For IBD mom, Suzy Burnett, reflecting on the past year and half of living through the COVID-19 pandemic causes her to feel flooded with emotions. She knew having three children under the age of five at age 41, while dealing with the ebbs and flows of Crohn’s disease, would be challenging. She delivered her son, Guy, just as COVID cases were starting to soar. Now, she’s able to look back on how her family adapted and thrived, despite the difficult circumstances of living through a global pandemic with a chronic illness. I’ll let her take it away…
Like many families, we’ve worn masks, stayed at home, literally have seen no one except our wonderful neighbors, and made sacrifices to ensure the safety of ourselves and others. We made the difficult decision not to send our 5-year-old to kindergarten, rather, enroll her in virtual 4k from the confines of our home. Our 3-year-old also didn’t attend preschool a few mornings a week like we had originally planned. We have noticed the lack of socialization has impacted her the most. Our 15-month-old is just now meeting family and friends for the first time. He takes stranger danger to a whole new level, but we know he’ll warm up in due time.
My husband, like so many others, started working from home. What was once thought to be a temporary safety precaution, has become a permanent situation. He continues to work in a room without doors while the wee ones race around playing superheroes. Noise canceling headphones have become a lifesaver. All of us together at home, day after day, month after month. Our bond has grown deeper, and our Burnett Party of 5 has survived. I can honestly say we live fuller, laugh harder, hold each other longer, and love deeper.
Dealing with the lifting of the mask mandate
Just as we were beginning to get used to our personal version of Groundhog’s Day, the mask mandate was lifted. This is a huge milestone, but with that brings excitement along with anxiety. My husband and I are both vaccinated, but our 3 young children will have to continue to wait their turn. To say we’re trepidatious about starting to acclimate back into society is an understatement. We’ve been in our little bubble on Welcome Drive for more than a year. I don’t think things will ever get back to “normal,” per say, but we’re looking forward to what our “new normal” will be. It’s a new beginning, a fresh start to be more present, and we have the opportunity to give precedence to things that matter most in life. Things will be a little different than before, and we will always remember and carry the weight that was and will forever be COVID.
We will continue to have our groceries delivered as well as basic necessities, because it’s unclear who is vaccinated, and I’m not going to rely on the honor system of strangers to keep my kiddos safe. However, I am beyond the moon ecstatic that our girlies will both be doing outdoor soccer and playdates with other vaccinated families. My husband will continue to work from home, but this is a change we welcome and greatly appreciate. It has given us time as a family we never knew we were missing. Our oldest daughter, Lucy, will finally be attending kindergarten…….wait for it….IN PERSON. I am so proud of her. She’s sacrificed so much these past several months. She’s handled herself with grace and class far beyond her years. We’re planning our first family trip in over two years, and I am completely overwhelmed at the mere thought of the happiness this will bring.
Coming out stronger than before
It has been months of peaks and valleys, but our mountain remains strong. On top of enduring the pandemic, we lost our family cat, Miles. He was a furry friend to our littles when they couldn’t see their own friends. My dear Grandma Connors was called amongst the angels, and now she protects us from above. I also recently almost lost my sister due to a post birth hemorrhage, but now she rests safely at home with her baby boy. And I am recovering from a nasty bout of C.difficile. Yes, the one time I left the house I picked up a bacteria from the hospital. Through it all though, we’re stronger than ever before because of our strong family foundation.
My point in saying all of this is that we all go through our own struggles. Life is so unexpected, and often we can’t choose what we’re dealt. We can, however, choose how we handle the storm. We’re so grateful for our health, happiness, and each day we’re given. Take NOTHING for granted because every day is a gift. Everyone has been impacted one way or another these past few years, and now it’s up to you to see where your ship will go as you navigate life with IBD and in general. As the tides of the ocean swiftly change, so will the moments in life. Savor the moments.
Motherhood is so much more than a word—it’s an expectation and an identity. It’s a right of passage many girls dream of when they think about their future and what their family will look like. But family planning, pregnancy, and motherhood are far from a given, especially for those with chronic illness. As an IBD mom of two with one on the way, I’ve recognized that while my story and my experience may comfort and guide others—it’s only that, one story. I fully understand I am extremely lucky not to have the struggle of infertility or physical limitations to hold me back from having children, despite my Crohn’s.
This week kicks off IBD Motherhood Unplugged, an ongoing series that will be shared periodically in the months and years ahead on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s. The series will feature guest posts from women with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis who may not physically be able to carry a child, who battle infertility, who grow their family through adoption and surrogacy, who have children following loss—the list goes on and on. Ultimately, I want everyone to feel seen, heard, and understood. There’s not one cookie cutter approach to becoming a mom or having a family.
The first article is by my dear friend and fellow patient advocate and thought leader Tina Aswani Omprakash. Tina is a 37-year-old woman in New York, living with perianal, fistulizing Crohn’s Disease. She’s endured more than 20 surgeries and lives with a permanent ileostomy. Since she was a child, she thought she could put off motherhood and did so through many years of virulent disease. At one point, as a young adult, she needed to go on a disability and be taken care of by her mom. When she got married to the love of her life, Anand, nearly 11 years ago, the questions started.
“Being of South Asian descent, the nosy, busybody aunties at weddings and cultural events would always find ways to jeer and sneer at the fact that I hadn’t had a child yet. And after I started Stelara 5.5 years ago and tasted remission for the very first time in a decade, I too began to wonder: is it time for me to consider my own child?”
I’ll let Tina take it away and explain her struggles with family planning and finding out pregnancy wasn’t in the cards. Her heartfelt words and openness about feeling excluded from being an IBD mom, shed light on an important topic and aspect of our illness that is often not discussed or talked about. We hope in sharing this—if you are going through the same situation, struggles, or worries, that you know you are not alone.
