Welcome to the first installment of Surrounded by Supermommies (if you haven’t yet, read this first for context). This is a long read; so go get yourself a nice cup of hot chocolate and a box of tissues.
Infertility is a battle that so many mommies have battled with. Fighting your own body on the journey to becoming a mother can be incredibly overwhelming, and the feelings of hopelessness can win sometimes.
Today’s story is about one mommy who wouldn’t stop fighting – she fought through infertility, she fought through her pregnancy, she fought to breastfeed her twins, she fought to grow in her career – and she won.
I met Melanie online. We were pregnant at the same time and I spent many an hour chatting to her throughout the night; sharing the war stories of pregnancy. I was so incredibly awed and inspired at how calm and positive and warm and supportive she was, no matter what obstacles were thrown her way – and to my mind there were far too many. She is one of the women who inspired me to start this series.
This is her story
Melanie and Eric Stockenstrom have been married for 9 years this November. They have a beautiful life; one that might inspire jealousy in some, one that others might aspire to.
They live in a lovely family home in the Northern Suburbs of Cape Town, South Africa. They live with their gorgeous twin toddlers and their dogs; surrounded by the people they love.
Melanie works as a Key Account Manager for Discovery Insure in the Western Cape, looking after 5 franchises; having been promoted twice since having her baby girls in January 2014. In her “spare” time she films wedding DVD’s and loves to exercise; she was able to get back to her pre-pregnancy weight within 16 month of having twins.
When she is not travelling for work, her job allows her to do all her admin work from home. She switches off her laptop at 6pm every evening to spend quality uninterrupted time with her girls. She has an awesome live-in nanny, so stealing a quick hour or two to go have a bite with hubby, or to go watch a movie, is not impossible.
Are you jealous yet? Is there some kind of judginess going on in your head?
Oh, I didn’t mention – she is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. Sweet to a fault. Always interested in how you are; always showing support and encouragement to other mommies who have struggled or are still struggling with infertility and fertility treatments; sympathising with other mommies about their children who don’t sleep or their heartburn while pregnant.
This is her life now and it is wonderful; it is a life she has fought for every step of the way, and nobody deserves the happiness more. Let’s start at the beginning of their journey…
A step back
Melanie and Eric met at Stellenbosch University and were married in 2006. In 2008, they decided to grow their family. When, after a year of trying, there was still no sign of their much-wanted new addition, they decided to see a doctor.
They discovered that Melanie was not ovulating spontaneously every month. With the help of a fertility drug called Clomid, which is used to stimulate ovulation, this soon changed and they expected her to fall pregnant shortly thereafter.
But she didn’t. After yet more examinations and tests, they found that she had mild endometriosis. The condition was killing the sperm before they even had a chance to swim and, even if the eggs were fertilised, they couldn’t attach securely to the lining of the uterus.
It was decided that Melanie would undergo a laparoscopy to try to remove the endometriosis; and after three tries they were successful.
After all of the emotional and physical upheaval, Melanie and Eric decided to go the In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) route to increase their chances of falling pregnant. Melanie had to be given a course of injections to stimulate ovulation; her eggs were harvested and then fertilised outside of her body. After being monitored over a few days in a special growth medium, the successfully fertilised eggs were implanted directly into her uterus. Despite the pain and discomfort she experienced after the laparoscopy, Melanie bit down and immediately went through the IVF to ensure the highest chance of success.
Five years of trying, waiting, hoping, treatments, examinations and tears, finally ended in May 2013, when they were finally given the news they had been waiting for for so long – they were expecting… twins!
In her own words
I wasn’t very hopeful the month we were successful. The morning of the blood test, I was reluctant to go and have my heart broken once more. I decided to do a home test because the test was due to expire soon. The reading was negative and I was really down. I got dressed and just before I was about to leave for Pathcare, I picked up the test again. It had been about 15 minutes since I had taken it and there had been no second line; when I looked at it again there was a very faint second stripe – it was positive!
I ran to my husband and, trying to protect my heart, he told me not to get my hopes up. I couldn’t help myself though, I went to Pathcare feeling nervous but semi-positive.
