A Quest to Conceive: My Journey Through Unexplained Infertility

Unexplained infertility is one of the most frustrating diagnoses to receive. One hopeful parent-to-be shares her experience with pregnancy loss.

Man and woman sitting down and holding hands


Our story starts with a perfect streak of red across the inside of a toilet, first thing on a Monday morning—as pristine as if someone had taken an artist's paintbrush to the brightest crimson and swiped. But of course we could also start three years earlier, the first time we had unprotected sex in hopes it might yield two pink lines on a pregnancy test. Or the year before that when we got married, or two years before that when we first went to couples therapy to help determine whether we should get married, as one of us was certain they wanted children and the other was not sure. Or really it could start when I was born, as now it feels like everything that happened since has been somehow leading up to this chapter.

The morning I finally did see two pink lines on a pregnancy test—well, six pink lines on three pregnancy tests along with one bold "Pregnant" on a digital test—I couldn't stop laughing. Maybe uncontrollable laughter is how I process joy (it's the same response I had the night my husband proposed), but I will forever remember sitting on the bathroom floor, laughing and laughing in awe of the sight I saw. The sight that would-be parents like me pray to see for months or years on end and wonder if it will ever exist for them. And of course, a sight that other people in other bathrooms pray to not see.

There had been a year of trying "the old fashioned way," a year of tests—my hormones, his sperm, my fallopian tubes, my hormones again. That year also included reading the books, drinking the tea, wearing the bracelet, going to acupuncture, tracking my cycle in multiple ways. Eventually it was time to call in a fertility specialist and take more active measures. We planned to start with intrauterine insemination (IUI), and I was excited and nervous as I swallowed down the Letrozole pills in preparation for the procedure. Finally, an action beyond what we had been trying for years now, the classic one that seems to get most people pregnant, but for us, yielded no results.

We were traveling to Denver that weekend for a show my husband was playing. Taking those pills at night in the hotel felt like my fun little secret. Jamie was playing in his first headlining show at Red Rocks, a bucket list venue for many musicians, and we joked about it being "take your wife to work weekend." I was thrilled to be there to witness this moment in his career, and humming in the background of it all was the knowledge that we were stealthily taking real steps towards becoming parents. The night of the show I watched, beaming with pride, but growingly more distracted by an ache in my abdomen. Like the feeling of bad period cramps, the sensation worsened throughout the night and by the time we got back to the hotel, I confessed I was in pain and needed to lay down.

The whole flight home the next day it continued sharply, making it uncomfortable to walk through an airport, to sit in an airplane seat. I had an appointment with my fertility doctor the next day to get the ultrasound to determine whether it was time to take the trigger shot and do the IUI. The ultrasound showed that we were not in fact ready to move forward with the IUI, as the pain I had was a cyst that had ruptured. Not only could we not do the procedure that month, but would have to wait one whole cycle to make sure the cyst had fully resolved.

That month and a half crept by, but eventually we were ready to try again. I took the Letrozole, no cysts this time. Early on a Saturday morning in November, I made the coffee and got the car warmed up while my husband ejaculated into a cup in our bedroom. You have one hour from the time of filling the cup to the time of getting it in the hands of the doctor, which was ample time to get downtown, but still we hurried. After dropping it off, we went out for breakfast and waited. We were both a bit giddy and there was lots of laughing and something weirdly romantic about the whole thing. We picked up the "specimen," replete with the strongest swimmers, drove another half hour across town to the fertility clinic, and they popped it in. Quick, painless, voila.

I tried to keep my hopes in check—the ongoing plight of a person attempting to get pregnant—and when it didn't work I reminded myself that it rarely happens on the first try and set my sights on round two. The next month came, all the same steps, but when it was time to send in the swimmers to do their bidding, something was amiss. The doctor stopped mid-procedure and had us move to a different room so she could continue while the nurse did an abdominal ultrasound.

"Do you see me now?" she would say to the nurse.


"Do you see me now?"

