A few years ago, I learned I was struggling with infertility.
“If you want to get pregnant, you will likely need to use an egg donor,” my OB/GYN cautioned after running some preliminary tests before I even started trying to get pregnant.
A pretty cruel joke, I thought. After several years of hemming and hawing, I had only just come to terms with having a baby solo. What I had assumed to be my “fertility window” was closing and I didn’t have a partner yet, so it was time to move forward alone.
And, even though it was a horrible cruel joke, one that I was not willing to accept after attempting to beat the odds, I learned more about myself and how to be a mother from my journey through infertility than I could have through numerous years in therapy.
What followed was one of the most difficult and introspective 18 months of my life.
Rather than accepting my doctor’s advice, I fought the diagnosis — determined to beat the odds, refusing to use an egg donor. But it meant I was thrown into a constant cycle of hope and despair when each month I tried to inseminate, and each month it was a big fat negative.
After many failed attempts, I was forced to decide whether a genetic link to a child was important enough to forego motherhood. Could I use an egg donor or adopt and still be happy?
The answer to that question was eventually, “YES!”
Now I am the proud mother of a gorgeous 2-year-old boy. This journey, horrible and painful as it was, tore me apart and spit me out the other side as a better person and, more importantly, a better mother. It made me better because I had to face head-on so many self-defeating ideas about myself and the world.
It fundamentally changed my way of being in the world. Here are 4 of the best lessons I learned from my journey.
1. There are no guarantees in life.
As phrased in Buddhist teachings: The nature of life is uncertainty. Oh boy, did I learn this one — multiple times.
My first encounter with this was in deciding to become a single mother by choice. I was fixated on the idea that if I had a child alone, I’d be single forever.
My teacher pointed out to me that there were no guarantees in life. I couldn’t guarantee that if I got pregnant with a partner he would stick around for the baby to be born or reach certain milestones. I couldn’t predict whether he might die or we might divorce. (I know, sort of morbid to think about, but it’s true).
In short, there was no more certainty that I would end up finding a lasting partnership if I waited to get pregnant than if I didn’t.
2. Self-kindness isn’t a luxury, it’s a vital necessity.
While I was struggling to get pregnant, it was staggering to me to realize the depth of my self-hatred. I was angry at myself for not having decided to get pregnant sooner. I was angry for not having a partner. Most of all, I was angry at my body for failing to perform this basic function of being a woman.
At one point, my doctors screwed up and gave me someone else’s positive pregnancy test results. For 48 glorious hours, I loved myself more than I ever have. I was so proud of myself and so in love with the baby growing inside me. When the doctor’s realized their mistake, the self-hatred came back in full force.
The contrast between these two states helped me see the constant stream of insults and criticisms I normally inflict upon myself. They are usually quiet and subtle, but they lurked there, constantly whittling away at my being.
That stark contrast forced me to see that I had to love myself despite my “failing” body and numerous other imperfections. I kept repeating to myself, “Nothing except love makes sense!” It played in my mind like a broken record for months afterward.
I’d looked at this idea many times in the past through therapy and self-help workshops, but it never integrated into my being — it remained an idea. This time, I really got it. It was no longer a saying or an idea — it became part of my being.
3. Doing my best IS good enough.
While I was trying to get pregnant against the odds, I took on a healthy eating regimen, meditated, practiced Qigong daily, got good sleep, and gave up coffee, wheat, dairy, and alcohol — you name it. Yet, when I reflected, I still felt like I wasn’t doing enough. I had to do more. Sometimes I would slip up on my regimen by having a cookie or a glass of wine and berate myself for screwing up. With these slip-ups, I would convince myself that I had blown my chances of getting pregnant.
Until one day, I came across two articles back to back.
One outlined a study in which women who added large amounts of milk to their diets suddenly got pregnant at a staggeringly high rate. In another study, women who gave up dairy and milk significantly improved their pregnancy rates. At first, I was mad and confused. And then, suddenly it dawned on me … No one really knows the answer!
There was no magic formula that was guaranteed to work. I could drive myself crazy trying every approach under the sun. Or, I could trust my intuition, and recognize that I was doing my best and that my best was enough. I had to forgive myself for any missteps along the way.
4. Knowing when to surrender is one of the greatest blessings you can offer yourself.
I’m one of those left-of-center, alternative, woo-woo types, and I was determined to have a natural birth. Not only did I read and watch every birthing book and video about the medicalization of childbirth, but my undergraduate thesis had also been about it. I was determined to have a natural childbirth. I was also planning to develop a Qigong birthing style and spent my entire pregnancy trying to understand the effects of Qigong on pregnancy and anticipating how I’d incorporate the practice into my birth plan.
Then a few weeks before I was due, I found out my blood pressure had skyrocketed. My midwife immediately had me admitted to a hospital, transferred my care to a doctor I didn’t know, and induction of labor began.
More than a week later, I was still in the hospital, fighting to deliver my baby naturally. Eventually, I had to surrender my expectations and give birth via C-Section.
At first, I felt angry. I’d been robbed of my dream in so many ways. My first few days (and even weeks) after the C-Section was incredibly intense. The pain prevented me from sitting up and walking, yet I had to lay my baby across my stomach to breastfeed. Trying to care for a baby as a single mom while suffering that much pain was mind-boggling.
It was like someone hit me over the head and said, “Welcome to motherhood. Your life, your body, your identity, and your notion of control are gone! Get used to it.”
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I realized I could fight to have control and remain the woman I was before motherhood, or I could surrender and be the best mother I could be. I was no longer in this world just for myself, I was in service to this amazing, healthy baby.
My struggle through infertility was hard, painful, and gut-wrenching.
I was forced to question and examine almost every aspect of my life and ideas. I don’t wish it upon anyone.
At the same time, these were lessons I’d been trying to learn throughout my entire life but had never before been able to understand at the core of my being.
Infertility made me fundamentally alter the way I approach life and make decisions in the world.
I’m so blessed to have been able to examine my life in this way and to be able to grow into a far more healthy and loving mother than I otherwise might have been.
Sarah Kowalski is a single mom by choice, Fertility Doula, Life Coach, author, and founder of Motherhood Reimagined.