Genetic counseling, surrogacy, and reproductive endocrinologists, oh my
In April 2016, I went to see a reproductive endocrinologist, who did a transvaginal ultrasound. Based on his medical expertise, he thought he could retrieve maybe three of my eggs, which was incredible news given everything I had been through surgically. He had proposed 2-3 rounds of IVF for hormone stimulation and egg retrieval but there was no guarantee that the eggs retrieved would be viable to be combined with my husband’s sperm. He didn’t think carrying the baby was a good option for me given all the scarring from surgery and fistulae. Moreover, fertility is often affected by j-pouch surgery and later excision. As such, he offered me the option of surrogacy and asked me to seek genetic counseling due to the hereditary nature of my Crohn’s Disease.
Anand and I went through months of genetic counseling, an expensive process that didn’t lend to any substantial findings. Crohn’s, as many doctors have explained to me, is spread out over several genes and one gene cannot be targeted necessarily as a form of gene therapy. That left us both stumped as his family has a history of an autoimmune condition called ankylosing spondylitis and I have various skin and bowel autoimmune conditions on my side of the family.
During this time, we also looked into the surrogacy process. Since the reproductive endocrinologist recommended that I not consider a pregnancy myself given all the surgeries, fistulae, and pelvic cysts I’ve had, we obliged. But considering all the legal and surrogacy fees, we were looking at $100,000 for one surrogate pregnancy (at least), which was an extraordinary sum of money for us. So, we decided to table having a child for the time being and think over adoption, another expensive proposition.
Tick, tock, tick, tock…
Two years passed and we came to realize that there is no easy solution. During that time, the IBD Parenthood Project shared excellent knowledge for women with IBD to conceive and carry a pregnancy to term safely. And I thought, let me ask my GI doctor now about his thoughts. Unfortunately, he reiterated the same thoughts as the reproductive endocrinologist shared: for someone with my surgical and fistula history and aggressive family history of Crohn’s disease, it may be best not to try. He also said the risk of me using hormones for egg retrieval would risk a blood clot in a patient with my history.
Part of me was still in denial that motherhood may never be a possibility. Within weeks of my conversation with my GI doctor, I was diagnosed with mild endometriosis by a premier OB/GYN surgeon in NYC. I asked him, “What do my options for pregnancy and fertility look like now?” And he said very openly and honestly, “Bleak at best. Let’s say you do carry the pregnancy and don’t lose the baby, Tina, will I have to cut through bowel and scar tissue to get to your baby?” After a brief pause, he said, “I would recommend adoption if having a child is something you really want to consider.”
While, on one hand, I genuinely appreciated his honesty, on the other hand, the statement, “cut through bowel and scar tissue to get to your baby” seared through my mind for months after and has left its mark even today. I needed to hear it; I needed my bubble to pop. But the statement no doubt cuts and ravages every minutiae of my being as a woman. Not having the privilege to choose to have a baby was suddenly taken from me in that one fell swoop and it left my head spinning.
Losing Motherhood to Crohn’s Disease
My God-given right as a woman was taken from me in that instant. As if having six fistulae and Crohn’s wreaking havoc on my pelvis and reproductive system wasn’t enough, let’s take Tina down another notch. Let’s take away her right to choose to have a child.
Even though voluntary childlessness is always a choice, now I didn’t even have that choice. Childlessness was thrust upon me like a stab wound in the back. All I was left with were unaffordable options of surrogacy or adoption.
So why not adoption? It’s simply too expensive and I do wonder about whether I’ll be able to even take care of the child given my constant roller coaster of health issues and medical appointments. Hiring full-time help seems out of reach, too.
Include Women Who Aren’t Mothers
That day with the endometriosis surgeon was nearly three years ago. And I’ve done a lot of work in therapy to process much of it. But I can’t say I don’t feel left out every time I see a mom scolding her child or complaining about her child(ren)’s mischievousness because I, like many other women with chronic illnesses, will never be able to experience the joys and sorrows of motherhood.
As happy as I am for my friends with children, there is a deep void I’m reminded of every time someone else gets pregnant, hosts a baby shower, or sends along amazingly cute photos of their child(ren). I will never be able to have that, no, but I wish I could still be included in the mommy paradigm as a cool aunt or as a godmother. But I’m often not, and that makes me feel sad and excluded.
Dealing with the Cultural Aspects
In American culture, it’s hard enough as it is to be a woman of my age without a child, but in Indian culture, you’re really considered a pariah of sorts. I’m often asked the question of when I will bear a child now that Anand and I have been married for so many years. I usually find ways to dodge those questions by changing the subject or by simply saying, “whenever the time is right.” It’s not a conversation I want to be having with acquaintances nor do I want to be fodder for gossip.
But when it comes to my close friends saying, “Tina, gosh, you would have made an amazing mother, you have so much good to impart on to the world,” it feels good and bad all at once. I’m flattered that someone would think I could do a fine job as a mother but saddened by the fact that I will never know that for myself.
Becoming a Mother Hen
Alas, today in 2021, I continue to focus on my advocacy work and my graduate program, in attempts to focus my attention elsewhere. And in the words of my therapist, “if I cannot be a mother to a child, I can at least be a mother hen to my IBD community, helping to educate and guide patients of underserved populations who would otherwise feel bewildered.” I take a lot of solace in that and recognize that I wasn’t supposed to be here today with all the near-death experiences I’ve had with my brand of Crohn’s disease. All I can express is my gratitude for being alive today, for being able to do this work, and for being able to be a mother hen in my own way to my community.
To my fellow IBD women & chronic illness warriors: please know you are not alone. Please know it’s okay to be sad, angry, and terrified. Many of us are struggling deeply with the idea of motherhood as our clocks keep ticking. Do your research, learn what your options are and make the best decision with your specialist(s) regarding conception and pregnancy. And if having a child is not in the cards, that’s okay too. Never forget (and I need this reminder too) – not having a child doesn’t make you less of a woman.
When I asked 34-year-old Amanda Osowski how she’s juggling Crohn’s disease, motherhood, and IVF during the pandemic, she said “with caution.” And rightfully so! These times are complicated and overwhelming for everyone. Add some chronic illnesses and trying to maintain your health, sanity, and emotions while doing all that and trying to get pregnant with a second child through IVF, and I’m amazed she found the time and energy to write this guest post! I’ll let her take it away.
