, said that she was pretty convinced I had endometriosis. Given my history of painful periods, the inability to get pregnant, and this consistent nausea that has plagued me for eight years, endometriosis was a likely diagnosis. She wanted to do a scope to determine that and then we would look into the fertility issues. However, she was associated with a hospital that was closing and the one she moved to was not currently covered by the medical group on my insurance. I switched medical groups and had to go to a different gyno, who directed me towards figuring out the fertility first. Our fertility doctor often includes this test, which is different than a scope, in his initial tests because endometriosis is very common but under diagnosed. I really wanted to know if I had this disease, because I think it could have help me understand so much. However, the medical bills were already piling up, and I knew that paying for this test would limit how much we could pay on treatment. It really, really sucks to have to make medical decisions based on their cost. This really should not be the case, but it is. So, after talking to my doctor, I decided not to have the test done. He said that if we wanted to pursue IVF in the future, I would need to do it, but for now, we were OK with holding off.

While I was doing these tests, my husband had to do a specimen sample. The first came back with a couple of low numbers so they order a second and then a third. Once all of our test results were back, we had another meeting with our doctor.

The good news came first. My egg supply was excellent for someone my age and there were no blockages in my fallopian tubes nor polyps in my uterus. My follicles also looked great. The nurse practitioner said that I have “a textbook uterus.” This was a major relief for me and eased my mind about any complications that could be caused by my age.

The bad news, though, was that two of my husband’s three numbers that they measure in sperm were down, which can impact fertility. The doctor’s recommendation was to start us on a unmedicated IUI cycle and then look at using medication to help release more eggs to increase our changes. If those treatments didn’t work, then we would look at IVF.

Our official diagnosis was infertility, male factor.

I had always suspected that IUI would be where we started, so I was fine with this news. It was also assuring to not only have answers but a plan. I had done a genetics test at my last appointment, so the doctor said we needed to wait for those results before we could start. I was in the middle of a cycle at that point, so we crossed our fingers that the test results would come before my next cycle.

My period was four days late, which lit my hope. Maybe we wouldn’t have to go through all this after all. It did come, though, and so I went to the clinic for baseline measurements a few days into my cycle. I started to notice that instead of easing up, my period was getting heavier. A nurse called with my results and said I needed to come back for more tests because my hcg levels were high. Without thinking, I asked her why they would be high, and she paused and stammered for a bit, “Well, it could be a possible positive pregnancy test.” This was on a Friday, and I spent the entire weekend in bed, with intense cramps and heavy, clotty bleeding. 

While we can’t be sure because we never had a positive pregnancy test, we believe this was an early-stage miscarriage. I didn’t feel like I could be upset about it because we never had any proof that I was pregnant and it was so early on, but my body went through something that weekend that it never had before. It felt so cruel that that was the closest we had ever been to a pregnancy, and yet we were hopeful that this meant that we could get pregnant. We would just need some help.

By Monday, my levels were back to normal, however, we finally received the results of my genetics test. I am a carrier for a rare, but deadly, kidney disease. Because of this, my husband would also need to be tested, and we couldn’t move forward until his tests were back. Meaning, we would be delayed in starting IUI at least another cycle.

I cried so hard that day. To make matters worse, my husband received a job rejection that was pretty devastating. Here I was, in the middle of trying to graduate and study for my licensure exams, and everything in my personal life was falling apart. It felt like another kick in the teeth after an incredibly difficult two and half years.

However, we had to keep going. I had to focus on school and my internship, and my husband did his genetics test. Luckily, it came back completely clear, and we were given the go ahead to start IUI. All we need now was for me to start my next cycle.

This one was two days late. It’s hard to resist the temptations to take a pregnancy test because, as the Internet says, at this point one can test. However, I have had so many negative tests in the last two years that I wondered if I will even believe a positive one. There is nothing so heartbreaking than the shade of white of a pregnancy test. You hope to find glimmers of pink or blue, but it’s just white. White. White. White.  So, I decided I would test on day three of my missed period, but when I woke up, it had arrived.

It was OK, though. This time we had a plan. I went to several monitoring appointments, including three in one week. My arms were bruised from all the needles drawing blood. Finally, on a Friday afternoon, I got the call from my nurse.

