An unanticipated struggle with fertility turned into a dialogue on a common—and often unspoken—women's health issue
Mallory Cullop never expected it would be hard for her to get pregnant.
After all, she'd seen countless friends posting photos of their newborns on Facebook. Their pregnancies, it seemed, had been effortless.
"Look how simple it is for everybody," she remembers thinking.
Plus, she had no medical problems, and no one in the family with fertility issues that she knew of.
She and her husband, whom she had known since they were both 13, held stable jobs and enjoyed a comfortable life. They were both in their early 30s, and the time felt right to add to their family.
"This starts our chapter of our life together," she thought after they were married. "We knew that we wanted to have children to share that with and to have, you know, our own little tree."
So, on their first wedding anniversary, they started trying to build that family. But several months passed without the results they'd hoped for.
It was then that Mallory started to suspect that something might be off. She had been using a fertility tracker app to try to get the timing right, but she noticed that her cycles were unpredictable. She consulted with a friend who had had her own fertility issues and realized they shared some similarities.
"Maybe I should go to the doctor and get this checked out," she remembers thinking.
After six months of trying to conceive without success, she scheduled a visit with her gynecologist. He diagnosed her with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a relatively common condition that results in a hormone imbalance that can interfere with ovulation and impair fertility. He started her on a drug called letrozole, which stimulates the ovaries to resume normal ovulation.
She figured this was the price she had to pay if she wanted to have a baby, so she endured.
Letrozole is also used as a chemotherapy drug in breast cancer and is not without its side effects, a fact Mallory quickly became aware of.
"My hair was thinning, it was falling out," she said. "I had horrible migraines every single day, gained weight."
"It wasn't until after I was off of it that I realized how bad it was," she reflected. But, she figured, this was the price she had to pay if she wanted to have a baby, so she endured.
It would turn out that letrozole was just the beginning of a long medical journey. Mallory was in and out of her gynecologist's office monthly while taking the medication, and all the testing indicated that the treatment would be successful. Ultrasounds showed an abundance of follicles in her ovaries—eggs waiting to be released and fertilized.
"They all thought I was going to have twins and triplets, I would have like 12 follicles in there," she said.
Her husband, Justin, was tested for infertility; that was ruled out. They started intrauterine insemination (IUI) to supplement the letrozole therapy and maximize their chances of getting pregnant. Mallory underwent a hysterosalpingogram, a procedure to identify anatomical abnormalities in the uterus and fallopian tubes. It was normal.
Everyone was optimistic, as if pregnancy was imminent. Everyone, that is, but Mallory.
She felt progressively more discouraged as the months went on. She started privately questioning her doctors, the treatments she was prescribed—the whole process. In the time between appointments, she spiraled deeper into disappointment and doubt. She knew everyone was doing their best and trying to help, but she was frustrated that "they didn't have an answer as to why I wasn't getting pregnant."
"You just kind of sit and ponder on all of it," she explained. "You're sitting here waiting for all of this to happen and you're like, 'Well what if this would have worked?' You just kind of sit and question it."
Nothing worked. At that point, a whole year had passed since Mallory had started trying in earnest to conceive. There was really only one option left, a costly and invasive last resort: in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Mallory had heard about IVF and suspected this was where her road might ultimately lead. At the fourth and final IUI appointment, she met with a IVF specialist.
After that meeting, she and Justin planned to move forward with IVF. They got approved for a loan from the bank (IVF typically costs tens of thousands of dollars and is not covered by most insurance). After so many setbacks, Mallory began to feel hopeful again.
"I felt like they could see it [the fertilization process] actually happen," she said. "If there was an issue with our embryos or anything, they would know."
"Either way, I was hopeful that it would work, but if it didn't, then I was hopeful that it would give us a possible answer as to why it hadn't worked."
Then something unexpected happened, which threw a wrench into all of Mallory's carefully-laid plans: she broke her ankle. She was flying kites with her niece and nephew and stepped off a curb wrong, causing a painful fracture and effectively immobilizing her left leg for three months. She was placed off work.
Her doctors told her she didn't necessarily have to put IVF on hold during this time; in fact, they argued, removing the added stress of work could in theory enhance her fertility. However, after discussing with her husband, they opted to take things one step at a time. She would focus on healing her ankle first, she reasoned, then reconsider IVF when she was back on her feet.
Sitting at home and on leave from work, Mallory once again got to ruminating. Everything she had been through over the past year, all the doctors and drugs and ultrasounds and procedures, all the anxiety and hope and disappointment and waiting, had not yielded results. "I was just kind of burned out on all of that," she explained. So what else was there?
She started researching alternative remedies and came across a local business that offered herbal supplements as well as acupuncture, with treatment plans specifically aimed at curing infertility. Figuring she didn't have much to lose, Mallory decided to pay them a visit.
She stopped taking all of her meds. She was finally able to relax, to take deep breaths, to stop perseverating and second-guessing.
She started acupuncture, weekly at first. She was sold on it immediately. Those were the first appointments she'd had in a long time that she actually looked forward to.
She stopped taking all of her meds. She was finally able to relax, to take deep breaths, to stop perseverating and second-guessing. Getting pregnant was no longer her daily obsession; her mind was free to make space for other things.
"For over a year, it was strictly me checking this app and me figuring out when's my fertile window," she said. "I let all of that go."