Here we are, more than 7 months into a global pandemic, still wondering if and when life may “resume as normal”. To be honest, in my house, life has in some ways paused and in other ways accelerated since the March quarantines began. As an IBD patient on Remicade (an immunosuppressant medication to manage my Crohn’s disease), I have chosen from the beginning to adhere strictly to social distancing, mask wearing, unnecessary exposure and other risk reducing options.
This also meant that my job, my income, and my ability to support others has transitioned from mainly in-person to entirely virtual. The silver lining of this is that I’m able to work with clients all over the world. Balancing that alongside parenthood, and IBD during a pandemic requires a good bit of patience, strategic thinking, and deliberate planning.
Gearing up for Baby #2 Through IVF
My husband and I were diagnosed with Unexplained Infertility in 2017 while trying to conceive our first child. After several failed treatments, we had one successful round of IVF in which I became pregnant with our daughter in the fall of 2018. As soon as she was born, we knew we wanted to have another baby close in age – both for our family planning goals and in hopes that I would be able to maintain my Crohn’s remission status long enough to complete another pregnancy.
While we began trying naturally as soon as we were ready, we knew that the recommendation for fertility treatment was to wait until 12 months passed after delivering our daughter. I desperately hoped that we’d get lucky before then, and that we’d end up with natural conception, rather than going through the physical, emotional, and financial journey of another cycle of IVF. I also knew that I wanted another baby, and that would happen however it was meant to.
How the pandemic has impacted fertility treatments
We were scheduled to begin fertility testing in March 2020, with treatment starting in April. As I’m sure you guessed, that was immediately halted with the closing of most fertility offices and the pausing of all new treatment cycles with the influx of COVID-19 cases and concerns. Having my treatment (and my timeline) be paused indefinitely with the continuing anxiety and stress of the pandemic caused my IBD symptoms to increase – something that then caused me more anxiety and stress about its impact on my IVF plan if and when I was able to reschedule treatment.
After an exceptionally long few months, my doctor’s office re-connected with me about getting my appointments scheduled. My IBD while not flaring, was not perfectly calm either, and that’s such an important part to me about preparing for pregnancy, so we gave it a little more time. FINALLY, this month (September), I began the treatment protocol I should’ve started five months earlier. Our daughter Brooklyn just turned 16 months old.
Today you’ll find me managing IVF medication injections around business calls, my Remicade infusion schedule, chasing a toddler and being stuck inside my home around the clock. It’s HARD, and exhausting, but it’s the only way I know how to make my hopes come true.
Tips for handling IBD + IVF
Communication with your partner is critical. From parenting responsibilities to COVID-19 precautions to childcare to work stressors to fertility treatment planning and execution – there is an entire machine full of decisions and emotions that are part of every single day, and not being on the same page as your partner can have devastating effects. My recommendation: schedule time once a week on your calendar after bedtime to talk. Keep a list running during the week of things to add to the conversation. Ask all your questions to each other then, when you can focus and talk and connect. You’re a team, and it’s important in this season to work together.
Mental health is just as important as physical health. When managing IBD + ANYTHING, let alone motherhood, and a pandemic, and fertility treatment, taking time to check in with your mental health and care for yourself is imperative. Each of these things come with so many feelings, and burying them all will only make it harder to deal (& keep your IBD in check!) I personally recommend working with a counselor, taking time to journal or meditate or center yourself, and ensure you’re checking in with your own needs regularly.
Social Media Strategy – During the pandemic, I think we’ve all admitted to more screen time than usual. I know firsthand that the amount of pregnancy announcements, gender reveals, new baby births & seeing families with multiple kiddos can cause feelings of guilt, frustration, jealousy, anger, etc. Social media can make things feel extra difficult for those struggling to get pregnant, undergoing fertility treatments AND managing something like IBD. Here’s what I recommend. The beauty of social media is that we can choose what we do and don’t see while we scroll. This is a perfect time to click “hide” or “unfollow” on any hashtags or accounts that make you feel sad or icky. That’s not to say you don’t love your neighbor/friend/co-worker, but in my opinion you also don’t have to constantly watch their highlight reel. On the flipside, utilize social media to connect with your TRIBE. Whether that’s other IBD and IVF warriors, others struggling with infertility, etc – there’s so much more space for online communities now than there ever has been before. If you’re having difficulty finding and connecting with others, please DM me and I’m happy to make some suggestions! Also, please know that whatever you’re feeling during this experience and this season is so valid, and you’re not alone!
Give yourself grace. There will be days when you feel inadequate – as a parent, as a spouse, as a patient – these moments don’t define you. You’re juggling so much, it’s so important to know that you’re doing the best you can, even if that looks different than it used to or different than you’d like it to.
If my story resonated with you, or you’d like to connect, please reach out! You can find me on Instagram personally as @amanda.osowski and professionally as @heartfeltbeginnings.
Welcoming a baby into the world brings so many emotions to the surface. For IBD mom, Suzy Burnett, of Madison, Wisconsin, it’s been a rollercoaster. She had her third baby, Guy Richard, February 29th. Right before COVID-19 started wreaking havoc in the States. Before Guy was born, Suzy’s biggest fear was a postpartum flare. After the birth of her second oldest daughter, Alice, she had the worst Crohn’s flare of her life and was hospitalized.
Now, as her and her family face the COVID-19 pandemic, she has a new set of concerns. Will Guy be able to stay healthy until his immune system matures a bit? How will her daughters adjust to the new addition? Will she be able to stay well despite being immunocompromised? COVID-19 added a whole new slew of uphill battles that she or anyone else for that matter hasn’t been prepared to deal with. This week Suzy shares her perspective as an IBD mom, doing all she can to protect herself and her family in the face of this viral war.
