Known mostly across the interwebs for her recent home remodel, Zoe Bleak (pronounced like ‘steak’) is a new mom and practicing renovator/designer. But to those close to her, she’s much more than just her beautiful home. She’s deep and thoughtful and empathetic. Zoe has a history of opening up about taboo topics—from the hard numbers of her home remodel to her real-time experience and agony of years of unexplained infertility.
The community, support and healing she found in speaking openly about the thoughts and feelings that accompanied her through her journey to motherhood opened her eyes to the (usually secret) widespread heartache and shared paths of so many others. Since then she’s vowed to always speak openly about her story, her deeper feelings, and her faith, in hopes of continuing to bring others together in what shouldn’t be our loneliest of times. We’re honored to share her story.
No one ever told me that pregnancy after infertility was going to be almost as emotionally exhausting as infertility itself. I’m not sure if my feelings and experiences are reciprocated by other infertility warriors out there, but I have a feeling there are at least a few whose trauma was never quite laid to rest after seeing that positive pregnancy test we always dreamed of seeing.
I also understand that no infertility journey is the same. The way we chose to battle ours was what we felt was best for us during that time. To be honest, I hold a lot of guilt in and around our journey to parenthood. I know so many others who have fought a longer and harder battle to get to where we are now, but at the same time, I never think time or severity of condition should ever dictate the validity, impact or struggle of one’s longing to start their family. No matter how long you’ve been trying, what tests, procedures, or medications you’ve attempted along the way… your feelings and pleadings are valid. You are strong. There is a plan for you. Stay faithful. We started trying to get pregnant at the beginning of 2016. We were three years married, had moved three times to two different states, my husband was in his first big job since finishing grad school the year before, I had a great full-time consulting job that had me traveling all the time… We felt like real adults for the first time in our lives. I had always imagined having kids young, but we both wanted a sense of stability before bringing a child into the picture, and we were finally at a place where we were starting to feel that.
About 4 months after going off of birth control, the anxiety started coming in strong waves. I knew it could take a few months for a woman’s body to regulate after being on birth control for so long, but it was at this point that the fear started creeping in and I first began thinking that this could be a much harder road than I initially anticipated.
I was silent about it at first. I would quietly Google concerns and questions into the late hours of the night as my husband lay sleeping beside me. “How long until your body returns to normal after going off the pill?” “Does XXX contraceptive cause infertility?” “What foods to avoid when trying to conceive” “Early signs and symptoms of infertility” I’d search until my worry decreased a little, until I’d find an article or answer to put my mind at ease for another month.
Soon enough, it had been a year. And then 18 months. We had moved to Nashville, and, knowing we’d be there long-term, decided it was time to seek professional help. Like anyone else who has walked this path before, any infertility journey will most likely look the same upfront. You choose a doctor, have a consultation session where you talk through your medical history, your symptoms, your ideal path forward… and then do what feels like endless diagnostic work to really get a lay of the land. Lots of ultrasounds, monthly monitoring, blood work, hormonal medications, more invasive procedures to ensure your reproductive organs are working properly.
We went through at least a year’s worth of diagnostic testing and monitoring. It was draining— just as I suspected it would be, and more so for me than for my husband. We aren’t the best talkers to begin with (I’m a deep thinker and a terrible communicator), so I found myself often riding my emotional roller coaster alone (and I’m sure he did the same), rarely expressing how hard this journey was for me. I felt like it was changing me as a person, and even worse, affecting my faith and spirituality, which was scary for me.
It was around this time that I started writing about my feelings, my fears, and my overall experience dealing with infertility (@bleak_mind). It helped me release so much pent-up pain and anxiety (as nerve-wracking as it was opening up about it all), and helped me connect to other friends and women who had been dealt the same cards in life. It was therapeutic for me to be understood in such a vulnerable way; and I loved hearing the stories and advice from others close to me. It also helped me realize how rare it is for women to open up about this topic and about the real feelings and emotions that surface through it all.
We had done most of the diagnostic work; I was going to see an acupuncturist once a week. She had me taking all these Chinese herbs and topical hormonal creams (on top of the daily pills and medications my fertility doctor had prescribed for me). One day my husband looked at me and said, “Why are you taking all of this?! Do you even know what you’re putting in your body? How do you know if it’s even doing anything? Why are you putting yourself through all of this?!”
