Aubrey Atkinson never imagined she would need a fertility doctor. But after a year of trying to get pregnant, she started on a five-year journey to become a mother.
Atkinson joined a club of more than 7 million women who have undergone some kind of infertility treatment. Usually it’s a secret club, something many women — and men — aren’t quick to share beyond a tight circle of friends and family. Atkinson, though, wanted to share her story, so she started the Instagram account @fortheloveofmomgenes to chronicle her experience.
“I started on Instagram because family and friends — out of sheer love and curiosity — were asking, ‘When are you going to start a family? When are you going to have kids?’,” Atkinson says. “Once I opened up and started letting family know we were struggling and having to go down the infertility path, people either didn’t know what to say or had a million more questions. Instead of having those conversations over and over again, I documented it.”
What started as a practical way to communicate with family became therapeutic for Atkinson. She connected with a large infertility community online and realized she wasn’t alone.
Atkinson says she wishes more couples would talk about their experience. It helps others realize there’s nothing shameful in it, she says.
“I remember crying when we first found out,” she says. “My body is not doing what it’s made to do. It was a really hard thing to grasp.”
Her husband, Josh, posted a sign on her bathroom mirror: You are not broken.
Atkinson went through three rounds of intrauterine insemination (IUI), which involves placing sperm into a woman’s uterus when she’s ovulating. Then she went through a round of in vitro fertilization (IVF), a treatment that combines a woman’s eggs and a man’s sperm in a laboratory to create an embryo. Then the embryo, or embryos, are transferred to the woman’s uterus through her cervix to enhance the chances of pregnancy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Fertility Clinic Success Rates Report, 24 percent of all cycles carried out in fertility clinic since 2017 resulted in a live birth.
Finally, Atkinson became pregnant and had twin girls who turned 3 in February. Five months after her twins were born, Atkinson became pregnant naturally and gave birth to another daughter.
These days, Atkinson is chasing around three little girls and continues to share stories and snapshots of her life on her Instagram account. One of her biggest pieces of advice to women starting down the road of fertility treatments is to never give up hope.
“Your journey is yours and it’s not going to look like anybody else’s,” she says. “Motherhood comes and looks different for everybody. Just don’t give up the hope. It may not look like how you thought it would look, but it’s still possible.”
The science behind the hope
Working daily to fulfill those hopes and dreams are local fertility doctors and nurses who embark on an emotional and physically demanding journey with couples eager to become parents.
Dr. John Schnorr of Coastal Fertility Specialists in Mount Pleasant says infertility is a fairly common disorder, impacting 15 percent of couples.
In about 30 percent to 40 percent of cases, the issue is with the man and the rest of the cases are a female factor, Schnorr says. Among women, the most common cause is age. As women get older, their eggs decrease either in number or quality, making it more difficult to get pregnant.
Today’s technology, Schnorr says, can help women become pregnant as they grow older. He usually starts with a series of tests that take about a month — X-rays, ultrasounds, blood work and checking sperm counts. Depending on what the tests reveal, Schnorr can determine the best course of action.
In about half of couples, tests will return normal. In those instances, Schnorr says they’ll start with simpler forms of treatment, such as ovulation inductions. These are often done with medications that stimulate the ovaries to produce and release eggs.
Dr. Stephanie Singleton of the Fertility Center of Charleston also points to the age of a woman as the most predictive factor of fertility.
“We’ve gotten so good at preserving our appearance and taking care of ourselves in so many ways, but unfortunately we can’t reverse age when it comes to ovarian function,” she says. “Keeping age in mind is incredibly important. Fertility starts to diminish at age 32 in women and it becomes increasingly more difficult in the late 30s.”
Doctors recommend if a woman under the age of 35 hasn’t been able to get pregnant within a year that she makes an appointment for testing. For women over the age of 35, the window for trying to get pregnant is six months.
Singleton urges couples to come in sooner rather than later, instead of waiting until they’re already anxious and have exhausted all the recommendations from friends and family.
“Often there are so many things we can do to help them,” she says. “Just coming in for a visit to talk about what those options are and doing the testing can be comforting to patients. At least they find out why things may not be working, and they can make educated decisions at that point.”
‘You’re not by yourself’
Mount Pleasant mom Jodie Snyder was one of the women whose infertility was unexplained. She and her husband went through the tests but there was no definitive answer. She underwent the IUI procedure, but it was unsuccessful. The second time she got pregnant but suffered a miscarriage.
Her third round resulted in a successful pregnancy and Snyder gave birth to daughter Ava, now 6 years old.
The path to motherhood certainly wasn’t easy, and Snyder says she wrestled with multiple emotions and struggled with her faith, wondering why she couldn’t have a healthy child.
Today, Snyder finds many of her friends have dealt with infertility.
“I felt so alone, but then I realized I just wasn’t,” she says. “You’re not by yourself. It’s not a taboo thing. Wanting to have a baby is natural for a lot of people and how you get there shouldn’t matter.”
Erin Watson has been a vocal advocate about infertility. Today, she’s a mom to a 7-year-old daughter, but eight years ago she was in the midst of fertility treatments after she and husband Matt learned he had a genetic disorder that would make natural pregnancy almost impossible.
The couple started Families for Fertility as a supportive resource and listening ear for other couples. They also have given one grant to a couple who was ultimately able to get pregnant.
Watson says the stress of fertility treatments is huge and she encourages couples to keep talking throughout the process.
“We try to tell people that communication is so important between you and your partner,” Watson says. It’s so stressful, so emotional, and people want to blame themselves. Make sure you’re staying in close communication.”
The same goes for talking through the financial piece of fertility treatments, which can total thousands of dollars. This is something both people need to agree is important, Watson says.
Doctors and patients alike urge couples to find a fertility clinic and staff they feel comfortable with. It’s an intimate process that can last months or even years, so finding a doctor you like and respect is critical.
Women who have walked this road readily admit it’s not easy, but, for them, the end result was worth it.
Snyder found comfort in her faith and the idea that maybe this was her path for a reason.
“Be encouraged. No, there’s not the 'Surprise, honey, I’m pregnant,' but there’s still so much beauty in it,” she says. “You’re creating a life. Yes, there’s a lot of science and human involvement, but there’s still this cosmic (component), the hand of God is in it.”