Three years ago, cartoonist, author and collaborator for the Cup of Jo, Jessica Olien, and her husband Tim began trying to have a child. She has since undergone several fertility treatments, sharing her journey in moving illustrations. Here is her story, in words and pictures …
I have always wanted children, something was clear to me all the time. I got married at 37 and we started trying right away. Having a baby has always been the most important thing. For years, I took prenatal vitamins – hiding them from my ex-boyfriends who were phobic – because I wanted to be ready. But I wasn’t ready for what followed.
Four months later, a friend of my husband shared that they had gone to a fertility doctor and I thought, ‘I’m coming at 38, maybe I should go too.’ At first the doctor said I was younger than many of his patients and that everything looked fine. But then my test came back which showed I had a very low egg reserve. It didn’t mean I couldn’t get pregnant, but it meant it would be harder. Where many people who take eggs could get 15 or 20 eggs, I would get two or three. We are happy to have very good health insurance through my husband’s work. Without it, there’s no way I could ever do that.
At first, the doctor encouraged me to do an IUI (where the sperm is located closer to the egg), but looking back, I wish I had gone straight for in vitro fertilization. The first in vitro fertilization was the funniest. I had two eggs, both fertilized. The day I got back on the transfer, my husband got dressed up – a detail that always breaks my heart when I think about it. As we went to the doctor, we received a feverish phone call from a number we did not recognize. My doctor said both eggs fell apart.
That was a year and a half ago. Since then, I’ve switched to a doctor who specializes in people with low AMH levels, with a lot of success stories. I was in banking and four of my embryos froze on the third day – never on the fifth day, because I’m too afraid it would fail to give them that much time in the lab. I am now in my 11th round of in vitro fertilization. The probability of acting is less than 15% per embryo.
This year is about me trying to decide what to do if it fails and trying to imagine my life in different ways. Does that mean adoption? Egg donation? Being childless and okay with that? Women tend to try to find a solution – to be neurotic about what they eat, to focus on all the small choices they make, but at the end of the day it’s just another way to try to punish yourself. There is no magic bullet for any of this.
Emotionally, I have found that infertility is very cyclical, almost as if your menstruation is very cyclical. You feel depressed, but you don’t stay down for long – it comes and goes. You should have hope. You have to have hope, right? Otherwise you wouldn’t keep trying. But day in and day out, I mostly feel pretty cynical about it.
People always say, “You should have tried to have kids before.” But for many women the circumstances do not go that way. They may not meet someone they want to have a child with later in life. It is almost like invisible infertility, in which people who want to have children cannot because of various factors.
Infertility can be embarrassing for women because it highlights how much of our society is focused on youth and motherhood. From Kim Kardashian to fertility dolls, the emphasis is on age, beauty and fertility. When you’re trying to have a baby and you can’t, notice how much our culture relates to motherhood. Everywhere – in every commercial, in every show – is this message that the meaning of life is to have a child. Although this is not the case for everyone, women are under great pressure. And if you really want to and struggle with it, you feel this huge amount of failure every time you face these things.
Sharing was mostly very good for me. The first comic I published was about shooting myself for the first time and I think I just wanted moral support, for other people to be with me and tell me I could do it. But as I continued to share, the same people would comment and tell their own stories. So many people feel isolated as they go through this, including me. But sharing my work, I created a true support system – I have a friend in France, whom I never met, but with whom I connected on Instagram.
Before I opened my experience, I didn’t realize how many people had gone through the same things. Not just strangers, but people I knew. It was really fascinating, to have people from all different aspects of my life who told me and told me that they had problems conceiving, they were trying, they were struggling. Often a person you would never expect. It all comes back to how you never know what someone is going through.
You don’t have to go through this, but it made me more empathetic and taught me a lot about how much people can tolerate. I went from the fact that I almost fainted when I got the injections, to the point that I could easily give myself all kinds of injections. I feel superhuman in my ability to tolerate medical procedures.
If you have a friend who is struggling, giving him space to complain about it and listening to him is the greatest gift. When you see someone going through a long, monotonous struggle, it can be hard not to say something to improve it, but it’s okay to just be there. Telling people that “it will work for you” or “staying positive,” though in good faith, can feel like shit. Sometimes you have to let go of all your negative energy to move forward.
Connecting with people who understand and being there for each other was really great. Infertility rules your life, mentally and physically. You constantly get up early in the morning, your blood is drawn, ultrasounds are taken. Sometimes I would imagine an army of other women coming out of the subway and gathering to do the same all over town – because I knew they were out too. When people share a similar story, it helps you feel like you exist outside of this isolated space. Even when it may feel that way, you are not alone.
Thank you so much, Jessica, for sharing your story. We love you.
Jessica’s comics have been featured in publications, including New Yorker,, New York Times,, Washington Post i Cup Jo. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their cats. You can see more of her comics here and find her on Instagram @jessicaolien.