Her Story: Doris CohenNovember 25, 2019 8:40 pm
We were at a wedding, on the second floor of the Shaare Zion main sanctuary when my husband looked at me and said, “OK, let’s do it.” It was close to the end of our second year of marriage, and we’d been discussing getting off the pill for a few weeks already. I hadn’t been able to make mental space for a potential baby until then because I was battling a newfound and intense bout of anxiety. Through therapy I was able to get to a point of relative peace, and the desire to conceive urgently burst forth. After a few weeks of difficult conversation and persuasion, my husband relinquished his reservations; he was on board.
My husband and I eagerly prepared for our first active attempt at conception during my estimated time of peak fertility. I recalled the moment with my new OB/GYN three weeks later, letting him know where I was at in my cycle. When he asked if I got my period and I confirmed that I had not, he said, “Well, then you didn’t ovulate.” I was shocked as he continued, “Every woman gets her period 14 days after ovulating. If you haven’t gotten your period yet, you didn’t ovulate, at least not then.” I was dumbstruck. Literally, I felt dumb, like…how was I not aware of such a basic function of the human body? MY human body? And then the question became, okay…so now what? And so commenced six months of fasting blood tests, taken after my purported ovulation date to see if I had ovulated. About 80% of that time, I had not. And so after a quick and easy round of Clomid (an ovulation induction drug), I conceived my firstborn daughter, Sophia.
Those months preceding conception weren’t without difficulty. Most of the people who got married around when I did had already had babies or were expecting. A good friend and supposed partner of the “Period Club” was also secretly pregnant, which I found out only once I announced – but I was still hurt. The blood tests themselves were annoying too. Making the appointments, driving, parking, paying. I was working as a teacher at the time, and so I squeezed in my appointments after weight training and in between classes. Plus, I only discovered if I had ovulated AFTER the fact, so we remained active throughout, to no avail.
Before my first dose of Clomid, I had been waiting a long time for a period that just wouldn’t come. I was prescribed progesterone, and after about ten days I started menstruating. I then waited a week, took the pills, did the babymaking, and waited again, and finally the test – one of about three dozen tests over the course of those 6 months – was positive. Finally.
I gave birth to Sophia in late December on a picturesque Sunday evening, six weeks before my third wedding anniversary. She was, and still is, a beautiful and brilliant child and the light of my life. I nursed her happily until after her first birthday and a month or two later I called my OB/GYN to let him know I was interested in trying to get pregnant again. Technically, I had not been using any form of protection since her birth. I asked him if he’d be able to prescribe Clomid for me again, because the periods I was getting postpartum, while consistent, had a long cycle and ovulation predictability was difficult. Plus, I didn’t actually know if I was ovulating. My doctor opposed the idea of starting me on Clomid, saying, “You’re young and healthy and you’ve been getting your period so you must be ovulating. Just try on your own. Plus, Clomid has a high risk of twins.” My doctor and I would have this conversation another four times over the course of the next six months.
I was baffled. My doctor was happy to give me Clomid to help with conception the first time, so I couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t even exploring it as an option this time. Suddenly, Clomid became this scary drug that he was completely unwilling to administer. He almost happily regaled me with horror stories of lost or difficult twin conceptions and births. But I was persistent. I knew I was missing ovulation – it was clearly taking place somewhere between a week and two weeks after Mikveh night. I was also experiencing newfound pains and discomforts that I initially associated with PMS, making it difficult to want to be intimate because I felt so uncomfortable and gross. I spent months trying to decipher my body’s signs with nothing to show for it. I needed help.
By the third or fourth call of this kind, my doctor mentioned reaching out to a fertility clinic. I was absolutely not prepared for that. I somehow allowed the infertility stigma to creep in on me and I could not accept the defeat of a prognosis like infertility. So I just kept trudging on. What this meant was emotional bumper cars. I would manage to coast along for a little while feeling okay until suddenly – Boom! I’d be met with yet another pregnancy announcement, another comment, another societal dig at my lagging reproduction. “Anything cooking?” “When are you going to give Sophia a sibling?” “How many kids do you have? “How old is she?” “How long are you married?” “What are you waiting for?” “Oh, you only have one kid, just wait!”
I cried a lot during those months. I googled early pregnancy symptoms vs. PMS symptoms endlessly. I peed on sticks in anxious anticipation, oftentimes while blood poured out of me simultaneously. I played mind games with myself, vacillating quickly from hope to utter despair. I sulked in the Teacher’s Room, grumbling self-deprecating frustrations at anyone who would listen. I soaked in the pitiful glances and knowing looks of those who said they understood. I angrily aired my frustrations on my friends’ chats, bombarding them with cynical memes every time I was reminded that my body wasn’t working.
