This week I was feeding my 9-month-old a smoothie in his highchair before I had to run to grab my older two from preschool. I realized it was an injection day, so I figured I would do my shot while the baby was in the highchair to get it out of the way. It seemed like no big deal in the moment. But as I sat there and saw the baby food next to my Humira on the kitchen table I started thinking about how life as an IBD mom may feel normal to us, but what we do each day goes above and beyond.
Then my mind started wondering. I thought about how I had taken my oldest to his outdoor fieldtrip last week and refrained from having my morning coffee or eating breakfast so I could curb my Crohn’s from causing me problems. I thought about how my 3-year-old is so intuitive if she thinks I’m in pain, she grabs my belly and pretends to put the pain into her belly, telling me “I love you mama, take a breath.”
Take a breath. Boy oh boy do mothers in general need to stop and take that advice or what? Motherhood whether you have IBD or not is the most beautiful, exhausting, and rewarding challenge. No matter what season you are in it comes with triumphs and challenges it comes with happy tears and sad ones, too. It’s a constant game of trying to manage your emotions and tap into your patience, or whatever is left of it each day. We come to forget that we are also growing up in many ways, just as our kids do.
Motherhood and IBD is a balance of wanting to be all the things but knowing that at any given moment your body can throw your life and plans upside down. There are unspoken limitations.
It’s silently worrying and praying what will happen to your family if you go down and end up in the hospital.
It’s trying to stand tall when all you may want to do is rest on the couch.
It’s seeing your children thrive and feeling so much pride you constantly feel like you can cry tears of joy at any moment.
It’s getting scared when your little one randomly says their tummy hurts.
It’s knowing that your disease robbed you of a great deal—physically, mentally, emotionally, but it didn’t rob you of the greatest gift of all, being a mom.
It’s recognizing all that is still possible, even with this grueling disease.
It’s showing up each day, not only for yourself but for your family.
It’s taking the pain and feel-good days and focusing on one moment in time that feels slow but is going by in a flash.
Take a breath. You deserve it. We weren’t meant to mother alone. Lean on your village. Voice your struggles. Cry if you want to cry. But also, don’t put yourself to unattainable expectations. You have a chronic illness and you’re a mom. Don’t push yourself to the brink. Some days will be adventure-filled, others will be spent on the couch—and that’s OK. Your children are learning from you and gaining innate intuition, and that’s a gift. They’re witnessing that health is not something to be taken for granted. They’re watching you even when you think they are not. What may feel mundane to you, is not. As an IBD mom you are juggling countless extra balls in the air that healthy mothers don’t have to think about. Give yourself credit where credit is due and take a breath.
IBD and motherhood can be beautiful, but it can also be extremely complex and complicated. Especially for those who deal with infertility on top of their Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. As someone who did not have any struggles getting pregnant, I feel it’s extremely important to shed light on the fact that my story, my experience is just that—there are SO many other journeys that need to be shared and heard when it comes to infertility as it relates to IBD.
This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from several women with IBD who juggled their chronic illness while enduring In vitro fertilization (IVF).
Ashley Miller was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2013 when she was 26 years old. As part of her family planning, she discussed her desire to be a mother with her OBGYN. Her doctor told her to give it a go for 6 months and if she didn’t get pregnant, they would start additional testing. Six months passed without a positive pregnancy test. Ashley followed up with her doctor and was diagnosed with bilateral hydrosalpinx (blocked fallopian tubes), because of her Crohn’s.
“Although this diagnosis was upsetting, I was happy to hear that the doctor found a cause for my infertility and that IVF would be a good option for me. I was so lucky to have success with my egg retrieval and subsequent embryo transfers.”
Ashley says IBD prepared her for infertility.
“I’m the type of person who does not like to dwell on issues, I like to take action right away. I am grateful that my IBD was in remission during this time, otherwise, I would not have been able to pursue IVF immediately. I needed clearance from my GI, maternal fetal medicine (MFM) physician, and the reproductive endocrinologist (RE) before starting IVF.”
Ashley is on Stelara and had bowel resection surgery in August 2021. She has a 3-year-old son and a 15-month-old daughter. She intentionally had her children close together thanks to IVF to capitalize on her IBD being in remission.
Jenn Carmichael was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2006 when she was 21 years old. She got married in 2016 but was forced to wait to have kids because she was flaring. She manages her IBD with Stelara and azathioprine. Since her diagnosis she’s underwent an ileocolic resection, a revision, and several incision and drainage procedures (I&D) with setons for perirectal abscesses. Fast forward a few years and she was finally in remission.
Jenn and her husband started trying to conceive. After 6 months she followed up with her GI and consulted with a MFM doctor who specialized in IBD pregnancies.
“My MFM doctor was well versed on all the medications and complications of Crohn’s. He told me that due to my past surgeries if I were to get pregnant, I would need to have it confirmed via ultrasound right away. He explained that due to all the surgeries I’ve had in the abdominal region, that I was at a higher risk of having my fallopian tubes blocked and having an ectopic pregnancy. He also recommended I have a consultation with an RE since we had been trying with no success.”
Jenn underwent a full workup to investigate her hormone levels and had an ultrasound to look at her fallopian tubes. At this point, she was 36 years old. And while her tubes weren’t blocked, she had diminished ovarian reserve. She was told by her care team this was most likely a direct result of all the Crohn’s-related inflammation she had endured.