It was harsh (and of course I thought, How dare he say anything, when obviously I was doing all of this in desperation to have his baby!), but to be honest, he was completely right. With infertility, it’s so easy to get caught up and obsess about doing everything you can possibly do to get your baby here as fast as possible. You put your body, mind, and heart through so much stress and anguish and ups and downs. It’s easy to lose focus on the big picture and what you’re actually doing to yourself.
I had to take a step back every now and then and reassess if the steps we were taking (the medications, the procedures, the doctors/specialists) were worth it for us. Were they helping or hindering? Causing more stress or easing my anxiety? Moving us forward or keeping us at a stalemate? Was what the doctor presenting necessary or just a last-ditch effort that may not have been 100% tailored to what we needed?
After all the diagnostic work, our fertility doctor was never able to find anything “wrong” with either one of us. I had him remove a cyst that had been lingering around my ovary, as a last resort to eliminate any possible reasons we couldn’t get pregnant on our own. Thinking it was a major success (once our doctor was in there, he found that my fallopian tube was actually wrapped around the cyst!), we walked away hugely hopeful that we were “cured” and expected to be pregnant in the coming months. I was shocked when that didn’t happen. We kept moving forward, hopeless and just wanting to find some sort of new normal. We both passively refocused our attention and stopped going to the fertility doctor. We were well into year three of our infertility journey and decided to stop thinking about the fact we were still without a baby in our home.
We jumped deeper into our jobs. We traveled. I started (for once in my life) a really consistent workout routine. We treated ourselves to nice dates and dinners around town. We bought (and renovated) a house. I stopped peeing on strips and taking my temperature to track my ovulation each month. We had sex when we wanted to. We focused on ourselves, on our relationship. Of course, the longing for a baby was always there at the back of our minds, but we stopped letting it be this all-consuming dark cloud over our heads every day of the year.
I always hated when people advised me to “stop thinking about it and it will happen.” I thought that was naïve and obviously impossible. But now I get it. Of course, we never completely stopped thinking about it, but distracting ourselves from the pain and exhaustion of it all for a little while was beneficial, even if all it did was help us find ourselves again.
A year after my surgery we decided to re-visit the fertility clinic. It had been so long since we had been there that we were basically treated as new patients again. We met with our doctor for another consult session. He wanted to double my dose of Femara that I had been prescribed earlier on. (Femara is a similar hormonal medication to Chlomid, one that stimulates your body to ovulate, but is known to have less side effects). If it didn’t work after a couple of months, we planned to move ahead with an IUI (intrauterine insemination) procedure. Imagine my shock at seeing those two lines appear on a pregnancy test a couple months later. New Year’s Day, 2020. It felt like a strong premonition of good things to come, starting off a new year, a new decade, even, with a sign like that. I was elated. And scared out of my mind. I immediately thought that it was too good to be true. My husband didn’t even fully believe it until I had taken three more tests, as well as two rounds of blood work to absolutely confirm that, in fact, I was pregnant and this was real for us. A baby! Our baby! Inside of me! Finally.
Infertility robbed us of a lot of the simple joys that pregnancy brings. I would have preferred living in a blissful ignorance, but in dealing with infertility for so many years, you learn to keep your expectations low and to anticipate the worst, almost as a way of guarding yourself. I never thought about how that new way of thinking and feeling would affect my nine months growing life. I didn’t realize that years of thinking my body didn’t work properly or thinking that I wasn’t capable of creating life would cause such extreme anxiety around my confidence in being able to grow and sustain life.
I also didn’t realize that my long wait for pregnancy would make any hard day, annoying symptom or negative thought cause me incredible amounts of guilt. I would think back to those days of longing for this (and all the other’s currently pleading to be where I was), and I hated myself for ever thinking a bad thought, no matter what I was going through.
