My Fertility Journey: When You Should Relax, but You Can’t

With this week being National Infertility Awareness Week I was hoping I could write some posts on the subject and get back into blogging a little more frequently. Thankfully it’s working out so far. In my first post I brought up briefly how people tell you to “just relax,” which of course is NOT what one should say to an infertile person. BUT, the tricky thing is that relaxing is actually an important part of trying to conceive. Important, and incredibly difficult to do.

I wish it weren’t the case, but my fertility journey has been fraught with stress. Part of this is my personality, but part of it is that THIS PROCESS IS STRESSFUL. You’re so out of control, there is so much uncertainty, so many emotions… even the most happy-go-lucky person is bound to get stressed out.

For most of my medicated cycles, I was a bundle of nerves and anxiety. It came out in different ways: controlling my diet, constant Googling…. actually those are the two biggest ones. Oh, also crying.

Every visit to my acupuncturist, she would feel my pulse and tell me I was stressed, and needed to “rest.” Even if I had literally just woken up from a nice long sleep, or had had the least stressful day ever- “You’re stressed,” she would say, matter-of-factly. 😦  And it always sounded like chiding, which annoyed me and initiated big-time internal eyerolls. I knew she was right, that my body was probably stressed even though I felt fine, but I felt like I was already doing everything in my power to reduce stress. For goodness’ sake, I only work like 10 hours a week (doing only things I love), I scale back my commitments strategically based on my cycle, I stretch and do gentle exercise, get massages, pray every day, connect with friends and my church community, try to get quality sleep, eat well, etc. etc. etc. “WHAT MORE COULD I POSSIBLY DO???” I thought. And I even thought it in all caps.

And that was the problem.

I brought up the subject of stress with my chiropractor, asking her what I might be missing, and experienced a true case of right place/right time. In that moment she really helped me put it all together. Stress undoubtedly has effects on the body, which we all know, and while there are physical things we can do to help ourselves curb these effects, another problem is thought patterns. I had heard this before, but for whatever reason (I believe it was the Spirit working in my mind), it clicked that day. She explained that when you get worked up in your mind about “what if this?!?” or “what if that?!?” your brain takes action to protect you. It’s fight or flight. Think of yourself as a zebra, going, “what if I’m about to be chased by a lion?!?” Your zebra brain starts preparing you to RUN, right? Well, my dear doc explained to me that my brain works similar to the zebra’s. If I’m in a constant mental panic about what could happen or what something means, my brain gets ready to RUN, and when I remain in that state it is hazardous to my health.

Before that day, truly relaxing seemed so conceptual, and so impossible. I know I had heard all of the information before, but at that time I understood it on a more personal level and was ready to make some changes. For me that meant no more obsessive/compulsive Googling, no more poring over forums, no more freaking out over symptoms. Just do what I can do, and be done. At a certain point, all will be done that can be, and inventing more to do is not helpful, as much as it may feel like it would be.

So, what did I do instead? Well, I deal in “replacement behaviors” in my professional behavior analytic life, and have seen the benefits, which means I also apply the principle to my personal life. I don’t remove without replacing– try to stop a behavior without putting a new one in its place, and you’re setting yourself up for failure. So I repeated to myself the reasoning that got me to clarity in the first place (a panicked brain leads to a panicked body). I worked to recognize when I was spinning my wheels mentally and reminded myself that what I was doing might actually be harmful to me– and this was not in a self-guilt way, but just a gentle reminder of, “Hey, you’re doing it, time to change course.” I would take a deep breath and think a more hopeful thought.

I replaced ttc forums with Christian infertility blogs, which was much better for my soul. In forums, it’s desperate wonderings and questions of people you know nothing about. Most of them have likely had their babies by now and moved on, but you only see the one day when they were freaking out about something. There usually aren’t any solid answers because those forums are essentially rooms of people wondering the same things. You also get a lot of misinformation and superstition. But with blogs, you can get to know someone’s story. There is more context and background, more honesty, more of a complete picture. And of course there’s the faith element, which brings the Holy Spirit into the process to give more encouragement and peace.

When something came up that I just couldn’t stop thinking about, I would look it up but made a point of looking for articles from reputable sources like a fertility clinic, doctor, experts in natural family planning (great for help with bbt questions), etc. instead of forums full of people just like me– if I don’t have an answer, they probably don’t, either!