“Your follicles are ready,” she said. “We are ready to do the IUI.”

Goodbye, Chicago

Chicago was a curve ball.

In the winter of 2014, after returning home from my Peace Corps service in Lesotho, I took a non-profit job in Washington, D.C., and relocated to the nation’s capital. As a wander lusting youth, I had long hoped to end up on the East Coast, and there I was, in the transient city of people trying to go up. It was less glamorous than I had pictured. Half of my monthly salary went to rent, and outside of the few fellow former volunteers I knew, it was hard to make friends. I couldn’t tell if it would just take time to adjust, or this wasn’t the place for me.

Not long after I started my new job, I received an email inviting me to apply for a public affairs position with the Peace Corps regional recruitment office in Chicago. They had used the non-complete list (which all returned volunteers are eligible for up to a year beyond service) to find former volunteers who also happened to have journalism experience. It was a short list, but my name was on it. I applied for it and didn’t hear much for weeks. As I was struggling to find a home in D.C. and get my footing at work, Chicago was a daydream. The city was bigger and closer to home. Not only was the job more aligned with my interests, but I was struggling with the transition home after service, and being close to the Peace Corps community, was alluring.

In talking with a friend over coffee in D.C., she said, “I think you just need to go somewhere and settle down.” I had lived in D.C. for a few months, and I could already tell that this was not the city I wanted to put down an anchor.

The offer for the Peace Corps job came, and in June 2014, I landed in Chicago with just two suitcases. A taxi took me from Midway Airport to my new apartment on the northside. As we snaked our way through rush-hour traffic on Lake Shore Drive, I stared out to Lake Michigan. I live here now.

Chicago was to be the setting in which I redefined my life, after having left home and gone into the Peace Corps. I came here hoping to build the life I always knew I was capable of. 

As a South Dakota native who grew up in a town of 13,000, it had long been my dream to live in a bustling city, and the urban life suited me. I spent my first year in Chicago mainly overwhelmed by the never-ending list of events and things to do. I started volunteering, went to a weekly meditation group, joined a book club, and said yes to any social invitations. I spent the weekends reading the Chicago Tribune and going to the beach. I went for runs along the Lake Shore Path. After work, I walked through downtown, taking in the big buildings, fast-moving crowds, and ever twinkling city lights.

While that first summer in Chicago involved a lot of cheap red wine and binging 30 Rock, by the second, I had made the city a home. I was no longer living with a roommate but on my own in a small studio. I had a budding social life (mostly friends made through my job at Peace Corps and other Peace Corps connections) and one of my best friends from Lesotho was moving back to the city. I was going to musicals and happy hour and concerts in Millennium Park. I was training for the Chicago Marathon and had gotten into storytelling on stage. And, I had recently started dating someone (non-Peace Corps), my first real relationship in eight years. When traveling or back home, pride rose to my voice when I said, “I live in Chicago.”

Throughout time, I changed jobs and eventually decided to leave the communications world to go back to school to become a therapist. I stayed on the northside, only living in two neighborhoods. I married that guy, and we adopted an anxious hound mix. I went to weddings, held babies, and attended goodbye parties. I learned to navigate parts of Chicago without Google’s help, and ran up and down some of the city’s main arteries. I could join conversations when people said, “Oh remember that café that you used to be on Thorndale and Kenmore?” Eventually, I clocked enough years in Chicago to out-pace any other place I had lived, outside of the town in which I grew up.

I had settled down, finally. I became a Chicagoan.

If my arrival to Chicago was unplanned, my departure was intentional. After struggling professionally for a few years, my husband wanted out of the city. He decided this not long after I started a three-year master’s program, so his hopes of leaving had to wait. But, once I graduated, we would go. I owed that to him.

At times, I didn’t want to go and wondered if I could convince him of staying. I couldn’t imagine giving up the long runs along the beach and the nights among the sparkling city lights. However, we’ve had a lot of setbacks the last few years, and it was easy to blame it on the city’s harshness. We struggled to stay afloat financially, and too many late-night trips on the CTA after class gave me severe anxiety when taking public transportation. When the pandemic came, we were stripped of all of the things that make city living enjoyable. Instead, we were paying gobs of money to live on top of other people. Chicago had been a home and had given me so much, but it was time to go.

