I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) at 19 and was told that having a baby in the future could prove to be a challenge. It was hard to know what to do with this information. I didn’t even have a boyfriend (at least not one I liked). I began my psychology training around this time and found myself drawn to working with people struggling with their fertility, all the time knowing that one day, that could be me.
Throughout my 20s and early 30s I didn’t have a period, a condition known as amenorrhea, common in those with PCOS. I worried about what would happen if I met someone and wanted to start a family. At 33, that’s what happened. Suddenly a baby was no longer a theoretical and I was thrown head-first into the world of my patients. So, I gathered together everything I had learned about diet, supplements, pinpointing ovulation, timing sex, lifestyle balance, emotional wellbeing and complementary approaches and stepped on to the playing field known to many as “Trying to Conceive.”
Within a year my periods restarted, I worked out when I was ovulating, timed sex (romantically, of course) and to my surprise, became pregnant. My partner and I were shocked. I’d been told that my PCOS would make it hard for me to conceive naturally and at nudging 35, I was no spring chicken. Nevertheless, nine months later we had a baby boy.
A year later we decided to try for number two. Again, I quickly fell pregnant. Nine months later, another boy and then two years after that a third, leaving me completely outnumbered.
Now for the twist in my reassuring tale. At 42 and in a moment of possible menopausal transition madness (your sex drive can actually increase before menopause), my partner and I decided to try for number 4.
It took me 9 months to conceive but after all, I was now firmly in advanced maternal age territory. At 10 weeks I went for an early scan, and learned I had miscarried. I was devastated.
Six months later, I started to feel unwell and after throwing up on the school run, I went to see the doctor. At the grand old age of 44, my 4th and definitely final, baby boy was born.
There is so much written about fertility that is unhelpful, anxiety provoking and inaccurate, but here is some of what I have learned during my 25 years as a psychologist and the last 10 years of either being pregnant or trying to be pregnant.
PCOS is not an absolute barrier to conceiving naturally. According to a 2009 study, the features indicating the presence of PCOS (the polycystic ovary part) actually diminished throughout the lifespan of participants. Of the 145 participants in the study, 79 had become pregnant, and 72 of them had given birth at least once. The rate of miscarriage among those with PCOS was also not higher than those without it. The bottom line? Everyone is different.
Many experts think of pregnancy as a 12 rather than nine month process––and it’s a good idea for us to all think this way. This is because it takes three months for immature egg and sperm cells to mature, meaning the quality of the egg and sperm that develops into a baby will be dictated by your lifestyle at least four months before you receive a positive pregnancy test. This coupled with the fact that the greatest risk to the fetus for congenital anomalies and birth defects happens between the first two to eight weeks of pregnancy has led some experts to recommend that when you start planning a pregnancy you begin preparing for it at least three months prior to actively trying to conceive.
Those who tell you their partner only had to look at them for them to get pregnant are not more fertile, they just got lucky. Each month you roll the dice. Some just have to roll a few more times before they hit the jackpot. 85% of couples will conceive after trying for one year, so the longer you stay in the game, the better your chances of success.
My fertility journey has been full of surprises: the pain of miscarriage, as well as a healthy, naturally occurring pregnancy at 44 (the odds of which are low). Learning about my hormone levels, as well as keeping track of my cycle, made me feel empowered and gave me reason to keep trying.