As anyone who has ever had a baby, you know those first two weeks, involve several doctor appointments. Guy still had high bilirubin levels when we brought him home, so this meant we needed to make extra trips to his pediatrician. Sounds easy, right? There was so much involved this time around. Babies don’t have that immunity built up yet, so we had to use a special entrance, and go straight to our room to avoid any contact with the public. I couldn’t help but glance at the waiting room and see all the long faces adorned with facial masks. It was swimming with sick kiddos. I felt incredibly lucky at that moment as we escaped the chesty coughs, and furniture that had been saturated in illness.
One week went by, and things quickly changed to Zoom and FaceTime appointments. Not only did the baby’s appointments change…but mine did as well. Those of us with Crohn’s disease can’t always get by with a virtual chat about our symptoms. But here we are.
Navigating health issues brought on by my IBD
Many people with IBD develop extra-intestinal manifestations. Unfortunately, when I was put on prednisone last summer, I developed extremely high eye pressures. I was diagnosed as “Glaucoma suspect” at 40 years old, meaning I have some risk of the disease, but no proven damage (yet), so my eyes are monitored often.
I’m also dealing with an external hemorrhoid, thanks to excessive diarrhea, along with an anal fissure, all while caring for three children—one being a newborn.
For those of you who don’t know, an anal fissure is a small tear in the thin, moist tissue (mucosa) that lines the anus. I’m treating the fissure with topical lidocaine and a suppository three times per day. I’ve had my fair share of pain, but this ranks right up there with my non-sedated sigmoidoscopy and childbirth. It feels like broken glass, or razor blades back there. There’s a chance this has progressed to a fistula, and I may require surgery in the weeks to come.
Normally, I would be seen right away, but due to the current COVID-19 crisis, it’s been several phone calls back and forth with the nurses triaging my symptoms. I’m confident the hemorrhoid will go away, but if the fissure doesn’t, I might be facing surgery, and right now a trip to the hospital could be life threatening.
Seeing the beauty through the struggle
Amidst this horrific event that is crippling our world, there is an unexpected beauty that has surfaced. Our wonderful party of five has become closer than close. Yes, there are times when we all go a bit loony, but we’re embracing this time together. My kids are my world, my everything. I need to be the best version of myself, and a huge part of that now and forever is not letting my IBD win. Even when my disease has a strong hold on me, I never let my kids see the struggle.
If you’re reading this and you’re unsure about whether you’ll be able to handle your IBD and motherhood, I’m here to tell you it’s possible. As a woman and a mom of three who has battled Crohn’s since 2008, I believe if it’s your dream to have children, or a family, you should most definitely pursue that. Consult with your GI and OB doctors prior to getting pregnant, and make sure you’re in remission. Pregnancy can be challenging, but if you’re also flaring, it’s that much harder.
As we all experience the change in our day-to-day lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether you have IBD or not, there has been a return to simplicity. A back to basics mentality that is exponentially refreshing. Take a walk outside and breathe in and out. Right now, we’re forced to take our time, dig deep, and focus on our inner beings. Much like the experience of dealing with the diagnosis of IBD, it’s a time to peel back those layers and re-discover YOU.
IBD and surrogacy. Those are loaded words. Both evoke emotions and opinions for unique reasons. For Jessie Magaro, 34 of Atlanta, the decision came after the unfathomable struggles she had with her Crohn’s during pregnancy and after. To provide you with the backstory, Jessie was diagnosed with Crohn’s and endometriosis when she was 15. She underwent an elective surgery her senior year of high school for her Crohn’s that put her into surgical remission for 15 years.
Jessie got married in 2016. While she was loving every second of newlywed life, she started feeling endometriosis pains. Less than a year after tying the knot, her doctor discovered her fallopian tubes were blocked. It was unclear if the blockage was due solely to endometriosis, or if it was a result of scar tissue from her bowel resection. Either way, IVF seemed to be the only option to get pregnant, and her fallopian tubes would need to be removed for that to be successful. In November 2017, Jessie underwent the surgery. When she woke up, she thought she would be stripped of the ability to conceive a baby naturally. But, her surgeon told her they were able to save and repair one of her tubes.
Jessie ended up getting pregnant right away, but unfortunately had an ectopic pregnancy that ended up severely rupturing her fallopian tube. During emergency surgery to remove the remaining tube, it was determined her endometriosis was severe and IVF needed to happen sooner than later. I had the chance to interview Jessie about her harrowing experience to bring a baby into this world, while living with IBD and endometriosis.
NH: How did IVF impact your IBD?
JM: “The moment we started IVF, I felt a shift in my body. A storm was brewing, and I could feel it. My completely dormant Crohn’s appeared to be waking up, but I didn’t want to believe it. I battled through the IVF process while experiencing my first flare in a decade in a half. The Reproductive Endocrinologist and GI were miffed. No one could say if this was an isolated reaction to the hormones, or if I was truly experiencing an active flare. After a lot of back and forth, and hard conversations with medical professionals and our families, we decided to proceed with implanting an embryo. The thought process was that most women tend to do better in pregnancy with Crohn’s, if they had been in remission prior. The hope was that this “flare” was an isolated incident from the IVF drugs/hormones, and that everything would calm down once I was pregnant. It was a risk, but one we decided we were willing to take. After a short round of prednisone, the flare subsided, and we proceeded with the transfer.”
NH: You now have a beautiful, healthy 13-month-old daughter to show for it. What was your pregnancy like?
JM: “My pregnancy was a terrifying whirlwind of trying to manage an awful flare while keeping the baby safe. I developed a new manifestation of the disease I never had before: Perianal Crohn’s. Not a pleasant situation and one that is very difficult to treat/manage while pregnant. Things got so bad at one point, I had to have surgery to drain an abscess and place a seton to help a fistula heal. No one wants to have surgery pregnant. It was one of the scariest moments of my life. The first trimester was spent hoping and praying the baby would make it with all the turmoil going on in my abdomen. The second trimester was spent hoping and praying we could keep her in there long enough to be viable outside of the womb. The third trimester was spent in an unbearable amount of pain fighting the urge to take the prescribed pain pills and being so scared about how the increased biologics, steroids and other new drugs being introduced into my system might affect her.”