For months, we had discussions about where we would go next and settled on Minnesota. It was close to family, and we could live in my brother’s basement until we were settled. My husband looked for jobs in the Twins City, but nothing materialized. I, too started, to look for positions but was overwhelmed. Something didn’t feel right.

Then, my husband heard about a job in Casper, Wyoming through a good friend. Because the job was in higher education, the hiring process moved slow. For months, we didn’t know when or where we were moving, only that our lease ended on July 31.

When the job offer in Wyoming came, everything fell into place quickly. I got a job, we found an apartment, and all the little pieces of moving lined up.  We moving to somewhere smaller with less hustle but also a place that was quieter and more affordable. After several years in the city, we both wanted a slower pace of life. Just like how everything came together when I moved to Chicago, this, too, felt right.

A few weeks ago, I went to The Loop to run errands. I hadn’t been down there in months because of the pandemic and spending the last year working and taking classes online. While many people are still working remotely, many have returned to the physical office, and downtown had a familiar, if lessened, buzz. I completed my tasks with a bit of time to spare before I needed to be at work. I used that time to wander, just like I often did after work when I first moved to the city. On my way to the Riverwalk, I walked past the first building where I worked, the one for that Peace Corps job that brought me to Chicago. Seeing that façade again made me cry. That job changed my life. It gave me many of things I have today.

As I continued on, I thought about some of my favorite memories of living in Chicago: attending live tapings of “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” in Millennium Park; running the Chicago Marathon and feeling the intense support of the crowd; walking in the Chicago Pride Parade days after the U.S. Supreme Court declared gay marriage legal in all 50 states; singing “Go Cubs Go” in Wrigley after a Cubby win; Chicago Architecture Foundation tours with friends and family; afternoons in the Chicago Art Institute’s members’ lounge; dinner parties with new and old friends in small, quaint apartments; summer night walks in tree-lined neighborhoods, trying to get glimpses of others’ décor styles from open windows; the first day of spring when the entire city comes out to celebrate winter’s passing; annual holiday trips with my mom, sisters-in-law, and other family; sunny afternoons at the beach; telling personal stories on stage; and countless nights that reminded me of how grateful I am to call this incredibly city home.

Then, I got to my favorite part of the city—a stretch on the Chicago Riverwalk that stares up to the Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building. I thought about all the dreams and hopes I had when I first arrived, and all the amazing blessings I am leaving with. I spent seven important years here, and while I know it was time to go, I will miss this city. I will likely write love letters to Chicago for years, as it will take time to truly understand its imprint on my life. 

There, in my favorite spot, I could proudly confirm that here, in Chicago, I lived a very good life.

Goodbye, Chicago. You will always be home.

Mismatched Socks

Kids are my favorite types of humans. When in a room with adults and young children, I gravitate towards the little ones. In many social situations, I find that I often drink, eat, or talk too much because I am anxious. I am often afraid that I will say something stupid or be judged for my presentation. With kids, though, you aren’t the center of attention. They are. They want to show you things and tell you stories. They may get bored with you after five minutes, but it’s not person. There is something about their energy and approach that puts me at ease in a way adults do not.

A few weeks ago, my family met up to reconnect after a year of being apart due to the pandemic. I got to spend time with my nieces and nephews on that side of our family, watching them play with water and then chasing them throughout the yard. We also celebrated the baptism of my niece, E. She is a few months shy of two years old, but the pandemic had delayed this religious ceremony for her, so we turned it into a big event for her.

For mass, we all put on our Sunday best, clothes most of us had kept hidden in our closets for the last year. E, too big now for a traditional Christening dress, wore a backup dress that her mom had bought for her sister, N, to wear to our wedding three years ago. N wore a pink, sparkly number that she was given for her third birthday nine months prior. As we were getting shoes on, N’s mother told her to put on some sandals that would match her dress. Instead, she brought one pink unicorn sock for me to put on. I explained to her that she wouldn’t want to wear socks with sandals, and even if she did, she only had one. She went back to her room and brought out another sock. Again, pink, but a different shade. I still encouraged her to put the sandals on, and she insisted that she wanted to wear her sparkly strap-on shoes. I shrugged and put them on her. When her parents came out and saw that she was wearing the sneakers and mismatched socks, they tried one more time to convince her that the sandals were a better option for the dress. She pretended to not hear them.

