“In that realization, I made the decision for myself that yes, I was going to be a mom, no questions asked. BUT, how I got there didn’t matter.”— Michelle McAfee
I am happy to introduce you to our second interview for the “Voices behind the Choices” series. I will be bringing attention to inspiring individuals and small businesses that have chosen not to let their circumstances define them.
This interview is focused on an individual that I first had the opportunity to meet in my previous life as an event designer. Michelle McAfee is an award-winning photographer. Her company Michelle Lindsay Photography has been named one of Washington’s top photography studios by Washingtonian Magazine for the last 9 years in a row. In fact, some of the most valuable images that I have of my family have been captured by her. It was truly in that photography session that our friendship really began. While I have always admired Michelle’s creative and business brain, the story we are sharing today is about her heart.
With Mother’s Day just a few days ahead, I wanted to use this opportunity to share a story of how this family, became a family. How the series of choices they made molded their perspective on their lives for both today and their future. This is Michelle and Brian’s story, that I am honored to share.
M: How did you and your husband meet?
MM: Brian and I met through my sister. When I moved down to the DC area in 2008, I didn’t know anyone other than her so I spent a lot of time hanging out with her and her group of friends. Brian happened to be part of it.
M: Did you always know you wanted to have children?
MM: Growing up, family was a big part of my life. I have a lot of fond memories of my childhood – family vacations traveling the country in our minivan, slow Saturdays playing tag in the backyard and crazy holidays with our extended family. I always knew I wanted that for my own adult life.
M: When did you discover that trying to conceive would be more challenging? Describe that experience?
MM: Brian and I had talked about kids forever. We even considered trying to start our family before getting married, but ultimately decided to wait. As soon as we were married, we started trying to have our family. Six months in, nothing was happening. I made mention of it to my doctor, but she brushed it off. As we approached the 1-year mark, I insisted on testing. I still remember getting the phone call from my doctor’s office in the grocery check-out line. I barely heard anything they said but remember the words “high FSH levels.” I immediately googled it and article after article popped up with the word “infertility.” It was crushing. Ironically, I drove straight to my mom’s house. I didn’t even call Brian right away. All I wanted in that moment was to be with my own mom and to hug her. Even though she didn’t struggle with getting pregnant, I felt like she would be the only person who would understand why this was so devastating to me in that moment.
M: What did you and your husband decide to do in response to the news that conceiving would be difficult?
MM: I’m a planner and I basically went into action mode. We were referred by my doctor to a fertility clinic where they did additional testing and gave me an official diagnosis of Diminished Ovarian Reserve (DOR). We were told that our only chance of conceiving would be through IVF and even then, it would be difficult. We talked about alternative options like adoption, but ultimately decided we would try IVF first. We moved very fast after the initial diagnosis, which meant I never really took the time to process anything. Ultimately, I think it created more issues and much more stressful experience.
M: When you envisioned having a family, how did it look in your mind? Did that change after starting your fertility journey?
MM: I think my idea of family was rooted in what my own family looked like: married parents and siblings naturally conceived. Even though I knew that families came in all shapes and sizes, I definitely had in my mind that our family would look pretty much like the one I grew up in. As I went through our fertility journey, my vision did shift and I began to realize that being a mom was more than being pregnant. Being pregnant is just one vehicle for motherhood. The hard stuff of being a mom comes later and it doesn’t really matter how you get there.
M: How did you even know where to begin on your fertility journey?
MM: When our doctor gave us our bloodwork, they referred us to a fertility clinic and that was our starting point. In hindsight, I wish we would have taken the time to do more research on our own. We sort of got a crash course in infertility and IVF as we went along and it wasn’t until about 10 months into IVF that I started researching on my own, getting a clearer head about direction, alternative treatment options, etc.
M: Was there an A-Ha moment that you felt everything changed for you and your husband during the journey?
MM: After about 10 months into IVF, we took a break. Our last cycle was a complete flop and I was just feeling so confused, but also very overwhelmed. Having a child had begun to consume every part of my life and I truly felt like I couldn’t breathe. I needed space from it. So, we took a pause to really think about what we wanted and what we were willing to sacrifice to get it. We explored all our options, did a lot of research, went to adoption seminars, saw a couple’s therapist who specialized in infertility, and I joined a support group. In that space, I started to see clearer. I saw that the process was slowly decaying everything around me, from my self-confidence and worth, to our marriage and my friendships. I was consumed. In that realization, I made the decision for myself that yes, I was going to be a mom, no questions asked. But how I got there didn’t matter. I went to Brian; told him I was willing to do 2 more cycles through a new clinic we had found and that was it. If it didn’t work, we were putting in an application for adoption. He agreed.
M: What do you think caused that moment to occur?
MM: We had hit a wall. For months, our life hand been at a standstill. We had missed friend’s parties, canceled trips, and events, all because of IVF. It felt as though I was watching my life move past me like a movie reel. I was missing it. I can’t pinpoint exactly what caused the shift, but I just woke up one day and knew that I couldn’t stand paralyzed forever, hoping that the outcome I wanted would arrive. I had to find a way forward, even if that looked different than what I had initially envisioned.