NH: You must have been going through so many emotional struggles at this time, on top of all the physical.
JM: “The level of anguish and guilt I felt was unimaginable. I already felt like I was failing at my motherly duty to protect her and keep her safe. By 32 weeks it was clear I was rapidly deteriorating, and we had exhausted all treatment possibilities deemed “safe” while pregnant. I desperately needed more aggressive treatment, and that couldn’t happen until she was out. With the newly manifested, aggressive, perianal disease, a vaginal birth was out of the question. I held on until 36 weeks and on New Year’s Eve of 2018 we welcomed our baby girl. We were so incredibly relieved she was ok, and the focus quickly shifted to how not ok mom was.”
NH: As a fellow IBD mom, we all know how challenging the postpartum time is, along with chronic illness. How did you navigate that?
JM: “The first five months of her life were spent in and out of the hospital non-stop. At one point we were traveling down to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville for weeks at a time (without her) for testing and treatment. Leaving her the first few months was by far the hardest, most gut-wrenching thing I’ve ever experienced. I would sit in the hotel bathtub staring at the IV in my arm sobbing. The physical and emotional pain was unbearable. I remember agonizing over the decision to start the new meds, or continue breastfeeding her, and the doctor saying to me “you NEED these meds, Jessie. You HAVE to get better. She needs you to get better more than she needs you to breastfeed her right now …” cue the waterfall of tears again.”
NH: You started to turn the corner when your daughter was six months old. Tell us about that.
JM: “The pain had begun to subside enough for me to take care of her without help, I could finally leave the house and I was starting to feel a little more like myself again. I was, and still am a year later, in an active flare, but we’re making progress. After talking to many medical professionals, we decided it was not safe for me to carry another child. We still don’t know if it was the IVF drugs/hormones that caused the flare going into pregnancy, or if hormones in general and my Crohn’s disease just don’t mix, but we’re not willing to put myself, or another baby at risk like that again.”
NH: I can only imagine what a difficult and complicated decision this has been for you and your husband.
JM: “This was not a decision that was made easily or lightly. As we go through the motions of finding a surrogate to carry baby number two, my days are filled with a roller coaster of emotions. We know we want another child, but at what price? I can’t take care of my family if I am unwell. If carrying another child myself leads me to be unwell again … is it worth it? Or, do I trust someone else, a safer vessel, to carry a precious sibling for our daughter. We’ve chosen to pursue a safer vessel. I am so unbelievably grateful that surrogacy is an option for us and will allow us to continue growing our family while keeping me safe.”
This story is not meant to scare anyone with IBD who is looking to start a family. Make sure you are in complete, clinical remission before you conceive, and know it is completely possible to have a happy, healthy pregnancy with IBD.
Flare ups during pregnancy and after, starting a biologic while breastfeeding, and wondering whether one baby is enough—all experiences and concerns that have weighed heavily on 30-year-old Addy Irvine of Minneapolis. Addy was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in May 2015. Addy’s son, William, is now 13 months old. This week—she shares a guest post about her journey to bring him into this world and the challenges and victories she’s experienced as a new mom with IBD. I’ll let her take it away.
Children were always a part of my plan. My husband and I knew we wanted to have children and were ready to start trying after I completed my Master’s degree. While my colitis had not been officially determined to be in remission, I was on Asacol and had not experienced symptoms for some time when my IUD was removed. After 8 months of “letting the universe decide” when to have a baby, we found out I was pregnant! Yay!
My first trimester was filled with the usual discomforts. Second trimester, you know, the one where you’re supposed to enjoy pregnancy and start feeling better? Not for me. I went through the worst flare of my life. It was easily the most miserable I’ve ever been, both physically and mentally. I had to stay home from work multiple days a week and was unable to help at home. I don’t know how I could have made it through without my husband’s support.
My doctors put me on oral Uceris, and when that wasn’t enough, they also put me on the rectal foam. The Uceris made things bearable, but I knew I wasn’t doing well.
I wasn’t gaining any weight despite my ever-growing belly. My friends and colleagues started noticing that I was losing weight. At first, it was in the chipper way people comment on weight loss. After a while people started to ask about it in a concerned voice.
I’d tell myself, “At least my baby is doing okay!”
By 3rd trimester, I could function normally most of the time. At my 36-week growth ultrasound, it was determined that my son had intrauterine growth restriction, and they talked to me about the possibility of induction between 37 and 39 weeks of gestation. After my second-high blood pressure reading that week, a nurse advised me to come into labor and delivery. When I arrived, I was diagnosed with gestational hypertension and started the induction process the next morning at 37 weeks.
Five days of induction later (really), my beautiful baby boy, William, arrived at 5 pounds 1.5 ounces. He was small, but healthy! After he was born, my UC got so much better until he was 2 months old when I had another flare. Suddenly I needed to care for my newborn in addition to taking care of myself. It seemed an insurmountable task. With frequent bathroom trips and intense fatigue, the newborn phase was made even tougher.
Holding on to the hope of breastfeeding
Breastfeeding was something I was really hoping for as part of my journey into motherhood. When William was born, I was thrilled, and so fortunate, to have a successful early breastfeeding relationship with him. When I started flaring again, breastfeeding became a significant challenge. I’d be with William during a late-night feeding, get a few minutes in, then have to wake my husband to keep William safe while I quickly ran to the bathroom. Obviously, this made William more than a little upset to start eating only to be pulled away. I also became increasingly worried that he wasn’t getting the nutrition he needed from me because I wasn’t absorbing nutrients the way I needed to. I upped my supplements and kept close tabs on his weight but continued breastfeeding. At this point, I knew I needed to do something different with my medications. What I was doing clearly wasn’t working.
I started to research biologics and met with my doctor to discuss my options. He recommended Entyvio, and my insurance approved it. I worried William would be harmed by breastfeeding while I was on a biologic. Would he be more susceptible to illness because of it? Would my supply be affected? My doctors reassured me that it was safe to be on Entyvio and continue breastfeeding, but I knew the research is limited. After seeking information and support from other moms who have breastfed on biologics, I decided to take the risk, start the biologic, and continue breastfeeding.