I did not enjoy being in places with tons of kids. With people with kids. With pregnant women. Brises, Mommy and Me classes, beach clubs, they all reminded me of what I couldn’t do. I walked away from conversations regarding people’s children. They all reminded me of something someone said a little after Sophia’s birthday. She asked if I was TRYING. Apparently, in my emotional transparency and oversharing, I muttered something about having gotten my period. Are you trying? She asked. Immediately I recoiled. The word seemed so dirty. Because implicit in the word trying is that fact that, well… you failed. But alas. I was trying.
Around me, friend after friend was getting pregnant and giving birth to their second babies. Nearly everyone who got married around the same time as me was already pregnant with or had given birth to a second child. The few who hadn’t yet were constantly on my radar. I was 27, married four years, with “only” one child. This was how I measured my life. Several close friends had, within this time span, announced their pregnancies. One friend missed her pill and conceived that night. My best friend, who’d had her first baby within 12 hours of me having mine, was pregnant. I found this out over pizza as I shared with her my own difficulty. She looked at me with a smirk and said “Doris.” I nearly passed out. And my THERAPIST, the woman I cried to week after week about my supposed life failure, had gotten accidentally pregnant with her 6th kid! It all felt like a cosmic joke.
At the end of the summer, I was expecting a period that was just not coming. I had exceeded the average span of my typical cycle and then some. Every pregnancy test was negative. I was googling the earliest pregnancy symptoms, googling the statistics of false negatives, and whispering to my peers about what was going on. This just had to be it, I thought anxiously. But no. Days later I received the beautiful gift of menstruation. I knew that my body could get pregnant, but I knew that I needed help. My cycles had always been long, I’m talking 35-40 days long. Heck, I got my period at 15 years old. I felt intuitively that there was a lag in the system and that I needed medical intervention. I decided that this month would be the last month of trying on our own. After that, I was going to call a reproductive clinic and get the Clomid that I had been denied all this time.
Well, what do you know? About 5 weeks later, the day after my sister Chloe’s wedding, November 9th, 2017, I got a positive pregnancy test. I was elated, but the sick side of me thought, and even verbalized to my therapist, “That was too easy.” She looked at me cross-eyed, “Have you been hearing yourself for the past 11 months?” Yes, I chuckled. But still! I got pregnant on my own. I didn’t need a shot or anything. I didn’t suffer enough.
A few days later, the familiar nausea settled in and I was back to my toasted bagels and pretzels and bubbly drinks. I took myself to the first ultrasound at 7 weeks 6 days and heard a beautiful galloping heartbeat. I daydreamed about what having a baby in the summer would be like; I was due July 10th. I told my parents, my siblings and inlaws. I breathed a sigh of relief.
A few nights later, I joined a friend at her Shabbat meal and was surprised to find myself interested in the chicken, completely out of character for my first trimester food aversions. This must be a unique pregnancy, I thought. I brushed off the concern and chalked it up to an expected difference in experiences. Over the next few days I had started to wake up feeling relatively normal. Normal, as in, not pregnant. I even told a best friend, the one who told me she was pregnant over pizza and was now a ripe six months, that I just felt so normal. I absolutely resisted the urge to get on my What to Expect app Message Board and ask my cyber community what they had thought about my sudden disappearance of symptoms. It’s normal for things to come and go, I said. Every pregnancy is different. Some people feel amazing all nine months. It will be okay.
The day of Sophia’s Hanukkah party in school, I had Torah class in the morning at my seminary. After class I went to the bathroom and saw the faintest, smallest line of baby pink on the toilet paper. My throat jumped into my stomach and my stomach fell out of my body. When I got to school I told my pregnant friend what had happened. Her eyes widened in concern. I went to the bathroom again and saw more blood. I had no time to think. I walked into Sophia’s classroom and buried the pit in my stomach to just try and be present for the 45 minute party. Immediately afterwards, I went to my administrator and told her what was happening so she could quickly find covers for my classes. I walked into the principal’s office in a panic and used the space there to phone my doctor and decide if he thought the blood was normal or if I should be seen. I spoke to a female associate who was available and she seemed calm and said that some bleeding was normal, but if I wanted to be checked I could come in. I had no idea what to do or who to turn to. I did not want to call my mom as she is a worrier and I felt I needed a calm presence. My anxiety was pulsing through my veins and I knew I couldn’t drive myself anywhere. Thankfully, the mother of a student who I was friendly with, and with whom I felt comfortable talking, was in the building. She was also a marriage teacher and someone I had confided in in the past. I pulled her aside to tell her what was going on and she so warmly offered to take me wherever I wanted to go.