“Our infertility doctor recommended we start IVF right away. It was a difficult ovary stimulation that lasted much longer than normal (I was on stims for about 28 days vs. the normal 12 days). I wasn’t responding to the stim medications, but I was finally able to make it to the egg retrieval. Unfortunately, when I went in for my egg retrieval, I woke up to devastating news. They were not able to retrieve any eggs. I was heartbroken to say the least. We regrouped with our IVF doctor a week or so later and came up with a new plan.”
Jenn was put on a different medication protocol for the egg stimulation and was even told she should consider donor eggs. She started her second IVF cycle shortly after.
“Just as we started the stimulation phase of the cycle, I got sick with pneumonia and had to cancel the cycle. Then COVID hit about a month later, so all IVF cycles were canceled in my state for the time being. Around July 2020, we were able to try that IVF cycle again, but had to cancel once again due to no response to the stimulation medications.”
At this point Jenn told her RE that she would start to explore the egg donor option, but she wasn’t ready to give up with her own eggs just yet. She tried one last IVF cycle with yet another protocol. One egg was retrieved. The next morning her phone rang, and her heart dropped. Her doctor called to let them know the egg did not fertilize overnight and was abnormal.
Jenn once again re-grouped with her care team. Donor eggs were discussed. A specialized ultrasound showed her fallopian tubes were blocked. She left that appointment with information about an egg donor program, but she wanted to try another cycle with yet another protocol.
“Around the same time, I started to experience pain in my lower right abdominal area. I was admitted to the hospital and was diagnosed with bilateral tubo-ovarian abscesses. The one on the right started to tunnel (create a fistula) towards my sigmoid colon. I was brought to the OR shortly after not knowing if I was going to wake up with one or both fallopian tubes, either ovary or my sigmoid colon. Luckily, I have an amazing colorectal surgeon who’s been part of my team since I was diagnosed with Crohn’s. They did have to remove both fallopian tubes and my right ovary, but my left ovary and sigmoid colon were spared.”
The surgery took a toll on Jenn. Losing both her fallopian tubes, she knew without IVF, she would never be able to get pregnant on her own. During that time, she did a lot of thinking and research about IVF, Crohn’s, and what their future looked like. She also met with a social worker who specialized in infertility to help work through everything she was feeling.
“Once I was healed from surgery and mentally ready, my husband and I decided to pursue IVF using donor eggs. We worked with an egg donor agency to find an egg donor that we liked. After going through the process with all the administrative/legal paperwork and having our donor medically worked up, our donor was able to start the IVF cycle for egg retrieval. The egg retrieval was successful, and we had our first embryo transfer in August 2021. Our first transfer was successful, and I am currently 25 weeks pregnant expecting our first child, our sweet baby boy in May 2022.”
Christina LaDue was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2010 when she was 20. She had a bowel resection at age 23 to remove a fistula and her mom had the foresight to ask that an OB/GYN surgeon be present to ensure there was no damage to her reproductive organs.
“The OB/GYN noted that the inflammation in my pelvis was so great that he could not make a determination about my fertility at that time. When I shared the post-op reports with my PCP, he indicated that because of the noted inflammation I should only wait 6 months (as opposed to the one year that you’re supposed to wait) before pursuing assistance. After getting married and trying for six months I sought a referral to a RE who ran tests and concluded that my tubes were blocked due to scarring from my abdominal surgeries. She had us go right to IVF (as opposed to IUI first).”
Christina started her first round of IVF in November 2018. None of the fertilized embryos made it. She did another round in February 2019 and did a fresh transfer on Day 3, which was also unsuccessful. She did her first frozen embryo transfer (FET) in April 2019 and her son was born in December 2019. When he was 18 months old, she returned to the RE and did another FET in November 2020, which was unsuccessful. With one embryo left, they did an FET in February 2021 and recently welcomed a son to the world in October.
“The most triggering for me is during the initial routine testing via ultrasound my RE found fluid in my abdomen. This was extremely upsetting to me having undergone multiple treatments for recurrent abscesses because of a fistula. I freaked out and paged my GI who ordered a stat MRI. The MRI showed I have endometriosis and hydrosphix (fluid in my tubes) but nothing was wrong with my Crohn’s disease. That said, I was a huge emotional mess waiting for the MRI results and I thought for sure I was rocking another fistula.”
Christina recently started Inflectra (a biosimilar), she was previously on Remicade from September 2013-October 2021.
Megan Picucci was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in April 2017 when she was 30 years old. After being cleared by her GI and MFM she started trying and got pregnant. Unfortunately, shortly after finding out the news she started bleeding and had an ectopic pregnancy.
“Once I finally got my period in February 2020, I had an hysterosalpingogram (HSG) to check if my tubes were being blocked. It was inconclusive. Luckily, because of my prior abdominal surgery with my IBD and the ectopic pregnancy, I could switch right to IVF. All the bloodwork, shots, etc. was rough but I felt like my Crohn’s journey helped prepare me. I was used to bloodwork, I was used to injections, I had a PICC line at one point, so I was used to mixing meds.”
The first round was promising for Megan and her husband. There were several embryos and her first FET stuck.
“I waited with bated breath. I was sure it was another ectopic for no reason other than I’m not lucky when it comes to health issues. Well, she (though we didn’t know that until delivery) stuck and though I had moments of panic of something bad happening, it didn’t.”
The emotional toll of IBD weighed heavily on her as she prepared to bring a life into this world. She is on Remicade and had emergency bowel resection surgery in April 2017 and the reconnection surgery in July 2017.
“I had a lot of… ‘should I being doing this?’ thoughts. Even though my IBD was under control prior to trying I also knew that could change at any moment. How could I raise a kid with a flare or surgeries and what if I pass my IBD on? But having a great support system made me confident I’d have help if those things occurre. Happy to say my daughter is now 11 months old.”
