Aaryn’s Story: My Rose Among Thorns
This profile was sponsored by Westchester Fertility.
When we were in college together at Stern College at Yeshiva University, I learned a lot from Aaryn. At the time, many of our friends were starting to get married and every so often you would see some swollen bellies trying to squeeze into tiny desks. For many of us who were still single, or newly married, it seemed as though having babies was just the easy thing to do after you got married. These pregnancies seemed uncomplicated and healthy and to our untrained minds- isn’t that how pregnancy always was? Aaryn provided us with a more educated perspective- she would very confidently explain to us that she knew that she wouldn’t have her babies in a “natural way.” She and her husband had frozen embryos and she was going to use them all. For me, receiving that fresh perspective as a 21 year old newlywed, was very powerful information.
I asked Aaryn when she first learned about what the future might hold for her. “When I was in Stern College (at Yeshiva University) during my Freshman year, I noticed that I had begun irregularly bleeding. I went to my gynecologist who said that everything seemed normal. She ran blood work, but once my blood levels came back “off,” she sent me to an endocrinologist. Looking towards the future, I knew that I would be dating, getting married and would want to have children soon. I was worried what having unexplained bleeding would mean for my future and the laws of family purity.”
Aaryn did not want to take hormonal birth control pills. As an alternative, the doctor put her on Metformin (the diabetes drug). She found out later that this drug is only helpful for women with her diagnosis, if they are insulin resistant, whereas she was not. She became so sick from that medicine. “I couldn’t eat and was losing so much weight, my hair was falling out- I was miserable. During this time I met my future husband, Ephraim. I became increasingly concerned about my medical options.”
At one point, she was confiding in a friend that she had made at school and she told Aaryn that her father was a Reproductive Endocrinologist. She recommended that Aaryn should call him to get another opinion. “I remember, I got on a train at Grand Central and went out to Westchester to see him, by myself. He knew exactly what was going on with me. He told me that I had Cystic ovaries (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) and that I would be ok, but that in order to control my irregular bleeding, I needed hormonal birth control. However, that also meant I would need fertility treatment in order to become pregnant when I was ready. My body was not ovulating and it would require extra support when the time would come.”
Aaryn knew that she had to share this news with her boyfriend. She had no idea how he would react and what he would think. “I was so nervous to tell Ephraim. I was so overwhelmed and scared about what this would mean for our future. Thankfully, when I told him, it didn’t phase him at all. Ephraim was on the pre-med track at YU, and he understood the implications and the fact that there were many medical options available to us.”
Being one of the first in their social circle to get married, Aaryn felt comfortable talking with her friends and classmates about needed fertility treatment. Nine months after their wedding, they felt they were ready to start treatment. “I started on Clomid, but didn’t ovulate. We did a semen analysis as well at our initial consult. The cycle failed, and at our follow up appointment, we found out the results of the semen analysis: Ephraim had a low sperm count. At this point, the doctor decided we need to start IUI’s. We did three IUI’s but none of them worked. That’s when my doctor told us, ‘It’s time for IVF.’”
After 8 months of treatments, Aaryn did a first fresh cycle of IVF. “I transferred one fresh embryo (an embryo that was never frozen), and I conceived my first born, Moshe. My second child, Dovy, was a frozen transfer (FET cycle). An FET is much less invasive, and I also got pregnant with him on the first transfer.
The process didn’t take long and for us it wasn’t emotional. I knew that ultimately I would have to do IVF, I just had to take the steps to get there. The transfers were simple, and it worked on the first tries- it was a textbook case.”
After a few years Aaryn and Ephraim were ready to have another baby. They began the process of setting up a consult with Dr. Blotner at Westchester Fertility, who helped them bring their first two children into the world. Before the consult, Aaryn felt some pain and after blood work the doctor told her that she had ovulated! “My body never ovulated so that was a big deal! Soon after, I went in for our FET consult (I still had four frozen embryos from our initial IVF) and they gave me the prescriptions for the medications that I would need to take. That afternoon, I missed a call from my doctor’s office; I figured it was instructions for how to use the medications. When I checked my voicemail, it was actually my doctor, telling me that I was already pregnant, naturally. I still have that voicemail.”
A few years after having their third child, Hannah, Aaryn and Ephraim started talking about doing IVF again to have a fourth. “When it came time to thinking about whether we wanted a fourth child, it seemed like there was no reason not to. My uterus works, I had three easy pregnancies, I got pregant relatively easily, I still had frozen embryos from when I was 21 years old- I figured why wouldn’t it work again?
Over Pesach 2016, we did another transfer and I right away got pregnant. My husband joked we’d for sure end up with seven kids since I got pregnant so easily and we had four embryos left. We always said we’d use them all…”
Something felt different this time for Aaryn. She had an intuition that maybe something wasn’t right. “I was calling my friends and telling the nurses. I was worried that when I went for my ultrasound the baby wouldn’t have a heartbeat. One friend was seriously worried about me, asking me, ‘What is wrong with you? This is your fourth pregnancy. Everything has been smooth so far. Why are you worrying about this? You need help.’ I just told her, that I knew that something was wrong and there wouldn’t be a heartbeat. The nurses at my doctors tried to console me- my numbers and hormones looked great- there was no reason to assume that something was wrong. When I went in for the ultra sound that I had been dreading, it turned out that I was right. There was no heartbeat. Oddly, I felt some relief, because the anticipation was worse. They were just confirming was I already, innately knew.”
The doctor offered Aaryn different options- a D&C, medication, to pass it naturally. “All I remember saying was please just let me try again. I could do this. Just let me do this again. Ephraim started to feel like he was happy with three kids and the expense of fertility treatment was getting too expensive, but I kept asking him, ‘please, I know I can do this, just let me try again.’