I didn’t want to go into my doctor’s office in the city. My anxiety was too high and I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle the drive there. I asked to be taken to a nearby urgent care to see if they had an ultrasound machine. I gave them a urine sample and waited and waited and I jittered my legs on the exam bench. They did not have an ultrasound machine but were able to confirm that there was blood in my urine. They sent me to a radiology clinic in the vicinity, where my friend dropped me off since she had to return to her family. I walked in alone and waited to be seen. My face was grief-stricken. I saw people around me calmly waiting to be seen for random organ pains while inside of me, my world was falling apart. I used every physical and psychological coping mechanism I had to keep my cool. Finally I was called into a room. The ultrasound technician, I knew, was not allowed to tell me what she was seeing. Her job was just to take the pictures and videos, and send them to my doctor for a diagnosis. I covered my eyes with my hand the entire time so that I would not look at her face and try to distinguish what she was seeing. I swore that if the baby was alive she would tell me. She didn’t say anything.
I left an hour later with no answers. I had to wait for the clinic to send the photos to the urgent care and for them to forward the photos to my doctor. I had told my husband at this point and urged him to come home. I arranged for my sister to take my daughter home and handle the night routine. It has been hours and hours since I first saw the blood and I had no idea what was going on. My husband and I quickly lit the Hanukkah candles and shakily recited Hanerot Halallu. Finally, after several phone calls back and forth, I pressed anyone at the urgent care to tell me what they saw. “I’m sorry,” said the doctor behind the desk, “there is no heartbeat.” I didn’t know if I believed them. We asked them to forward the photos to my OB/GYN, hopped in the car and raced toward the city, hoping that the urgent care doctor was incorrect and that there was still a shot. We quickly got a phone call from the OB/GYN office. “I’m so sorry.” said the female associate. “It’s confirmed. There is no heartbeat. It had stopped growing at 8 weeks.” They scheduled me for a D&C two days later.
My sister took my daughter to her apartment and my husband and I shared the night in quiet disbelief and numbness. My anxiety was correct. It had been too easy. I was not done suffering. I took the next day off of school and walked around with pads as the bleeding slowly got heavier and heavier. I don’t know where I went or what I did or what I was thinking. I’m not sure if I fully processed what was going on. That night, we sent my daughter to sleep by my parents as Daniel and I sat down together to let our reality sink in. We broke down and cried freely on the couch. It was probably the second time in my life that I’d seen my husband cry. We each wrote letters to the life we had lost and sealed them away with a picture of the sonogram from two weeks before.
The cramping was slowly worsening and I got into bed wearing several pads, two pairs of underwear, a pair of thick sweatpants, and lay down on top of two bath towels. I’m not sure how I slept but with G-d’s grace, I did. I woke up in a pool of blood. I had bled through my underwear, pants, the towels, bedsheet, and into my mattress. I bled on the way to the bathroom. I tossed everything I’d been wearing and layered up again in pads, underwear and sweatpants. My husband helped me as I walked gingerly and somberly to the car. During the car ride I tried to wrap my head around the fact that I’d been carrying around a dead fetus for two weeks. That my sense of lost symptoms was accurate, as my body had stopped producing the hormones necessary to sustain life. I tried to understand the fact that the fetus’ heart had spontaneously stopped beating just hours after I heard it’s heartbeat with my own ears. I just needed it all to be over.
My husband and I pulled into a parking lot and the moment I stood up, a gush of blood shot down my leg and into my white sneaker. I bled into my shoe. My shoe. I was doubled over and shuffling my feet to try and keep it all in. My husband walked into the first hospital branch he saw and grabbed a wheelchair. He wheeled me through the blocks until we thought we had found the right spot. We ended up in a large waiting room for people who were going to undergo chemotherapy. Get me out of here! By the time we found the correct office I was emotionally spent and sobbing outwardly. The woman who signed us in looked at me, half with pity and half puzzled. I wanted to shout “I’m sorry for the theatrics I’m just bleeding a baby out!” While I waited for my husband to fill out some paperwork, I texted my good friend who lives in Israel: “You don’t have to respond. There’s just so much blood.”
The doctor scheduled to perform my D&C was new to the practice and I hadn’t previously met her. She was warm and caring and promised to take care of me and alleviate me from the cramping and bleeding. I was put on a bed, wheeled into an operating room and put under anesthesia. About 45 minutes later I woke up to a calm and painless belly. I chose to stay by my mother that Shabbat so I would feel less alone and at least have the support of my family around me. I called my sisters from the car and asked them to purchase new loungewear for me for the weekend. I don’t think my family fully understood what had happened. They seemed unsure of how to act or what to say. I was sad and angry and felt misunderstood.