Jade Fiedler was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2012 at age 22. Jade is on Humira and had an ileocolic resection in July 2015. Her and her husband tried for a baby for one year, but around 7-8 months in she felt something wasn’t right.
“We saw an OB who specialized in RE. We took an aggressive route for treatment. I had an HSG (right tube was blocked and could not flush), Hysteroscopy (which found polyps) and an ultrasound which found a heart shaped uterus. We immediately jumped into 3 back-to-back IUI cycles due to those findings and my husband’s sperm sample being mostly normal with a tiny morphology issue. After those failed, we did a laparoscopy which found more polyps in my uterus (endometriosis), and they found the tube was blocked and covered in scar tissue due to Crohn’s surgery in 2015.”
Jade then had two more failed IUIs but didn’t stop there.
“I advocated for insurance coverage at work, and they covered our first cycle of IVF three months later. We got two genetically normal embryos and one was transferred on October 4th. I am currently 19 weeks pregnant!!!”
She is happy to share what she sent to her employer for a reference if you need it.
Jade says living with IBD and going through IVF is “terrifying” since you must be in remission with your Crohn’s to even try IVF.
“I was going through an emotional toll of finding out that not only are we not able to get pregnant right now, but there’s a very good chance we never will, and most signs point to me as the problem. It’s all encompassing and overwhelming.”
Much like IBD, Infertility is a full-time job.
“Balancing appointments and results and medications and insurance coverage and time off work — all while trying to stay NOT stressed to cause a flare. It’s an added issue when you have scar tissue and scars, which creates more of a puzzle for doctors. It’s really hard to have two diagnoses that are totally out of your control and leave you hating your own body.”
Even though Jade is due with a baby boy in June she still experiences a gamut of emotions. Everything from joy and anxiety to guilt, happiness, and fear. Her and her husband are leaning into their faith and praying their son will continue to grow at a healthy rate and arrive safely.
Katie Ferriss was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2012 when she was 26 years old. After six months with no luck and a series of tests, she learned her right fallopian tube was a hydrosalpinx (Dilated fallopian tube). Unfortunately, the tube needed to be removed, which put her at another disadvantage for getting pregnant.
“We moved forward with 3 medicated IUIs back-to-back-to-back since I had a dominant follicle on the left side each time. Unfortunately, all the IUIs failed. Our next step was IVF. I was so hopeful; I just knew this would work for us. My first retrieval only yielded 4 eggs, 3 of which were mature, 2 fertilized, and 1 made it to the blastocyst stage. We tried a fresh transfer, but ultimately did not end with a pregnancy.”
Katie and her husband were devastated. They had gone through IVF and had nothing to show for it—not even additional embryos to try again. Through the process, Katie learned she was a ‘poor responder’ to medication and had poor egg quality, which is common with autoimmune disease.
“After a couple of months, we moved forward with another retrieval. This time our RE changed to a much more aggressive protocol with higher doses of stims right out of the gate. I responded much better overall and produced several more mature follicles.
During our second retrieval, the RE was able to retrieve 10 eggs with 9 being mature, and at the end we were able to freeze 2 high grade embryos. We thought we would be able to move right into a frozen transfer cycle, but Crohn’s had other plans for us.”
Because of the massive amounts of infertility medication and the unbelievable stress levels, her body almost forced her to rest—she had a Crohn’s flare.
“My GI was adamant I stop fertility treatments until my Crohn’s was in remission. I would do a colonoscopy in 6 months to learn where I was at. Again, completely devastated that our plans for a baby were put on hold due to my body not cooperating. My GI doctor started me on a different medication, Cimzia, that was very pregnancy friendly as it does not cross through the placenta to the baby if I was finally able to get pregnant. Thankfully 6 months later during my follow-up colonoscopy, my Crohn’s had been put in remission, and I was able to be put back in fertility treatments.”
Katie and her husband were hopeful that the stars were finally aligning for their family. But shortly thereafter they had a failed transfer. They only had one frozen embryo left.
“My RE then tried another test called an Endometrial Receptivity Analysis (ERA) to make sure we were transferring at the optimal time. That test led to another discovery that we were transferring too soon, and I needed 24 more hours of progesterone. We started another transfer cycle using a different medication protocol and transfer timing and found out 10 days later it worked. I went on to have a very uneventful pregnancy, and our miracle baby was born 9 months later in March 2019.”
Katie now manages her Crohn’s with Stelara. She developed a stricture and had bowel resection surgery in August 2020. She credits the surgery as giving her life-changing relief. Her and her husband now have two children—their biological son is two. They are in the process of adopting their 3-year-old daughter from foster care.
COVID and IVF
On top of these challenges, going through infertility and oftentimes being immunocompromised from IBD medications through the pandemic has added extra challenges for everyone involved.
“Every procedure, appointment, surgery, getting sad news, even “getting knocked up” was alone. Alone in a cold room, where you are undressed in front of strangers and probed and in pain. I did it all alone. I found a strength in myself that I never knew existed and for that, I have changed. In some ways I am stronger; in others I am damaged. Trauma and infertility go hand in hand. This is something I will have to work through, which I will, but this chapter of my life will never be just a dull memory,” said Jade.
Advice for IBD mamas in waiting from those who have lived it
Allow yourself time to grieve your infertility diagnosis and find support with friends and family. Try to stay positive and keep your “end goal” of having a baby in mind.
Be patient, sometimes your expectations of procedures and embryo transfers may change due to situations out of your control.
Stay hopeful. It may seem like there is no end in sight at times, but always have hope.
You are strong and will get through this.