All morning, she rocked her dress with sparkly tennis shoes and mismatched socks.

Watching N run around, I was in awe of her bravery, to do what she wanted and to not care about what others think. N did not care if her socks matched or that her sandals were a better look for her dress. Her choices were not harmful in anyway, but the perception of what she should do was dictated by adults and what would look better. She liked her pink socks and tennis shoes; the rest did not matter.

At what point in life do we lose that, do we succumb to expectations and others’ perceptions? At what age do we rank others’ opinions over our own wants?

Young children are great reminders of what we all used to be like before life hardened us. I am sure that I used to wear mismatched clothes all the time because it’s what I liked. At some point, I used to not care what other’s think about me. I used to put my own joy and wants first. Some of us are better at holding on to that piece of ourselves, to keeping our voice stronger than others, but many of us have learned to ignore it to the point we may not recognize it anymore.

N’s socks of two different shades of pink was an inspiration. I wondered if I looked hard enough under the layers of insecurity and doubt, I could find that version of myself again. What simple but deep desire was I denying myself because of how it would look to the world? I snapped the above picture of N’s socks on the way to the church as a reminder of the child I used to be, that we all used to be.

It’s hard, though, it let go of the voice that keeps reiterating what you should do. I’ve spent years listening to that voice of appropriateness and reasoning. It’s difficult to ignore it when it’s been my guide for so long.

The other day, I was going to a get together with some friends. I put on a nice shirt and shorts and then pulled out my Chacos. I love my Chacos, but I have long been ridiculed for them. Even my husband says they are ugly and he is slightly embarrassed when I wear them. I do not care, often because they are so comfortable. However, in this social situation, I wondered if I should put on a nice flat or slightly dressier sandal to match what others would be wearing.

N’s socks came to mind, and then I put on my Chacos and walked out the door. It didn’t matter how others would perceive me or if I would look a bit out of place. This is what I wanted.

It wasn’t a big defiance, but yet, it was practice. If I listen to that inner voice in small matters, I will be able to call on in it in bigger, more meaningful moments. I won’t be able to be as carefree as N in all matters (which is good probably), but I can relearn to be true to myself and how freeing that feels.

Being Productive

In the weeks leading up to graduation, many of my classmates were interviewing and negotiating full-time jobs, for many their first salaried, benefited position. A few big life changes hung in the balance, and I couldn’t apply for anything until I knew what direction I was headed in. Plus, after three tough years and preparing for my licensure exams, I wasn’t ready to rush into a job.

This felt unorthodox. Shouldn’t I want to start paying off school loan debt and immediately get to work on earning my supervision hours for full licensure? Was it reckless to take a break? In a meeting with one of my professors, I told him that I was thinking about delaying my job search until mid-to-late summer because I wanted a break. He paused and half smiled, like he didn’t expect such a declaration from an anxious overachiever. “That’s actually a great idea,” he said. “I fully support that.”

It’s been about a month and a half and since I graduated, and I am still not working in counseling. In part because my husband and I are moving out of state soon, and the details of that move are not confirmed, and an additional circumstance may keep us in Chicago just a bit longer. We’ll know more at the end of this month, and we are for sure leaving by the end of July. Till then, I have to wait.

For now, my days are loose. I still work part-time at my retail job, which is fine but increasingly frustrating. I only work three to four times a week, so there are big gaps for me to do all that relaxing I dreamt about when I was working three jobs, going to school, and studying for my exams.

Occasionally, I leisure. I take naps and go to the beach. I’ve read a few books and booked social events. Other times, I clean the house or run errands, trying to cross off that “when I get to it” to-do list. I create little tasks that be pointed to as proof that I did something that day.

I also worry. A lot.