I decided to avoid browsing for natural remedies or aids for fertility, too, so no Googling “Clomid + [insert herb here]” or reading articles about the supposed benefits of different natural things. This meant scrolling past posts on Pinterest or Facebook from natural health sites I already follow. Quick aside: I’m not saying that these natural remedies don’t work– I believe that sometimes, for some people, they can– but I have committed to try meds for now, so I’m going to stick to the food and supplement choices I have already made and call it good. A medicated cycle is not the time to start researching all kinds of other things to add to the equation that could either do nothing OR possibly interfere with the medication. This leads to wheel-spinning and what-if thinking.

I listened to less news and more music. I created a specific playlist filled with calming or uplifting songs and made a point to listen to it a few times a day. I put it on my phone, too, so I could listen in the car. I like listening to the radio, especially in the car, but personally I’m sometimes bothered by the jarring sounds of commercials (sometimes without realizing it). So, no commercials yelling about cars or satellite tv or stupid morning shows. Just the calming, familiar sounds of some of my favorite musical friends.

I also wrote some “affirmations” on my prayer sheet that I look at every day, and asked God to help me remember that I am safe, I am doing my best, I am not accepted based solely on what I do, I am guided by the Spirit, I am being equipped for whatever comes my way, etc.

I made these changes at the end of one cycle/beginning of another, and I noticed the positive change right away. I went into the next 30+ days with a more balanced perspective. It felt like I didn’t get my hopes up as much, although I was still sad when that cycle ended. When I got to the parts of my cycle or felt symptoms that would initially power up the Google machine, I was ready to tell myself “no” and make a better choice (hmmm, also exactly what I tell preschoolers when I’m at work…). I spent some time reading heartfelt stories of others who have been through or are still going through infertility and who share their hope through the ups and downs. My eyes were open and ready to identify and avoid my stressors. I’m so thankful to God for the mental clarity and self-control to make the changes, and thankful for practitioners who prompted me to think more deeply about how or why I needed to make changes.

So, if you’re ready, hear this: you can relax. You don’t need to shame or punish yourself into it. Search your heart prayerfully for what you need, and look at how you can make small changes to address those needs. This journey is undeniably stressful, and you will continue to encounter stress even if you do alllll the relaxing things and think alllll the relaxing thoughts, but you don’t have to live in constant panic or worry.

For the Christian, peace is not something we have to strive and strive for, or conjure up on our own. God is a God of peace, Jesus promised peace, and the Spirit brings peace to the heart. I’ve had many times where I just didn’t feel the peace, but I’ve found that in those times I can cry out to God for it. He is helping me understand what his peace looks like and how to live in it, although I’m certainly not perfect at this. Sometimes I believe the lie that grabbing my anxieties back from God and getting my hands dirty in them will help. As you may know… it does not. But I keep seeking, I keep crying out, I keep sharing with trusted people so they can speak peace into my life. I would encourage you to do the same!

Here are some verses that have helped me:

1 Peter 5:7–  “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”

Philippians 4:6-7– “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Galatians 5:22– “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

Isaiah 26:3-4– “You keep him in perfect peace
    whose mind is stayed on you,
    because he trusts in you.
Trust in the Lord forever,
    for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.”

2 Thessalonians 3:16– “Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all.”

What are some verses that have helped you when peace feels out of reach? How do you relax when it seems impossible?

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Thank You

Thank you, friends, for reading my last post about my experience with infertility. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I shared. I mostly just knew that, after a long time of feeling like I hadn’t heard much from God, he was gently leading me to speak up, and I had to obey. I want to praise my faithful God for never giving up on me, and for helping me use the gifts he has given me!

I hoped I would feel some relief; words had been welling up in my heart for a long time. I hoped I would feel a little sense of accomplishment by actually sitting down, letting the words come out, and arranging them for an audience. I hoped I might help someone else feel less alone, or like they felt better equipped to help someone close to them.

And I do a feel a little relieved, a little accomplished, and a little like maybe I have made a difference. So thank you for encouraging me with your clicks, likes, comments, prayers, and the heartfelt “me too” stories some of you shared with me. I am buoyed.

