My husband Nic and I fell in love quickly. Our relationship has always been full of spontaneity and big plans. We travel, we moved to Denver on a whim, we camp and hike, and have tons of adventures around our beloved cities of Minneapolis and Denver. 

When we were ready to grow our family, we had a long “if, then” conversation, a conversation I have been overwhelmingly grateful for ever since. This conversation was a raw and honest one; “if we can’t get pregnant, then what?” 

I have looked back on that discussion many times over our 3.5 year-long infertility journey. I’m amazed that we were able to look beyond the veil of fun and excitement and recognize there could be bumps along the way. How did we know to address it so early and so seriously? This was against the norm of our usual “Let’s just see what happens” mantra that had guided so much of our life together already. I often wonder if that conversation was a small gift from somewhere in the universe to prepare us for all that was ahead. 

Nic and I talked about how far we would want to go with treatments, testing, and medical intervention like IUI and IVF. That conversation kept us on the same page when we eventually did have to face those decisions. It set the foundation of our honesty through the process, opening up a space for each of us to express feelings of defeat, exhaustion, and disappointment. Together we decided we would be okay if a baby wasn’t in our future. We would still live a full life together, with lots of travel. We could pay off our debt! We could have a hobby farm with goats! 

Even though I felt like we would be okay without growing our family, I knew I was born to be a mother. Deep in my heart, I knew we would have babies. Pregnancy would be the most magical experience. My time would come. I could feel it in my bones.

I don’t really remember how the disappointment of not being pregnant in month 6 felt compared to still not being pregnant in month 36. Both had their own unique levels of heartache. Once we crept into a full year of no positive tests, we decided to share what was happening, the sadness and heartache becoming more than we could deal with alone.

I cried to my mom on Mother’s Day. We told our siblings and a few friends. We heard all the usual encouragement; “It will happen; you guys will be great parents!” and “It will happen when you’re least expecting it.” We also heard the toughest comments to swallow, such as, “Oh, not being able to get pregnant is my greatest fear.”

It was my greatest fear, too. What was I doing wrong? When I felt for so long that this was meant to happen, why wasn’t it? I knew these comments from our friends and family were coming from their hearts, and not meant to be discouraging or accusatory. In so much sadness, people sometimes don’t know what to say. The blame I felt was coming from my own heart. We were grateful to share this frustration and hurt with people who were close to us; we felt less alone in it.

All of my testing was normal. Everything was normal. Prime condition to get pregnant. But we didn’t. Five doctors. 17 blood tests. 3 ultrasounds. A painful HSG x-ray. Nothing, except unexplained infertility.

Nic and I were very honest with one another from the beginning about where we wanted to draw the line as far as treatments went. Our line was early, much earlier than most. Together, we decided we would do nothing invasive. No IUI. No IVF. We felt deeply this just wasn’t our path. We didn’t share this with a lot of people, for fear of being judged for not being willing to do anything it took to get pregnant. My guilt had already begun, and I didn’t even have concrete answers yet as to why we couldn’t get pregnant. But I was already feeling shame for not wanting to try EVERYTHING. Was this my guilt? Or was I manifesting this from societal expectations to become a mother? 

So there we were, facing down what we talked about over and over through our journey. We had reached the limits of how far we wanted to take our attempts to have a baby. I was devastated. How could this be the end? Yes, we had talked about this possibility, and yes, we were okay with an end result of no children, but it was in this realization that I finally faced that reality head-on, and I wasn’t ready to accept it. I spiraled into heavy, heavy sadness. I became closed off to talking about it with anyone. I became resentful of other pregnant women.

So how did I dig myself out of this? How did I crawl out of these very dark days of realizing I would not be pregnant, and we would not have children? These dark days of knowing our dreams wouldn’t happen? How am I now able to cry tears of genuine joy when I hear of a friend’s pregnancy, and attend her baby shower with full peace within my heart?

I started owning our decision. We were intentional about discussing this possibility and how we would respond, so I needed to own that. I started talking about it. I owned every piece of it, even the ugly ones. Yes, I’m sad. I’m devastated. Yes, I’m angry. Nothing about this is fair. I’m jealous and resentful, and it’s taken me a lot of work and a lot of time to work through those pieces of myself that aren’t pretty. And they aren’t gone. They still creep (okay, JUMP) in and take over pieces of life that should be full of joy. 