Who am I to think I can survive without a full-time job? Will there be any jobs when I start looking? Why do I think I deserve a break? My husband is also working retail at the moment, so it’s not like we are comfortably supported on one salary. I am scared that I will be behind others, that we will run out of money, that my laziness/selfishness is creating a colossal mistake that can’t be undone. I can’t help but compare myself to my peers, to think some how I’ve failed in wanting respite.

That anxiety, though, is rooted in narrative about being productive and finding our worth in work. Our entire culture sees work as success and not working as lazy, even if there are good and specific reasons one doesn’t work. If we aren’t working and making money, then what are we doing? One of the most critical and difficult jobs out there is motherhood, but because that isn’t paid labor we devalue it. I am not taking care of a child, rather, just pausing while I figure things out. Because there is no paycheck or specific accolades related to it, it seems unimportant. And foolish.

This morning, thinking about my day, I started to panic that there wasn’t enough to it. I had planned to run and do some mental health exercises, such as meditating and journaling, before going off to work for a few hours. However, I started scanning for other ways to fill my schedule. I needed more, something to prove that I was productive. I couldn’t read or watch a movie. I had too much leisure time already.

Yet, that wasn’t the point of this break. I didn’t decide to take a few months off so I could fill my schedule with low-priority task items just so I could feel less guilty about how I spent my days. No, I wanted to truly rest and find some joy. I wanted to soak in my accomplishments. I wanted to find balance before moving into that next phase.

But, I can’t do that if I am waking up anxious every morning that I am being too cavalier with my time and that I am going to run out of money?

Reality is, financially, I am fine. I can’t go six more months without work, but I am fine for now. And that’s all I need, fine.

It’s hard to shake these capitalistic values of work and earning money because they are so engrained into our culture, messages we’ve received our entire lifetime. However, they aren’t serving me anymore, and they are not the values I want to carry into work as a therapist. I aspire to help my clients find pleasure and relaxation because it will make them better people. Same for me. I wanted this break so I can take naps and walks at 2 p.m. with my husband. My body craved this time for beaching and reading. And, it’s a rare opportunity that we are give then the space to take these breaks, and I guess my foolishness would come out if I did not seize it.

Being productive can take on different meanings. For me, being productive now means writing or finishing a book. It means being silly and chasing after my dob. It means stopping and allowing myself rest, knowing I do deserve it and it will propel me to what’s next.

Suffering for Suffering’s Sake

A few weeks ago, I ran the Chicagoland Half Marathon. It was my first in-person race since January 2020, and I was not looking forward to it.

I had actually purchased the bib for the 2020 race, but because of COVID, the race had been cancelled, and participants were allowed to transfer to another race or save their spot for 2021. I deferred but forgot about the race. Because of my school schedule and preparing for my licensure exams, running slipped down my list of priorities. I ran a few times a week but never far and never fast.

Going into the race, I knew I would be undertrained. I could complete it, sure, but it was going to be sloooow. Also, I was going to do most of the running alone. For safety precautions, the race instituted staggered starts and those who I knew running the race were starting earlier. My start time wasn’t until 10:30 a.m. Additionally, the temperature was expected to be in the 80s by mid-morning with a high humidity. I was out of shape and alone on a very hot day. Not to mention that the course was an hour’s drive from my apartment. This was race was going to suck.

Even though I had already paid for the bib, I had mostly forgotten about the race up until a few months before and it wouldn’t have felt like too much of a financial loss had I not shown up to the run. I could have accepted that this was race was more hassle and struggle than it’s worth and slept in that day.

But, of course I did not. Even, when I thought about the idea of not running it, I couldn’t entertain it seriously.

I am a sufferer. I like to do hard things (while complaining about those hard things). I like to count up all the disadvantages against me and still go for it. I was going to run this race because it would be difficult and awful, and I would get a medal at the end to prove my ability to endure the tough conditions.

As predicted, this race sucked. It was hot and sticky and the first and last three miles were on a concrete road adjacent to major highway. I started slow, and only got slower, finishing the rase with my worst recorded time in the half. I got passed by a lot of people, some who likely had less running experience than me. The last mile and a half felt like five, and once I reached the Finish line, I couldn’t go a step further

During the race, I wondered why I default to hard. For most of my life, I have chosen or found my way to the bumpiest road. If I can do this really hard thing that most people would not want to do, and later talk about it, I will have proved my worthiness.