This is the biggest response I’ve ever had to a blog post, and I’m not sure what to do with it. I am working on some more content for next week when National Infertility Awareness Week begins, although my posting content kind of depends on how I’m doing with life at that time, so we’ll see.

But I wanted to be sure to follow up now, while I can. I do feel like I have opened the floodgates and acknowledged the elephant in the room, which paves the way for me to share about life’s more trivial delights without feeling like I’m hiding something.

So here are my breakfast potatoes. I may be dealing with fertility challenges, but I ate a small heap of potatoes on this chill Saturday morning, like a normal person (normal people eat potatoes in heaps, right?), and I don’t feel like it’s a lie to share about it. That’s worth celebrating.

And there’s even more. I bought a house plant that I hope I don’t kill. I’ve tried some awesome allergy-friendly recipes. And I have some bones to pick with Bible verses I see posted all over Pinterest. I hope I can tell you about all of those things (or things like them) now that I’ve addressed the elephant. But for now, THANK YOU for “listening up,” and happy Saturday!

Speaking Up

For a while now, I haven’t felt like myself, and therefore not shared much of myself. For years I have stepped back more and more from social media, and obviously haven’t blogged here in well over a year. I sometimes felt like opening up, but it was still too tender. Or I was too weak, too tired. I have been trying and trying to figure out how to tell my story, to give an explanation of why it’s been this way and share what I’ve been going through. So I’ll just say it.

It’s infertility.

I don’t much like the look of that word. 😦 Partly because I know I do have some fertility, but also because it’s painful to see it, like it jumps up to smack me when I use it to describe myself. But it’s on my chart and part of my life, although I prefer to describe this journey as one of trying to improve or heal my fertility.

Regarding the withdrawal from the online world, I found these words about stepping back from Facebook as I was scouring the interwebs for stories like mine, and just felt like, “YES,” so I want to share here because it perfectly sums up how I’ve felt.

The most important thing in my life right now is trying to get pregnant, and it affects many of my feelings and actions. As a result, I have gradually stopped updating my status, because I don’t feel like it is accurately reflecting how I really feel or what is really going on in my life, like I am not acknowledging my reality. And replacing that reality with superficialities feels misleading and disrespectful. Doing so has just felt more and more like a lie over the past year.

Thanks, Kim, for sharing… some years ago now! 🙂

That is almost exactly how I’ve felt- like most of the time it would be a lie to post anything happy, or silly, or even educational when I’m going through this. Some days I can barely muster up a “good” when someone asks me how I’m doing, so how could I come up with social media posts? I mean, I haven’t been entirely absent, and not every day is bad… sometimes things are so funny or cute that I can’t not share (like preschooler quotes), but for the most part my online presence has decreased significantly.

National Infertility Awareness Week starts Sunday. I have seen a few National Infertility Awareness Weeks pass over the years, silently reading posts about others’ experiences, and felt maybe a quiet call to speak up, but didn’t feel quite confident enough to share.

Over the years my husband and I have been walking with this burden, we have shared “in real life” with a number of close friends and family members. We have also received short-term counseling at different times (individually and together, professional and faith-based). We have found sharing and counseling to be extremely helpful. I have also shared part of my experience at church at a women’s ministry event. As we have shared, and as we have allowed trusted individuals to speak gently and wisely to us, we have seen and felt the benefits.

But somehow the internet and social media seemed like the final frontier. It’s a much broader audience, obviously, and there is less control over how that audience will respond. But with where I’m at now, I feel like the call to share and the confidence to do so are better aligned. And it’s important to me to share while I’m still in the trenches. So this NIAW, I’m speaking up. Which is fitting, because the slogan for the week is “Listen Up!”

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So I’ll tell you what life has been like for me and my husband for the past stretch of years, and what we need from you (“we” as in Mike and me as well as others going through this). If you want to read the whole story, great. Settle in, because it’s long. If you want to skim down to the end where I’ve got a do & don’t list of ways to help, that’s fine too (and I’ll never even know). But here goes…

Our Story

When we got married over 11 years ago in 2005, we knew we didn’t want to have kids for a few years, and that was fine. There were no “surprises” during that time and we were totally okay with that.