This is true for any woman struggling to get pregnant: it sucks. Just acknowledging how painful it is to want something so badly and feel like it is unobtainable. It’s OK to feel those big feelings.
Use your knowledge, expertise, and experience as an IBD patient to your advantage. You know how to navigate medical coverage and insurance, don’t hesitate to advocate for yourself. You’re in a much better place to deal with all this medical stuff than someone who does not have a chronic illness.
The IVF process is long. The first appointment for the first positive pregnancy test took 10 months. And the second time, from the time we resumed working with our RE to the positive pregnancy test took 5 months.
Trust your medical team. And if you don’t trust your medical team, it’s OK to find a different doctor or a different clinic. There are no guarantees in IVF and it’s hard for folks, especially after going through all the treatment to have a failed cycle or failed transfer.
Give yourself grace you did nothing to cause your IBD and you also did nothing to cause your infertility. However, it is also ok to be mad, have low moments, and be sad. All those emotions are valid, allow to yourself to have them.
Get the colonoscopy and upper endoscopy done before you start actively trying. Make sure you have records shared for BOTH clinics. Don’t let people pressure you into taking medication for fertility that may offset or flare up your IBD. Don’t forget to remind your providers every time – they may forget.
Find support groups. There are more women than you think going through this. My Facebook community that is an IVF/IUI due date group for women who were due winter/spring of 2021 was the best community I could ask for.
Talk about it. if you feel comfortable. Share your story, share your pain, more people go through this than we realize.
You are more capable than you think. You are stronger than you will ever know. This is going to suck and it’s going to challenge your mental health, friendships, relationship with your husband, your connection to family, you work life, etc. it’s going to change you in ways you could ever imagine and it’s going to rip your heart out of your chest because you can’t know this pain unless you’ve lived it. But I promise you will come out stronger and you will be changed in the most incredible ways. Hang in there.
I can see your fear and it’s big. But I can see your courage and it’s bigger.
Don’t give up hope. You are so much stronger than you give yourself credit for; IVF is incredibly difficult, but you CAN DO IT!!
Do your own research. Find your tribe – IBD and IVF warriors are incredible and there are plenty of us out there in both camps. Get a therapist. Get a support group. Read books. Bake. Find your coping skills and don’t give up. You’re a badass. Having IBD is hard. Going through infertility is hard. But you can do hard things.
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.
While bringing a child into this world is one of the greatest miracles one can witness, it also brings about a world of worry for women with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). From the moment family planning begins, throughout pregnancy, and during postpartum, when you live with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis it can feel like you’re just constantly waiting and wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. The looming fear of a flare during pregnancy and once baby is here is valid, and it’s real.
The unpredictability of IBD is amplified ten-fold when you have another life to care for and another life on the line. As a mom of three kids, ages four and under, who’s lived with Crohn’s disease for more than 16 years, flaring and being forced to leave my family to be hospitalized is something that’s always in the back of my mind. I know in my heart of hearts, it’s not a matter of if, but when. So how can we thrive through the unknown and not allow this fear to rob us of the joy of motherhood? The American Gastroenterological Association’s IBD Parenthood Project aims to serve as a resource every step of the way to help you feel less alone and more in control of your wellbeing.
Reading Between the Positive Pregnancy Lines
When you receive a positive pregnancy test, your world changes forever. It’s at this point that your IBD directly impacts another life. Prior to becoming a mom, I used to wait until the last possible moment to head to the emergency room. For one of many hospitalizations in my 20’s, I waited so long that my dad had to carry me as a grown woman through the hospital doors like a groom carries his bride. Fast forward to present day, and I’ve learned that it’s in my best interest to wave the proverbial white flag when I start experiencing symptoms that are sidelining me more than they should. The moment you relinquish control of your illness and see it less as an adversary and more as an ally, is the moment you won’t constantly feel pushed up against a wall. While it’s not easy to admit you are struggling, it’s empowering to know you’re being proactive and doing all you can to thrive.
When I write my gastroenterologist (GI) on the patient portal and express concerns about how I’m feeling, she calls me back and we come up with a game plan that makes the most sense. After I had my daughter, Sophia, I started feeling abdominal pain shortly after bringing her home. My GI knew I was breastfeeding and called me with safe options so that I could continue to do so. Because we nipped that minor flare in the bud, my remission was maintained, I didn’t land in the hospital, and I was able to be home and be present for my growing family.
I delivered my third baby, Connor, in July, and since then I’ve noticed an uptick in bathroom trips and abdominal pain. Since Connor is my last baby and I know I’ll never feel as well as I did when I was pregnant, it’s a bit more emotional for me. Luckily, with all three of my pregnancies, my Crohn’s was completely silent. I felt like a “normal” person. Knowing that it’s just me and my Crohn’s from this point forward hits differently. There have been countless days where I have been forced to keep a baby carrier in the bathroom, readily available, with space for my two older children to stand or play while I sit in anguish on the toilet wondering if this is it as I look with tear-filled eyes at my three healthy children before me. I won’t be surprised if I reach out to my GI in the days ahead for guidance, just to be cautious. I have a heightened awareness right now about the extra bathroom breaks and the gnawing pain that’s coming and going after I eat. Whether you are beginning the family planning process or postpartum, ongoing communication with your GI through all stages of having children is so important.
Addressing the Fears of IBD Women
The IBD Parenthood Project aims to address misperceptions about IBD and fears many women with IBD can experience through all phases of family planning (conception, pregnancy and after delivery).
Patients can find answers to common questions like:
Can I get pregnant with IBD?
Does IBD affect my fertility?
