It feels unreal to finally be able to make this announcement: we are expecting a baby boy in July! We are overjoyed, and so anxious and excited to welcome this little one into our (Vander)house.
There have been times when I have doubted that I would ever make this announcement. The road to babyhood has not been a smooth one for us, and I wanted to explain a bit of our story to possibly help those who might be struggling. I believe that by sharing our difficult stories openly, we acknowledge God's sovereignty in our lives. Nothing that has happened during this process has been outside of his control, but you better believe that it was difficult to live through it and remember that he has a plan for our lives.
I'll try to keep a long story short, but if you've ever read anything on this blog, you'll know it's a struggle for me! This entire process began more than a year before Denny and I were married in October of 2013. In the fall of 2012, I made a few decisions about my body and how I wanted to live my life going forward. After a lifetime of being overweight, I resolved to become more active, to eat better, and to lose weight. To do this, I enrolled in Weight Watchers and started to increase the intensity of my workouts which primarily consisted of HIIT (high intensity interval training) aerobics and running. By Christmas, I had lost 20 pounds and was on my way to weighing less than I had since high school.
In February of 2013, a curious thing happened. I missed my period. I knew I wasn't pregnant, and there wasn't any medical reason why my period should be absent. I tried to ignore it and go about my life, but as month after month passed with no period, I was increasingly worried that something was seriously wrong with me.
By spring of 2013, I reached my goal weight and graduated from Weight Watchers. This was also around the happy time that Denny asked me to be his wife. With a wedding on the way, I was determined to keep up my new weight loss and fitness regime. I didn't stop counting calories or working out and in fact, I became even more focused on these aspects of my life.
With the wedding and married life swiftly approaching, I knew it was time to seek medical help with my secret problem of my missing cycles. I went to several doctors during the spring and summer of that year and was subjected to numerous tests and evaluations. None of the doctors had any clue what was wrong with me, nor did they seem interested in finding out. All that they could tell me is that I wasn't ovulating and I wouldn't be able to get pregnant naturally. One of them mentioned my diet and suggested that I try the Paleo diet to see if that helped anything. I brushed off that suggestion and, frustrated, gave up on seeking medical help and went back to focusing on preparing for the wedding.
On my wedding day, I weighed the lowest that I've ever weighed in my adult life and I was happy with the results of all of my hard work, sweat and deprivation. For a time, I forgot about the missing cycles. I was in no hurry to have children anyway and we were enjoying our lives as newlyweds.
During this time, I trained for and completed a half marathon. Running had become a big feature of my life, sometimes clocking in close to 25 miles per week during training. I lived my life according to my running and eating schedule. Everything had to be carefully regimented and balanced to properly fuel for running while also keeping my weight steady. It became an all out obsession to track my calories, macros, heart rate, weight, mileage, and anything else that related to my body that could be calculated, logged, added, subtracted, and obsessed over. I had numerous apps on my phone that helped me to track all of these things and I spent substantial chunks of my day entering information and planning.
It was at this point, when my body looked and felt the best that it ever had, that I was at my worst mentally. I knew I had gone off the deep end with everything that I was doing, and I also began to suspect that my diet and exercise were the root cause of my missing cycles despite being at my "ideal" weight. Women can (and often do) lose their periods when their body fat percentage drops below a certain a mark or they train very intensely for a sporting event. I had heard of this happening to Olympic athletes and ballerinas, neither of which came close to my situation. Nevertheless something (God) was nudging me to research further.
The breakthrough came when I found a message board with a group of women discussing Hypothalamic amenorrhea. This highly technical term refers to a type of amenorrhea (loss of period) brought on by a combination of calorie restriction, low body fat and excess exercise that burns too many calories for the maintenance of a proper level of fat within the body. Not a lot is known about this condition and frustratingly little research exists as to its cause or how to treat it. The only thing anyone seems to agree on is that there is only one cure: to gain weight and reduce exercise until your body "resets" and your natural cycles resume. If you've made it this far in my ramble, I hope you can appreciate how much I resisted and doubted this information. The thought of giving up everything I had worked so hard to achieve and maintain for only the hope of a cure was just too much to ask. I decided to compromise by adding some more fat to my diet and reducing my cardio activity in favor of strength training instead. It was a slow process to even make these small changes.
