I was infertile and thought I'd never have kids
By Lisa Twang, May 16, 2019
@lisatwang is a former journalist, editor and PR manager, and a proud mother to a three-year-old girl, Tully. However, there was a time when she thought she would never hold her own child in her arms.
In 2013, she was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder where the ovaries become enlarged and develop follicles surrounding the eggs, causing infertility. Over two years, Lisa and her husband went through rounds of fertility tests and treatments, but despite their best efforts, they failed to conceive.
During her struggle with infertility, Lisa was depressed and jealous after seeing friends and family members give birth to their first, second and even third children. She realised that infertility is a secret condition many women grapple with, but rarely speak about because it feels so shameful.
This story is written in Lisa’s own words. She hopes to break the silence around infertility, and encourage others that there is still hope... and they are not alone.
“I will never, ever, have my own baby.”
This thought crossed my mind many, many times over two years of trying to conceive. Trying and failing to have a baby was incredibly frustrating, sad and anxiety-inducing.
My husband J and I decided we were ready to have kids in 2013, after we’d been married for 4 years. I visited my gynae for a check-up and she said my health was good - as soon as I was ready, I could go off the Pill and start trying for a baby.
Not long afterwards, J and I moved to London for his MBA course, which would last for one-and-a-half years. It seemed like a perfect time to have a child - I was doing freelance work while he studied, so both of us were relatively relaxed. We also joked about having a baby born in the UK who could apply for British citizenship in the future.
Moving to London at 30, I never realised how hard it would be to conceive.
My periods have always been irregular - in general, they only came once every two to three months. Once, I didn’t menstruate for nine months straight. It was most likely due to stress, my gynae said, which made sense: I had been busy writing my Master's thesis at the time. I was prescribed some hormone pills, which kick-started my periods back into action, and life went on as usual.
After going off the Pill, I eagerly awaited the good news - a + sign on a pregnancy test kit that would tell me I was carrying a baby.
At first, I wasn’t too discouraged when a few months went by and the pregnancy tests all came back with the - sign. My gynae in Singapore had told me that it would take about six months to conceive, and if I still hadn’t by then, I could go back to her to discuss fertility treatment options. So I continued to wait.
After six months went by and there was still no baby, I started to worry. Was something wrong with me? I decided to see a GP to ask about my situation. In the UK, residents all have access to the NHS (National Healthcare System), which provides free healthcare for many basic treatments. My GP referred me to the Chelsea Westminster Hospital, which would run fertility tests for me.
Doing the fertility tests was a lot more emotional than I expected. The experience feels like a blur to me now, but I do recall sitting in a gyane’s office, getting vaginal swabs and doing ultrasounds, with the jelly-like lubricant freezing my skin. It was cold, sterile, and nerve-wracking.
The gynae running the ultrasound test pointed to the screen. I could see my ovaries, but there was something different about them - there appeared to be little bubbles growing from them. “See these? They’re called cysts, and you have quite a few of them,” the gynae pointed out. “Your eggs haven’t been released through menstruation, so your follicles have kept growing and are now forming cysts.”
I was in shock. The word ‘cyst’ sounded terrifying to me.
That was when I learned had polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). The diagnosis left me reeling from shock, and I had never felt so helpless, worried and scared.
I had never even heard of PCOS, so I had to look it up. Thankfully, I realised it was not life-threatening in my own case - it was a result of hormonal imbalance. Women with PCOS lack the progesterone hormone, and have an excess of androgens (male hormones), leading to symptoms like irregular periods, unwanted body hair, and acne. They also have an excess of insulin, which leads their bodies to create more male hormones.
PCOS is one of the leading causes of infertility in women. Yet, I had never heard of a single person who had it. In fact, my married friends were busy popping babies like there was no tomorrow.
Although PCOS causes infertility, conceiving naturally is still possible - just harder than it would be for the average woman.
After my diagnosis, I suddenly felt left out, because my friends were sharing stories about their kids and I didn’t know how to respond. Most of them knew I was trying for a baby, and would ask about my progress. But I felt embarrassed to tell them that I was having fertility problems, and only told my family and a few select friends about my PCOS condition.
I kept in touch with my friends back home via postcards and messages, but very few friends were aware that I was struggling with fertility issues.