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A little later, we thought we might be ready for children and started not-not-trying. That was for maybe 3 or 4 years. During that time I would get an occasional nagging feeling of, “why isn’t anything happening?” We looked into it at a bare minimum level and were told we were both fine. We figured it just wasn’t time for us yet. But as time went on we both felt like we should try a little harder.

For about another year I researched and really dove into natural treatments for fertility, and started learning about my cycle, although in hindsight I didn’t have the full picture of how things should go. When that didn’t “work” either (although the natural treatments helped my overall health), I shut it down for a bit, threw myself into work and managing other aspects of my health, and chose to ignore that I might have something going on. I think I just wasn’t ready to deal with it, and while I sometimes regret not addressing my fertility issues sooner, or pushing harder when I was told I was so “healthy,” I am okay with how things have happened overall. I just really wasn’t ready, and if I had started dealing with it then, I don’t know if I could’ve handled the weight of it.

For about another year, we were in the diagnostic phase. We learned a natural family planning method (the Creighton Model– ask me about it!) that helped me track my cycles in pretty great detail and revealed where there might be some problems. It filled in a lot of the gaps in my understanding of how the menstrual cycle works. Mike had gotten the all-clear from the doctor, but for me there was poking and prodding and waiting and testing some more. It may not seem like a big deal to many, but I also had to overcome a big fear of/discomfort around needles- ouch! When I got to the point where I could go for a lab by myself, and only cry a single tear in the car afterward, I felt like a champion.

Anyway, after a few months of testing I received diagnoses of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and anovulation (lack of ovulation). The doctor said we could start with Clomid whenever we liked (a drug that essentially induces ovulation- this is the first line treatment for female infertility), and told us about other options like surgery and IVF down the road if meds alone were not effective. We took some time to consider our options, but didn’t feel like we could decide right away. For me especially, it was hard to process something I never thought would be part of my experience.

At the end of 2015, a few months after my diagnosis but before any treatment, we VERY surprisingly learned that we had somehow gotten pregnant. Sadly, I had a miscarriage at around 6 weeks. While there has been sadness to work through, for the most part we were and are just happy that conception was possible for us. That pregnancy was a blessing for which I am still truly grateful. It really lit a fire under me to get pregnant again; I felt so calm, so joyful, so decisive for the week I knew I was pregnant. I had to get back to that place, and I believe I will.

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Christmas Day, 2015. Not pictured- a tiny baby. 🙂

We are now in the treatment/actively trying (or TTC, trying-to-conceive) phase. We have done 5 Clomid cycles in the past year with some breaks in between because of travel– since we both have to be together and in town for my labs– and those breaks have been pretty long because my post-miscarriage cycles are long (as in 40-50 days). But I do seem to ovulate on my own now; my current OB-GYN suspects I may not have PCOS at all, but that my body was just late to the party and is ready to get started now. I’m not sure, because I do still have some PCOS symptoms, but she could be onto something. I can tell things have changed in the past year or so.

This phase has introduced me to the part of infertility that makes life feel like it’s all too much at times. It seems to be the perfect storm of hormones and anxiety and ups and downs and hope and despair that brings everything from the past 5+ years to a head. We haven’t been in this treatment phase for very long, all things considered, but the truth is that we were already infertility warriors before we got to this point.

What TTC is Like

In this phase, you count time in cycles, and even phases of cycles (follicular, ovulatory, luteal). When somebody asks you what day it is, you might think of your cycle day before the actual date (“Day 20, I mean the 14th”). Medications bring new, unpredictable symptoms that are endlessly confusing because you’ve never had hormones at these levels before.

A medicated cycle looks like this: take the meds, brace yourself for symptoms. For me, taking Clomid, the symptoms have been really manageable- maybe a little emotional or forgetful, and some slight digestive side effects. One cycle, I broke down in tears at some point between 4-6pm every day like clockwork for the 5 days I was taking the meds. Another cycle, I lost track of things, like a mango I unwittingly placed in the freezer and didn’t find until 3 weeks later. For me I just feel “weird” in different ways, but many women experience much more intense symptoms. Clomid is effective for me; I have ovulated every time.