M: How do you think these new decisions/ choices changed your experience?
MM: Once I made the decision that no matter what/how I was going to be a mom, the process didn’t feel as hard. I was able to recognize each particular moment as a steppingstone on my path. For the first time, I could see that if IVF didn’t work, there was still another stone in front of me. And another. And another. I could choose to stand still on this one stone forever OR I could choose to keep moving forward and take it step by step. And that’s what we did. We switched clinics and the next 2 cycles were much easier on me because I wasn’t putting all my hopes and dreams in that single moment. I knew that if the cycles didn’t work, I would be okay and there was still a path forward.
M: How did you know that was what needed to happen?
MM: Honestly, I’m not sure, but I just knew I didn’t feel like myself anymore and I didn’t like that feeling. I was tired of being sad and lonely, so I chose not to be. Of course, it was challenging, and it wasn’t something that happened immediately, but over time and with gradual steps, I was able to learn to live with and adapt to what our reality was instead of fighting against it.
M: What gave you the confidence to choose to head into this new mindset?
MM: I think just knowing that I had family and friends around me to support whatever choice we made and however we moved forward
M: Tell us about the moment you discovered you were pregnant?
MM: When you do IVF, you know the exact day you will find out the results, which is absolute torture in a way. You know that you shouldn’t hyper focus on the results, but it’s very very hard. The day our results were supposed to come back, Brian went to work like usual and I decided to take the entire day off. I had just come back from a walk with our dog and was playing with her in the backyard when the doctor’s office called. I honestly had managed to forget that they were even supposed to be calling! Before I picked up, I remember saying out loud to myself, “whatever the results are, you WILL be fine.” I answered and the 2 nurses who had been through our last 2 cycles with us were both on the phone and giddy as can be. When they said my test was positive, I honestly didn’t believe them. I kept asking them, “Are you sure? Wait. Is this serious?” I immediately went out and bought a home pregnancy test. And the Jimmy Fallon book “Dada.” I wrapped both the positive pregnancy test and the book and they were waiting for Brian when he got home.
M: As a mother now, do you feel that your infertility journey has changed how you approach motherhood now; or is it non-related?
MM: Having gone through infertility affects my choices as a mother every single day. Should I work late tonight? Should I take that job that will pull me away for the weekend? Is that invitation to that event really all that important? This will sound utterly cliché, but I truly wake up every single morning committed to being grateful for that beautiful little girl sleeping in her crib. When the days are extraordinarily busy or chaotic, I’ll sometimes look at her doing something as small as twirling with her bunny or quietly singing the ABCs and I’ll remind myself that THIS is the good stuff of life and that because of our perseverance, she’s here today. Everything else, all the other noise, can wait. I waited for her for so long and I can’t afford to miss these small moments.
M: You remain committed to bringing awareness to infertility; why and how do you do this?
MM: When I was going through my infertility journey, I felt incredibly isolated. Everyone around me had kids or was getting pregnant. On the outside, it just seemed so easy for everyone else. I now know that is total and utter bullshit. The reality is that everyone is struggling with something in their lives, even if they aren’t talking about it. There are so many shared experiences that connect us as humans. I feel incredibly passionate about giving a voice in the public arena to the difficult things that too often don’t get discussed, including infertility. I believe that it’s these shared stories and experiences that create a stronger community and help others following in our footsteps to navigate their circumstances easier and with a better sense of support. I found my way through infertility with the help and support of others and I want to make sure others going through infertility know they are not alone. The organization Resolve was instrumental in my own journey, from helping me to find a support group, to allowing me to exercise my voice on Capital Hill for their Advocacy Day, to providing a space online to share my story with others. When I decided I wanted to use my business’s success for a greater good, Resolve was the natural choice. I photograph families for a living. It only seemed right to use a portion of that towards helping others create their own families.
M: If you could share one bit of information with anyone currently struggling with infertility what would it be?
MM: You are not alone. You will get through this. This will not define you. For too long, I felt broken by my infertility. I allowed it to impact how I felt about myself as a wife, a friend, a daughter and even a business owner. When I finally allowed myself to open up to others about my struggle and started talking about it, I was able to work through it and come to peace. It takes time and it’s not instant. For myself, I had to lie paralyzed on the floor before I was able to help myself up. And that’s okay. But you can’t live on the floor forever. You have to get up at some point and start moving forward.
Michelle and Brian’s story is a true inspiration and beautiful reminder that once we are crystal clear on what it is that is really and truly important to us, the path to achieving that becomes clear. I asked Michelle if she were to pick a word, mantra, or goal for her life and family what would it be, this is what she said. “We Choose Slow Down” I spent the better half of my life running full speed towards the “destination” forgetting to enjoy the mundane. I can’t remember where I heard this, but I love the concept of “living in the margins.” To me, it means that the little, everyday choices are just as important as the big, momentous ones. How we choose to spend our days and our time is really what defines our lives, so I better make sure it counts or else I’ll miss it.
I couldn’t agree with you more, thank you Michelle and the entire McAfee family- Megan