Will I pass IBD on to my baby?
Can I stay on medicine during pregnancy?
What if I flare during pregnancy?
Is it possible to have a vaginal delivery?
Can I breastfeed while on medicine?
Does my medicine change how I vaccinate my baby?
When it comes to the postpartum period, there’s a guide for postnatal care. The toolkit is a direct response to survey findings that reported women with IBD want more and better information about managing their disease. Being proactive and advocating for yourself throughout the pregnancy journey and as an IBD mom will not only make you feel empowered, but provide you with a sense of control, despite the unpredictability of your disease.
Thriving in the Face of the Unknown
Whether you were diagnosed with IBD prior to starting your family or after you delivered, Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis force us to wake up each day without knowing what the next hour will bring — all while raising children. Trust that your IBD will serve as a foundation for strength and that your kids will be your greatest motivators to push through and see the beauty that exists in your life despite your chronic illness. The IBD Parenthood Project is an exceptional tool that’s a reminder we are not alone in our worries, our dreams, and our struggles. I’m grateful our community has a resource that removes the gray area so many of us have encountered as IBD moms and helped be a light to lead us on our way to successful pregnancies, families, and motherhood journeys.
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.
Whether you’ve been daydreaming about being a mom since you were a little girl or found your lifelong partner and are exploring the possibility of a future that includes pregnancy and motherhood, creating a family when you have IBD takes a bit more planning than for the average person. My journey to motherhood unfolded differently than I had anticipated. For as long as I can remember, long before my Crohn’s disease diagnosis at age 21, I aspired to one day have children.
After I received my IBD diagnosis in 2005, and then when I was put on a biologic in 2008, my mind often raced when it came to reaching the milestone of motherhood. But being that I was only in my early 20s and single, I didn’t feel much pressure and figured I would cross that bridge when it was time for me to walk it.
Fast forward to June 2015, I had just gotten engaged to the love of my life, Bobby. Less than a month later I was hospitalized with my third bowel obstruction in 16 months. Surgery was the only option. On August 1, 2015, while planning my wedding, I had 18 inches of my small intestine removed, along with my appendix, Meckel’s diverticulum, and ileocecal valve. Up to that point, surgery had been my greatest fear, but my care team comforted me by saying the bowel resection would provide me with a “fresh start.” A fresh start that would help when it came time for family planning. A fresh start that put me into remission for the first time in my decade-long battle with the disease, paving the way for married, family life.
Leaning on the IBD Parenthood Project for Guidance
When you’re a woman with IBD who hopes to be a mom one day, it’s not unusual to feel lost and confused about how to navigate family planning, pregnancy, and beyond. Even though the thought of having a family can feel daunting—believe me I get it—with proper planning and care, women with IBD can have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies. But sadly, many women with IBD decide not to have children based on misperceptions about their disease and pregnancy. The number of women with IBD who are voluntarily childless is three times greater than that of the general population. It’s heartbreaking to think of all the women with IBD who could be moms but are not because they aren’t aware resources like the IBD Parenthood Project exist.
Openly communicating your future plans with your care team long before you want to start trying for a baby helps set the stage for what lies ahead and enables your gastroenterologist (GI) to tailor your treatment plan accordingly. When I had my post-operative appointment with my GI in November 2015, eight months before my wedding, my husband and I let her know we wanted to capitalize on my surgical remission and get pregnant as soon as we could after our wedding day. With that intel, my GI put me on a prescription prenatal vitamin, folic acid, and vitamin D, along with my biologic. Now as a mom of three healthy children, who had three healthy pregnancies while living with Crohn’s, I credit my GI for her proactive efforts that set me up for success and deep remission over the past six-plus years. Prior to trying to conceive, I also scheduled a colonoscopy to further confirm that my Crohn’s was under control. My GI would walk in after each procedure with a big grin on her face and would give us a thumbs up and say we had the green light to try for a baby. Having her stamp of approval made me feel much more at ease.
Time is of the Essence
I know I was extremely fortunate with the timing of my surgery and remission and the fact that I did not have any issues getting pregnant. It can be much more challenging and heartbreaking for others. If you’re flaring or symptomatic, the likelihood of those issues presenting in pregnancy is significant. When it comes to the “rule of thirds”— one third of women with symptoms improve, one third get worse, and one third experience the same symptoms as prior to pregnancy — you want to be mindful of how you’re feeling. I understand remission doesn’t happen for everyone. I get that it’s hard to be patient when all you want is to have a baby and your biological clock is ticking. But don’t rush into a pregnancy unless your health is in check.
As a trusted voice in the GI community, the American Gastroenterological Association is dedicated to improving the care of women of childbearing years living with IBD and is committed to redefining industry standards to further optimize health outcomes for mother, baby, and provider. That’s why it created the IBD Parenthood Project as a resource for women and HCPs through the pregnancy journey.
While various providers can be consulted during pregnancy (OB, dietitian, lactation specialist, psychologist, NP, PA, midwife, and pediatrician once the baby is born), an OB and/or maternal fetal medicine specialist should lead pregnancy-related care and a GI with expertise in IBD should lead IBD care. Communication among these providers, as well as any other providers involved, is very important. During the family planning process and pregnancy, think of yourself as the point person, leading the charge and making sure each member of your care team is in the know.
Be Overly Transparent
If pregnancy and motherhood is something you are hoping to embark on as part of your life journey, be proactive and articulate your needs and wants, even if they are years down the road. The IBD Parenthood Project toolkit does most of the homework for you and lays the groundwork for your roadmap. It’s empowering to be prepared and to be well-versed on how to best manage pregnancy while taking on IBD.
