“I almost fainted when I saw those two lines on the pregnancy test,” says Shannon Pearson, who had taken the test to rule out being pregnant – rather than confirm it. Her menstrual cycle was late and she was supposed to start taking medication to evaluate endometrial receptivity, the ideal cycle day for her body to receive an embryo.
Before that, Shannon and her husband had completed a second unsuccessful round of in-vitro fertilization (IVF), which had followed on the heels of other fertility testing and treatments, including three rounds of intrauterine insemination (IUI). After having experienced one disappointment after another, could this natural pregnancy be the answer to the couple’s dream of parenthood?
Unfortunately, there were almost immediate warning signs when levels of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) – also referred to as pregnancy hormone – indicated problems with Shannon’s pregnancy. “I ended up miscarrying,” says the 35-year-old. “That’s how our journey with fertility treatments had started two years ago – with a miscarriage.”
In hindsight, the hardest part was confronting the expectation that IVF would “solve our problem,” says Shannon. “Sadly, this was not the case. We’ve been through many treatments and failures, and we’re feeling exhausted – mentally, physically and financially. But we’re still hopeful.”
While Shannon retains some optimism that she and her husband will have children, Niki and Chris Sloan say they are done “peeing on sticks and counting days.” The couple, who married when they were 35 and 38, went through a period of testing and treatments for “unexplained infertility.
“We went ahead with one round of IUI,” says Niki. “When this was unsuccessful, we took a six-month break. During that time, we decided we were done: we were not going to have babies.”
Even though the challenge to conceive didn’t come as a complete surprise given the couple’s age, Chris says staying childless wasn’t a result they expected when they embarked on the journey. “Everyone only reports on the success,” he says. “You rarely see the other side.”
During the course of the treatments, Niki had found a close-knit community of people facing similar challenges, and she decided to stay connected and volunteer with Fertility Matters Canada (FMC), a national organization that empowers Canadians to help reach their reproductive health goals by providing support, awareness, information and education.
“I liked the idea of having a community where people were able to share their experiences and give advice,” says Niki. “When I realized I would be OK without kids, I found it could be helpful for people facing fertility challenges to be aware that not having children is also a potential outcome.”
Darlene Tozer, executive director at Fertility Matters Canada, sees more and more people coming forward to share stories about struggling to build a family, whether they are successful in having children or not. “It is heart-warming and gut-wrenching at the same time,” she says. “The reality is there are many people going through challenges like this.”
According to a recent study, one in six Canadian couples encounters infertility – defined as the inability to get pregnant after trying for at least one year – and one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage.
While scientific advances promise hope for many prospective parents, it is also important to bring fertility struggles and pregnancy loss into the light. “There is still stigma surrounding these issues,” says Darlene. “People don’t think twice about quizzing a couple about when they’ll have a baby. When someone is struggling to build a family, that question can tear at their soul.”
Niki adds that people sometimes presume that since they are childless, she and Chris don’t want – or even like – kids. These assumptions hurt, she says.
Shannon and her husband often found themselves as the only couple without children among their friends and acquaintances, making it hard to share their experiences. “I recently decided to tell everybody in my life,” says Shannon. “Frankly, telling the truth was a relief because keeping it all in has been exhausting.”
For people navigating what can be a turbulent time, she suggests, “Do your research, learn the language of fertility treatments and talk to people in similar situations. You need to be your own advocate.”
Darlene agrees. “Get the support you need for your mental and physical well-being,” she says. “There are so many people struggling to build their families, not just heterosexual couples but also single parents and members of the LGBT+ community.
“You are not alone.”
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