For 10 years, Jessica Strom’s biggest dream was to become a mother. But infertility kept that dream just out of reach.
She found a silver lining in her work as a photographer, capturing beautiful images of moms and babies in the Kansas City area. She also volunteered to take photos of preemies in the neonatal intensive care units at local hospitals.
The job was therapeutic, but Jessica still felt lonely and hopeless — especially on Mother’s Day. Every TV commercial about floral arrangements, every pink greeting card display at the grocery store, every mushy Facebook post was an emotional dagger.
“Mother’s Day was, hands down, the hardest day of the year,” she says.
This Mother’s Day will be different for Jessica and her husband, Daniel: After 10 years of infertility, they welcomed their “miracle” baby boy, Charlie, in February.
“We’ve spent so many years avoiding this day because it hurt so much,” Jessica says.
This time, they will quietly celebrate.
A common problem
Because it’s not easy to talk about, those who struggle with infertility often feel incredibly lonely.
“You look around and everyone is pregnant,” says Allison Spencer, president of the Kansas City Infertility Awareness Foundation. “Whether it’s celebrities, or at work, or your best friend, it feels like everyone is pregnant except for you.”
Infertility is more common than some might think: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12 percent of American women ages 15 to 44 have difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to full term.
“Unfortunately, people feel embarrassed by it,” says Celeste Brabec, an infertility specialist with the Reproductive Resource Center, which has locations in Overland Park and Independence. “But it’s not a woman’s fault or a man’s fault.”
Brabec says the best way to support someone with infertility issues is to “give them time, give them room and listen.”
Jessica and Daniel, who live in McLouth, west of Leavenworth, chose to open up about their struggle so they wouldn’t feel alone. Jessica blogs about infertility on her website, jessicastrom.net.
“The best way that I can describe what infertility is really like is by comparing it to being in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship,” she wrote in July 2013. “It absolutely screws with your head every chance it gets.”
A difficult journey
Jessica doesn’t have a family history of infertility. She always figured it would be easy to get pregnant.
Six months after marrying in 2005, she and Daniel decided to start a family. They were both healthy and in their early 20s. But when nothing happened after two years trying to conceive, they consulted a doctor, who couldn’t diagnose a problem but gave them a 3 percent chance of having a baby without in vitro fertilization.
“We couldn’t afford IVF, it was so expensive,” Jessica says. And besides, she adds, “I could never bring myself to do it because we didn’t have a reason why we couldn’t get pregnant.”
The couple saw several more specialists, but none could find a cause for their infertility.
Jessica tried everything short of IVF: medication that stimulates ovulation, intrauterine insemination, supplements, daily blood tests and even acupuncture. When none of that worked, she and Daniel considered adoption. They completed a home study and bought a crib but a match was never made.
Over the years, they lost touch with several close friends.
“They tend to just drop off the face of the earth because they don’t know what to say to you,” she says. “They’re in the mom group, and you’re not.”
Jessica started meeting with a counselor, which helped her sort out feelings of frustration, guilt and sadness. Daniel dealt with difficult feelings, too.
“It’s a big feeling of helplessness,” he says. “It’s very difficult when you can’t just fix something.”
It took seven years for the couple to accept that they’d probably never have children.
Jessica focused on her NICU photos — simple but extraordinarily meaningful gifts to other families who were grieving the loss of a “normal” birth experience.
“Jessica could see the beauty in our situation,” says Samantha Nelson of Kansas City, whose son Joey was born nine weeks premature in 2013.
In one of Jessica’s photos, Joey is bundled in Samantha’s arms, with tubes in his nose and a huge smile on his tiny face.
“That picture means so much to me,” Samantha says. “It lifted my spirits. I thought, ‘Look at this beautiful baby I have. He shouldn’t even be born yet and here he is smiling, looking at me as his mom. It made me feel normal.”
To raise awareness for premature babies, Jessica founded a nonprofit, Believe in Preemies. She started making plans to photograph NICUs in poverty-stricken parts of the world.
“I was allowing myself to live,” she says.
As her advocacy work blossomed, so did Jessica’s friendships with other women who knew the pain of infertility.
Kim Kesselring of Bedford, N.H., reached out to Jessica on Facebook. Kim dealt with infertility for 10 years before adopting daughter Hannah, now 2.
“I wanted to let (Jessica) know that her story helped me,” Kim says. She also wanted to share hope.
“Our daughter was the light at the end of the tunnel,” Kim says. “The pain was worth it.”
A reason to hope
In February 2015, Jessica took a pregnancy test and watched in shock as two lines appeared. She and Daniel were so excited that they told everyone — Jessica even posted a photo of the positive test on her business’s Facebook page.
“I cried,” says Christine Hamele, assistant vice president of public relations at HCA Midwest Health. Christine became friends with Jessica through her NICU work. “I thought, ‘There is nobody more deserving.’ ”
Jessica and Daniel nicknamed their baby Bean. At 6 weeks, they heard the heartbeat at a checkup, and it all finally felt real. But when they returned for the 10-week checkup, silence.
The loss was devastating, and not only for the Stroms. Friends, family members and people they had never met sent flowers, cards and food. Jessica’s inbox was flooded with messages from other women who’d suffered miscarriages. Some had never told their own families.
Jessica found strength in the support. She allowed herself to grieve but couldn’t bring herself to hope for another miracle pregnancy.
“It took us nine years to get pregnant the first time,” she says. “What are the odds it would happen again?”
Two months later, it did happen again. This time, Jessica and Daniel waited to announce the news until after the 10-week checkup, when they watched their baby boy wiggle and dance on an ultrasound monitor.
As weeks and months went by, their anxiety gave way to overwhelming excitement. When she was 35 weeks pregnant, Jessica spoke to her son and asked him if he could wait three more weeks, until she could finish her taxes.
Charlie arrived the day after Jessica filed her return.
“I’m your mama,” she told the tiny bright-eyed boy as he lay on her chest. The nurses let the new mom hold her baby for an hour before they weighed and measured him.
The next day, Christine visited Jessica at the hospital.
“That whole room was nothing but glow,” she says. “Bright yellow with smiles and sunshine.”
Jessica barely remembers her first week of motherhood.
“Sleep deprivation is no joke,” she says. “I haven’t slept for more than two hours in two months.”
On a recent Tuesday, she sat on the couch in her living room, looking exhausted but happy as she cradled Charlie in her arms. The 2-month-old had spit up milk all over her black shirt — but she didn’t seem to mind because he was smiling up at her.
“This is motherhood,” she said with a laugh.
This Mother’s Day, Jessica and Daniel are keeping it simple with a picnic celebrating “a beautiful new season of our lives, and honoring the journey it took to get here.”
The nonprofit Kansas City Infertility Awareness Foundation provides support groups on the second Sunday of every month as well as social gatherings, seminars and an annual conference. For more information, go to kcinfertility.org.