I texted my friends and some colleagues to let them know what had happened. I am not a person who hides things very well, nor would I like to be. It is very much a part of my character to be open and honest about where I am in life. I needed my colleagues’ support to sub for my classes as I’d be missing a few days of school to mentally and physically recover. I needed my friends’ support to uplift me and empathize with me. Thank G-d, I received such beautiful messages of support and strength. My openness helped me create stronger relationships with people I hadn’t known were suffering similarly. Some of these relationships would help me immensely on the next leg of my journey: trying to conceive. Again.
A few days after the procedure was Sophia’s second birthday. I walked into school for the first time no longer pregnant. I had on makeup and a wig, but inside I was falling apart. I held in my tears as I read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to Sophia’s classmates. This was not how it was supposed to be.
During the D&C, the doctor had removed tissue and sent it to a lab to test it for genetic mutations. A few weeks after the procedure, she called me to report that the fetus had trisomy 13, an extra piece on 13th chromosome. This indicated an awful prognosis of what is called Patau’s disease. (Don’t look it up!) Now, of course, after miscarrying, most hear the same refrains over and over, like, “At least you know you could get pregnant,” “It wasn’t meant to be,” “If the body rejected it that means it wasn’t good,” “The body was just doing its job.” And of course, while mostly accurate, none of these refrains helped to take away whatsoever from the heartbreak of losing a fragile potential life that was so wanted. Yet the discovery of a trisomy was at once frightening and freeing. I was able to put the experience in a box of “it sucked but it’s life, and ultimately, I’m grateful,” and trudge forward.
The doctor suggested that my husband and I undergo a karyotype survey of our genes, to make sure neither of us had genetic markers for the disease. If we did have a genetic marker, we would have to look into IVF to genetically test the embryos before implantation. After finding the time to get tested, tracking down the tests and having them sent to our doctors, both of us were found to have a normal chromosomal make-up. It was time to start again.
At six weeks post-op I got my period. Soon after, I went back to my OB/GYN for a follow-up appointment and blood test. I decided to see the doctor who did my procedure instead of my primary doctor. I had been building a nice rapport with her and was able to communicate to her my frustration with the difficulty I was experiencing while trying to conceive. I also shared my feeling neglected by my primary doctor for not allowing me to take the ovulation induction pills I desperately believed would help. She heard me out and gently suggested I see a fertility specialist. I was beginning to agree.
I had been talking to friends about my difficulties, and everytime I bled, they knew. Out of the blue, one friend from within a chat texted me the number of a local reproductive endocrinologist. I called the next day and made an appointment with her. A few days later, I got a call back from my OB/GYN office with blood test results. “Your testosterone looks a little bit high, maybe you should see an endocrinologist.” “The appointment is already booked,” I told her. It was time to get the show on the road.
The doctor’s office was located on the Upper West Side, at least an hour’s drive each way, in addition to the exam itself. As I work as a middle school teacher, finding and maintaining appointments was no easy feat, especially with a small child who needed to be taken to and from school. On the day of my long-awaited appointment, my daughter woke up feeling ill, but there was NO WAY I was missing this. I called my sister and asked her to take Sophia to the pediatrician. It was time to build my family.
The doctor who walked into the room was a petite, unassuming woman with a soft-spoken voice and an office filled with pomegranate paraphernalia. She gave me her utmost attention as she listened to my entire story. She looked through some records I brought her as I told her about my desperate pleas for Clomid. I relayed my OB’s halfhearted diagnosis of, “You probably have PCOS but you’re fine,” which he told me once when I questioned my long cycles and inconsistent ovulation. She responded with, “If I had a nickel for every patient who was wrongly diagnosed with PCOS, I could retire.”
The next step of the exam was an internal sonogram. “You have beautiful ovaries,” the doctor told me, “You can tell your OB I said that.” I was elated. Everything looked good physically. But, there was more. She then diagnosed me with a disorder called Hypothalamic Oligomennorhea. This is basically a communication issue between the hypothalamus and the pituitary, where the hypothalamus doesn’t communicate efficiently with the pituitary to tell it to excrete ovulation hormones. She said, “Essentially, you just need a little help sending your ovaries the message. Clomid is EXACTLY what you need! Let’s start next month.”