“Healthy mom, healthy baby” is the way I decided to frame it.
From flaring to remission
After 3 infusions, I started to feel significantly better, and I am now in clinical remission for the first time since being diagnosed. I finished my breastfeeding journey about a month ago. My supply wasn’t affected by starting the biologic, and my son has had absolutely no ill effects. He gets sick less than I do! Most importantly, I can engage with and care for him so much better than I could while I was ill.
This journey has made me think twice about having more children. Pregnancy and childbirth were really, hard on my body because of my UC and other complications I experienced after delivery and I’m not sure I want to risk my health again. Sometimes I wish that I were like “normal” people who approach pregnancy without having to think about all of this. I remind myself that this is MY normal, and that’s okay. And it’s okay to have one child if we decide to do that. I keep repeating this: healthy mom, healthy child(ren).
Reflecting on my journey, here are some lessons learned that I hope you take away:
Work closely with your GI doc and your Maternal Fetal Medicine team to make a plan BEFORE trying to have a baby (or even “letting the universe decide!)
Prioritize your own health, even when pregnant. Remember: healthy mom, healthy baby. This includes taking care of your mental health.
Connect to other moms who have CD or UC to learn from them
Flaring during pregnancy and postpartum is physically and mentally exhausting – lean on your support system heavily if you find yourself in that place
If breastfeeding is important to you, talk to your doctor about whether it’s safe to continue to do so while on a biologic – utilize the IBD Parenthood Project as a helpful resource.
Breastfeeding. Before I became a mom, I had no idea what a loaded word it was. So many emotions, so much controversy, so much judgement. As an IBD mom of two little ones, my journeys with my kids differed greatly. Ironically, World Breastfeeding Week wrapped up (August 1-7) and so did my breastfeeding journey with my daughter. Whether you’re a chronic illness mom or not, one of the first questions you often get asked is “are you breastfeeding?” It’s such a personal choice and decision, that really isn’t anybody’s business. Yet, men and women alike act as though it’s just casual conversation.
For many of us in the IBD community, breastfeeding is complicated. We have a lot more to consider than our milk supply coming in and a proper latch. We have to weigh the pros and cons of how our biologic drug passes through the milk, whether or not to pop a pain pill or struggle through the day so we’re able to feed our babies, along with the stress and exhaustion that comes along with the postpartum period, while navigating motherhood with chronic illness. We have to worry about what’s going to happen if we’re hospitalized and unable to feed our baby, our minds race with the what-ifs, even when we’re in “remission”.
My son, Reid, will be 2.5 in September. Before I ever became pregnant with him and up until the moment he was born, I was adamant on feeding him formula. I personally felt there were too many gray areas with the medication I am on and didn’t want to find out down the road that I put him at risk for dangerous long-term side effects. I ended up nursing the first three days in the hospital so that he could get the colostrum. Even though I was confident in my decision at that time, I sobbed when he got his first formula bottle in the hospital, because once again my Crohn’s prevented me from feeling like a “normal” person. Each time someone questioned my decision to formula feed or assumed I was breastfeeding, it pulled at my heartstrings and made me feel a bit embarrassed and less than.
My daughter, Sophia, will be seven months this week. During her pregnancy, it was like a light switch went off. I did my research and I was determined to give breastfeeding a go. I learned about how breast milk would benefit her microbiome, lower her chance of one day developing IBD, improve her immune system, and that Humira was considered safe for nursing, among other remarkable benefits. Many friends and family members offered invaluable advice and support to prepare me for what was to come once she entered the world. No matter how much I thought I was ready, it was still overwhelming and emotional.
Looking back—here’s what I wish I knew as a breastfeeding mama who has Crohn’s.
Just because it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s easy
To go from making a formula bottle with my son to pumping and syringe feeding a newborn was a bit of a shock to our family. As you can imagine—it was all new and foreign to us. The first night home was an absolute nightmare. Sophia was cluster feeding the entire night. Didn’t sleep a wink. Her latch was off. I was bleeding. She’d only nurse on the right side. Tears were falling and I didn’t know how I was ever going to breastfeed. I felt like I was letting myself and my daughter down. The IBD piece of it all made me feel the pressure to push through. I wanted to do all I could to protect her and felt guilt for not doing the same for my son. I remember lying in bed with her on my chest that first night, my husband sleeping, and texting a bunch of fellow breastfeeding moms for advice in the middle of the night. They all responded in minutes and comforted me. Initially, I had been told not to use my breast pump the first few weeks. I ended up using my pump the first week and it was the best decision I made. If I hadn’t done that, chances are I would have never made it through that initial week without changing my mind and formula feeding. If nursing is painful or difficult, don’t hesitate to break out the pump and relieve your engorged chest. Whether a baby is nursing or receiving breast milk in a bottle, it’s all the same at the end of the day.
Introduce the bottle early on
When you live with IBD, you rely heavily on others being able to help you when you’re stuck in the bathroom or fatigued beyond belief. Some days other people are going to need to feed your baby, whether it’s a spouse or your mom. If you wait too long to introduce a bottle, you increase the likelihood of your baby refusing a bottle, which puts added pressure on you. We gave Sophia a bottle the first week home, since I needed to pump. For the past seven months she’s gone back and forth from breast to bottle beautifully. It eased up the pressure on me and helped make it easier on both of us! We still got to bond and be close, but others are able to feed her as well.
Before you take a pain pill, talk with your GI
Like many IBD moms, the fear of a postpartum flare and flaring in general weighs heavily on my heart and on my mind. I noticed symptoms start to creep up when Sophia was about two months old. I took a pain pill and reached out to my GI, only to find out I couldn’t breastfeed for the next 14 hours. At another point, I had to be put on Entocort for a week to help combat a small flare. Rather than try and be a superhero, I reached out to my GI immediately. While on the Entocort I had to pump and dump in the morning. It pained me to pour the “liquid gold” down the drain, but it’s what I needed to do to prevent a hospital visit. My kids needed mama present more than my baby needed a bottle of breast milk.