Now that my family of five is complete, when I reflect on how we came to be, I’m grateful for the resources and support I had every step of the way and that my Crohn’s disease didn’t rob me of the future I had always hoped for.
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.
Breastfeeding is a labor of love. Like many women, it doesn’t come easy for me. As an IBD mom who already fears passing my disease down to my kids, there’s added pressure and stress. In the United States, an estimated 1.6 million people have Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Of those, roughly half are women, and most will carry the diagnosis during childbearing years, throughout all phases of family planning: trying to conceive, pregnancy and postpartum. As an IBD mom of three going through postpartum right now, one of my biggest stresses and focuses revolves around breastfeeding.
-What if I take this pain medicine for my Crohn’s? Will I need to supplement?
-What if I have a postpartum flare, will my milk supply go away?
-What will happen if I’m hospitalized?
-Will I flare once I stop breastfeeding and my hormones regulate?
-If I stop too soon, will my child end up having an increased risk of IBD?
…the list goes on…
The journey to motherhood for women with IBD requires several complex decisions and coordination among specialty care teams from the stage of family planning until postpartum and beyond. The IBD Parenthood Project aims to address common misperceptions and fears women with IBD and their providers experience throughout all phases of family planning (conception, pregnancy and after delivery). By eliminating the gray area and serving as the gold-standard for navigating pregnancy and motherhood with IBD, our patient community can rely on this support that helps uncomplicate the journey.
This beneficial and much-needed initiative was created by gastroenterologists (GIs), maternal-fetal medicine (MFM) subspecialists, and patients and is led by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) with support from the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, and patient support network, Girls With Guts. The IBD Parenthood Project launched in January 2019, just as I delivered my second child. To this day, I feel so grateful to have this information and confidence in my choice to become a mom even though I’ve lived with Crohn’s disease for more than 16 years. It’s empowering to know despite the unpredictability of IBD, this initiative allowed me to feel like I’m in the driver’s seat when it came to creating my family and knowing the choices I’ve made were and are supported by science and medical facts.
To the random lady in the church elevator who asked me if I was breastfeeding my son Reid when he was a month old, and I was a first-time mom.
To the lactation consultant after I delivered my daughter Sophia, who told me since I have Crohn’s, it’s imperative her gut only be lined with breastmilk.
To the nurse coaching me nonchalantly about breastfeeding my son Connor and underestimating the challenges it can present…who I later found out “only” breastfed one of her children for 2 weeks…
To anyone who is struggling with the physical, emotional, and mental stress of something that sounds “easy” and “natural” — simply feeding your baby — I get how complex and taxing it is. I’m in the thick of it now with my son who was born July 14. So far, he’s only had breastmilk…both from nursing and by a bottle. But it’s not pretty for me. The engorgement, the round the clock pumping, the soaked t-shirts, the night sweats, the discomfort to even wear a bra or sleep on my side. It weighs on me. There’s the outside pressure and the pressure I put on myself to keep going, even though I don’t enjoy it. It’s super rewarding to see Connor thriving and making gains all because of me. But there’s also a lot of stress to be a child’s only source of food, especially as an IBD mom.
Different feeding approaches with all my babies
With my firstborn in 2017, I wasn’t well-versed on the benefits of breastfeeding and feared not only further exposure to my biologic, but also flaring, so I only breastfed my son for 3 days in the hospital so he could get colostrum. By 2019, I was well-versed on the positive impact and the safety profile associated with breastfeeding while on a biologic, so I breastfed my daughter until she was 6 months old. I had hopes of making it a full year, but unfortunately my milk supply disappeared once my menstrual cycle started back up. This time around, I felt the anxiety about having to breastfeed creep up when I was only a few months pregnant. Between research showing that breastfed babies have a lower risk of IBD, coupled with antibodies from the COVID-19 vaccine, I feel the need to do all I can to protect my son from the what if, even if it feels mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing each day.
The Fourth Trimester has several challenges for women that often go undiscussed. However you choose to feed your child is your business and should be based on what is best for you and your family. This is a judgement free zone. I’ve fed my three babies differently. But the pressure mounts when you yourself have an illness with no cure and feel as though breastfeeding can help improve your odds of not passing it on to your offspring. In my mind, down the road, I don’t want to ever think I coulda, shoulda, woulda done anything differently when it comes to protecting my offspring from IBD.
The IBD Parenthood Project tackles some of the common questions related to breastfeeding as an IBD mom. There’s a downloadable toolkit that features patient-friendly information and easy-to-digest lists of key questions to ask your doctor as you’re thinking of becoming pregnant and beyond.
What I Want Fellow IBD Moms to Know
Navigating motherhood while taking on IBD is overwhelming. With proper planning, care and coordination among treating healthcare providers, women with IBD can have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies—and breastfeed if they choose to do so. For me, breastfeeding provides a sense of normalcy and gives me a renewed sense of love for what my body is capable of, despite having Crohn’s disease. Give yourself credit for going through pregnancy with IBD, delivering a baby, and continuing to nourish your little one with your body when they are in the real world. The blood, sweat, and tears are inevitable.
Just this week I experienced awful abdominal pain. The kind of pain where you can barely breathe, your hands start to tingle, and you go back and forth about whether a trip to the emergency room is imminent. As I rocked myself on the toilet and heard my newborn crying in the bassinet my mind raced. My 4-year-old stood before me. I could see the fear in his eyes. My immediate thought was—what can I take to get this pain under control—will it affect my ability to breastfeed? In that moment, the pressure to think outside of myself and manage my disease felt suffocating.
