Kate Torgersen on How the World is Starving for Moms’ Leadership
Tell us about your journey to motherhood. What was happening in your life when you decided to start your family?
I was 35 years old and finishing up my MFA at San Francisco Art Institute. I had it all planned out. I would get pregnant at some point in the last semester (within a couple months) and we would be bringing a baby home before Christmas. It would be a perfect transition out of grad school and into parenthood.
Little did I know that it would actually take us three years to bring our baby home...much longer than that MFA ever took.
You are an IVF warrior—tell us about that experience.
The first year, we tried to conceive “the old fashioned way" which was fun for a couple months. After that, it became a regiment—trying to time sex perfectly, piles of vitamins, endless temperature-taking and tracking, peeing on sticks, and super-sad, soul-crushing periods—every 28 day cycle would start with manic optimism and end in shattering disappointment. And so began the roller coaster.
We eventually made our way to assisted reproduction. I continued to apply the same obsessive control to the ART as I had in trying to conceive “naturally." Everything was about the odds and making sure that we could get as many rolls of the dice as possible. I wanted to make sure that we used the “right” clinic—the one with the highest outcomes for our situation. It wasn’t just about the clinic, I also wanted to make sure that we had the “best” reproductive endocrinologist in the practice—whoever had the most “live births," they were the doc I wanted. And, of course, I wanted a long runway—who was going to give us the most bang for our buck.
It wasn’t just about rolling the dice, I also needed to blow on them. More piles of vitamins—for me and my husband. More acupuncture. No alcohol, no problem. HSG test—done. Uterine massage–sure, why not?! A vaginal steam...well, of course! Guzzling yucky, super greens—every morning. Pineapple core smoothies for dinner—gotta get that uterine lining sticky. Adios, tomatoes! Whatever offered a glimmer of hope or a chance at increasing the odds, I did it.
For me, the top of the roller coaster was the egg retrieval—this was where we had the best visibility to the odds. I will never forget the doctor telling me, “We got 21 eggs!” This was the highest high we had reached in our journey, an incredible victory. Then, later that day, we learned that only half had fertilized through ICSI. On day three, they told us that only three were looking 'good,' and that we should come in ASAP for the transfer because they didn’t want to risk going to day five.
The last step of an IVF cycle, “the transfer," was weirdly the least medically spectacular of the journey. Simple and fast, just an embryologist with a fancy turkey baster...*squirt* in goes the three embryos—cycle complete.
After the transfer, I plunged into the black hole of insanity known as the two week wait. The only good thing about those fourteen days was resigning myself to the fact that there was nothing more I could do—it was out of my hands. At the same time, I became obsessed with symptoms, twinges, cramps, inspecting toilet paper for hints of pink or spotting…anything and everything that might indicate that I was pregnant...or that I wasn’t.
Finally, sonogram day. I cannot describe the suspense of staring into that weird black triangle on the screen and searching for a blinking light.
And, there it was, a heart beat…but wait, was it beating fast enough? Yes, fast enough!
My son, Jackson Morantes was born on November 3rd, 2010, and it was the best goddamn day of life. A day of disbelief, relief, gratitude, joy, and fullness.
We embarked on our second IVF rollercoaster two years later. As hard as the first roller coaster was, the second was longer and harder. I was older. The odds were not great. We faced failed cycles and losses. But, finally and thankfully, the second roller coaster came to a stop when I was 40 years old, with the birth of our twins, Finn and Zoe.
There’s that saying “death by a thousand cuts." Well, IVF is kind of the opposite, it is life by a thousand needles. To this day, every time I look at my kids I cannot help but to drink them in. The process that brought them into this world is still so difficult to fathom. Each of them feels so perfect and so inevitable, and yet so completely unbelievable. Their existence came through so many precarious circumstances and honestly, sheer chance—what if they hadn’t “caught” that sperm for ICSI? What if they had waited one more day for the retrieval? What if the lupron doses hadn’t been right? What if I hadn’t taken all of those vitamins?
It feels like somehow we managed to catch three shooting stars.
Did you always want to have three children? How did you get to that number?
When we decided to start a family, I pictured ours with two kids—probably because that’s how I grew up. I think my husband was definitely more of a “one and doner” which was reinforced by the emotional and financial investment of conceiving Jackson via IVF. Needless to say, he was not eager to jump into more IVF to have a second child.
But for me, as 40 approached, I really felt that our family was missing someone...I’m not sure how else to describe it. After over a year of convincing, he finally agreed to go for Baby #2.
I will never forget his face when he saw two heartbeats on the sonogram, and he realized we were having twins.
Tell us about your experience breastfeeding, and how that inspired you to start Milkstork.
I was committed to breastfeeding—both for Jackson and the twins. Breastfeeding Jackson was rainbows and unicorns. Breastfeeding Finn and Zoë was a whole different story. The three of us fought through many breastfeeding issues such as latching problems, a tongue tie, and weight gain issues, not to mention the challenges of tandem nursing and all of the relentless pumping I was doing to maintain their half-gallon-per-day demand. It was tough, but through it all, they were exclusively breastfeed.
When the twins were about eight months old and I was faced with a four-day business trip. I didn’t want work to be the thing that tanked our breastfeeding relationship. At the same time, the trip was a professional opportunity, and I wanted to take it. The only way to do it—to keep breastfeeding and take the trip—was to pump two 'extra' gallons of breast milk to cover my absence (on top of the gallons I was already pumping and nursing). And, then while I was on the trip, I had to pump every three hours around the clock to maintain my milk supply. All this pumping generated another two gallons of breast milk which I managed to cram into the hotel mini-fridge. On the last day of my trip, I packed a soft cooler with all of my milk along with four gallon-sized Ziplock bags filled with ice (it was too much milk to cool with a couple of gel packs). I lugged my sloshing, dripping 25+ lb. carry-on of milk along with my purse, breast pump bag, and suitcase through the TSA line, where they inspected all of my milk, dumped out my idea, and asked me “why one woman would have so much breast milk?” Once I made it through TSA, I had to run to the nearest bar and beg a bartender to replenish my Ziplocs with fresh ice. I barely made my flight.
The whole thing was a huge pain in the ass, and the process of constantly having to explain my situation and lactation to complete strangers (in an effort to get them to help me) was infuriating and humiliating. It just pissed me off.
Through it all, I kept thinking, “if I could just ship the milk home I’d be able to leap over so many pain points." The day after I got home, I started working on Milk Stork. We launched a little over a year later.
Milkstork has become more than just a breastmilk transportation company, you have become an advocacy group for working mothers. Tell us about what Milk Stork stands for.
For me, it goes beyond just normalizing breastfeeding and working motherhood, I want moms to be celebrated and supported for their experiences. I want them to feel like breastfeeding is a superpower, and I want the world to high five them for it. I want to eliminate the friction that we’ve put in the way of their greatness. I want moms to be able to chase their personal and professional ambitions with unapologetic relentlessness, and I want our communities, workplaces, and the larger society to cheer them along the way.
I want moms to feel like breastfeeding is a superpower and I want the world to high five them for it.
I want all of these things because now, more than ever, we need to harness the vision and achievements of people who hold themselves accountable to futures beyond their own. The world is starving for moms’ leadership.
Last question: what advice do you have for other aspiring mamas?
It’s not really advice, but I would just encourage aspiring mamas (as well as parents who have been on the rollercoaster) to talk about their journeys. It is not easy to do, but I know for me it was so helpful and heartening to know that I wasn’t alone.
For more information on breastfeeding, check out our article "Prenatal Breastfeeding 101."