Next, for about two weeks, you “try, try, and try again.” And if you dare tell me, that’s the fun part! I will slap you in your face. It should be the fun part, and maybe in the “not-not-trying” phase it was the fun part, but when the stakes are this high it’s definitely not fun. It’s serious business. And, okay, it’s not always terrible, but trust us both: it’s no walk in the park. After all the mating, it’s time for waiting.

You get to go through the two-week-wait, that time when you can no longer do anything to get pregnant, but you can’t find out if you are pregnant yet. And because of what the meds did to your hormone levels, you get to experience fun symptoms that may be different from how you normally feel during this time of your cycle, all of which symptoms could either indicate pregnancy OR the approach of a new cycle. So you go back and forth between feeling hopeful and hopeless, and trying to simultaneously keep each extreme in check. A very common symptom of the two-week-wait is Acute Google-itis. And that struggle is real: “what does this symptom mean?” “what about this?” And most of the results you get are from TTC forums from like five years ago. Super helpful, right? But we do it anyway. Actually, I have realllly cut back, but when I first started this crazy ride it seemed like an uncontrollable urge, so I just let myself Google to my heart’s content. Maybe I got it out of my system?

The next part is finding out if you got your “plus” or not. We have not yet, so the final phase of a medicated cycle for me/us has been disappointment and sadness. 😦 Because you have to hope it will work every time. You know it might not, but you have to hope. There’s always a chance until you know for sure, but when you finally know for sure, it can feel crushing. It might feel like it’s too hard to keep going like this. But if you know it’s not time to give up the fight yet, you eventually feel the fight come back, even though the sadness remains. You get back up, take hold of hope once more (Isaiah 40:31), and you get ready to do it all again.

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And that’s what life has been like for us for a while. Exhausting, right? Well, 1 in 8 couples is going through something like this right now. And while of course I can only speak for myself (and a little for my husband; I’ve been speaking for him for over 11 years), I have a feeling the things I need look a lot like what another friend or acquaintance of yours might need. Infertility is a condition/experience for which awareness truly can be helpful in and of itself. So be aware, and consider how you might help. This is NOT a complete list by any means, just the ideas that came to me first and seemed like the most important. There are many other lists available online!

What You Can Do to Support People Going Through Infertility

-Listen. When we are ready to share, please listen. That’s all you have to do, and it can mean a lot. Please don’t be afraid to stand beside us as we walk this road. It’s okay to just say “Thank you for telling me about this,” or something to that effect. Hear us.

-Don’t try to fix us. I’m at a point where, unless you are some sort of licensed medical professional specializing in fertility, I don’t want advice from you. Like, I super-don’t. Thankfully I haven’t been the recipient of too many comments such as: just relax/go on vacation/stop trying so hard/look into adoption and it will happen. Or, a real doozy, “just trust God’s timing.” This might seem like a nice thing to say, and I absolutely believe that trusting God is an important part of this journey that I need to work on like any other Christian, but underneath this platitude lurks the idea that God is doing this to me, and from what I know about God, I just don’t believe it. I believe that he wants a baby for us, too, and is sad with us. That’s my own little soapbox- sorry/not sorry, I’ll step down from it now. The point is, unless you are a professional, please don’t tell me what to do. It’s not your place. This “advice” from others seems to be a big reason that people going through infertility don’t share their struggles. Please don’t be the barrier that keeps someone from sharing and feeling a little more understood, accepted, loved.

-Do check in with us. While platitudes and useless advice are not helpful, it is great to know we are not forgotten. Using your knowledge about the person, reach out in a way that makes it easy for them. This means that the crowded church lobby or a baby shower (where all the preggos and babies are, btw) is not the place to ask your friend how “things” are going. Although, disclaimer: sometimes it can be okay- I have had these conversations before and been fine, but usually I was the one bringing it up, and it was with a very close friend. BUT, 90-plus percent of the time, I much prefer a text/email/Facebook message so I can respond in my own time. The thing about infertility is that it’s just as unpredictable as a mood swing or a hot flash. 😉 So while one day you might actually see a pregnancy announcement on Facebook and be totally okay, the next day you might walk past the baby aisle at Target and feel like going to pieces. It’s merciless. But it’s precisely because of these unpredictable highs and lows that I need my friends to check in with me. DON’T ask, “are you pregnant yet?” but DO ask, “How’s it going?” or “How are you feeling today?” or even just a simple “Thinking of you!” Feel free to ask if you can bring a meal (especially if they are on bedrest or having serious side effects to meds) or stop by with a treat like a latte, flowers, or a note and a gift card. It may not always work out to help, but it means a lot when you offer your support in a variety of ways.