I knew I could face this. Even if every time it was a miscarriage or failed cycle, I just needed to keep trying. That was the only way that I could face the failure. I was not ready to quit. At the time I did not live in that emotional space. I just kept going, kept pushing myself. In time, it all caught up with me.”
Aaryn did IVF for 14 months straight. She did not want to take a break because she knew that the minute she stopped she would be consumed with worrying about when they would start again. “ I would be counting down the days. The days until we would do IVF again, until I would get my medicine, until we would do another transfer. For me, I just had to keep going.”
It was very hard for Aaryn to adjust from having a successful and simple experienced with IVF, to a real struggle. “After having such a smooth experience the first three times, the fourth time was nothing like that. I had five back to back transfers, two miscarriages and two failed cycles. I just kept going until one took; I even did a fresh round of IVF to get more embryos. None of my remaining four embryos resulted in a successful pregnancy. On the fifth transfer, two days shy of the Pesach 2016 transfer, one frozen embryo implanted, and now I’m pregnant again.”
Aaryn found that she loved to blog, and she wanted to write a blog about infertility to help educate people about what it was like. She thought that she would write on her blog, My Rose Among Thorns, through her IVF experience when we would be trying for her third. “ But then I got pregnant on my own, and I felt like a fraud. For so long, I had been educating people about being open about infertility and IVF. But I realized that most people couldn’t relate to the success that I had initially with IVF. I felt like, who was I to talk about being infertility when it had been so relatively easy? I started apologizing for my success. But then I had 14 months of struggle, disappointment and loss. Though it was so hard, I’m choosing to be grateful for the opportunity to share the lessons that I learned during that time. Now I feel like other women struggling with infertility can relate to what I’ve gone through. I’ve been through both extremes- the times when everything works just right, and the times when everything goes wrong. I want to use this experience to support other women, and make some meaning out of it for me.”
On the day Aaryn went in for another IVF transfer. “On transfer day (when I got pregnant this time) it was supposed to be a happy day. That day I was in such a bad mood. I was upset, sad, I was snapping at people. It wasn’t like me and I couldn’t figure out why. I was up all night trying to understand where these feelings were coming from. It finally clicked for me: I knew I was going to get pregnant and that I was going to have to face that ultrasound again. I had always said that was the one thing that scared me. I was going to have to walk back in, at 6 weeks pregnant, and relive through that agony of waiting for a yes or no. In other pregnancies, I never worried about numbers, but this time I had so much anxiety. Every time it came to those monitoring appointments, now that I had experienced loss, I knew what was possible. When people would tell me, ‘Oh it’s going to be fine.’ or ‘You are due for a win,’ I would get so frustrated because I knew, that’s not how it works.”
Aaryn was anxious about that first 6 week ultrasound. That same moment when that same week, a year earlier, she had found out there was no heartbeat and she had a miscarriage. “I had to face that first ultrasound and it was really scary. After that I thought the anxiety would go away. People said to me that once I moved passed the moment of when things went wrong other times, those feelings would get better. It didn’t get better. If anything it got worse.”
Currently, Aaryn is struggling with the trauma of the losses she has experienced. “At this point, I feel like I have a morbid take on this pregnancy, almost like I still don’t believe that I am carrying a viable baby. Now it’s getting a bit better because I can feel the baby moving, so I am just constantly checking to feel if the baby is still ok. I feel like I could still lose the baby even though I’m through my first trimester. The situation in reality is no different than any other pregnancy at this point, but for me and my anxiety, it feels different.
You would think that if I was afraid that a pregnancy, God forbid, wouldn’t last, that I would stick to doing all the ‘normal’ things like exercising and eating well-just doing whatever I could to make sure I stayed healthy. But I can’t, because there’s all this emotional energy into trying to live in the moment, and not worry about a potential loss; it’s so exhausting. I feel like I’ve been unable to muster up my motivation. When I take a nap, it’s not the nap of a pregnant woman. I’m sleeping because I’m mentally exhausted; I’m scared and I’m anxious. Sometimes it feels like I’m just surviving.
I’m slowly getting into a better place, because now I can feel the baby move. So at least when that happens, I can tell myself the baby is ok for now. But I’m not as energetic now, it’s harder for me to just push through and get things done. I’m maxed out mentally being so anxious. At this point I’m just trying to get through the day. All the time that I spent ignoring my feelings of grief and pushing through treatment, I think it finally caught up with me.”
Leaning on her spirituality presents challenges and comforts to Aaryn. “I think for me, personally, being a spiritual person, makes this experience harder than if I just solely believed in modern medicine. I know that sometimes God’s answer is just no.”
Ultimately, she knows that God is in charge of fertility. “Into this process I discovered a kabbalistic takuma, something that I took upon myself, that a silver necklace with a ruby is supposed to promote fertility and prevent miscarriage. Since the day I bought it, I’ve only taken it off to go to the mikvah (and I cried while taking it off). I know this necklace does not have the power to change or affect my pregnancy. What it does do, is serve as a reminder of who is really in charge. Only God can decide what our fates will be and though I always feel like I want to be in control over the process, or at least know which way I am heading, it is only God who knows.”
When I asked Aaryn what she felt her future held, this is what she had to say, “I’d like to have more children; my kids have already decided they’d like to have enough siblings for a 12 seater van! I’m just focused on this baby for now. But, I’m 30, and thanks to modern medicine, a woman’s window of fertility has greatly increased and there are so many options available to us as women and couples! If you’re in the trenches of infertility, thanks to modern medicine, there are so many ways you can become a parent! For me, I think this experience has made me a better person, a better parent and I see beauty in the small things. There are many thorns along the way, but intertwined is so much beauty and love.”
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in 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 made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.