Sometimes I have earned grit and strength along the way and reached a level I couldn’t have on an easier path, however, there are also times when I just suffer for suffering’s sake. As many writers and philosophers, including the Dalai Lama and Haruki Murakami, have said: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Many, many times, I have specifically chosen to suffer.

That might have been a coping mechanism for a younger version of myself, but I am not sure that it serves me anymore. I don’t have to take the most challenging road just to prove something to myself; I can find value in other ways. Instead, what if I lean into pleasure and joy? What if those are my motivating factors from now on?

In the end, I am glad I ran that race because it will likely be my last in Chicago as a resident. However, I will think twice about what I am willing to endure and for what reasons. Just for a story and to prove that I am capable of suffering are no longer good reasons. Whether in running, my career, my relationships, I no longer want to do things just because they are hard. I want more joy.

A Person Who Watches Sunrises

When we moved to our apartment two blocks from the beach, I envisioned that I would get up many mornings and watch the fiery sun rise above Lake Michigan. Maybe do some yoga, maybe meditate. Just take in the calm, zen moment before rushing into another busy day.

Well, we’ve lived in this apartment three years, and I had yet to catch that daily sunrise until today.

Now, I’ve seen the blazing pinks, oranges, and yellows sparkle across the still lake in the early morning many times, and I’ve also seen 5 a.m. on several Sundays, but always because I’ve been running, often during a long run before the humidity settles in.

However, I am taking a break right now from running for health reasons, and the mornings are mine to do with what I please. Sometimes I write, sometimes I read, most often I sleep until I need to get up for the day.

Last night, as I was getting ready for bed, I thought to set my alarm for 4:45 a.m. Maybe I will get up and watch the sunrise, I thought before sling-shotting myself back to reality with, but I will probably just hit snooze and go back to bed. When my alarm went off, I was half-awake from a recent trip to the bathroom and my head was buzzing, trying to decide what one thing I should worry about at that specific hour. I turned the alarm off, thought for two minutes about blowing off this loose plan of watching the sunrise, but knowing my brain was likely going to find a reason to keep me up, I rolled out of bed.

It wasn’t unbearably hot yet when I walked outside at 4:50 a.m. My block was deceivingly quiet; there was not another person around. In the city, very rarely is there not another human within hearing distance or eyesight, but scanning the block, it was just me and the birds. However, once I got to the beach, there was more life. Cars going in and out of the beach parking lot, groups of young adults who were burning off the last remnants of the night before, couples sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on the rocky sand, and lone persons, like myself, who abandoned their soft, comfortable beds to watch Mother Nature do her thing.

I found a nice seat at the end of a cement structure that stretched 100 feet into the water. The show had started with hints of pink and yellow peeking out from the clouds. The lake shivered small ripples but was mostly calm as a gaggle of black birds dove in and out of the water, trying to catch breakfast. The colors intensified as the the day began to stretch but without any shape. They were the warm up act, preparing us for the star who was a bit behind. Soon enough, a finger nail sliver of bright light emerged from the surface. It expanded into a half-moon and then a full circle. Bright. Defined. Consistent.

What a simple thing to do in order to have a beautiful, soothing experience—waking up early to watch the sunrise. For a moment, I tell myself I am going to do this more often, and yet, I know that is not true.

In Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project, she decided to optimize her life in small ways in order to acquire more general happiness. In this experiment, she gets honest with herself about the type of person that she is and is not. For example, she always thought she could be the type of person who goes to the opera regularly. She could have a favorite piece and study the different singers and directors. She didn’t know much about the opera, and had maybe been once or twice, but it was the idea that she could be an opera lover that she held on to. However, in honing on what truly brings her joy in her life, she had to let go of the person she thought “could be.” She was never going to get into the opera, but that was OK. By accepting that, she could lean into what she did enjoy.