There comes a point when the mental health and wellbeing of the mother must come first so she is able to be the best version of herself for her kids. If breastfeeding is taking away from the joy you could be experiencing or the connection you are longing for with your child, don’t feel guilty. Whether your child is exclusively breastfed, or formula fed, or receives a little of both, they will thrive. I’m personally all about flexible feeding. A little nursing, some pumping, and some formula has worked best for me. When the time comes, and I need a break or feel too consumed by being the sole provider of nourishment for Connor, I’ll feel confident in supplementing with formula. There’s no shame in my game and there shouldn’t be in yours, either. Take advantage of invaluable resources like the IBD Parenthood Project and be confident in each of your personal health decisions when it comes to whether or not you want a family and how you choose to feed your baby.
After a lot of thought and consideration, I decided to hold off on getting my COVID-19 vaccines until after I delivered my son. Before we dig deeper into this topic, I want to clarify that this was solely my choice, everyone needs to do what they are most comfortable with. Since the pandemic began, unprecedented pressure and stress has been placed on pregnant and lactating women to make one decision or another. For me, as a stay-at-home mom, who continued to keep a low profile while pregnant, I felt more at ease waiting to get my vaccines until after my son was out of my body. My care team made up of a maternal fetal medicine doctor, OB, and gastroenterologist all supported my choice to wait.
My main reasoning was limiting the variables of exposure. All my kids were exposed to Humira while in utero. While there are long term studies that show the safety and efficacy of biologics in pregnancy, you never know. If down the road my son had any health complications or issues, I didn’t want to have to grapple with whether my biologic or a vaccine contributed or were to blame. As an IBD mom, we deal with enough guilt as it is.
So, I chose to wait. Anxiously. Patiently. Luckily, I delivered my third child, Connor Christopher, July 14th, and did not encounter any COVID-19 scares while pregnant. Once I was home from the hospital following my C-section, I talked with my gastroenterologist and OB about getting my first COVID vaccine and scheduled an appointment at Walgreens ASAP.
Getting the first jab
Wednesday, July 21, I finally got my first dose! A little late to the party, but I’m currently exclusively breastfeeding (and pumping), and I’m hopeful that once I’m fully vaccinated (two weeks after my second dose in August), my son will receive antibodies from the vaccine that way. It felt a bit surreal to finally be at a point where I felt comfortable with my personal choice to get the vaccine.
According to the CDC, since January 2020, there have been 34 million cases and 607,000 deaths. As of July 21st, 161.9 million people are fully vaccinated—that’s 48.8% of the total population, or 57.1% of the population older than age 12. Virus variants threaten new outbreaks among the unvaccinated.
Much like making decisions to manage IBD, it’s imperative our community looks at the benefits vs. the risks of getting the vaccine.
Words from leading medical experts in the IBD community
This past week Dr. David Rubin, MD, Professor of Medicine, University of Chicago presented, “Updates on COVID-19 for Patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease”.
“Everyone needs to be vaccinated, this includes pregnant women and new moms. The Delta Variant is VERY contagious. The data in IBD is reassuring when it comes to immune responsiveness compared to the general population, especially with the two dose mRNA vaccines. Antibodies against many things are transmitted in colostrum, and that may be the anti-SARS-CoV-2 spike antibodies too, which may provide protection to the baby. It’s definitely NOT dangerous to breastfeed after vaccination.”
Speaking of the Delta Variant, according to Dr. Rubin’s presentation as well as guidance from the CDC, “Delta was 1% of COVID-19 cases during the week of April 10th. By the week of July 3rd, Delta is estimated to account for 57% of new COVID-19 cases. Within a matter of 12 weeks of being introduced to the US population, it became the dominant variant here.
Dr. Uma Mahadevan, MD, University of California San Francisco agrees, saying given the ongoing crisis with COVID-19, all eligible people should get vaccinated.
“Breastfeeding mothers can get vaccinated per CDC guidelines and there is data that the antibody from the vaccine crosses to the infant via breastmilk, possibly providing them with protection as well! For many infants of moms with IBD, they have detectable levels of biologic agents in their blood for the first 6 months of life. Having antibody against SARS-Co-V-2 may provide them some protection against getting ill if exposed to the virus.”
Dr. Meenakshi Bewtra, MD, MPH, PhD, Penn Medicine, has IBD herself and has been a vocal advocate for our patient community since the start of the pandemic. She implores everyone to get the vaccine, immediately.
“Don’t wait. In fact, I, every doctor I know, American College of Gastroenterology, and Maternal Fetal Medicine recommend getting the COVID-19 vaccine while you are pregnant. Why? Because we’ve seen what happens to pregnant women who get COVID. There are women who got the vaccine in trials; there were women who got vaccinated while pregnant (>10,000 at this point)—we have a lot of data. The evidence is crystal clear. The same holds for getting it while breastfeeding. COVID is real, it’s out there; you can get sick and die; you can transit it to your infant or others in your house. There is absolutely no reason why anyone should not be getting vaccinated unless you know you have an allergy to something in the vaccines themselves. Your protective antibodies can pass to the infant.”
COVID-19 in the IBD Community and Vaccine Response
Thanks to the SECURE-IBD database, we have more guidance about how those of us with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis have responded and continue to respond to not only COVID, but the vaccine. People with IBD do not have an increased risk of getting it. Aminosalicylates, biologics, and immunomodulators show no increased risk of severe COVID- 19. Steroids are associated with worse outcomes. And biologic therapy is associated with decreased risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes.
