Abbie’s Story: Anything for You

Abbie-1

I met Abbie in college, when we were both English Majors together. I remember we took a poetry writing class and how awkward and uncomfortable it was for most of the students- young women at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, who probably had never been encouraged to express themselves creatively with words before. Many of the women stumbled through the class, but Abbie somehow seemed effortlessly cool and maintained an air of gravitas about her creative work. She was talented, articulate and revealed so much depth in her poetry. I was not surprised years later when she left her social work job to focus on a creative pursuit, starting her own photography business. Abbie has photographed hundreds of families, newborns, couples, headshots, Jewish celebrations and special events in New Jersey over the last three years since she started Abbie Sophia Photography. Take a quick glance at her work and you will know that Abbie was born to make art of memories.

Soon Abbie became known as “Abbie Sophia” which became synonymous with incredible photography, her work appearing in the form of smiling faces of friends on our social media news feeds. While she became a Bergen County New Jersey “Jewlebrity,”, most people were not aware that during that time, in their personal lives, Abbie and her supportive husband Achi, were struggling with infertility. “We’d been married for a while and I was off birth control for 2 years. At first we thought, ‘If we got pregnant now, that would be nice, but if not it’s totally fine.’ But as time went on, we really wanted a baby. I was going to the mikvah (ritual bath after menstruation), I got ovulation kits to see when I was ovulating to try and time everything properly, and all sorts of things I read online. Time and time again I hoped that the new month would be different, and then ultimately I would end up getting my period and feel like I had to start all over. In the beginning it was all so glamorous and sexy.”

While they were trying to conceive naturally, it became difficult to answer people’s curious questions about why they did not yet have children. “We were one of the only couples in our community who didn’t have children and we had been married for a few years, so naturally people were curious. People would ask me, ‘Are you trying to have kids?’ and sometimes I would say, ‘Of course’ and, ‘Oh, we aren’t ready yet,’ or ‘Nahh.’ I was just hoping it would happen. I got the most ridiculous comments, ‘Don’t wait too long,’ ‘Are you going to the mikvah?’ ‘Do you even want to have kids?’ I thought something was wrong and that it was definitely my fault. Maybe I didn’t take enough care of myself, maybe this was my destiny. I felt hopeless.”

After having a conversation with a friend who had struggled with infertility, Abbie felt inspired to place a call to the Fertility Institute of New Jersey and New York. The process of finally opening up was very emotional and it was scary for Abbie to consider the process of fertility treatment, “a world of unknown.” As she made her first appointment, “I kept telling myself, ‘There is nothing wrong with me. Why am I doing this? Maybe I just haven’t tried long enough,’ but it felt good to take what seemed like some control over the situation. Good to feel like I was doing something proactive.”

Abbie met with Alyson Butler, the PA at the Institute, who did an ultrasound, bloodwork, genetic testing, and they tested Achi as well. Everything came back normal. They suggested that Abbie start some hormones and recommended Clomid, and then to time her ovulation and do insemination. A process called IUI (Intrauterine Insemination) is the first treatment they tried. “We did this process four times. Each time they upped the drugs, and then after two failed attempts, switched the drugs, but still no luck. We would do the procedure – one week would pass, then two weeks, and I would think, ‘Maybe this time it will work…’ But then I would get my period and then I would feel so disappointed and broken, mostly because it felt like after all those early morning monitoring sessions, time and money, even the thought of having a baby felt so far away.”

After her first treatment, Abbie was informed about the impending costs. “I was going to have a breakdown.” Her insurance would not cover any of the treatment. The office at her practice was very kind, and did everything they could to help make the medications and procedures less burdensome. “This was just not an expense that I was expecting to have. When I thought of having a baby, I didn’t think I would have to spend thousands of dollars to do so. I became so stressed out about all the money we were spending on treatments, and then even more upset when we spent thousands of dollars and then found out that the treatment didn’t work and I didn’t get pregnant. Then, even more stressed about the fact that I was stressing myself out.”

“My doctor and their office were so great to me. They helped me find a way to help lessen the burden of the costs of my treatments, and since they understood that stress could play a big role in whether I could get pregnant or not, they did everything they could to help me manage the finances. I still had to pay for my treatment but they found ways to help me cut costs – I felt like they cared about me as an individual.”