I wanted so badly to be strong. But I felt like I was everything BUT strong. I usually just felt fragile and weak and scared. That seemed to be the overall result of life after infertility—living in constant fear that it was all too good to be true. We started out with twins. Yes, really. We were shocked, too. It took some time for me to mourn the loss of my idealized image of motherhood after all these years of waiting. Gone were the days of quietly snuggling my fresh little one because I knew the life of twins was going to be constantly chaotic—exciting, but stressful. We were ready and eager. Our first two ultrasounds were with our fertility doctor. After seeing exceptional growth at both appointments, he confidently “graduated” us from the fertility clinic and sent us on our way to be cared for from an OB from there on out.
Our first appointment with our new OB was 11 weeks into my pregnancy. I was nervous about starting a brand-new relationship with a care provider, especially one who didn’t understand the long road we had been on before getting to her. I wasn’t one to force that story on anyone right out of the gate, but deep down, I longed for her to understand, hoping she’d treat us a little more softly, and kindly, with empathy and patience.
I walked into that appointment a nervous wreck. I remember crying softly in the waiting room, freaking my husband out a little bit. I had awful dreams the night before and my anxiety was creeping in. I felt like something was wrong, but had no signs, other than my emotions, to think that could be true.
The OB was nice. I’m not sure if she really knew of our history. We made small talk, and then she started the routine ultrasound to see for herself how big these twins had gotten.
I’ve replayed the next 10 minutes over and over again in my mind a million times… “I can’t seem to find a heartbeat for Baby A… I’m not seeing… I’m sorry… I’m so sorry…”
My mind wasn’t comprehending what she was saying. I wasn’t reacting, which I think confused her and made her keep apologizing over and over again in order to get the point across that we were now left with only one baby. Baby A was gone. No heartbeat. No more.
Then it hit me. I locked eyes with my husband, which is when the tears came. The OB started explaining what was happening… that it wasn’t my fault… that this sometimes happens with twins… etc. I was still staring at Nate, nodding (I think), in shock, again, and feeling like I was choking and breathless. I hadn’t had to process negative news like this since our first few years of infertility.
I spent years thinking my body wasn’t made for this. My infertility trauma was triggered during that ultrasound, and from there on out, my mind would constantly assume that we would never make it to the finish line. The loss of Baby A was so heart-wrenchingly unsurprising for me. My mind just kept repeating: “My body wasn’t made for this.” Every week since then I walked on pins and needles. I knew that my mind and body were intricately connected to one another, so I would try my hardest to be brave and to quickly shove out any negative thought that crept in about the validity of the life inside me, about my capability of sustaining it, about our likelihood to make it to the delivery room at the right time, just in case my dark subconscious could in any way affect the health of the baby boy I was growing.
It made mourning the loss of Baby A extremely hard to do. Every time I found myself crying about it, I’d cry harder thinking I subconsciously wasn’t excited about healthy Baby B. The layers of guilt felt suffocating. Guilt for being lucky enough to be pregnant at all, guilt at not being immediately enthusiastic about the twins from the beginning, guilt for potentially doing something wrong during the first trimester that affected the health of Baby A, guilt for not mourning properly, guilt for not focusing more and being more excited about the sweet little one I was still growing inside of me…
But as I attempted to ignore this guilt and dismiss the fears and anxieties and negative thoughts, they piled up in some back corner of my brain. And when something really did happen to shake my bones. They all came pouring out and would send me spiraling into true panic. (Who decided that baby kicks should be the single sign a mother watches for in order to confirm the level of health and validity of life of her unborn child?! I have some choice words for that individual.)
And yet, I’d had no real reason to fear since that awful week 11 ultrasound. Everything had been fine… normal… average… I just wasn’t letting myself think that things were okay, because I still, even after making it well past 20 weeks, thought this was all too good to be true.
There was a turning point toward the middle of the third trimester that I had to choose to reset myself once again. To choose to give myself grace through the rest of my pregnancy. I had to learn to confront the fears that crept in. To listen to them. To examine them. To analyze them. I sometimes even let them sit with me for a while… but never again let them control me or cause me more unnecessary pain.
I had been going back and forth as to whether I was going to have an unmedicated labor or not, and after all of this, I decided to prepare for it. I wanted it to be my way of proving to myself that my body was strong and capable again. I knew that anything could happen to interrupt my labor plan, but I was so glad that it worked out the way I wanted. It was empowering and terrifying, but so rewarding for me. I was so proud of myself. And it brought me my sweet, perfect, darling boy, which was the greatest gift of all.