The following 4 to 5 months were a whirlwind of blood tests, internal sonograms, and what my new fertility doctor called “homework.” First, I had to wait for a period. Then I’d take Clomid on a certain day after I started bleeding. The symptoms of the medication were of a heightened PMS or of an early pregnancy, depending on the cycle. I’d then go in for a “baseline” reading of the size of my follicles. Predictions were then made of ovulation times, depending on the follicle size. “Have sex Tuesday night, Thursday night, and Saturday night,” I’d be instructed. I had to put my homework down in the schedule and make sure my husband made time for it too. Then we had to complete the assignments – regardless of mood, desire, or any other circumstance – and wait. The dreaded two week wait. The analyzing, praying, hoping, not hoping, what ifs, due date calculations. The pep talks, from myself and from my newly-made “miscarriage friend”. The pregnancy tests. The awful, mean, big fat negatives. The blood. Oh, the blood. Crying, cursing, anger, then memes and comfort food. Nidda, again. Self-deprecation in the teacher’s lounge. Feelings of failure and insufficiency. Therapy, fertility accounts on instagram, Daily Emunah recordings.
Did I mention I brought my “miscarriage friend” to my new doctor? Guess who got pregnant first? You guessed it. Oh wait, my sister-in-law was pregnant too. Again. And so were about a handful of other friends who I couldn’t bear to look at or even talk to. My social circles were shrinking and so was my patience.
The summer was fast approaching. Two cycles had failed and I was at my wit’s end. My doctor was confident that I would get pregnant within 3 cycles. She was sure that I would not need to resort to IVF. I was less sure. I felt alone and stuck in an alternate dimension of life where everyone around me was young, beautiful and fertile and I was overweight, depressed, pathetic and NOT PREGNANT. I needed more support. I e-mailed SBH. That was when the seeds of this very program were planted.
Summer came. I went with my “miscarriage friend”, who was now pregnant, to our kids’ camp orientation. I felt homicidal. I could not bear seeing the moms will full cars, the moms balancing 2 and 3 kids’ orientations, the moms with protruding bellies. I walked around seething. I felt violent. At this point it had been a year and a half since Sophia’s first birthday.
For my third cycle of Clomid I had to take the train into the city from New Jersey. Two hours of travel, two trains and an Uber later, I was in the doctor’s office receiving my next assignment. I was due to dip on a Wednesday night, and was leaving for a trip to Israel the following Sunday immediately following. I was travelling without my husband and daughter, and would be staying in a hotel with a community member. We would be learning and touring for two weeks. I was so looking forward to having time alone to regroup and reflect in the Holy Land. My doctor was confident that the cycle would result in a successful conception. She handed me some cash to give to sedaka on her behalf and with a tight hug, sent me on my way.
Wednesday night, July 4th, while America was outside staring up at the sky, I had a different mission. Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday morning before my flight were part of Operation:Conceive. I waved goodbye to my family and cried in the van on the way to the airport. I spent the two week wait in the land of my Forefathers, whose wives were historically barren and who were miraculously granted children. I assuaged my anxiety with food, drink and the spiritual high of learning in the place of my heritage. The female part of the cohort knew where I was in my journey and that I was desperately hoping to be pregnant soon. When we arrived at Shiloh, the city where the Mishkan was camped before the Beit Hamikdash was built, and the place where Hannah famously prayed to G-d for a child, I was assigned to read the bible verses narrating this story out loud in front of the group. I read about Hannah’s bitterness and anguish to have a child. She was so desperate that she offered her future child to the service of G-d, just to have the merit to carry and bring forth a child onto the Earth. Her prayer is ubiquitously known as Tefilat Hannah, and it’s words are displayed in an ornate design in the remodeled temple structure in Shiloh. The head of the program pulled me aside after I read the verses and told me to take a minute to pray Minha in that spot and to recite Tefillat Hannah. And so I did.
The trip ended with a visit to my Israeli friend; the very same one that I had texted before my D&C. Well, she didn’t tell me at the time, but she was pregnant then, and due on July 8th, just two days before I had been. My trip coincided perfectly with her birth, and what would have been my birth as well. I headed to her apartment to see her new baby. I had a pad in my pocket for the plane – just in case. I was prepared for whatever came my way.
I didn’t get my period on the plane. I didn’t get it when I landed on Friday. On Sunday, Tisha B’av, I took a pregnancy test and laughed. I e-mailed my doctor with the subject line “++++++” and a message saying, “Guess who’s drinking their coffee today!”
It was all so poetic. It was my third cycle of Clomid. I was in Israel. I prayed THE prayer for a woman trying to conceive, in the place where she prayed. It was the due date of my lost pregnancy, a time when instead of giving birth myself, I joined a friend in her postpartum happiness. Instead of giving birth myself, I was, in a sense, born again. I gave birth to Ezra Daniel Cohen on March 26th, 2019, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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