Nic and I decided again to be all in on our decision, and we would be confident and committed to it. We knew we were at our limit; financially, emotionally, physically.

I talked to my sweet mama who has more empathy than any human being on this earth and she just got it. She said to me “ Oh Kate, this has been such a rough road for you, you deserve some rest.” I deserved some rest. I think so often as women, we bear the heavy weight of emotions, and it’s our duty to carry those for everyone around us. My mama gave me permission to release that deep weight and just be tired. She gave me permission to rest in my grief. Rest in your grief, rest in your limits. Rest in your decisions. They are yours, and no one else’s. 

I talked to my sister. She reassured me “you will always be a mother in so many ways.” I am an aunt. I am a teacher. I am surrounded by young lives I can nurture and love, forever…or for a limited amount of time before I’m ready to go home and have a glass of wine in my childless house. We know we have a level of freedom that comes with being childless, freedom we love. How do I balance the enjoyment of that freedom with the lingering heavy pain? How do I feel both at the same time?

Then, I talked to a new doctor. In a 15-minute tearful conversation, I told her the history of our almost four years of struggling. Of hurting. Of being miserable with painful periods, cysts, disappointment, grief, and guilt every month. Of having no answers. Without question or pause, she delivered the bittersweet probable diagnosis: “I think you have endometriosis. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be pregnant, which means there must be a reason why you aren’t pregnant. You are in pain and you deserve not to be.”

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And I broke. I broke into weeping tears of devastation and relief. I finally had an answer. For almost four years I had no idea why I was infertile–and no doctor did either–and then, finally, this “bad” news carried with it the answer. It carried with it an overwhelming sense of relief. I was heard and I was seen. It was a weight lifted off my heart, I could finally breathe with all the uncertainty finally lifted.

My doctor asked how I felt about pursuing some of the diagnostic routes. My husband and I decided we were exhausted. Emotionally and physically. Though surgery could relieve some of the pain, even that was not guaranteed, and then what? We’d be back to square one of trying. Instead of making our hearts leap with newfound anticipation and excitement, it made our hearts plummet. Thinking about trying again and again and again was just too heavy of a weight. Three years is such a long time to feel sad.

Here ended my “unexplained infertility” and began our decision to close the door on trying to have a baby. We reached the point where we began to recognize the difference between giving up and letting go.

My heart doesn’t ache for a baby anymore, but the sadness is still palpable. How does one exist simultaneously with the other? What remains most difficult and hurtful is loneliness. So I’m talking about it. Even if people didn’t ask, I bring it up without hesitation. When people ask if or when we’re having kids, I am honest. We tried, it didn’t work. It sucks. I’m refusing to be lonely because I don’t have to be.

There are other women who are feeling the same feelings. And we deserve empathy. We can give that to each other, but so can the people around us. Infertility does not have to be a lonely desert island. No other form of grief is meant to be navigated alone. We are not meant to navigate this alone.

I don’t like to say we “figured out how to get through it” because that implies two things: one, that grief is something to “get through” when grief is fluid. Grief carries on, and we don’t get through it, we learn how to move forward in it. It lessens, but the pain of loss doesn’t disappear when you “get through” a particular season of life. Grief is also not something to “figure out." Heartache is different for everyone, there’s no secret formula for cracking the code of being sad and moving on. Sadness is different every day.

Instead, we have committed to creating a life that allows us to grieve and continue to move forward with our next steps. Closing the door finally gave us the opportunity to explore what life can be like truly as just the two of us, rather than “just the two of us for now.” I am finally moving forward with intention, rather than unknowns. I am learning to be gentle with myself. I know I am allowed to grieve regardless of what I have or haven’t tried. I give myself the grace to grieve.

Be kind to yourself. Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself grace. Grace also happens to be the name I had chosen to give to my first daughter for as long as I’ve known in my heart that I was meant to be a mother. Grace is what I will continue to give myself in this space.

Katie Zieba and her husband Nic live in Minneapolis with their two pups, Frank and Ruby. They are both avid outdoors lovers and enjoy camping, hiking, canoeing, and biking whenever and wherever possible. Katie is a high school social studies teacher and describes her 200 students as her kiddos in her heart.