Jena Mathews is a family and newborn photographer based in Golden, BC. After a long journey of trying to conceive and loss, she and her husband are taking a break from trying to start a family, to focus on enjoying other parts of life. We asked Jena a few questions about her story for the following Q&A. Here’s what she had to tell us!:
Could you share a bit about the timeline of your journey?
We started TTC August 2020, had a chemical pregnancy in April 2021, and are still presently trying (currently on month 19). After a year, we began working with doctors to make sure everything was normal. We tested hormone levels, sperm analysis, thyroid, etc., tried three months of clomiphene, and then I did the HSG procedure (fallopian tube x-ray / flush). Everything came back normal.
I'm sure there have been a lot of ups and downs along the way. For you, what has been the most challenging aspect? What has helped you stay afloat?
The hardest part for me was that I didn't realize it could be difficult to get pregnant. Of course, now that I am on the journey I know lots of people who are experiencing how hard it can be each month, but before this I had no idea. Both my partner and I believed it would happen right away. It was pretty disappointing each month when it didn't happen.
Learning more about how my body and cycle work has been empowering. I use a combination of tools to track each monthly cycle and that has been helpful. I think I like having something I can measure and control.
What changes have you made or adopted in terms of lifestyle to help along the way?
Shortly after we started TTC, I discovered that I have food allergies and Interstitial Cystitis (IC), so I went through a very big lifestyle change because of that. I learned that if I stick to an allergen-free diet and active lifestyle, my symptoms are very manageable. Luckily, these are things that support our TTC journey as well so I have lots of motivation to maintain a healthy lifestyle!
What can others do to be more supportive of your journey? What is something you wish others would not do?
I am very lucky to have an endlessly loving support team of friends, family and my husband. They listen when I want to be sad or excited each month and they also respect me when I ask for space or distractions. Since sharing my story many (many!!) people have shared their own TTC or infertility stories and that has been so heartwarming. I feel very connected to those people now. I really appreciate it when people ask permission before venting to me about their own journey, most times I am happy to listen and relate with them but sometimes I just don't have the capacity for it.
Do you find doctors and other healthcare professionals have been supportive? Have you had any particularly positive or negative experiences with the medical community?
It was really interesting for me because I was working with a naturopath during the same time that we worked with a fertility clinic. Both were good experiences, just very different from each other. The fertility clinic was able to provide us with specific tests and procedures we could try, like taking clomiphene or the HSG/ultrasound procedures. They were able to provide us with scientific information which we enjoyed.
The naturopath took a more holistic approach and was interested in my lifestyle, stress levels, diet, and mental health. Together we looked at the body as a whole. The naturopath experience was extremely validating because she explained that all of the bodily systems have to be in balance to carry a child. It's more than just hormone levels and functioning anatomy. Working with her really helped me understand that there might be more to it than just "unexplained infertility" (as the fertility clinic said).
With social media, there is a lot of talk of babies and growing families. I see that with your work as a photographer, you are right in that world. Would you say that makes it more difficult while TTC, or have you been able to reframe it?
Somehow I have been able to stay in a place where I am genuinely happy for all of my clients and their new babies. Of course, some days are more difficult, but in general I am just so happy for them. Being on a long TTC journey gives me a gift of empathy. I know how hard lots of people work to start their family and I feel lucky to be there to document that for them. Experiencing loss and longing makes me a better photographer.
What logistics go into your planning process? For example, tracking your cycle.
Before we started trying, I thought you could get pregnant any day of the month. I remember being so surprised to learn that there is actually just a 24 to 48 hour fertile window each month! It's wild that I spent my whole life trying not to get pregnant and really had no idea how my cycle worked. Then we learned about ovulation strips (hey Ovry!!!) and those were very helpful with trying to get the timing right. Once I started working with the naturopath, she encouraged me to track my Basal Body Temp (BBT) each morning. This was helpful to confirm ovulation actually happened. I did that for about six months and really enjoyed it. Lately, things have shifted for me and I am a bit exhausted from the whole journey. We're taking a more relaxed approach and not tracking anything for the next few months to give ourselves a break and rest.
What is your relationship to hope?
Jeez, right now might not be the best time for me to answer this, but I am in a low this month. A deep low, and I have lost most of my hope right now. This is how I can tell that I am ready for a break and that I need to focus on other things for a while. Losing hope isn't my normal personality. The past 18 months I have worked hard to feel peaceful and hopeful about the process. I think after some rest that I will return to my normal hopeful self.
How do you take care of your mental health while going through the challenges to conceive?
I have found it helpful to be open and honest about the whole process. At first I would excitedly text my girlfriends about ovulation each month…and then there would be the disappointing menstruation time. We talk about it less now, but they still check in and are there for me always. My husband is a rockstar who keeps track of my cycle with me, having him involved in the process has helped a lot. He has been supportive each month and been enthusiastic about getting testing done. It feels like we are a team and I am not alone. Hearing other people's stories and experiences has been really helpful to know that it's not just me. I also manage stress with exercise, yoga and meditation. It has been helpful to focus on those practices, especially during the two-week wait between ovulation and menstruation—your mind can drive you crazy then if you let it. I also do something nice for myself once menstruation starts, like go for an ice cream or take the afternoon off work. I think it's important to treat yourself a little and honour your body and feelings.
When you picture your future family, what do you see? How does it make you feel?
One of the side effects of Clomiphene is increased chance of twins and my husband and I were both excited about that idea. Twins would be intense, but so fun. But honestly I know that whatever our future family looks like, we will be happy with it. Whether it's twins, one baby, no babies, dog-babies...I trust that things happen the way they are supposed to and that there are things to be excited about either way. We would be great parents, but we could also be great world travellers, or we could be both! We both really want a family, but there is lots to enjoy about life if that doesn't happen for us.
What would you say to other people going through a similar journey, especially those who are just starting out? What do you wish someone had told you?
If I could go back and talk to myself two years ago when we started this journey, I would teach myself all about how the female cycle works. The first six months were so hard because I just had no idea. Knowing how my body works gave me back a sense of control and confidence. I encourage others to find a way to get to a place of ease each month. The two-week wait (TWW) can be consuming and it's helpful to have other important life things to work on to pass the time. For me that was a yoga and exercise routine. Make sure to check in with your doctor, do the required tests, and prioritize your own health and mental health however you can. It's easier said than done, but trust the process and your body.