I had to wait two hours before I could phone for the results and then none of the doctors were able to talk to me. I told the receptionist about the test that morning, and how anxious I was for that call. She went quiet and I asked her if she knew the results. She said that she did, but policy said only a doctor could share them with me, and I should just relax about it now. I immediately knew it was positive, but I didn’t want her to lose her job by telling me…
I finally got the official call from the doctor to congratulate me that afternoon. I was over the moon! I phoned my husband and just started crying; he had to pull off the road as he was too emotional to drive. He wanted to tell everyone, but I made him promise to keep it quiet for a little longer, until we knew for sure everything was going to be fine.
Those five years were the most incredibly difficult time. Eric and I were so stressed and heartbroken and we were bickering all the time. But we both had faith that we would eventually have a child and our faith kept us together.
The long awaited pregnancy
They found out they were pregnant at exactly 4 weeks, and morning sickness kicked in a week later. Melanie suffered from constant nausea until week 15, was constantly tired and endlessly hungry. At 15 weeks, she also started showing a little bump. She describes the 6 weeks that followed as the best time of her life.
In her own words
Pregnancy was nothing at all like I expected. I wish more moms would be honest about the difficult parts of pregnancy; how bad morning sickness can be, the backaches, the red spots on your chest, your skin itching like hell, or that you will be breathless just walking from your bed to the kitchen! It wouldn’t make women change their minds about getting pregnant, but it would make them feel more normal when they experience it themselves.
But it was also even better than I expected. No-one can ever prepare you for the little kicks you will feel, and the way your babies will calm down when you start to sing for them. Eric became so incredibly protective and wouldn’t let me do any of my usual DIY projects.
I would have tried to get pregnant no matter what. I tried to enjoy it as much as my body allowed me to. I slept every second I was able to, I watched all the movies I wanted to, I got a pregnancy massage, my mom did my toes and nails, I got my hair done. I don’t think I missed out on anything. I even bought just enough maternity clothes to not have piles afterwards that I can’t use.
My favourite part of being pregnant though, was not having to suck in my tummy – Seriously!
A scary change of course
Around 21 weeks Melanie started experiencing low sharp pains, but she didn’t think that anything was wrong and headed off to her 21 week visit feeling fine.
At first the doctor struggled to find Baby A and had to do an internal scan to check on her, where they discovered that Baby A’s hand was halfway down Melanie’s cervix. The Foetal Assessment doctor handled everything calmly and professionally and sent them off to the hospital to be checked by the gynaecologist.
At the hospital Melanie’s gynaecologist called in a Foetal Specialist. Melanie was immediately told to stop eating and drinking as she would be going into surgery at 9pm that night. They had to insert a cervical stitch to ensure that the birth canal would remain closed in spite of the weight of the babies, to prevent them from coming too early. The hope was to have her carry the babies until at least 26 weeks.
In her own words
I wasn’t feeling stressed at all on the way to the hospital and I remained calm about everything even going into the surgery; nobody let on that I was at risk of a miscarriage and I had no idea that it was really serious.
After the surgery I opened my eyes and asked the first person I saw if both babies were still inside me, and if my husband knew. It was the most scared that I’d felt during the whole experience, because I suddenly knew that there was a chance that I could have lost both babies.
Melanie was placed on strict bed rest for the rest of her pregnancy. While most people think “bed rest” sounds like an ideal way to spend the second half of a pregnancy, it is actually extremely difficult. She literally had to stay in bed all day, except for one or two stretches per day to keep the blood flowing, to shower or go to the bathroom.
Do you remember how uncomfortable you got lying down in the second half of your pregnancy? How difficult it gets to turn over? That lying on your back is dangerous and lying on your tummy is impossible and lying on your right exacerbates heartburn? I do; I remember it clearly. And your second trimester is when you feel your best! When you have energy and you start nesting and planning. With all of that going on, Melanie had to stay in bed… For months!
Knowing that Melanie was the kind of person who would go mad doing nothing all day, her boss adjusted her position allowing her to work online. She also did a lot of research about what to expect with twins, bed rest exercises, more about her condition, what she would need for the babies and their room and where to buy maternity clothes online.