After a few months of trying this new regime, nothing was happening. I hadn't gained any weight, my periods had not returned and I was just as focused on diet and exercise as I'd ever been. It was time for a big change. I took advantage of the 2014 holiday season by eating more and working out less. I stopped tracking my calories entirely and tried to eat intuitively. No surprise that I started to pack on the pounds with this method. But I knew what I had to do and I resisted every single impulse to restrict or go back to my old ways. Ironically, the same will power that had gotten me into this situation was also going to get me out of it. When I set my mind to a goal, nothing will stop me.
Throughout the spring of 2015, I watched as my weight spiraled upward and my fitness declined. I would be lying completely if I said that this was an easy process. Every pound gained felt like the end of the world, yet I looked totally normal to the average person. And in March, my hard work was rewarded when I had my first period in over two years! I couldn't believe that this crazy "treatment" had worked, and also that I had done this terrible thing to my body. I knew then that I was on the right track, but it didn't make it any easier. I didn't allow myself to go back to restricting food or hardcore workouts for fear of damaging my progress. So all throughout that summer I had to keep fighting my impulses to scale back my food or start ramping up my workout routine again.
Then I got pregnant. It happened so quickly after we officially began "trying" that I was caught off guard. We were ecstatic! Everything was falling into place and the timing seemed perfect.
Right away, I didn't feel well. Having never been pregnant before, I credited a lot of my discomfort to early pregnancy symptoms and tried to get on with my life. But only a month in, I had my first trip to the ER. I was having such excruciating pain in my abdomen that I was convinced something was terribly wrong. But they told me that everything looked fine, and as far as they were concerned, I was having a healthy pregnancy. Less than a month later, I was back at my doctor's office because I was experiencing bleeding and cramping. Once again, we were told that everything was fine and the baby even had a heartbeat! We were sent home with a packet of information on what to expect for the rest of the pregnancy.
The next night, I was awoken at 2:00 a.m. in severe pain. We quickly bundled ourselves into the car and once again headed for the emergency room. This time we would not leave with a happy diagnoses. After spending all night in the worst ER of all time we were told that the baby no longer had a heartbeat and we should prepare for a miscarriage. We were dumped outside with a single sheet of information and told to go home to wait for it to happen.
I can't describe the amount of fear and panic and disbelief I was in. I was forced to go through all of the stages of grief in a single morning. I can't believe this is how women experiencing a miscarriage are treated. There is a very blasé attitude toward miscarriage from the medical community at a time when women need the most support possible. The fear of the unknown ahead was even worse than the knowledge that we had just lost our baby.
Had I been properly prepared for what to expect with that miscarriage, I'm sure it would have been less traumatizing for me. As it was, I had some information from Google and some leftover painkillers from my first ER visit. Armed with these paltry resources, I basically gave birth at home over the course of that day and the next night. I know that an early miscarriage can't possibly equate to a full term live birth, but in the fear and isolation of that experience, it seemed equivocal to me, minus the happy ending.
No one really talks about the reality of miscarriage. I did a ton of research and was on a million message boards trying to make sense of it all. The recovery is not quick, either. While I was back to work the following week, I continued to bleed for over a month. This is considered normal for a "spontaneous abortion" (unfortunate term for a natural miscarriage). I also had over the top hormonal swings and mood dips, just as I would have if I had given birth to a live baby. These lasted until I finally resumed my cycle in November of 2015.
The emotional recovery from that miscarriage took much longer. I was adrift in life with no goal, no anchor, no focus. I longed for the baby I would never have and counted milestones as if I was still pregnant. I couldn't return to diet and weight loss because my goal was to get pregnant again as quickly as possible. Yet I wasn't emotionally ready to begin that process again until late spring.
By April of 2016, I was pregnant for the second time. This time around, I had done what I could to prepare myself for a healthy pregnancy. I had switched doctors and had a plan in place for any early complications. Unfortunately, none of my planning could stop me from bleeding again, this time beginning on my 33rd birthday (happy birthday!). I immediately felt the familiar swoop of doom despite the doctor assuring me that everything looked normal, and that there was "nothing we can do if the pregnancy is already failing." How comforting. In fact, there are plenty of things that a good and caring doctor can do, both before a woman gets pregnant and during the critical early weeks of her pregnancy. This doctor simply didn't have the time nor care to look into those avenues and as a result, I lost the second baby after an agonizing two weeks of limbo.
This time, I was a hardened vet and really shut myself off from it emotionally. I knew what to expect physically, and I went through yet another day or two of "labor" followed by the familiar month+ of recovery. I was utterly exhausted of being pregnant, and I needed a new plan.
