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I Can Do Hard Things
Some thoughts on motherhood, infertility, and learning to run again
Two notes: First, this a little different from my usual posts—more personal reflections and less Torah. If that’s not your thing, feel free to skip and come back next time. Second, this is a modified version of what was originally a social media post that a few people asked me to write up so it could be shared. If you know a version of these struggles, I hope you can remember that you can do hard things.
This week is National Infertility Awareness Week, so I want to tell a story about infertility and motherhood and bodies and running.
I have sneakers that have holes in the bottom. These are the sneakers that I wore to clinic visits. I wore them back and forth to our first IVF cycle, which thankfully brought us my pregnancy with Gummy Bear (the nickname we have for our daughter E.) I wore them all through my pregnancy, to doctors visits, and then back and forth again when we restarted cycles last May.
I really thought those sneakers would bring me to, if not through, another pregnancy, But after three more miscarriages, my knees started hurting because they were so worn out, and I had to give them up.
One of the things I realized recently was how long it has been since my body has been mine. Before we tried to have kids, I was a runner. I ran half marathons and 10 mile races. I ran a mile in 7:54. But then I had back to back pregnancies, both of which we lost, in September-December 2019. We went straight from that into IVF, which thankfully led to a viable pregnancy, which lead to nursing and all of its attendant difficulties. I tried to go back to running when I was five months postpartum, but after a few months I had pain so debilitating that I literally couldn't walk.
It turned out that I had fractured my sacrum when I was pregnant with Gummy Bear, but nobody realized it and everyone chalked it up to postpartum pain. It was only when I couldn't walk without a cane that I was sent for an MRI, which revealed the long-standing fracture. Many months of PT replaced my running, and by the time I was cleared to run again, we were trying for a second child. Another chemical pregnancy, my fourth loss overall, sent us back to IVF.
We did a transfer that took in the first cycle, but I lost that one too. Then another retrieval, two failed transfers, a failed iui, and another retrieval, which yielded only one normal embryo.
One of the small pains of IVF for me, alongside the many big ones, is that you're not allowed to run. Or do any high impact exercise, or get your heart rate too high, or lift heavy weights, or do yoga. So for nine months, through cycle after cycle, my running shoes sat dormant, I didn't know, or really believe, that I would ever run again.
It just reminded me how much something that seemed to come so easily to others--building a family--seemed impossible to me. All it did was take things from me. My sense of my body as my own, time with my family, money, emotional energy, joy for others who were welcoming their own new children--all stolen. All for something that might never happen.
In January, we transferred our last normal embryo. It stuck. We were going to have a little boy. I saw him, tiny but undeniable, on the ultrasound screen.
But then at the next appointment: I'm so sorry, but there's no heartbeat. Seven pregnancies. Six loses, and one perfect little girl, whose mother I am so blessed to be.
One of the things about a miscarriage is that it forces you to take time off from fertility cycles. So once I got cleared to exercise again, I got in touch with my old running coach and asked her if it was worth starting up again when I'd have to stop again in a few months. She said, If you enjoy it, it's always worth it.
She recommended that I try the Peloton "You can run outdoors" program, which is designed to get you running 30 minutes consecutively after eight weeks. I was skeptical that such a thing would be possible but figured I might as well try. My first run, I could only run for four minutes at a time before I had to stop and walk. My pace was almost 14:00 a mile, a far cry from where I had been in the fall of 2019. It was hard to feel anything other than like I would never run again.
But I kept at it anyway. I ran early in the morning, before my family was awake. I ran after daycare drop off, or during random breaks between classes in the afternoon. I ran in Central Park and Riverside Park and along the beach in Mexico.
I committed myself to regular strength training, which had fallen by the wayside, and tried to make sure I was eating enough. I had dumpster fire days, caused by blisters or fatigue or some days just being like that. But then I would try again the next time.
Very slowly, I felt this part of myself come back to life. The runs got easier, and a little faster, and a little longer. And I felt a little more alive.
On Sunday, I reached the sixteenth and final class in the eight week program. I didn't run for 30 minutes.
I ran for 45.
It was freaking hard. I almost quit many times, It was still way slower than before I had Gummy Bear. But you know what? I did it. For the first time in three and a half years, I ran more than four miles. I ran at a pace that was almost three minutes faster than my pace from eight weeks ago.
I am grateful to my husband. who encouraged me to do something only for myself. To my sister-in-law, who let me text her my progress after every run. To my running coach, who told me I could do it and reminded me not to push too hard, too fast, so that I wouldn't get hurt again.
I have new sneakers now, and new running shoes. I had to get rid of the old ones, which I loved, because they were hurting me, and therefore couldn't serve me anymore. I am hopeful that these will be the ones to carry us to our next miracle, but I am realistic enough now to know that life doesn't always work that way.
I'm not sure I'll ever get over infertility, even if we are lucky enough to build the family that we dream of. I'm too aware of the precarity of every moment, of how easy it is for a tiny miracle to slip through our fingers.
But it is easier for me to believe now that, one way or the other, we will make it to the other side. Because I can do hard things. Whether those hard things are carrying a pregnancy, or making peace with not being able to, or running for 45 minutes, I can do hard things. And that is what I want you to know about our infertility story. It is impossible, and we do it anyway.
Soon, I will have to stop running again, in service of yet another cycle, which will hopefully have a different outcome. But I'll know. I can do hard things. I can run. I can do the shots. I can have hope again, even when it is overwhelmed by despair. I can do it.
Before, during, or after every run in the last two months, I took at least one picture--of the changing trees, of the sun rising over the beach, of my red and sweaty face, of my new running shoes carrying me forward. Every picture in this post is one of those pictures. Soon, those runs will be replaced with walks, and the running shoes will be replaced with the sneakers that will carry me to the clinic and back, to the clinic and back, to the clinic and back. But I can do it. I can do hard things.