by Annie Murray, ’99
I’m no longer a pilot. Far from it. I’m a Navy Clinical Neuropsychologist, and currently the Director of the Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, the Intrepid Spirit Center, at Camp Pendleton. With Psychology and Neuropsychology, I found a job that was truer to my personality than aviation ever was for me– a nerd who is interested in people and what makes them tick.
“You’re too soft….”
At the end of cognitive rehabilitation treatment, we ask our patients for feedback about the program; things they liked and didn’t like, what we could improve. That was the feedback from a clinic patient, a special forces type, who had lost his leg below the knee in combat and wore a prosthetic. My initial reaction (inside voice) was, yeah, no shit. Maybe you need some softness in your life, and that is why you are here.
But it also made me sad. This guy did not know anything about me. I have been through “stuff”, too. I am missing parts, too. You just don’t get to see my missing parts, or my scars. My missing parts are kept a secret; they did not earn me any medals.
Women are told to “lean in,” to ambition, to assertiveness, to sucking it up, to the other characteristically male-dominated constructs of leadership and beyond, but what if women “leaned in” to each other instead? What if what women really need is to not feel alone in their struggles, not isolated from their husband, boss, the patient with the missing leg; but especially from other women?
In some weird way, it took losing my uterus, Fallopian tubes, and cervix – all parts that make me inherently “female” – to be a better woman; one with greater depth, empathy, and compassion for other women.
It was a Tuesday night in 2015 when I lost my uterus, about 6 weeks after giving birth to my second son, Jack. Jack was perfect but my uterus was not.
My emergency hysterectomy came at the end of a 3-week period of complications in which I had multiple, post-partum hemorrhages requiring four surgeries, massive transfusion of more than 20 units of blood products – more than twice my body’s blood volume – and resuscitation to survive. My husband – a Navy pilot – had deployed during the middle of all this, so when I woke up from my fourth and final surgery, I was alone.
My husband was flown home for a couple of weeks to be with me, but he eventually re-deployed, and I was alone again. Except I wasn’t really alone because I had a 2-year-old and a newborn, and a metric ass-ton of trauma.
Many years before this, my time at the Naval Academy (’95-’99) were largely spent trying to fit in; never alone, but never really part of the group either. I was never the smartest, the best athlete, the prettiest or the coolest. In fact, I spent most of my time in Annapolis struggling with anxiety, cystic acne and calculus 3. Inside Bancroft Hall, I had a genuine best friend in my roommate, a friendship that continues to this day; but the truth is she was way cooler than me, and she seemed to just “do” the Naval Academy better than me. The other women I befriended at the Academy were the same, and they seemed to breeze through the academic, athletic, and social challenges without any outward signs of the deep anxiety, insecurity and loneliness that I struggled with. The next 10 years of my life were much of the same. I felt out place as a mediocre Navy pilot. I thought at the time that I was the only woman who felt out of place or alone.
I wish I could say that I never felt alone as a woman again, but that would not be true. Before I lost my uterus, my husband and I struggled for years to get pregnant. We tried Intra Uterine Insemination four times before our doctor told us there was nothing more he could do and that our best chances of having a baby would be with IVF. So we did the shots, hormones, blood tests, emotional roller coaster, and everything else that comes with infertility treatments. We were an IVF success story; we had two perfectly healthy boys.
We also had twelve, frozen, 5-day blastocycsts.
This is where things get really awkward, like I am trying to explain the plot of that movie, Memento, or something, and I just end up yelling never mind, it’s complicated, and crying.
But I need to try to explain this; because not explaining the difficult stuff is why women feel so alone sometimes. We think that whatever went wrong was our fault, or that we should suck it up, we should just be grateful, or that someone always has it worse than us. And then shame sets in, and we stay quiet.
I obviously could not carry another baby after my complications, and we struggled for years in trying to figure out what to do with our embryos. Surrogacy was too expensive and dangerous, and donating the embryos was out of the question for me. I could not imagine a world where my flesh and blood children roamed this earth and I was not their mom, the one who tucked them in at night or kissed their boo-boos. After all my husband and I had been through, I didn’t want to unfreeze and “discard” the embryos (their word not mine). Donating embryos to research isn’t as easy or glamorous as it sounds because they are considered “human product” (also their word, not mine). Continuing to pay thousands of dollars a year to freeze them was not sustainable either.