One of the main concerns many of us in the chronic illness community on immunosuppressive drugs have wondered about is the efficacy of the vaccines in our body. Good news—a recent study of 246 patients with IBD who received both doses of the vaccine showed similar adverse events as in the general population. Sore arm, headache, and fatigue are the most common adverse effects of the vaccine. All I had after my first Pfizer vaccine was a sore arm. More importantly, the study showed no increase in IBD flares.
The Prevent-COVID study shows even more promising data with more than 1,700 participants with IBD. Click here to see results of the study—everything from rates of vaccine side effects to lab titers three months out.
As of now, there’s no recommendation or approval regarding a booster vaccine. Pfizer announced that their clinical trial data showed that a third shot may increase antibody levels, but nothing has been published yet. Without more research, it’s unclear if an increase in antibody levels will provide greater protection from the virus than two doses.
Get Involved in COVID-19 Vaccine studies
University of Chicago Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center COVID-19 Vaccine in IBD Study
This study is analyzing the durability, safety, and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines in patients with IBD, If you are interested in participating in the study (whether you have already been vaccinated or not) please email: email@example.com.
Prevent COVID Research Study
If you are 12 to 17 and have received your first COVID-19 vaccine in the last 90 days, you may be able to take part in PREVENT COVID, a research study to learn about the vaccine experiences of people with IBD. Click here to learn more.
The purpose of this research being conducted at Cedars-Sinai is to understand the effects of vaccination against COVID-19 in people with IBD. To achieve this goal, a national and local group of adults with IBD who are eligible to receive any available vaccine against COVID-19 are being recruited. Within this group we will evaluate the antibody levels of the body’s response to the vaccine. Questions about the study? Contact the CORALE-V IBD Research Team at Cedars-Sinai at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 310-423-5643.
Washington University in St. Louis: COVID-19 Vaccine Response in Patients with Autoimmune Disease
School of Medicine researchers are leading a clinical trial to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in people taking immunosuppressive drugs. Such drugs are prescribed to treat autoimmune diseases, including arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and psoriasis. Researchers will enroll up to 500 adults ages 18 and older in the St. Louis region. They are recruiting health-care workers at the School of Medicine and patients seen in Washington University outpatient clinics. Eligible patients who have preregistered for the COVID-19 vaccine will be contacted to assess their interest in being recruited into the study. For information about participating in the trial, email email@example.com, or contact either Alia El-Qunni at 314-249-1151 or Lily McMorrow at 314-280-3894.
Use your smartphone to tell the CDC about any side effects after getting the COVID-19 vaccine. The tool uses text messaging and web surveys to provide personalized health check-ins after you receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Depending on your responses, someone from the CDC may call to check on you. Participation is voluntary and you can opt out at any time. Sign up at: www.vsafe.cdc.gov.
July has been my least favorite month for the last 16 years of my life. It’s the month I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. The month I had an abscess the size of a tennis ball in my small intestine. The month I was put on a biologic medication. The month I had a bowel obstruction that led to bowel resection surgery. You get the picture. But now, it’s about to be the month I give birth to my third child. Baby boy is about to flip the script on a month that previously brought dread. Instead, I can focus on celebrating his new life and all his birthdays and milestones for years to come.
As a woman with IBD, motherhood has continually provided me with reminders of all my body is capable of despite my chronic illness. It’s shown me what once may have seemed unattainable, is possible. Motherhood is a constant reminder that my body hasn’t always been at odds with me. That despite the challenges and the pain all these years, it still afforded me the opportunity to carry healthy babies to term. Rather than feeling like my body is the enemy, motherhood has made me think of my body as my ally. We’ll have our ups and downs forever, but for 27-plus months it’s been a safe haven for my children. I’ve enjoyed flawless pregnancies and deep remission. It’s given me a chance to feel like a “typical healthy” woman, if only for a moment. Pregnancy has felt like a security blanket wrapped around me, and is soon to be no more. With that, comes an immense amount of gratitude, as well as anxiety, as from this point forward it’s just me and my Crohn’s…no buffer.
It feels weird going into this month of July not worrying about what could be, but rather being excited about what’s to come. When I was younger and prior to getting married, I avoided making plans in the month of July—especially life changing ones! My wedding, vacations, etc. were all coordinated around this month because I didn’t trust the way my body could blindside me.
Preparing for the shift in health
While I am ready for my son to be here and over the discomforts of pregnancy, a part of me is sad that I’ll never feel this well again. Within days of delivering Reid and Sophia, the gnawing abdominal pain associated with IBD crept back into my life before I even had a chance to bring my babies home. I expect the same will happen this time. While it was discouraging then and will make me feel the same now, I’m hopeful the shift in hormones won’t throw me into a postpartum flare and that I’ll find comfort in knowing from this point forward, every medication, every procedure, and every hospitalization will be done without a life growing inside of me.
Over these last nine months I’ve enjoyed eating popcorn with my kids for the first time, drinking a cup of coffee without a need to use the bathroom right after, and nearly 40 weeks of baby flutters and kicks instead of pain. It’s been a great run. I hope my experiences through family planning, conception, pregnancy, and motherhood provide you with an understanding that IBD doesn’t mean you can’t have a family. While many sadly struggle with infertility, complications, or not physically being well enough to carry a baby, it’s very possible that you can. Whether it’s stories like mine or the opposite, remember each of our journeys is unique. Don’t base your experience and capabilities on someone else, but when something or someone inspires or empowers you to go after what you dream of, hold on to that.
Baby boy will not only complete our family but serve as a constant reminder of all that is possible. While my Crohn’s has brought a great deal of heartache it’s also allowed me to gain a unique perspective and to never take life’s miracles and triumphs for granted.
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.