In her own words
I usually started working at about 9am as I had to inject myself at 8am every day, and had breakfast after that. I would work until I had nothing else to do, then switch over to research. I found the BabyCenter website extremely helpful. I joined groups for bed rest ladies, and I also joined a Facebook group for moms with premature babies. They were my rock and made me realise I could be stronger than I thought I was.
Whenever I felt too tired to continue, I took a nap. I just listened to my body mostly. The worst part was not being able to decorate their room myself, I had been looking forward to that for years!
At 33 weeks, she went for a regular scan (as she was every two weeks by that time). It was discovered that her cervix had gotten shorter again and they decided to admit her for the rest of her pregnancy to monitor her and the babies daily.
Incredibly, though they had only been hopeful of getting to 26 weeks, Melanie remained in hospital for five more weeks, carrying her girls right up to 38 weeks – an amazing feat with twins, never mind under these circumstances.
In her own words
I slept a lot, which today I am very thankful for. I received physio for my legs, because they were getting a bit weak. I was monitored so often that there was really no way for me to get anything done. I made a lot of friends in hospital, so I used my stretching time to walk to their rooms and have some laughs. Later on the nurses came to fetch me to cheer all the newbies up, as apparently I was quite good at that. Eric was an amazing support to me, visiting as often as he could and keeping my spirits up.
Melanie found the birth experience to be amazing. She felt completely prepared and never felt scared, which I attribute to her being in the hospital for so long and to her positive outlook on everything.
Babies Emily and Olivia were born on 27 January 2014; they had Apgar readings of 10, they were perfect and didn’t even need a second in the NICU.
In her own words
Even though a “natural” birth would have been ideal, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much as I did the c-section. Theatre was a little scary, but I was so ready for it by that stage that I actually enjoyed it. I was able to take in every moment, and see the look on my husband’s face during the process too.
The happiest moment of my life was when I heard my babies’ cry. I remember feeling relieved after hearing Emily scream, and bursting into tears after hearing Olivia. I knew then that it was finally all over and they had made it out alive and kicking. The steroid shots definitely worked, because they really had some strong lungs!
Neither of the girls picked up weight in the first week, which meant they initially had to supplement with formula. She later discovered that she just needed to breastfeed them more often. She credits finding the La Leche League group on Facebook with guiding her to increase her milk supply.
This amazing woman feels guilty for not being able to give her babies breastmilk alone, even though she is still providing breastmilk at 17 months. Emily is fully breastfeeding after hours and weekends and Olivia gets everything she is able to express; and she intends to continue until they turn at least turn 2.
The determination it takes to keep doing this while working full time and having to travel for work is amazing. As a mom still breastfeeding a toddler I have no idea where she gets the strength!
In her own words
It is surely not easy. Just last week I had to travel for a day and a half with very little time to express. But I have mastered the art of hand expressing now, which is much faster when you have very little time available. I also made an effort to inform my colleagues that I am still breastfeeding, so I will ask for a 10 minute break during training sessions in order to go express. They are very supportive.
I also got myself a double electric pump, which I strap to myself while I drive. That way I don’t waste time while I travel during the day. Otherwise I try and do my admin from home so I can feed directly and express afterwards; so it is really not that difficult to keep it up.
Emily and Olivia were really well behaved babies and Eric helped a lot during the night, bringing them to Melanie for feeds, helping to bath them and soothe them.
Having never had to handle only one baby at a time, Melanie seems to deal with being a mom of two the same way any of us deal with a new baby – by fighting through the exhaustion and just doing what needs doing.
Melanie has found that the most difficult part of having twins is when they are both upset and need some mommy time, and having to divide your attention.
Although this may be an issue that many mommies face when you have more than one child, can you even begin to imagine what it might be like with two newborn babies or two teething toddlers? She manages this by making a point of taking only one at a time with her to the shops or on an outing, to ensure they get that individual mommy attention.
The best part of having twins for her, is watching them grow together and how they keep each other entertained; meaning she might actually get to eat her supper without interruption on the odd occasion.
In her own words
Having a strong support system – your partner, mother, mother-in-law or nanny, is a lifesaver; even if it is only to keep the one calm while you see to the other, or to watch them while you take a shower or try to squeeze in a nap.