Interestingly, her cycles became more predictable, almost to the day. She clearly remembers a moment on Christmas Eve when she took a sip of alcohol and thought to herself, "This doesn’t feel good. I don't like this."
Then, on Christmas, the unthinkable happened: Mallory took a pregnancy test, and it turned positive.
Elated, she rushed to tell Justin, and "he thought I was playing a joke on him. It was almost shocking."
"How did this happen without doing IVF and IUIs?" she remembers thinking. "How were we able to do this just on our own?"
Mallory credited the acupuncture—unlike her other treatments, everything she had been told to expect with acupuncture had come true. It had even helped with swelling in her ankle in the weeks following her accident.
Then she made one more appointment she could look forward to: her first prenatal visit. At eight weeks, she returned to the doctor to determine what the next steps would be, and to get her first look at her new baby.
Her grandfather was in the hospital at the time, dying. She had initially intended to postpone her appointment and visit him before he passed. No, her family told her, go see the doctor. Get the ultrasound pictures. We could use some good news.
Looking back, Mallory does not remember much about that day. An ultrasound was done. She remembers hearing two pieces of information: First, that there was indeed a fetus. Second, that there was "no longer" a heartbeat.
After that: silence. "A blur," she said. "It was almost like I was in a tunnel."
The doctor told her she would miscarry on her own, within a few weeks. She was sent home, gutted and empty like she had never felt before.
"I just kinda sunk into a depression," she remembers. "I don't think that I really was processing anything."
"It was hard. It was very hard."
I asked Mallory if she had ever felt depressed before in her life. No, she said softly.
At home, once again temporarily off work and with too many hours in the day, she turned inward. She was overcome with guilt and self-blame. Why couldn't she accomplish this one seemingly simple thing that women everywhere were able to do, and had been doing for millennia?
What was wrong with her body? What was wrong with her?
"The only person that I could blame was myself," she explained. "I'm the one with the fertility issues. I'm the one that had to be on the medication. I'm the one that couldn't just naturally have a baby."
"It was like, I had this one job to keep our baby safe and to give them a home." In her mind, she had failed.
Mallory hadn't opened up to many people about what she was going through. She decided to change that.
Emerging from this dark period took time. At first, she kept to herself. She didn't talk to anybody aside from Justin.
A friend of Justin's who lived in Canada put her in touch with his wife, who had also suffered miscarriages—four in total. Mallory started talking to her regularly. She found it immensely therapeutic, and it helped to put her problems in perspective. What had seemed like the end of her world came to feel like more of a temporary setback, something she would eventually be able to push through. The best part: her new friend showed her photos of her baby boy, who had just been born.
"This doesn't have to be the end," Mallory realized.
In trying to process her grief, she also started writing. A friend had sent her a blank journal as part of a care package, and she used it. Just seeing her thoughts laid out on paper helped her to navigate a path through the suffering. She was still keeping mostly to herself, and hadn't opened up to many people about what she was going through. She decided to change that.
Mallory posted a moving and emotional account of her ordeal on Facebook, visible to her entire network of friends and family. A private person, she was apprehensive about sharing something so personal online, and about what the reaction might be. But, she figured, if it could help someone else with a similar plight, or at least start a conversation, it would be worth it.
The post opened with an apology: "Super long, I'm sorry. But once I started I just had to get it all out."
In six paragraphs, she recounted the events of the past year, by far the most difficult of the 34 she had lived.
"I was ready to be a mom," she wrote. "I wasn't ready to be a mom with no baby. I was ready to hold our child. I wasn't ready to not get to keep our child."
"I wasn't ready to work so hard and try so many treatments to be left empty-handed with a mother's heart but no child to share that love with."
I asked Mallory what response she had expected. Mostly generic notes of sympathy, she said—"I'm sorry for your loss," that kind of thing. What actually happened surprised her.
Within minutes, messages started pouring in. She heard from friends who had had miscarriages that they had never talked about. One friend, whose baby photos had sparked a twinge of envy in Mallory, told her how hard it had been for her to get pregnant. She had waited longer, and undergone more tests and procedures, than Mallory had.
"Man, here I am, I was jealous of you," Mallory thought. "You had it just as bad as we've had it, if not worse."
The wounds have not healed, and they may never close entirely. But maybe that's the way it should be.
If anything, making her story public brought a sense of closure to a painful experience. It comforted her to know that there were others like her.
"You feel like you're alone and then you put it out there for the world to see, and the response back is you're actually not alone at all."
The wounds have not healed, and they may never close entirely. But maybe that's the way it should be, Mallory thinks. She doesn't ever want to forget the life she once held inside her—that's not her goal.
A few days after we spoke, Mallory sent me an email with a few extra details she felt were important. She had gotten a tattoo to commemorate her baby. She and her husband had chosen a name for the child, after the fact. And they were planning a vacation to coincide with what would have been her due date.
"I'm hoping when I make it to that final month I'll be at peace," she wrote, "and we can celebrate what could have been and what's to come."
Mallory has returned to acupuncture, but isn't ready to go back to the fertility treatments quite yet. She worries about what may happen if she gets pregnant again. "I'm not gonna see that positive stick the same way," she said. "And going to our first appointment is just gonna be filled with worry and stress."
But Mallory does not let apprehension cloud her hope. Having gotten pregnant once gives her confidence that it can, and will, happen again. And someday soon she'll be the one sharing photos of her little one on Facebook, for all to see.