The process of fertility treatment was a long, drawn-out one. Under the NHS, many treatments are completely free, but there is a long waiting list for patients. This meant that I could only visit the gynae every two to three months.
Worse still, I was assigned to a different gynae all the time - so I had to explain my situation over and over as he or she would look at my records and ask questions. There was no continuity for me as a patient, and because I never built a rapport with my gynaes, every single visit felt really cold and clinical.
At first, I asked the gynaes to prescribe me hormone pills again - the same kind that had helped restore my periods years before. Instead, I was asked to do more tests first so they could assess my fertility.
The fertility tests made me feel like a lab rat, or a guinea pig. I had to spread my legs and have a speculum inserted into my vagina so many times that it started to feel routine.
Once, I had a hysterosalpingogram (HSG): a thin tube called a cannula was inserted into my cervix and iodine was used to fill my uterus, to check for blockages in my fallopian tubes. It was merely uncomfortable for me, but I was told that other women have suffered intense pain from this procedure.
Thankfully, my HSG test result was good: I had no blockages in my fallopian tubes. So I was able to get a prescription for Clomid, a fertility drug which stimulates ovulation. After many tests and no treatments, I was excited to finally be close to a cure.
After my first round of Clomid, the results came back negative. I still wasn’t ovulating, I was told - in fact, multiple cysts remained on my ovaries, showing up like a string of pearls on the ultrasound image. The second time, I was given a stronger dose of Clomid - but there were still not results. The gynae was puzzled. “Most people would have responded to such a strong dose, but it appears that it didn’t work for you,” she said.
I was starting to lose hope - by this time, I spent many nights crying into my pillow, convinced that my body had failed me and that I would never have a child naturally.
Infertility is a very lonely process. It feels like a betrayal of your own body, your womanhood, and your husband. Often, it’s easier not to talk about it all all, because the pain is very real.
"No one wants to hear my sad story about failed fertility tests and negative pregnancy kits," I thought. "It's better to just smile quietly when someone says: 'So when are you having kids?'"
Throughout the fertility treatment process, life went on as usual. I hung out with my new friends in London, joined my church band as a keyboardist, and J and I travelled every chance we got. We visited Amsterdam, Vienna, Edinburgh, Florence, Venice, and the Dead Sea in Jordan. We also drove a caravan down to the legendary Reading music festival to see the Arctic Monkeys, Queens of the Stone Age and Imagine Dragons, and saw the Northern Lights shimmer across on one magical winter’s night in Lapland.
I’m sure that to my friends back home in Singapore, my London life was nothing but #fabulous. I was posting all these holiday pictures from beautiful destinations, and it must have looked like I didn’t have a care in the world. But I also struggled with the pain of homesickness, and the crushing devastation of my PCOS diagnosis.
Soon, I started avoiding Facebook and Instagram because scrolling through my friends’ baby pictures made me intensely envious and sad. I turned down an invitation to a baby shower because I was unwilling to talk about babies at all - the subject was too sore for me.
There were times I would break down and ask God, “Why me? Am I not worthy of being a mum? Am I being punished for something I’ve done?” It felt personal, like a curse I could not escape.
I found myself having very dark thoughts. Once, I was watching a news programme about a mother and baby in a war-torn country, who didn’t have enough to eat. “At least that mother has a child to starve,” I thought. “In that sense, her life is better than mine.” When I think back on this now, I cringe because it feels so callous and thoughtless. I was jealous of mothers - all mothers, even the ones innocently pushing their prams down the street and running with their kids in the park.
During this time, J was incredibly supportive. There were so many nights when he held me close as I sobbed into his arms, telling him I felt like a failure and that being a mum was all I ever wanted - why couldn’t I conceive? “Even if we never have kids, is that so bad? We have each other,” he pointed out. But I was convinced that my life would not be complete without children.
We returned to Singapore after J’s MBA course was complete - still with no baby. I intended to continue with my fertility treatment once I was home, and visited a new gynae recommended by a friend who had conceived through his help. However, my visit to him left me in tears after his frank assessment of my PCOS situation - the number of ovarian cysts had only increased over time, and I hadn’t had a period in 10 months.
I decided: Heck it. It was time to stop fertility treatment. I had to carry on with my life and stop being hung up on babies. If I got pregnant, great. If I didn’t, I would just have to find other things to do with my life so I wouldn’t be obsessed with the fact that I had PCOS.