Supplementing is not failing
Whether you’re pregnant now, aspire to one day breastfeed, or if you’re in the thick of your journey, don’t make yourself feel like it’s all or nothing. For the first three months, Sophia was exclusively breastfed. Once I started introducing formula here and there, it took some of the stress off my shoulders. Was my diet providing her with the proper nutrients? Was she getting enough milk? I have my hands full with a toddler, so sitting next to a breast pump by myself with him running around isn’t all that conducive to my lifestyle. By making Sophia a flexible eater, it made breastfeeding seem like less of a struggle for me and a lot more doable for our family life.
Put your mental and emotional health first
As a mom, it’s easy to beat ourselves up about how we choose to feed our babies. There is SO much background noise. Everyone has an opinion. As a mom who has formula fed and breastfed, I’ve had the opportunity to witness both sides. I’ve witnessed a shift within myself. Saying I breastfed felt and still feels like a bit of a badge of honor. Now that I’ve done it, I’m proud, because it was such a labor of love for me. Breastfeeding was blood, sweat and tears and so much effort. While traveling to San Diego I had no choice but to pump in a public bathroom at the airport, right at the sink, while a line of women stood staring at me. I had no choice. I think back to how drained and emotional I was on Sophia’s first night home and can’t believe we made it this far on our journey.
When we took our kids to the zoo last week and I mixed a formula bottle in the food court, I felt a sense of worry—that other parents would look at me and judge my decision to feed my baby this way. Even though in my heart, I know fed is best. There are so many mind games associated with it all!
In the end, if you’re struggling mentally and emotionally, it’s going to take away from the type of mom you are. Don’t allow yourself to get so caught up in the pressure that it’s detrimental to you or your family life.
Lean on fellow IBD moms
While I was pregnant and breastfeeding I found it incredibly helpful to touch base with fellow moms, specifically IBD moms who related to my journey. Do your “homework” and don’t be shy about sending private message or sending an email to ask questions to fellow parents who are patients that you see online. We are all a resource for one another.
In my case, breastfeeding ended up being something I’m so grateful I was able to do for nearly seven months. Unfortunately, once my period started after Sophia was six months, my supply plummeted greatly. I went from making 30-35 ounces a day, to five. Prior to that happening, we had gotten into such a comfortable, easy groove, I was planning on breastfeeding her until her first birthday. My body had different plans, and I’m fine with that. Flexible feeding brought me to this mindset. Pregnancy gave me a renewed love for my body, despite my illness, and now I can say breastfeeding did the very same.
BONUS TIP! Be proactive and set yourself up for success prior to your baby’s arrival. Order your breast pump ahead of time. Have nursing tanks and bras, hands-free bras for pumping and to sleep in, pads for your bra, nipple cream, a Haakaa for catching let down milk, and storage bags. If you’re dealing with extreme nipple pain or discomfort, alert your OB and see about getting a prescription for All-Purpose Nipple Ointment (APNO). This is mixed by a pharmacist and contains an antibiotic, an anti-inflammatory, and an anti-fungal. I used this and it worked wonders!
This post is sponsored by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA). I am a paid program Brand Influencer; this post is sponsored and includes my own personal experiences.
Family planning is exciting, nerve-wracking, and daunting. Couple those emotions with battling inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and the experience can be downright overwhelming. The tide is changing though when it comes to pregnancy and IBD, thanks to the IBD Parenthood Project. For current IBD moms, until now, there was never a one-stop-shop for factual information. The IBD Parenthood Project website is a resource dedicated to ensuring we have all the knowledge we need to feel comfortable and at ease, as we bring a life into this world.
As a mom of two under two, who’s lived with Crohn’s for nearly 14 years, I often felt as if it was a “learn as you go” and “trust what you’re told” type of experience during my pregnancies. As much as I worked hard to educate myself and advocate for my needs with my care team, there was always a part of me that wondered if my decisions were the best for both me and for my babies.
The same can be said for IBD Parenthood Project spokeswoman, Crohn’s warrior and mom of two, Jessica Caron. With two sons, ages six and three, she felt even more in the dark during her preconception discussions and pregnancies.
“If I had the IBD Parenthood Project as a resource when I was having my children, it would have provided me with answers to questions that kept me up at night. I felt so alone and didn’t have much support,” said Jessica. “I never felt like those around me understood the decisions I was making regarding staying on my biologic medication throughout the pregnancies and breastfeeding while on it. I truly believe the concerns came from a kind place, but if I had this resource to educate my support system, I would have felt more at ease going through that experience.”
Jessica attributes her passion for patient advocacy to living life in the trenches with IBD and realizing how difficult it was to make plans for her future – plans that impacted not only herself, but also her spouse and family.
“When I was diagnosed at age 21, there wasn’t much information available that was easily understandable and digestible. It would have been great prior to having my sons if I had the information right at my fingertips. The accessibility of the IBD Parenthood Project makes the information available to patients, their partners and their family members,” said Jessica.
Launched in January 2019, the IBD Parenthood Project was created with the patient in mind. Jessica, along with other IBD advocates, had a seat at the table alongside physicians and helped inform the Clinical Care Pathway.
“The IBD Parenthood Project is a huge win for the IBD community. This resource is paving the way for how we work together with our clinical team. This is a proud moment for the IBD family. We’re showing the health community how to work collaboratively with patients,” explained Jessica. “I never want women to feel alone in the process. This initiative empowers IBD women and their support systems, and makes the experience of bringing a life into this world a whole lot more enjoyable and a lot less worrisome.”
Jessica had a flawless first pregnancy, but unfortunately, dealt with a difficult flare-up nine months after delivering her son. Before she got pregnant again, she made sure she was in remission. If she were to get pregnant today, she says she would start talking with her IBD specialist months ahead of time, while coordinating care with her ObGyn. Jessica would also add a Maternal-Fetal Medicine (MFM) specialist into the mix.