For those reasons, and a million more, my IVF doctor agreed to do what is called a “compassionate transfer,” an embryo transfer typically done at an infertile time of a woman’s cycle. Since I did not have a uterus or cervix even, it made the idea of transferring embryos all the more non-traditional. I had read about compassionate transfers online (I do NOT recommend doing this. Any choice women make regarding embryos seems to elicit emotion and judgement, the kind so hurtful, you cannot even put into words). I saw this as an opportunity to provide closure from all we had been through in our journey to parenthood, but in a way that held meaning to us. Without my reproductive organs, my options were severely limited, and I saw this as a way to honor what we had been through. In doing the compassionate transfer, our embryos, which were made from my husband and me, became a part of me once again.
Prior to the transfer, our doctor met with us to ask how I wanted the experience to go: any special wishes? (Not really); would I allow a Fellow to observe? (No); did I want to see the embryos beforehand under the microscope? (Yes); did I want valium? (Yes! I mean, No). It was quiet and somber, respectful, though with none of the hope of my other transfers.
Afterwards, the embryologist took my hands and looked deep into my eyes and she did not speak a word. We just nodded to each other, just two women, two mothers in the moment, as she gifted me with the acknowledgement of my grief and the weight of it all. My husband and I were left alone for as long as we wanted, and we held each other and cried.
Then, I got dressed and we went and watched Crazy Rich Asians –drinking wine and crying some more in the dark theater with the fancy seats – because we weren’t sure what else to. It was compassionate, but it still hurt.
I only regret the shame that I have felt throughout this process, and that it took something like this to help me understand what it might feel like to be a woman and not have choice or options. Choosing allowed me a sense of control when everything related to motherhood has felt out of control for me. And I have had really big, deep thoughts about these complicated issues-like what makes “life,” the value of embryos to different people, how we talk about motherhood and choice. And how we are quick to judge one another and try to categorize decisions as either “good” or “bad” when the truth is, we have no idea until we have walked in someone else’s shoes. I have stood and cried with another woman in the very same situation as me, having embryos and wanting more children, but having lost her uterus during childbirth. She donated her embryos. Neither of us judged each other for our decisions, we just acknowledged that it was hard and held space for one another’s feelings.
This isn’t meant to be political or religious, I’m not much of either. I simply hope you can try to consider other experiences, and sit with the stillness of not jumping to judgement of what you think someone “should” do.
There are so many ways that women isolate one another, and placing blame or judgement is just one of them. I recognize that I can share these experiences with you from a place of privilege, that I have a healthy family, and that a few years removed from all this, we can consider ideas outside of personal survival.
In the two years since, I have only told a few friends (and one unsuspecting Uber driver) about everything. Maybe it is because women do not talk about the struggles surrounding motherhood enough, the gray area, the stuff that does not end up on our social media feed. We tend to feel as though we need to have everything figured out on our own, and that is just not reality. We also tend to stay quiet about certain experiences – infertility, miscarriage, mental health issues, children with special needs – and even compassionate transfers – instead of talking about it and forming meaningful connections with other women. Women tend to carry their pain and hide it; while men—like my special forces amputee– are often afforded the grace to do the opposite.
That desire to help other women feel supported has led to my involvement and advocacy for women’s health initiatives and those actions that support mothers, babies, and ultimately, families and communities as a whole. My involvement has allowed me to find purpose from everything that has happened after Jack was born, and it helps shape and give meaning to my experiences. It has opened up my aperture and given me greater perspective: my story is just part of the much bigger picture of the many issues facing mothers – and women more broadly – around the world. We all want to feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
In the past four years, I have found my voice through my work with Every Mother Counts (EMC), a non-profit organization dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safer for every woman, everywhere. Whereas I used to worry that telling my story seemed too self-indulgent, I have grown to understand the value in sharing my experiences as a way to connect with women and that my story is only a tiny piece in the tapestry of women’s’ experiences. I have run half-marathons with the EMC running team, because I enjoy running and raising funds and awareness for the organization, but also because it is my version of moving meditation. I allow myself to be amazed at my own resiliency. And my own softness.
More from Annie about Every Mother Counts
Every Mother Counts (EMC) was founded in 2010 by Christy Turlington Burns with the mission to help women not just survive, but thrive in motherhood. More broadly, EMC identifies barriers for women and provides practical and meaningful solutions so that all women may have safe, respectful, and equitable pregnancy and childbirth experiences.
The statistics surrounding maternal health care are compelling, and once I became aware, I could not look away. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation with a growing maternal mortality rate despite spending the greatest amount of money on healthcare per capita. In fact, it’s now more dangerous to give birth than it was for our own mothers. Childbirth and pregnancy are particularly dangerous for women of color, as African American women are 3-4 times more likely to die than white women, a statistic that climbs to 12 times more likely in certain areas such as New York City. Research has pointed to systemic racism within our own healthcare systems as a cause for this unacceptable disparity. More attention must be placed on helping woman of marginalized cultures, and finding solutions for those without health insurance or access to prenatal care.