I am so honoured to be called mom by my beautiful girls. They are super clever and use some complex words like ‘stoutertjie’ and ‘pumpkin’, as the nanny calls them. In general, they are really good eaters and sleep incredibly well. I am actually sleeping in most Saturdays, if you can call 8am a sleep in…
During her maternity leave, Melanie’s boss suggested she apply for the Corporate Insure Specialist job. The new position opened so many doors for her; including being promoted again to her current position last month. It also meant that she would be completely financially secure and able to provide so much more for the twins.
But taking it also meant going back to work when the girls were only 9 weeks old, and that she would be away from home training for 10 days.
In her own words
I missed them SO much, it was a bit of a shock to the system. Because I was in training the entire day, it meant that I was only able to express at 6am, then at lunch time, and again at 6pm; so when I returned, getting my supply up was very difficult.
Luckily I am not away for work for very long periods anymore. I only fly for daily activities once a quarter; and I either fly in and out the same day, or stay for one night.
It is definitely not easy! However, I have a great support system, and I know my girls aren’t lacking any love. I am able to leave them with someone during the day that loves them as much as I do; and in the evenings, I am able to give them my full attention.
Final words on…
Infertility & IVF
It is beyond difficult to talk about infertility. Even now, because we have twins, we are constantly questioned by strangers. Personally, I find it very offensive when someone asks me if my twins are “natural”, what is an unnatural baby?!
It feels like they are asking me about my sex life, and whether I was successful in that department or not. Maybe I am a bit over-sensitive about it, but you already feel like your body failed you by not conceiving naturally; the last thing you need is a total stranger reminding you about it.
I was not comfortable talking about anything while we were in the process, but now I mostly feel more at ease and see it as a way to educate people about IVF. If everyone out there knew what you have to go through whilst doing IVF, they would start handing out medals!
Don’t do it if you are not 100% sure they your marriage / partnership is stable enough to handle it. It is unbelievably tough to allow your partner to give you injections; never mind the immense emotional, physical and mental pressure the process puts on you both as individuals and as a couple.
However, despite it being a really difficult path, it is so amazing to experience IVF. I was literally able to watch on a monitor as they implanted my unborn children – Technology is amazing!
Being a mom
It is much more awesome than you could ever imagine! And it is ok to sometimes feel like you have to escape for just a day. Being a mom is NOT an easy job, but it is super rewarding!
Being a working mom
Having a career, and being a mom is very possible. Making sure your kids are loved, happy, healthy and safe, that is what makes you a good mom, and having a career that you love does not stop you from doing that.
So, as I was saying, Melanie has a wonderful life; but none of it came easily. She had to endure five years of heartbreak and disappointment, strain on her marriage, invasive tests and surgeries and treatments before getting pregnant. She had to face the unfathomable fear of nearly losing those precious babies after all she had overcome to carry them at 21 weeks. She had to spend 17 weeks on bed rest, fearing every day that they might be born too soon and be in danger. She had to leave her tiny babies to take the next step in her career. And she has done it all to get to where she is now.
She is a Supermommy.
If you are struggling through infertility or fertility treatments, there are those that have happy endings. It may take all your faith and heart and hard work and determination, but it is possible that you will be a mommy.
For those of you who have found that your body cannot bring your child into this world; the last story of this series is that of a mommy who has adopted the baby of her heart and her dreams. It took all of her faith and heart and hard work and determination, and she is a mommy.
There are so many routes you can take to claim your Mommy title, this is only one. I hope it gives you hope, and heart and inspiration.
Melanie, you are one of the strongest women I have ever known. I am honored that you allowed me to share your story with others; but I am not surprised. Your willingness to always reach out and share and support others is so incredibly special. You are a Supermommy. Thank you for the inspiration.
Now, over to you mommies. These mommies have opened their hearts and shared their stories with me, so that I can share them with you, and you can share them with anyone who might need to hear what they have to say. Please show your support and share the love by sharing Melanie’s story as far as you can; you just need to hit one of the easy share buttons below.
Sending all the love xx