I am notorious for collecting things that I could be. A gardener. A kombucha brewer. A jazz enthusiast. A baker. A painter. A hiker. A nomad. A French speaker. A knitter. An ocean swimmer. A daily meditator. A yogi. And, a person who gets up daily to watch the sun. I feel like I have to be all of this and do all of these things to live the life I want, or the life I am supposed to want. Sometimes, I am so bogged down by the things that I think I could be doing, or should be doing, that I forget to enjoy the things I am actually doing, or worse, end up doing nothing at all.

A lot of us are like that. We have big dreams and aspirations to be different versions of ourselves, and it becomes a disappointment, even a failure, when we aren’t them. We live in the shadow of the person who is X or does X. We ridicule ourselves for not being more. We wonder why we can’t just be that person, that something is wrong with us.

We aren’t broken, though. We can’t do it all, or be it all. And sometimes we let too much external influences define our lives. By accepting who we are, and letting go of who we are not, we give ourselves permission to be. We focus on what truly makes us who we are and shed the rest.

I am not going to be a person who gets up every morning to meditate as the sun rises. That’s OK. I can get up some mornings to run or write, or I just sleep in and give my body rest. I don’t have to be one thing or the other. All of those things can be good for me, and yet none of them define me. I am not less of a person because I do not watch the sun rise every morning.

Once I abandoned that idea of having to get up at 4:45 a.m. every day to watch the sun because it will lead me closer to the life that I think I should be living, I was able to enjoy the moment, to actually watch the sparkling colors and absorb the tranquility of this everyday act. It lost the expectation and became something special. I got up to watch the sun enter into the day, and I may not do that every day, but I did today, and it was pretty wonderful.

Surrendering

Chicago drivers waste 73 hours each year in traffic, study says - Curbed  Chicago
Photo from here

The other day, I was headed downtown for an appointment. I go to this clinic frequently, and I have my route down to a science. I know to start in the inside lane and when to switch to the outer lane. I know which lane I need to be in to make the correct turn. I often take the earliest appointments that I can because I need to be back at my house by 9 a.m. to start seeing clients. Often, I leave early so that I can check into my appointment 15 minutes early with the hope of getting seen a bit sooner.

As I was making my way downtown, I started to see the traffic thickening. Red tail lights ahead of me forced me to stop, and soon I was completely surrounded by other stopped cars. As the minutes passed by, we slowly inched forward. I thought about trying to get into the outer lane to get off the highway, but I was still my miles from my destination and managing through blocks of stop signs and red lights likely wouldn’t speed up my trip. I had given myself plenty of time to get to the appointment, but my buffer was shortening. The clinic wouldn’t care if I was late, but I was more concerned with getting home in time for my client. Maybe I could reschedule (which I hate doing) or meet her a few minutes late.

At that moment, I realized there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t fix this situation, rather, I would have to live through it. I would have to let myself just be in traffic. I wouldn’t yet call my supervisor to discuss rescheduling the client, rather I would not meddle in the situation at all. I would just be, and then figure it out.

I recently read Michael Singer’s The Surrender Experiment in which he talks about his path to enlightenment and his insistency on surrendering to whatever life presents him. It’s a fairly good read, if you can get over the fact that much of the good that comes to him is less about the universe and more due to his privilege as a white male. The main point is that Singer gives up preference and embraces what’s been given to him. When someone moves on to his property that he isn’t thrilled about, instead of fighting them he helps build the house. When he is given work that he doesn’t think he can handle, he hires more people. He leans into the situation instead of forcing the option he would prefer.

My preference was to make my appointment on time, but I live in a large U.S. city and so traffic like this will happen. I can stress and worry about it for the next 20 minutes, or I can claim back my time. Maybe enjoy this forced break.

Sitting in the bumper-to-bumper traffic, I wondered where else in my life could I use to just give in and not fight the situation so hard. Part of the disappointment in life is wanting what isn’t ours—love, money, jobs, adventure. We are so embedded in our preferences of how we want things to work out that we waist hours, days, weeks with worry and stress. If we could just let things be, maybe our hearts wouldn’t be so heavy?

Within 15 minutes, the traffic cleared. I made my appointment on time, and I was able to get home to see my client. So, it worked out, however, that’s not what I took from this. By surrendering to the moment, I let go of stress and worry, and rather than a frantic and aggravating morning, and I was able to carry this calm moment throughout the day.