For those who don’t know, an MFM specialist is an ObGyn physician who has completed an additional two to three years of education in training. You can think of them as high-risk pregnancy experts. For pregnant women with chronic health conditions, such as IBD, an MFM specialist works to keep us as healthy as possible as our body changes and as the baby grows.
On a personal level, I went into both of my pregnancies in remission and my Crohn’s disease activity was silenced. Upon delivering both of my babies, I felt symptoms start to creep back into my life less than a week after they were born. I too would include an MFM specialist in the future, if I were to have another child.
“I’m so glad to know the IBD women of today who get pregnant will have the IBD Parenthood Project resources and have better access to our community,” said Jessica. “As IBD women, it’s key to be proactive by discussing preconception planning and waiting to get pregnant until you’re in a remission state. Work closely with your care team, make a plan that is specifically for you, and stick with it.”
In less than 30 days you will be safe in my arms. It’s felt like a long journey to get to this point with you. Much like your brother, you’ve made me feel a sense of health that I never knew was possible. Through the creation of you and your life, I’ve found a deeper appreciation for my own.
You’ve silenced a disease that has ravaged my body for more than 13 years. You’ve reminded me of what is possible and what I’m capable of. You’re already an inspiration to me and you don’t even know it.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve hoped and dreamed for you. A daughter. A best friend. A relationship so sacred, so unique. Words don’t do justice for how anxious and excited I am to bring you into this world.
Just like your brother, you will see me struggle some days. Not with being your mom, but with my Crohn’s disease. It pains me to think about making you worry about my health or question when my next flare up will be, as leaving you and Reid for an extended hospital stay will be so tough on me and on our family.
I never want you to feel scared or question my resilience. Instead, I want to show you how strong I am and instill a positive attitude in you from a young age. You will witness the highs, the lows and everything in between that comes with chronic illness, but trust that mama will always come out on top. You and your brother serve as my greatest motivation to push through the pain and be strong. You’ll see how your dad loves and nurtures unconditionally and rises to every challenge that comes my way.
Here are my hopes for you.
A kind, happy heart. Always try and see the best in others, rather than coming to quick judgement. Soak in the happiness bestowed upon you each day and light up the room with your smile, even when the going gets tough.
A confident attitude and demeanor. Stand tall and be proud of who is looking back at you in the mirror. Love yourself for all that you are and don’t let any person make you question your worth.
A compassionate, empathetic mind. Recognize the pain of those around you, and be supportive, thoughtful and caring. Be a positive light in the lives of others.
A patience with yourself and others. Understand that life has setbacks, disappointments and pain, but that God has a plan for you. Trust in it, even when the path seems daunting or overwhelming. Try and use each challenge that comes your way as a moment to learn and grow.
A strength to use your voice. Never be afraid to speak up, be heard and communicate your hopes, dreams and fears. Feel empowered by your voice and know that everything you say and think matters.
A life without Crohn’s disease. While there are many qualities I would love to share with you—I hope and pray you stay healthy and never receive an IBD diagnosis. I will be there every step of the way, should that ever happen. I’ll be your best advocate and your closest confidant in sickness and in health, and always.
See you soon, my sweet girl. My rainbow baby. My darling. Someday you’ll know how you’ve made my heart fill with such joy and immense gratitude.
When you think about life with inflammatory bowel disease, are you able to think beyond the pain and suffering? Are you able to pause and take time to reflect on how your illness has shaped you into who you are today? Are you willing to look at something that continually challenges you, scares you and leaves you drained—and think…you know what, I wouldn’t have my life any other way?
It takes a lot of time and a lot of patience to come to this place of realization. Until recent years, I’m not sure I would have ever been able to say a positive word about what it’s like to live with Crohn’s disease. But now, more than 13 years later with this disease, I feel my vision has gone from black and white and changed to color. I have peripheral vision I never had before. I’m able to see how my past shaped me into who I am today. I’m able to recognize how the pain and hurt has altered my perspective and forced me to take the blinders off. I can see moments where I’ve risen above and shown courage and bravery. Some memories are painful, some make me feel sad, others make me feel proud.
There comes a time in a chronic illness patient journey that you stop thinking “why me” and instead “why not me.” I don’t like placing pity on myself. I don’t prefer to fantasize about the days before I was diagnosed. Instead—I enjoy reflecting on how I’ve evolved through the years, despite the setbacks and the scares. Chronic illness, while physically, mentally and emotionally taxing, also has the ability to show us the beauty of the world around us and all that we’re capable of. Instead of thinking how my Crohn’s holds me back—I think about how I’ve lived despite its restraints.
As the years go by, and the diagnosis “anniversary celebrations” roll on, I continue to grow and feel a renewed sense of self within my illness and within myself. As you experience procedures, self-injections, surgeries and the unknown, you get desensitized, but you also gain strength. The day-to-day management of an invisible chronic illness is exhausting and can be overwhelming, but there comes a time when you feel a sense of harmony with your body. You know what it’s trying to tell you. You know when you need to listen. You understand when you need to act.
My disease has helped me take on motherhood. It’s made me soak in the feel-good moments, take mental snapshots of the happy days and celebrate the beauty of life. My disease has forced me to press pause when I’m doing too much, it’s reminded me of the importance of self-care and taking time for me. It’s shown me which people are meant to be in my life and which are meant to be in the backstory.
It’s a season of gratitude. A season of thanks. A season of family, friends and celebrations. This year—I’m choosing to celebrate how Crohn’s disease has guided me to the present. Beyond thankful for a husband who’s my rock, a son who is healthy as can be and a daughter on the way in January. My body may not be “healthy” …but, it’s still managed to create miracles.
It hasn’t always been a fun ride, it’s been brutal at times. But it’s my life and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Please do yourself a favor and give yourself time to reflect on how your disease has shaped you into the person you are today. By showing gratitude about living with IBD, it’s one of many moments where you can show your disease who is in the driver seat and continually rise above.