It was like a twisted version of a Verizon commercial. All the while, I was deeply uncomfortable, holding my husband's hand and calling upon my yoga and meditation techniques to breathe through it. The nurse never did see her through the ultrasound, and after 40 minutes of attempts, my merciful doctor said, "I can't torture you any more. I've tried all the tricks in my book."

The catheter had not been able to get past my cervix—something, she said, that had never happened in her 30-year career.

Thanks to that terribly uncomfortable but illuminating attempted IUI, we learned that my cervix had been blocked. A couple weeks later, I was on the operating table, receiving a nice cocktail of anesthesia and being sent off to dreamland for the doctor to look around my uterus endoscopically and insert a Foley balloon to dilate my cervix. I would later joke to friends that the only thing missing up there was a birthday cake, since we already had balloons and a video camera.

The healing from this procedure took time, there was a course of hormones to take afterwards, but then we were essentially sent back to the beginning to try the old-fashioned way again. It was a fresh start, like taking an eraser to the dry-erase board of the past years of discouraging attempts to get pregnant. There had been an actual physical impediment standing in our way, and now it was ostensibly gone.

The first negative test post-procedure was a tough one, as of course I had imagined the cervical dilation to be our golden ticket. But a person trying to get pregnant is no stranger to disappointment, it was par for the course. The second cycle, no dice. But the third cycle…well, cut to: me laughing hysterically on the bathroom floor staring down six pink lines and the miraculous "PREGNANT."

My pregnancy was brief and beautiful, and now I reflect on that time as if those days were infused with light. Yes, I was exhausted. I was nauseous. I sometimes truly felt like shit. I was everything I had yearned to be for all the months of negative tests and all the "we'll try again next month"s. There are not many times in life where you feel like you are experiencing a dream come true, and mine had come.

So on that Monday morning when I turned around to flush my morning pee and saw that bright red streak, panic ensued. I know that bleeding during pregnancy can be completely normal and fine, but my heart pounded and my head was dizzy. The midwife was calm and empathetic as I cried into the phone and explained what I'd seen. She made an appointment for me to come in that morning.

By 11 a.m. I was on the ultrasound table, Jamie sitting at my feet and the ultrasound tech softly saying, "I'm so sorry. I don't see a heartbeat today."

"Can it come back?" I responded. No, it couldn't.

The baby was measuring nine weeks, indicating that he (we later learned he was a boy) had stopped growing two weeks ago. She let me up from the table, Jamie immediately scooped my shocked body up in a giant pants-less hug where he held me for a long time, and she handed me a box of tissues.

All of these freeze-frames replay in my mind now. The loveseat in the room where Jamie and I sat huddled together. The midwife Heather's kind eyes as she talked me through next steps.

"I know this happens all the time, " I said through sobs, "but I really didn't think it was going to happen to me." She tenderly offered that while yes, it is an unfortunately common part of fertility, each situation is unique and it doesn't make it hurt any less. She might have to give this talk regularly, but she made me feel singular and seen.

The tears flowed on the way home, and they continued that afternoon as I lay on the couch watching Bridesmaids, thankful to Kristen Wiig for intermittent laughter (that bridal shop scene!). They continued while I texted with a few friends who had had miscarriages to get their advice on which course of action to take—let it happen naturally, take the medicine, or do the D&C—and what to expect (in the end, I had to do all three, but that is a story for another day). Now tears have been my companion since that day, a daily practice, a surprise when I think they might have opted for some time off.

As uncertain as where to start this story was, there is no tidy ending. I did get the joy of being pregnant, of being a mother to a tiny unborn baby, and felt the absolute privilege of it in my body. This thing we grow up thinking is a given is just not so. It's not for me to know why my baby couldn't stay, and it's not for me to know what comes next.

I'm not crazy about the phrase "fertility journey." Maybe I've just heard it too many times and it contains a bit of an implied "you poor dear" subtext to me. I like "conception quest." It sounds more like the hero's journey that it is. It's "the long and winding road that leads to your door" (in the words of Paul McCartney).

Grief has joined me on my road now, and will remain. But healing has too. And always, hope. They walk with me as I move forward, one step at a time, into the unknown.

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