‘My chronic illness made me question whether I’d ever have children’
I was 12 weeks pregnant at the time. As my uterus grew and my bladder seemed to shrink, I didn’t mind peeing ’round the clock.
I was 12 weeks pregnant at the time. As my uterus grew and my bladder seemed to shrink, I didn’t mind peeing ’round the clock. That’s because, for the past 26 years of my life, I've been running to the bathroom for very different reasons.
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease-an inflammatory bowel disease characterized largely by intense stomach cramping, diarrhea, and frequent “urgency” (a.k.a. "I need a bathroom right this second”) when I was 7 years old.
Since then, it's been 26 years of unpredictability, 26 years of wondering if this disease will ever be cured, and 26 years of trial and error with various medications, supplements, diets, and lifestyles.
It has also meant that, for 26 years, I had no idea whether I'd ever become a mother.
My pediatric gastroenterologist was the first one to tell me that I may not be able to get pregnant because of Crohn's.
Back then, that news didn't really affect me-all I cared about was spending less time in the bathroom and more time at dance class.
Honestly, for most of my life, my Crohn's and flares weren't all that dramatic and usually quickly went away with a dose of the steroid Prednisone.
But when I went away to college, I started having major flares. My Crohn's seemed relentless; I spent many dark days convinced I’d never be stronger than this disease.
During my most recent flare, thoughts of starting a family terrified me.
In 2016, I experienced a Crohn's flare that lasted about a year. It sent me into a deep depression and kept me apartment-bound for weeks at a time.
My husband and I had loosely discussed starting a family (aside from that pediatric gastroenterologist, no other doctors led me to believe my Crohn's could cause infertility), but how could I have a child when I couldn’t even take care of myself?
What would happen when I was home alone with an infant who needed to be fed, bathed, comforted, or changed, and I couldn’t get myself out of the bathroom?
I’d always wanted to have children, but at that point in my life, it seemed incomprehensible.
During one of my many appointments with my gastroenterologist, I mentioned that, in spite of my current state, my husband and I were interested in growing our family at some point. I just wanted to know what my options were, and what he thought.
“You’ll probably have a really hard time getting pregnant for a while,” he told me in September 2017. Since my body had been under so much stress for so long, he explained that I likely wouldn't get pregnant until I was in a period of remission (a.k.a., no Crohn's symptoms).
Honestly, I didn’t think much of it at the time. In that moment, I was so consumed with trying to get my flare under control that I wasn’t exactly dying to get home and start charting my periods and ovulation cycles.
Still, his words lingered in my head.
As it turns out, my body had other plans: I'm currently 29 weeks pregnant.
By October 2017, my flare started to subside. By December, I'd never felt better, both physically and emotionally. And once 2018 debuted, I felt great. My marriage was rock-solid, and my health was finally cooperating.
My husband and I never decided to officially start “trying.” We just got really lucky.
On February 15, I was on the treadmill at Orangetheory and I had to stop running-not to bolt to the bathroom (for once), but to hold onto my boobs. They were killing me. I felt just not-normal enough to go home and take a pregnancy test. It was positive.
I felt nothing but pure joy and surprise-and Crohn's was the last thing on my mind, which only added to my overwhelming happiness.
My first trimester was amazing-I went through every day in disbelief.
I couldn’t believe that, after 26 years of feeling at odds with my body, we were finally getting along. It was doing the thing doctors told me it may not be able to do-the thing that, both with or without chronic illnesses, so many women aren’t able to do. I felt like the luckiest person on the planet.
I even found a midwife who's familiar with the disease and is willing to work with my gastroenterologist, which has been incredibly comforting.
When I got through the first 12 weeks of my pregnancy with no Crohn's symptoms, my doctors believed I might finish my pregnancy Crohn's-free. (For some women, pregnancy keeps their Crohn's at bay; for others, hormones and a lowered immune system can exacerbate it.)
Everything was going perfectly-until a few weeks ago.
I am now in the middle of a mild Crohn's flare-while pregnant.
At first, I was hoping the diarrhea and urgency were pregnancy-related. I even denied the possibility of a flare for a few weeks, hoping it would pass on it's own. But because I know my body so well at this point (possibly the only positive of having a chronic disease), I knew Crohn's wanted to join the pregnancy party.
Despite the fact that I’m spending a whole lot of time in the bathroom right now-Crohn’s plus a shrinking bladder really adds up!-this flare is different.
For one, it's not the worst flare I've ever stared down-my symptoms are mostly contained to diarrhea and urgency, and I'm working with both a clinical nutritionist and registered dietitian to get as many nutrients as possible for me and my baby (traditionally healthy foods are hard to digest during a flare). But the biggest change I notice in myself is that I feel grounded, calm, and even hopeful.
I’m not stressing over what will happen if I’m still flaring when the baby gets here. I know that won’t do me any good. Instead, I’m spending every day doing what I can to take care of myself and the tiny human that kicks me and says hi to me all day. I’m so grateful to be in this position that I’m not letting a little (okay, a lot of) diarrhea bring me down.
And while other women on the pregnancy message boards are wondering “how to avoid pooping on the table” during labor, I have to laugh a little. Because let’s be honest, I'm very well acquainted with poop.
I do have one worry that sticks out a bit more than the others: That my daughter will grow up to have Crohn's disease.
For years, I've been told that Crohn's isn't genetic. But, as far as I can tell, it seems to be common in siblings-my brother has it too. So it's tough to believe there isn't even a small genetic connection.
I worry that my daughter will get this disease because of something I did, something I ate, something I took (no one really knows what causes Crohn's)-or simply because I have it. That fear can paralyze me. But from now until October 23 (my due date), I’m harping on the good and the grateful.
If Crohn’s disease has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t always plan life. And sometimes, that’s a good thing.
Alison Feller is a freelance writer and editor living in Weehawken, New Jersey, with her husband and their rescue pup, Ellie. Alison is the creator of the Ali On The Run blog, and the host of the popular Ali On The Run Show podcast.
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