Abbie would have to wake up early for monitoring, which is when they check the progress of the cycle to time treatment effectively, which meant drawing blood and doing ultrasounds.. She would then drive to her job as a social worker and in the evenings and weekends she worked as a photographer. “I couldn’t leave my job as a social worker because I needed the health insurance and all my photography income was helping me pay for my treatments. I kept saying to myself ‘This is what money is for. This is why I work so hard. It’s just money. It will be worth it.’

There was one day when Abbie was waiting to find out if the IUI treatment had worked, that she was scheduled to do a newborn photo session in the hospital for a client. Before she left for the session, she got her period, signifying that the treatment had not worked yet again. A few hours later she had a newborn in her arms, watching another mother glow with the new baby happiness. Though Abbie understood the irony of the moment, she brought nothing but smiles and professionalism to the session. “I was just so happy for my client and I felt so lucky to hold this little soul.” Afterwards, Abbie learned from her client that she herself had fertility treatments, and worked so hard to get that special baby.

“The IUI treatments failed all four times. The doctor said I had unexplained infertility – meaning there’s something wrong but they didn’t know what. As frustrating as it was, in a way, I can see why it was helpful to us. It confirmed for us that there really was a problem and that it was good that I came for treatment in the first place. We were not at the end of our journey.”

The IUI process was overwhelming. Before starting IVF (In vitro fertilization), Abbie decided she needed to take a break. “It was really all consuming. I constantly asked myself, ‘What can I do today to help myself have a baby?’ And the waiting…there was just so much waiting. Waiting for the hormones to prep my body for implantation. Waiting another two weeks to find out if it worked. That whole time I would wonder, ‘Maybe I’m pregnant now? Maybe?’ Every little symptom I had I questioned whether it was a sign that I was pregnant. You try to hold on to anything, because you want to be pregnant so badly. I needed a break to not think about it for a little while. Even then I thought, ‘Okay I will be that person who gets pregnant naturally while taking a break from treatment!’ I was wrong.”

Abbie and Achi assumed that starting IVF would begin immediately. They did not realize all the preparation that was involved. First they had to take a class to learn how to take all the medications they were given, give Abbie hormone shots, take birth control to regulate menstruation, and then take all the shots very specifically and timed the same time every night to grow the eggs. Then they had to retrieve her eggs and do constant monitoring-  just one cycle of IVF takes a few months of preparation. “The goal is to make a ton of eggs, and they give you all this medication so your body can make as many eggs as they can so they can choose from them. I seriously felt like I was a chicken. I was swollen, with ovaries full of eggs. I wasn’t allowed to exercise during that time, or even walk at a speedy pace. You have to be really careful because your ovaries could rupture and literally pop. They put me under anesthesia for the retrieval. This was the most painful part just because you are so bloated and in pain.”

Achi struggled while watching Abbie undergo treatment. “There were times where I felt like she was a science experiment, needled up and drugged, and I had a huge fear of sticking needles into her because I thought it would be painful and didn’t want to add any more pain to her experience. She would stick the needles in her stomach herself without hesitation.  This was something she wanted it, and I wanted to support her however I could.”

When the process was finished they told Abbie and Achi that she had made 44 eggs. 22 of them were good eggs, and only 9 of those were able to be fertilized. “Some of the eggs were put in a dish with the sperm to see if they would “hook-up,” and some they did “ICSI” which is when they put the sperm directly into the eggs. They watched them for 5 days and only some survived to be implanted. I had four embryos and I was implanted with two ‘fresh’ embryos for my first cycle, and neither of them took. The rest were frozen.”

When Abbie received the call, she was at work. “I remember the first time my IVF failed, sitting in my office at work and they called me to say “you are definitely not pregnant.” I was sobbing. I hid in the bathroom and just cried and cried. I thought I was going to be one of those people who it worked on the first time. But then I thought to myself, ‘This is what medicine is for. I will do it again, and if not this…something else. I am allowed to feel sad, but there is hope.’ Thinking back now, it was so devastating.”

After the first cycle of IVF failed, Abbie felt like she had an epiphany. “This was not in my control. I realized that all I could do was ride the wave. Whatever happened would happen. I would try and try again if I had too, and that was okay. I realized that each failure wasn’t really a failure, it was one step closer to success. I was looking at it all wrong- it wasn’t each cycle, but a whole process that each cycle was a part of getting to the goal of having a baby. Immediately I felt a huge weight being lifted from my shoulders.”

