Austin mom's book reveals 9-year struggle through infertility, miscarriage, infant loss
Rena Ejiogu's nine year journey to complete her family is detailed in her book, "However We Can: A No-Shame Journey to Motherhood."
The Austin mom, 40, explains all the steps she and her husband, Uche Ejiogu, went through to have their two children, Anson, 8, and Arisa, 4. Those steps included seven miscarriages, including one at 18 weeks, and a failed surrogacy. Along with the medical steps, she opens up about the difficult emotions and heartbreak that didn't end with the birth of her first child.
The book happened, she says, at the start of the pandemic. "When the world shut down, I had no reason to stay silent," she says. "I wanted to make sure that all the women, men, couples who are going through infertility and loss are not alone."
She tells her own story, but also explains the procedures she went through and what she experienced during them. She wanted the book to be helpful for people going through infertility as well as to people who know someone who is and want to better understand it.
Ejiogu writes about meeting the boy she would later marry in high school and feeling drawn to him, but nothing came from it until they reconnected in their 20s.
By age 28, they were marrying and trying to start a family. They thought it would be easy. Ejiogu assumed she would be like her sister, "who looked at her husband and got pregnant."
No one had ever talked to her about her irregular menstrual cycles being a concern.
A year into trying, they first tried homeopathic supplements and trying to chart her cycles.
She writes with honesty that sex had become robotic. "We had to do it because we wanted something, not because we wanted each other," she writes.
They made their first foray into a fertility clinic. It felt cold and depressing. She felt like a number. They did test after test and came back with "unexplained fertility" as a diagnosis. She writes about hoping they would find something, anything that could be fixed.
"If we don't know the source of the problem, it's hard to fix," she writes.
All her tests, her blood work, came back normal.
They tried everything, including following bad advice. Ejiogu was a dental hygienist and her patients would tell her things like "the reason you're not getting pregnant is you're not 16 and having a one-night stand."
So they tried going out to a bar and pretending like they didn't know one another and then picked each other up.
That didn't work.
People also would tell her she just needed to relax, she says. "Relax was a triggering word," she says.
"The whole situation is stressful whether you recognize it or not," she says. Yet, she didn't see it as stress, she saw it as something she had to get through.
All around her people were getting pregnant and having babies. At first, she was able to be happy for them, but as the years went on, "I got mad," she says. "It took me longer to get over the news. ... I would go home and bawl my eyes out for days. I would see people I didn't know and resent them."
People also would nudge her about starting a family not knowing that she was desperately trying to do just that.
She describes being in her head a lot. "No one knew what I was going through... I was the queen of Jekyll and Hyde," she says.
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They went through all the infertility treatments, step by step, leading up to more invasive, more expensive procedures until they got to in vitro fertilization.
Doing IVF "was a very lonely time," she writes. Nobody really talks about their experience because there's a stigma around fertility treatments and also a fear that if you talk about it, you won't get pregnant. "The messaging is relentless," she writes.
The first attempt didn't take, but the next one did, though she lost one of the two embryos that were implanted.
The second embryo survived and through a successful pregnancy, her son Anson was born. "I welcomed every single pregnancy symptom I had because it had been so difficult for us to conceive," she writes.
The birth, though, was a traumatic experience. She threw up repeatedly. Anson got stuck and had to be vacuumed out. She ended up with 40 stitches and a prolapsed bladder.
Ejiogu did not feel her family was complete. In her mind, a family meant more than one baby.
When Anson was a year and a half, they implanted the remaining embryos from their first round of IVF, and she had a miscarriage.
She writes, "The more miscarriages, I experienced, the quicker I went from 'Oh, dang,' to utter despair. I was frustrated and mad. Each failure to conceive and carry would take a little piece of me every time."
They decided to do another round of IVF, and she became pregnant. Eighteen weeks into the pregnancy, she felt a pop. Her cervix had dilated completely, "and there was nothing they could do," she writes.
She had to deliver Ashtyn. Because Ashtyn was not considered viable, the loss was labeled a miscarriage, but for Ejiogu, this felt different. She had felt Ashtyn a lot before she died. She delivered her and held her and knew that she looked very much like Anson as a baby.
They still honor Ashtyn by planting purple flowers at the front of their house. It's the color they always associated with her. They light a candle on her birthday and on Oct. 15, which is pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day.
The months following Ashtyn's death were rough because people knew she was pregnant, but they didn't know what had happened. Her milk also came in right around the time Ashtyn should have been born.
Even once people found out what had happened, they would say insensitive things such as "Aren't you better yet?"
"This isn't something where you wake up and everything is kosher," she says. "It's going to be with us for life."
They made a decision not to have Ejiogu get pregnant again and found a surrogate, which was complicated because her embryos were in Canada, where she and Uche are from, but by then they had moved to Texas.
The embryos couldn't be taken across the border, which meant the surrogate had to be in Canada. Canada has much stricter surrogacy regulations, including that the surrogate cannot be paid. Their surrogate, who was a friend of her sister's, reached out to them after hearing about the loss of Ashtyn.
Surrogacy was another round of worry and embryos that didn't take. And then, Ejiogu unexpectedly became pregnant naturally and the surrogate did not.
Daughter Arisa was born by Cesarean section because of the damage that birth had already done to Ejiogu's body.
Ejiogu later required surgery to deal with a prolapsed bladder, uterus, rectum and cervix, and then finally had a hysterectomy.
"Birth broke my body," she says, "but I have great kids. They are so funny. They drive me crazy in the best possible ways. They taught me patience."
As soon as Arisa was born, Ejiogu knew she was done. She no longer feels that intense yearning to have a baby. She can hold a friend's baby and want to give it back.
The twinge of something missing is still felt by the loss of Ashtyn. She'll be driving and looking in the back seat at her kids and think: "There should be three of them." And she'll wonder what would life have been like if Ashtyn had made it to full-term.
Ejiogu estimates they spent at least $80,000 in fertility treatments to have their family. It could have wrecked their marriage, she says, but "for us, it brought us closer. ... If we could go through that, we can go through everything."
They learned to give one another space when they needed it. They learned to talk about what was happening and to not blame. "I made comments to him, 'I'm sorry my body isn't working,'" she says. "He got upset. 'This is not you, this is us.' We always work at an 'us' mentality."
She learned to live in the now and not go down the rabbit hole of "what if this doesn't work, what will be next." She learned to do whatever she could to focus on her own mental health.
She also learned how important it was to have supportive people who would just be good listeners. "She was a safe space," Ejiogu says about a friend from high school she reconnected with just after Ashtyn's death. One thing she said to Ejiogu is that she might not understand or know what to say, but she would just listen. "It got me talking," Ejiogu says.
The book turned out to be part of her own healing. "It was very therapeutic and healing to get the details out in the way I did, being this open and vulnerable," she says.
She describes herself as a Type A personality, a go-getter personality. She pushed through a lot of it and didn't really process the trauma of it until she sat down to write it.
"I was really good about compartmentalizing my emotions and putting on a brave face," she says. Now she understands the importance of telling the story of infertility, to make it something that can be talked about.