Marisa Renee Lee on Infertility and Structural Racism
Tell us a little about yourself.
I've split my career between politics, non-profit, and business and currently work on a number of social justice projects through my consulting firm, Beacon Advisors. Additionally, in late 2018, I launched a start-up called Supportal. Supportal is a platform that makes it easy for people to respond when someone they care about is faced with a life-changing challenge. With a focus on experiences that are difficult to deal with and difficult to respond to, Supportal features first-hand accounts of people who have experienced life-changing challenges. They detail the best and most thoughtful ways people in their lives responded, and Supportal provides recommendations that will make it easy for others to do the same.
I love food, bourbon, my family (especially my dog Sadie!), and the Green Bay Packers. You can learn more about my work and interests on my website.
What brought you to where you are now?
In terms of pregnancy/family, I had been living in DC for a few months in late 2010 when I thought I was going crazy (literally). I have a younger sister who is bipolar so when my depression and anxiety were suddenly sky high, with no external stressors, so I immediately sought professional help. My therapist at the time insisted I get a physical and do all the annual medical stuff that I was woefully behind on because I had spent the previous five years helping to care for my ailing mother while working full time. I had my period three times in 18 months, but I had also lost some weight and was in a super intense job in the Obama Administration, so I didn't think much of it and also didn't think to connect it to my mental health challenges. It turns out they were very much connected, and I wound up being diagnosed with something called premature ovarian failure. It basically translated to menopause at 28. By the time they found it, there was no hope for egg retrieval or anything like that, and the priority became getting my hormones regulated and helping me feel like a "normal twenty-something." It was really challenging.
Tell us about your partner. What made you want to start or grow a family together?
I adore my husband. He is one of the kindest and most funny people on the planet, and I also think he's pretty cute. He entertains all of my crazy schemes and at this point, I think he just expects me to be kind of ridiculous. He is happy to be my partner-in-crime on anything from a Christmas party that requires costumes and a houseful of guests to a photo shoot with Option B. He is also a great date for White House holiday parties and never balked when I used to sneak Bo and Sunny sugar cookies into my purse. I always wanted to be a mother, and because of my condition, we knew it would be challenging, but we love each other and felt like we had more love to give, so we decided in 2016 to start figuring out how we could go about getting me pregnant.
How as your journey to parenthood been?
Long, hard, exhausting, time consuming, expensive, stressful, depressing, and anxiety-inducing. That said, it also reinforced how much we truly love and respect each other and just how resilient we both are. The year before I met my husband, I learned I couldn’t have children without a lot of science and money. I was upfront with him from the beginning (literally six weeks in), and he was 100% accepting and supportive. We got married in 2015 and decided we would spend our first year of marriage figuring out how we wanted to try and create a family: adoption, surrogacy, or egg donor IVF. Ultimately, I decided that If I could carry a pregnancy and have a child that looked like my husband (who I personally think is adorable), that is what I would like us to do.
I felt like I was a living science experiment, but I also felt like I had a purpose. I was doing everything I could to make our baby.
Over the next few weeks, I felt pregnant: exhausted, out of it, sick to my stomach, etc. Ten days later, we went in for our pregnancy test, and we were both excited. I was so confident that I was pregnant, I didn’t even feel stressed. I was in the middle of a client call when our doctor called us to let us know that I had briefly been pregnant, but wasn’t anymore. I was so shocked; I didn’t believe him and left our house to buy my own pregnancy tests. He was right; I wasn’t pregnant. We were beyond heartbroken. Having lost a parent at a young age, I’d learned a lot about grief, and I felt like I couldn’t even grieve our loss because I was also physically ill. I continued to be varying degrees of sick for several months as my doctors worked to get my hormones back on track. Last week was seven months since I started the active part of this process, and I am still experiencing hormonal side effects. And we are still grieving. We don’t know what’s next for our family.
How did you care for yourself during this time?
I knew if somehow I wasn’t able to get pregnant, I would blame myself. I didn’t want to have any regrets, so I threw everything into this process and did everything my doctors suggested. I scaled back my commitments; I said no to anything that was “extra.” I prioritized exercise, meditation, acupuncture, rest, and time with people who gave me energy. I got a lot of massages, took a lot of naps, and I literally realigned everything in my life around this single priority, and even though it did not work out, I have no regrets. I was also very intentional about communicating my needs to my husband and ensuring in addition to the support he provided, I cultivated my own support network as well. I have an excellent therapist and an amazing group of friends. We had an entire WhatsApp chain dedicated to my fertility process. I am very fortunate.
I was also very intentional about communicating my needs to my husband and ensuring in addition to the support he provided
What experiences shaped your understanding of conception and pregnancy?
This whole process and the fact that my husband and I have chosen to be open out our fertility challenges has served as a reminder of just how many people are silently suffering from infertility. The day we shared our struggle publicly, my inbox, FB messenger, IG messages, etc. were all flooded with messages from men and women, some of whom I didn’t even know, sharing their own challenges. I want to do everything I can to change the culture around this stuff because it is just too much to carry your grief alone when you’re also trying to grow your family.
What have you learned as a result of trying to get pregnant?
A few lessons:
1) Knowing you are fully loved by your partner, regardless of your body’s ability or inability to reproduce is something I wouldn’t have thought to be grateful for if not for this experience.
2) Women carry too much of this burden. Obviously, we are the ones who have to have babies, but all the shame, fear, physical pain, depression, exhaustion, etc. is a lot to carry around, and I want us to have more conversations about infertility and motherhood so we can better support one another. It is hard and complicated and so many women are suffering in silence because others haven’t figured out to support them. This is what we are trying to do at Supportal, ensure that people know how to respond and how to love on people during difficult times instead of avoiding them. I think there is a major opportunity right now to change the culture around these issues, and I am so grateful to Natalist and similar companies for leaning in here.
3) The fertility process is another place where I felt the burden of structural racism and discrimination. I (thankfully) was never discriminated against by any of my doctors or other caretakers, but when you go to your fertility clinic every few days for several weeks and maybe see one other person of color, ONCE, you’re reminded that most people who look like you and suffer from fertility issues are not in a position to handle them the same way you are. Feeling like my doctors rarely saw people who looked like me made the whole experience even more isolating than it already was.
When you go to your fertility clinic every few days for several weeks and maybe see one other person of color, ONCE, you’re reminded that most people who look like you and suffer from fertility issues are not in a position to handle them the same way you are.
What's your wish for women who are trying to conceive?
That they are surrounded by the love and support that it takes to make a baby, especially if they are dealing with infertility. A lot of folks don’t know how to respond when someone is dealing with infertility, and I just hope that everyone out there who is going through something similar is able to find their people because this shit is hard!
Anything else you'd like to share about your journey to parenthood?
We don’t know where our journey is going to take us, and I am struggling to accept that, but remain committed to sharing where we are with others, even if we don’t know where we are going. I hope our honesty and transparency is helpful to someone else.