At this point, Abbie and Achi started to open up about their infertility struggle to their friends and family. She started to respond to questions about “having kids” with the truth that she was undergoing fertility treatment. “Sometimes it felt awkward, but often it would lead to more and more support. Just asking about the process, to making connections with others who had been through the same thing. As hard as everything was, I started to embrace my reality. I posted a blog post which discussed how this was my not so secret, secret – so many people reached out. Sometimes it was not even just about infertility, but about many things people keep secret and are seemingly taboo. I realized that I was normal, this wasn’t my fault and I can’t blame myself for this hardship. This wasn’t a secret anymore, this was my story.”

The second cycle of IVF felt completely different for Abbie. She had invested so much energy into trying to feel some aspect of control over the process. “I had put my heart and soul and all of my savings into this. It was great to finally just let go.” They transferred two frozen embryos for a second cycle.

“After about 10 days I came back into the office for the blood test to check my hormone levels. I would find out the results later that day and I could hardly wait. I knew whatever the outcome it would be okay. During this time I was taking shots in my tush every night, among many other medications.  My doctor, Dr. Levine, called me himself to tell me my hormone levels looked great and that I was definitely pregnant. I had to keep coming in to test my levels and make sure they were increasing appropriately. I was flooded with happiness and also disbelief. Was this real life?”

Now that she was finally pregnant, Abbie was in shock. “I almost didn’t believe them. I was kind of wondering, ‘Now what? When will I feel it? When will I see it, is it twins?’ Then all the the ‘what if’s?’ came pouring in.” She became worried that maybe something would go wrong with the pregnancy. Achi was worried too. “The hardest part for me was that each day during Abbie’s pregnancy, I couldn’t help but think about what could go wrong. I was so worried that we’d have to start all over again. I would have been devastated.”

Abbie and Achi felt like it was important to share the news of their pregnancy with their close friends and family who had supported them through the treatment process. “Most of our friends and family knew the day we found out. Some people made us feel guilty about sharing the news because they were superstitious. That bothered me.  This was our news to tell and this is how we would cope with it. Many people knew we were doing IVF and I didn’t feel like it was right to lie and not tell them this news. I was was due Labor Day weekend, 2016.”

Before and after this last round of IVF Abbie had been very vocal about her infertility journey. People would tell her their pregnancy stories, and about their infertility struggles and it was a positive experience for her to get support from others. “The first 16 weeks I was taking progesterone shots. I was all bruised up from them, but I loved my battle wounds. I was just in awe of my body and how it finally was able to carry a baby.

Photo courtesy of Abbie Sophia

By the end of the pregnancy, Abbie and Achi couldn’t wait to meet their baby. She was induced and went through hours of labor, but the induction was not successful, and the baby was delivered by c-section. “After surviving labor I really feel that we, as humans, can persevere anything, no matter what. I remember them showing my new baby over the curtain and just thinking, ‘Who are you?’”

The next months were filled with so many emotions for Abbie. “Of course, most moms can relate to the feelings of completeness, utter exhaustion and sleeplessness, and sometimes ‘what was I thinking!’ moments. I sometimes feel so guilty admitting that being a parent is the hardest thing ever, but it is still true after wanting something so badly.”

They named their miracle baby Eliav Malachi. “In Hebrew, Eliav means ‘G-d is my father’, which represents the lack of control we have in this world and to just try and trust what will happen, will be the right path. Malachi means ‘my angel’, after the angels who watched over our grandparents in the Holocaust who continue to watch over us even now.

One of the things that struck me the hardest about the challenges of infertility is the time spent waiting. Abbie felt like that was one of the worst parts. “There is just so much waiting, and having a baby seems like a distant far away dream. Months of waiting in between cycles. Waiting to find out if the treatment worked. Waiting to start over when it doesn’t. Even when you get pregnant, you still have nine months to worry about all the things that could go wrong. You are constantly just trying to get to the next day. I would keep a log in my calendar of all the days that I could get tested. What days I would find out if it worked. I would count down, ‘10 more days, 5 more days…’ but the weeks would go so slow. I did my best to keep busy so I didn’t have to think about it.”

She felt that the only way to get through this process was to talk about it. “Talking about it with the people in your life helps lift the burden a bit. When you can share your experience with other people, you feel less alone. When it is a big secret, only you are containing this huge disappointment in your life. Making yourself vulnerable to connect with others often allows you to feel that you are not alone. It’s hard because you so rarely hear people talking about it. When it’s your secret, you feel like you shouldn’t share it with others because you don’t hear anyone else sharing it with you.”