I contacted OU Physicians Reproductive Medicine and got scheduled with a reproductive endocrinologist who specializes in helping women with recurrent pregnancy loss. Cruelly, a woman is usually not considered a candidate for this treatment until she has had three or more consecutive losses. Again, underlining the medical community's complete disconnect with the physical and emotional trauma of miscarriage. There was no way in hell I was going to sit around waiting for my third one before seeking treatment. Luckily, this new doctor agreed, and I met with her in late July.
I had learned so much about hormones and pregnancy and miscarriage by this point that I was able to fluently discuss options with her, and to feel confident in her treatment path. She ordered a battery of blood tests for me and Denny that would check everything from hormones to chromosomes. In one exhausting day, I had 14 vials of blood drawn. I also had an ultrasound procedure to check on my uterus. A month later, all of the tests had come back negative and we were told we could start trying again, but this time armed with a hormone supplement called Progesterone. Progesterone is an important little hormone when it comes to conceiving and carrying a healthy pregnancy. It's not very well studied or monitored right now but there are theories and good evidence that a low amount of Progesterone can lead to early pregnancy loss. Since there's no harm in taking extra, it made sense to try it to see if it made any difference. I can't say that I felt very confident.
I got pregnant again in October of last year and was already dutifully taking the Progesterone which made me feel terrible. It heightened every bad hormonal symptom I ever had and was also a pain to remember to take twice daily. I had to wait a full 7 weeks before I could go in for a viability ultrasound to see how things were going. 7 weeks is a long, long time when you've experienced two losses. But when the day finally came, we got good news: a baby! With a heartbeat! Everything looked normal, and from there, I was given weekly ultrasounds to check up on the pregnancy which alleviated a lot of my fears. Proof that doctors do have the technology to assure their patients that nothing is wrong or to spot early warning signs when something is.
Another clue that everything was going okay with the pregnancy is that I was sick. Majorly sick. "Morning sickness" does not begin to cover it. Never again will I marginalize any woman's experience with pregnancy nausea and exhaustion. It's not a cute sitcom plot line or a dainty spit in a toilet once a morning. In my experience, it was like having a severe stomach flu for almost two months straight. I missed every single holiday and holiday event. I was too tired to be awake past 7:30 or 8:00 in the evening. Every moment that I was awake, I was nauseated and exhausted. I wasn't allowed to take anything except vitamins for these symptoms either. And when I got sick with a cold in December, it was the worst cold I've ever had and all completely unmedicated. I regretted my decision to get pregnant. I regretted gaining the weight back. I regretted doing anything and everything that had gotten me into this situation. It was so disheartening to finally have what I wanted, a healthy pregnancy, but to be hating every moment of it.
On Christmas Eve morning, I woke up and didn't immediately feel sick. I was able to eat something other than bread that day for the first time in two months. I was able to drink water without having to add lemon to it and take only small sips like I had been forced to do up until that point. It was like a tiny pinprick of light had appeared at the end of the tunnel. I was approaching my second trimester, when most of these symptoms die down (although for some unfortunate women, they continue for the entire pregnancy, definitely a fear of mine). Also, I was given permission to stop taking the Progesterone which was heightening all of my symptoms.
From that point on, I slowly improved and could begin to feel thankful for this pregnancy at last. I "graduated" from my reproductive endocrinologist with the all clear to start seeing an obgyn for the "supervision of a normal pregnancy." Normal pregnancy. Two words I thought would never go together for me.
It's hard not to feel utterly helpless and out of control when it comes to our fragile earthly bodies. When we're healthy, we take for granted the complex systems and inner workings of our flesh that God so expertly designed. But when things go off the rails, we immediately question why he would let this happen and why our "perfect" bodies fail us. The truth is, these bodies are temporary. And all of the time we spend obsessing about them, adorning them, worrying about them, and subjecting them to our will is time taken away from our true calling on this earth: to be about God's work and to bring him glory. I was humbled and practically brought to my knees before I could see this truth clearly. Job 1:21 says, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised." No matter what happens to us, good or bad, it's for God's glory.
So, little man in my womb, I hope you know that you are loved and wanted and marked for a great purpose on this earth. It's no accident that you are here at this exact time. No other person could be you. No other person could fulfill God's calling that he has for you. You will face trials and tribulations just like your parents, but my greatest wish for you is that you will acknowledge the power of God in your life and submit to him and his will with all humility and thankfulness.