Patience and empathy have taken on new meanings for me after battling infertility, and now also a loss, alongside so many other warriors and mothers. I’m quicker to cherish a hard moment. I’m able to relate on a deeper level with other women that have experienced any type of hardship on the road to motherhood—infertility, miscarriage, or otherwise. For so long our struggle felt like a curse, but now that we’re on the other side, there are so many blessings and lessons learned that have come from it that I know I’ll value for the rest of my life. Ellis was born on September 7, 2020 at 3:11 p.m., after about 4.5 hours of active labor. He boastfully showed off his strong lungs and made us proud with his full head of hair. Having him in our arms after all this time is still unreal. My husband and I look at each other every now and then and say, “I can’t believe he’s finally here. That he’s ours!” We’re not just babysitting someone else’s baby!
I may have over-glamorized the idea of motherhood in my head. It’s so hard. So rewarding, but also a much bigger adjustment than I was imagining. I’ve quickly realized that nothing can 100% prepare you for how to perfectly care for your newborn no matter how long you’ve waited or plead for them. Don’t get me wrong. I have loved and cherished every single second with Ellis so far, but I definitely underestimated what it would take to tackle every day with the positivity I thought would come so naturally for me after wanting this so badly.
Everyone says the newborn phase goes by too quickly, so even on the hard days, I try to savor every moment and not focus too much on what’s to come—when things are easier, or he has more of a personality, or he’s sleeping better, or not attached to my breast all the time.
Even when he’s being difficult, or when he’s really fussy, I try to find little moments throughout the day that bring me joy—when he holds my finger during a feeding, when he makes little grunting noises as he falls asleep on me, when he locks eyes with me and lets out the loudest, bubbliest poop I’ve ever heard.
He’s simply the best, even on the hardest of days. I love him so, so much and feel so lucky that he chose me as his mama.
Now that we’re on the other side of our infertility journey (*fingers crossed*), I wish I could go back and give myself a hug, or at least give myself the tiniest glimpse at our current reality. It’s messy and beautiful and exhausting and absolutely 100% worth every second of the last few years. When we were in the thick of it, it was so easy to focus all of my attention on what wasn’t there. I wish I would have learned earlier on to appreciate and count all the many blessings God had graced us with all along the way, even if it wasn’t what we were praying for at the time.
I’ve learned so much about myself after all this time. It’s changed me—sometimes for the better, sometimes not so much. But I’m stronger now. I’m more proud of myself and my body than ever before. I know we’re so incredibly blessed to be here with Ellis finally earth-side. There are still way too many others out there currently struggling with their own battle with infertility. To you, I say, stay faithful. Stay strong. Stay true to you. Don’t feel obligated to agree to everything the doctors suggest. Don’t lose yourself in the battle. Don’t ignore your relationship with your partner. Put yourself first. Trust your intuition and what you know is best for your body and your mental health. Find others walking a similar path and lean on them for strength and support. We get it. We know all too well the emotional roller coaster you are on. Find a way to talk about your feelings.
Your celebration day will come, probably not at all when you expect it, so do all you can to make your dream a reality, but don’t put the rest of your life on hold to get there. And to all those other mamas out there who are curious about how to help support a friend or loved one currently battling the road of infertility or loss—pray, meditate, light a candle, send positive vibes… whatever your thing is. When we were in the thick of our visits to the fertility clinic, I had a friend who would reach out consistently, asking what specifically she could pray for that week. It was the best, most impactful outreach I remember getting. It felt more than just surface-level.
I also always appreciated seeing people acknowledge those struggling when sharing Mother’s Day posts and pregnancy announcements. Topics like loss and infertility are just recently becoming more commonly talked about across the internet and in our social circles. Knowing that those celebrating were cognizant of those simultaneously suffering was always heartwarming to hear or read; it really helps to make those hard-to-celebrate moments a little easier for us to get through.
I’ll admit, sometimes it felt selfish of me to expect that recognition… but perhaps there is an even greater lesson to be learned right there: everyone has something they are silently suffering with. And being aware of that in every situation of life is important in helping to unite us as a community with greater charity, respect, and understanding. Be slower to judge and faster to love those you cross paths with. After all, you never know what kind of hidden battle they are fighting that day.