-If you pray, PRAY. It’s the best thing any of us can do. Infertility makes me aware of just how out-of-control life is, and how much I need prayer. And sometimes, when it’s been really hard, I could barely even pray for myself. I have relied on the prayers of the brothers and sisters in my corner in a big, big way. And bonus points for telling us when you pray. I’m trying to get better at this myself when I pray for others. It means a lot when anyone tells me, at any time, that they are praying for Mike and me. And it’s more than just praying for a positive pregnancy test, it’s praying for all the struggles and emotions that come along with this crazy experience, and being able to continue to grow in our faith rather than stagnate or turn away in anger. Because I’ve been tempted toward both, my friends.

I’ve read that going through infertility can be a similar to going through cancer or the loss of a close loved one in terms of the emotions and stresses that come along with the experience, and I think the comparison is pretty accurate. I don’t bring this up to diminish those other experiences, but to shed light on just how big a deal this is for those who go through it. With some thought and compassion, you can make your corner of the world a little safer and brighter for someone going through infertility.

If you are friends with someone going through this, I encourage you to reach out to them! And if you can’t think of anyone you know who is going through it, you may know a silent warrior. Or you may know someone who has quietly been through it. I would encourage you to be aware of the statistic of 1 in 8 and hold space for those people in your heart, being mindful of what you say in social situations. It isn’t that we can’t handle anything somebody might say, it’s just that the world will be a little better when we all act with gentleness and compassion. (And that’s a reminder for me, too, because I can suffer from foot-in-mouth syndrome!)

Thanks for making it to the end of this diatribe. 😉 In a way I shared because I needed to for myself- I’m hoping that by getting this out in the open I can get back to sharing more of myself and engaging with my larger network of friends. But I’m also sharing because I have needed these stories and not been able to find them at times. And when I have found others’ stories, I just ate them up, so I figured one more drop in the blog ocean could actually be a good thing in this case. For the most part the blogs I’ve found are about IVF, so if you are a fellow Clomid woman and would like to connect, feel free to get in touch with me. Or be encouraged to reach out to someone close to you. Or, just read and know you are not alone. ❤

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Mike and Kristen say keep on keeping on!

Here are some resources that have helped us and may provide information or insight to you:

Resolve: The National Infertility Association– I haven’t looked too deeply into Resolve, but I know they’ve been around for a long time and are the main infertility organization. I haven’t investigated all of their political affiliations, but I know they are active if that is your realm and you’re into that. I’m more interested in the support and awareness aspect. I know they have a lot of resources for support groups, information on different family-building options, insurance navigation, etc. etc. and have helped many people in different ways.

Trials Bring Joy blog– I have taken so much encouragement from Chelsea! I pored over her blog (I think I’ve literally read the whole thing) and so appreciate the real way she shares her whole story- ups and downs and everything in between. I am especially encouraged by how she’s shared her faith in God throughout her journey. (She and her husband are now expecting twins.)

Infertility bloggers explain what infertility feels like– this post would be a good explanation for someone on the outside of infertility, but is also a good “you’re not alone” for those on the inside.

The Creighton Model FertilityCare System for natural family planning helped us BOTH understand what goes on with the menstrual cycle and how to use the system to achieve or avoid pregnancy. It is a natural, well-rounded, whole-person and whole-couple system that respects the lives of the couple and their children. This method comes from the Catholic tradition, so we appreciated the faith element, but if that’s not your thing, don’t worry– it’s not overtly religious.

Plus or Minus by Matt and Cheri Appling- reading this book together was the very first step Mike and I took in acknowledging infertility. It helped us start the hard conversations and I highly recommend it.

10 Things to do Instead of Saying “I’ll Pray for You” a great post to read if you know anyone struggling with… anything, really. (Infertility, loss, illness.)

Psychological effects of infertility– interesting read; it was my favorite thing I found when I was looking into all the different effects of infertility that are similar to grief or long-term illness.