When Sarah Bozinovich and her husband, Joe, decided to start a family, they were amazed by how quickly they were on the road to parenthood. "I went off birth control in April and was pregnant in May," says Bozinovich, of Mokena, Illinois. About a year and a half after their daughter's arrival, the couple was ready to expand their family. But they'd try for more than two years and endure many medical tests and fertility treatments to have the second child they so badly wanted. Like many other parents, they struggled with secondary infertility, the inability to conceive or carry a baby to term after having one or more children. Says Bozinovich, who was 27 when her problems began, "It's so surprising because no one could tell me why I couldn't get pregnant, when I got pregnant so easily before."
Most parents have a mental image of their ideal family, and if they find themselves unable to make that happen, it can be devastating. Infertility is heartbreaking and stressful, whether you have a child or not. In fact, being a parent adds a layer of complexity. For one thing, parents are immersed in the world of kids, so it's impossible to avoid all the babies and pregnant bellies that remind you of what you're missing. Plus, "parents with secondary infertility don't often get much sympathy, so they end up feeling as though they don't have a right to be sad," says Marie Davidson, Ph.D., a psychologist at Fertility Centers of Illinois. In fact, they're often told to appreciate the child they have (as if they don't). Finally, many parents feel guilt on two fronts: for not giving their child a sibling and for directing some of their focus and resources away from that child.
One of the most frustrating aspects is that trying to get pregnant involves so much waiting: waiting to ovulate, waiting for test results, and waiting for next month to try again. We asked experts, as well as moms dealing with infertility, for tips on how to make the journey more manageable.
We don't know what causes most cases of secondary infertility, says Jamie Grifo, M.D., Ph.D., program director of the New York University Fertility Center, in New York City. "The majority of the time, though, it reflects the fact that you're older now, so it's simply more difficult to get pregnant." The reality is that for women, fertility peaks at age 25 and drops by half between ages 30 and 40. As we age, egg quality declines and we're more likely to develop fibroids and endometriosis, which contribute to infertility. Other factors such as adding extra weight, taking new meds, or having surgery since your last pregnancy can be an issue. It may also be that your partner's sperm quality or production is now poor.
With each year that passes, your chances of conceiving decrease significantly, says Julie Tan, M.D., a gynecologist at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Reproductive Medicine, in Ohio. Sometimes even doctors downplay infertility, she notes. Most experts recommend seeing your doc after a year of unsuccessful unprotected sex if you're under age 35 and after six months if you're over 35. But if you're worried sooner, speak up. "If it's been three months and you're concerned, it's not too early to get evaluated, even though it may be premature to treat," explains Dr. Grifo. "Waiting a year to find out there's an issue with sperm count or egg supply can lead to a lot of heartache." You can start with your primary-care doc or ob-gyn but if you're not pregnant after a few months or feel your doctor isn't taking the situation seriously, see a fertility specialist.
During an infertility workup, you and your partner will be asked questions about your current health and medical history. "We're looking to see what might have changed from previous pregnancies," says Dr. Tan. "If we find something we can fix—say, removing scar tissue—we'll start there." Also expect blood work and ultrasounds to determine whether you're ovulating and to check your egg supply, an X-ray to look for blocked fallopian tubes, and a semen analysis to measure sperm count and quality.
Sit down with your partner and make a "fertility road map" that outlines what you're willing to try and for approximately how long, suggests Dr. Davidson. "Would you do in vitro fertilization? Would you consider an egg donor? How much money can you spend on treatment? Then build in a timeline," she says. "When you at least loosely define a time frame, dealing with infertility doesn't feel like an endless void."
Anger, sadness, and anxiety are common among parents struggling to expand their family. "Having a child already doesn't make going through infertility any easier," says Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health, in Waltham, Massachusetts, and author of Conquering Infertility. Meeting with a mental-health professional or seeking out blogs and online groups for secondary infertility can help. The website of the National Infertility Association, resolve.org, is a good place to start.
Undergoing fertility treatment requires precise scheduling of frequent tests and procedures—a tricky proposition when you're a parent. "I've had to go to the doctor early in the morning three times a week for testing," says Bozinovich. "Who can you find to babysit at 7 a.m. on a weekday?" (The answer: a grandparent or, when all else fails, a nurse at the doctor's office.) Your instinct might be to keep your treatment a secret, but it can make your life easier to enlist a friend or relative to help with child care. Also, choose a doctor's office you're comfortable with. You'll be spending a lot of time there; a compassionate staff can make treatment easier.
No matter how many times you've been asked, "When will you have another baby?" the query still stings. Try coming up with a quick comeback—like 'We actually love having an only child'—and commit it to memory, says Dr. Davidson. Another heartbreaker: your child's pleas for a sibling. Try, "You're so wonderful we don't need anyone besides you." Or maybe admit, "We'd like nothing more than to make you a big brother. We hope it'll happen."
One of the biggest challenges is balancing enjoying the child you have with wondering if you'll ever get the larger family you want. "I watched my daughter take her first steps and thought, 'Maybe I'll never have this again,'"‰'' Bozinovich says. (Her problem was never pinpointed, but, happily, she went on to have two more children.) That is tough, the experts agree. "Worrying about what's happening next robs you of the pleasure of the moment," says Dr. Davidson. "It's not easy, but counseling and talking yourself through the rough moments can help you say, 'I'm doing the best I can, and meanwhile I'm living my life.'"‰"