 

Abbie then said something that I think helps break down why talking about infertility can be seen as taboo in the Jewish community. “I think that talking about infertility is so taboo because it has to do with sex. When people talk about having children, they automatically think about that couple’s sex life. The question ‘so are you trying to have kids?’ equates to ‘so are you having sex?!’. It’s taking something so private and unspoken, and all of sudden people start to wonder if there is something wrong in your relationship. Sex is a normal part of life, and just because people are having a difficult time conceiving does not mean there is something wrong with their marriage, or with them sexually. Talking about infertility feels like taking something private and making it public. This also explains why there is such an intense level of shame attached to this issue. So many men and women feel broken and unnatural when they can’t have children on their own. It calls into question some of the fundamental things we are taught about what are bodies are supposed to do, and what relationships are meant to bring into this world. We need to destigmatize this experience. It affects so many of us.”

When thinking about her journey to accepting and embracing her experience, Abbie shared, “The more I talk about it, the more it has become just who I am and a part of me. I am not ashamed, I am not even sad or upset. It would have been nice to have a free baby without all the drama, but then it would not have been my Eliav. I wouldn’t have gotten to experience all of these wonderful emotions, however hard at the time. It is a huge part of my story now. Holding Eliav in my hands, I know I would have done it 100 times just to get him. I am one of the lucky ones as so many people try and are not successful.”

Achi shared some good advice for other men who may be on this journey. “Try and empathize with your wife as much as possible because it’s her body that has to do the hard part. There’s only so much you can do because it’s not your body. It can be very hard on the husbands. I would encourage them to open up to their wives about how they feel, and that will bring you together because she will feel comfortable to share her feelings with you, as well. I also feel that it’s very important for men to get the support of their friends too. Everyone can find a friend these days who has gone through something similar, it actually is very helpful and you begin to approach the whole thing with a different perspective.”

When I asked Abbie how she feels about her experience now after having a child, she said, “Eliav was all a part of the plan, he was meant to be my baby. I want him to know that he was an IVF baby because I want him to know how much his mommy and daddy wanted him in our lives. No matter how a baby is brought into the world, their journey is special. But this is our story. It has made me a more sensitive person and even more of a passionate photographer. I love capturing love I see in families, with parents and their beloved children.

People still say insensitive things, but that’s just people. I try to educate them and tell them, ‘Eliav is an IVF baby.’ I want them to understand what our experience has been, and sometimes it opens up great conversations and people ask lots of questions, which can be helpful perhaps for them or their loved ones.”

Abbie and Achi are hopeful for the future. “Going forward I don’t know what the future holds. Both Achi and I grew up with five kids in our families, and it’s something that we both want. I dream of a house with lots of children. But what I am given, I will be grateful for. I have five frozen embryos and I want to use them. Timing is hard. I am really eager to start again, I don’t want to waste a moment. But I know I need to let my body recover. I’m also trying to think about what’s best for Eliav in terms of his own development, and how I can function as a person in this expensive, fast paced world we live in. I also know that I may not have more kids, but I will try whatever it takes to help my chances of getting another one. For now, I choose to be happy.”

Abbie left me with insightful advice about how to talk to couples who are struggling with infertility. “It’s important to remember that everyone’s experience with infertility can be different. It doesn’t help to compare situations, because people get blinded by their own perspective and sometimes it stops them from listening or actually being there for their friend. Just reach out and tell them you are there for them. Ask them to tell you what they need. Check in but don’t push.  Don’t tell them you know their pain. No one can know anyone else’s pain. You don’t live in someone else’s body, or shoes, or relationships. You don’t truly know what is going on in their lives. Tell them you are thinking about them.

People can feel so dire, there is just so much unknown. It can take up so much of your resources, emotional, physical and financial. Our marriage definitely went through a lot of strain and it’s still not easy. Even a conversation centered around kids can be hard for someone to hear. And for those for whom it is hard to hear, try and remember they don’t mean to harm you.

A good point all around is that on both sides, those who can easily have kids, and those who are struggling with infertility, just be sensitive to each other. Try to feel joy for each other and be supportive both ways. Everyone is struggling with something.

Life is hard enough as it is. If we cannot be there for each other, who will?”

Shira Lankin Sheps graduated from Hunter College School of Social Work with an MSW in clinical social work. After working in the clinical field, marketing and photojournalism, she decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community. She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience. Shira is the founder, Publisher and CEO of The Layers Project Magazine.