Slowly, my emotional state improved. Thanks to my sister, I took up longboarding and fell in love with it - so I bought a board and took it out nearly every day. I’d skate in Bishan Park, under the MRT tracks, and on days where I didn’t want to venture far, right under my void deck. I signed up for a 5k run and would jog around the park, and took up wave-riding at the OCBC Aquatic Centre. I hadn’t been this active in years, and I loved it.
My body also seemed to thrive well under my new workout regime. I started having my period again, after many months. I also applied for and got my dream job as an entertainment reporter, and I couldn’t have been more excited. I finally felt like I was moving on with my life.
Sure, there were times when it was still hard accepting my childless state. When my best friend gave birth to her third child, I made plans to go see her and her baby in the hospital. But after the birth, I found that I couldn’t think about seeing the baby without crying. I texted her to say I was so sorry, but I just wasn’t ready to visit her at that time. To her credit, she really understood and told me to take my time. She knew the struggle of trying to conceive had been hard on me.
One day, I was skating at Bishan Park late at night when I was speeding down a slope and took a hard fall on the concrete. I had torn my meniscus cartilage in my right knee, and was barely able to grab my board and limp painfully home.
A few weeks later, I started having aches in my breast - sharp pains that would wake me up in the middle of the night. I complained to my best friend about them, and she said, “I think you’d better take a pregnancy test.”
I still had loads of pregnancy tests stashed in my bathroom cupboard. I grabbed one, and watched in surprise as the strip showed a + sign.
I stared at it in disbelief. I was pregnant. When I showed J the test kit, all we could do was hug each other and say "Wow… this is really happening."
Our hearts were full of joy, anxiousness about whether we were going to make good parents, and gratitude for the new life which had already begun to grow in me.
When I revisited my gynae to confirm the good news, she was incredibly happy for me. She’d been unaware of how much I’d gone through while I was in London. “I’m so happy for you that your ordeal is over,” she said. “I’m glad you were able to conceive naturally, because I know it must have been really difficult and stressful for you.
"I know you had a bad fall, but it doesn’t seem to have affected the baby at all. It’s really healthy and doing well."
I can never thank God enough for blessing us with Tully, and for watching over my health. When I fell off my longboard, I had been about five weeks pregnant - and yet, I hadn’t lost the baby. It was a miracle that she’d been conceived, and that she’d been able to survive such a rough fall. And while I spent the first few months of my pregnancy on crutches, inside I was over the moon that my long-awaited baby was finally coming.
Tully was born healthy and without complications in 2016. Our dream to start our family had finally come true.
Sometimes, I look back on my days when I was desperately praying and waiting for a child, and they seem so far removed from my reality. But I remember friends and strangers who are still struggling to conceive, and for whom the pain of childlessness is still raw and real. Some of them will have their own kids, and some may not. But for each of them, there is hope.
When I was childless, my friends and family rallied round me to pray for me, offered words of encouragement, and sometimes, they cried alongside me. I will never forget how they lifted me up during one of the darkest times of my life.
Many times while I struggled with infertility, I couldn’t understand why it was happening to me, but now I do. It’s so that I can relate to the pain other women are suffering, and tell them, “I know how you feel, because I was in your shoes. I know it feels hopeless, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel and I will help to hold your hand until you get there.”
I wasn’t ready to be a mother until I let go of my obsession to be one. I think waiting for my child has taught me patience, inner strength, and the importance of having your own life before you take care of someone else.
I just celebrated my third Mother’s Day. When I was unable to conceive, Mother’s Day was always a particularly painful time of the year for me, because it’d remind me of what I didn’t have (and thought I might never have): A chance at motherhood.
Though my own story has a happy ending, I know there are women who are desperate to conceive, and feel like they never will.
If you’re dealing with the pain of childlessness, my heart goes out to you. I pray with all my heart that you will experience the joy of motherhood one day, and that you will remain hopeful even in the darkest circumstances.
And if you’re supporting a friend who’s going through this, just know that if you don’t know what to say to her, it’s okay. All she needs is your assurance that you are with her every step of the way, to listen when she talks, to cry with her when she cries, and to celebrate her life - with or without kids.
Photos provided by @lisatwang.
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