As women, it is our birth right to be able to carry a child. We’re born with all of the parts to create, nurture and give life, if we choose to. Yet, mostly through no fault of our own, some have been denied this right before even knowing it. In a world where IVF and other fertility treatments are on the rise, so many of us are fighting for that right.
I recently shared with my audience that I have PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome). It’s a metabolic disorder that affects your hormones, insulin levels and subsequently, in some cases, your fertility. For many women, it’s a relatively quiet condition, whispering its existence in seemingly harmless ways which, depending on the observer, can be dismissed as “normal” or “nothing to worry about”.
This includes facial and body hair, irregular, absent or painful periods, acne and weight gain. Of course, there are more serious symptoms that can be lying beneath such as insulin resistance that can lead to diabetes, depression and infertility.
“It took 10 years and five different doctors to diagnose me with a condition that affects a significant number of women of childbearing age.”
I suspect that I’d been living with PCOS for more than 16 years before I was finally diagnosed with it six years ago. I knew from the age of 20 that something wasn’t quite right with my body, after noticing excess facial and body hair growing at age 16. It was a tell-tale sign of a hormonal imbalance, which was shrugged off as by many healthcare professionals.
It took 10 years and five different doctors to diagnose me with a condition that affects a significant number of women of childbearing age. I’m now 33, and blessed to be able to say that I’m a mother of a beautiful, healthy, adventurous and hilarious two-year-old boy.
Don’t get pregnant
Many of us spend our late teens and 20’s doing everything we can to prevent pregnancy. We’re bombarded with all types of messages, from family, media and society at large to do everything in our power to not get “knocked up”. The responsibility is always placed on the women. As much as it takes two to tango, unfortunately (and especially on this continent), many women are left to raise the babies themselves, with little or no help from said tango partner. In South Africa, more than 50% of children are growing up without a father.
Where are the babies?
All of a sudden, when the late 20’s hit, the questions start flooding in: “when are you getting married?” Then, barely after the honeymoon is over: “when are you having children?”
This is where it gets tricky, I think. We’ve been taught our whole lives to avoid pregnancy but when are we taught how to get pregnant? How to be more fertile? It’s wrongly assumed that it just happens, until we try and then possibly get told the disheartening news that it may take a while to get there, if at all.
I’m one of a few women who was diagnosed with my condition before I tried conceiving. And that only happened because my symptoms’ whispers became screams and didn’t stop until I found answers.
I have many women in my life who only found out about their fibroids, endometriosis or weak cervix when they were already married and ready to have a child. Finding out at that age, ranging from 28 to 35, doesn’t leave us with much time to give our bodies the relevant treatment, or recovery after surgery before realistically trying to conceive – now there’s a rush to conceive.
If there were more open conversations about preparing the body for pregnancy and checks and balances when something is off, it might save a couple from going through the heartache of not starting a family.
When I first found out about my PCOS, I was distraught. I felt like my body had betrayed me. Especially because there was still no concrete explanation as to why women like me suffered from it. My husband and I weren’t yet married, but had been together for a long time and knew that’s where we were heading.
I’m grateful that I had already found my guy. It was one less thing to focus my time and energy on. Not every woman is this fortunate, and I don’t feel that society has shared enough awareness or placed enough support systems for women in these scenarios. Imagine the devastation of being told repeatedly by family, media and even strangers that your only value as a woman is to bear children, yet your body isn’t on the same page.
I was on my doctor’s treatment plan for about a year and a half before I conceived my son. It involved taking the Pill to balance my hormones, before coming off it to try and conceive. If my doctor hadn’t prepared my body through a low-GI diet and exercise to help shrink my multiple cysts before, I doubt I would’ve fallen pregnant as soon as I did. Having said that, I don’t know how I’ll fare trying for our second baby.
Prevention is better than cure. Unfortunately, with some fertility conditions such as PCOS, there is no clear cause nor an absolute cure. It’s about managing the symptoms and reducing those that affect your likelihood of conceiving. I think getting a diagnosis and then treating the condition before trying to conceive is a sensible approach and will give a couple a head start on their baby-making journey. The alternative is finding out when you’ve already started trying, which can waste precious time.
If you feel that something isn’t quite right – your periods are extremely painful, you have excess body or facial hair, you have unexplainable weight gain or any other odd symptoms, please see a doctor. And if their answer doesn’t make sense to you, see someone else until you find answers. Fight for your right to conceive!
Aisha O’Reilly is a young African woman who loves natural hair, beauty and being a new mommy, among other things. Her aim is to inspire and encourage fellow women by giving them a peek into her life, with all of its ups, downs, questions and adventures in her blog, Aisha and Life.