Megan Smalley sat on her living room couch, fighting a wave of nausea. She wasn’t feeling well that day. In fact, her body had been, as she describes, to hell and back over the past several years. It seemed like her emotions were buckled into a rollercoaster tugged through highs and lows. So the nausea wasn’t an issue, per se. In this case, it was evidence of a heart’s desire fulfilled.
About six months from now, Smalley’s world will reorient itself, and she will find herself staring into two pairs of eyes that will make the past three years worth it.
She will be a mother — something that, at moments, seemed threatened by infertility. Now — through an extension of her lifestyle and gift business, Scarlet & Gold — Smalley hopes to reciprocate the love she received during her struggle by helping other couples with infertility.
Smalley, an Auburn grad and former Auburn cheerleader, was raised a pastor’s child in Houston and attended a Christian school in which she was with the same 75 people from kindergarten through high school. Sometimes she felt like she lived in a bubble, so when it came time to pick a college, she decided she needed a change and applied to two universities: Ole Miss and Auburn. Switching her decision from Ole Miss to Auburn halfway through her last year of high school, Smalley said her goodbyes to Texas and “never looked back.”
It was at Auburn where she met her husband, Blake, during her senior year after the two attended a basketball trip together — she as a cheerleader and he as manager of the women’s basketball team. The two married and moved out of Auburn for a year before returning about four years ago.
Smalley and her husband began trying to have a child in 2013, about one year into their marriage. She assumed it would be easy for them — it was easy for her mother. Each month she hoped to see the pregnancy test confirm her desires, but after about six months of hopes followed by heartbreak, she knew something was wrong.
The couple went through several tests before being referred to a fertility specialist in Georgia who told them in vitro fertilization was their only option for a chance at parenthood.
IVF is a manual combination of an egg and sperm in a laboratory dish before transferring a fertilized embryo into the uterus.
“That is as intense and invasive as it gets and expensive as it gets,” Smalley said. IVF is usually a couple’s last resort. “It was really devastating. Earth-shattering.”
The couple is still unsure the cause of infertility, though her husband has Type I diabetes, which can sometimes be linked to infertility.
The Smalleys shelled out about $15,000 out of pocket for IVF but were left without success. Instead, because of the clinic’s seemingly cookie-cutter treatment for all women going through IVF, Smalley said she was given too many hormones, her ovaries almost ruptured, and she was put on bed rest about halfway through the process.
Every time she was at the clinic, she felt like people treated her like a ticking time bomb.
“I would have fall-down-on-the-floor-crying episodes because I didn’t know what to wear, and I am not very emotional,” she said. “My husband was like, ‘What happened to my wife?’”
In the same phone call that her doctor told her she wasn’t pregnant — that it was all lost — he also suggested she try donor eggs.
It was a shot to the gut for Smalley, and it didn’t make sense. Her family had no history of female infertility. She didn’t believe him. Furthermore, she refused to sacrifice her chance for a biological child by trying donor eggs.
She took a break. Only after about six months did her body start to feel normal again, and it took double that to recover emotionally. Some days it was hard to get out of bed. On top of that, during that recovery, several of her friends got pregnant.
She struggled to balance her loss with the joyous news, but also felt that some were insensitive to her situation and set unrealistic expectations for her when they gave her the news she wished she could give.
“I feel like with pregnancy more so than really anything else, people expect the moon when they tell you that they’re pregnant,” Smalley said. “When you’ve just walked through intense loss, getting to that point of emotions … it’s really impossible when you’re in this really dark place.”
The gift of grace
Over the next two years, some friendships tapered out because of those expectations, but others stayed with her in the midst of suffering.
Koral Dean, creative director of Scarlet & Gold, witnessed Smalley’s journey through the years, from the beginning of the business to her loss and recovery from the first IVF attempt.
During that recovery time, Dean discovered one reason preventing Smalley from trying IVF again was finances, even when she was beginning to feel emotionally and physically ready to try again.
“I did not want money to be an issue to hold them back from something as special as a family,” Dean said.
After testing the idea on the Scarlet & Gold team and after Smalley decided she would share her story, Dean started the Give Grace Campaign in 2015. It gathered funds by selling select merchandise from Scarlet & Gold to fully pay for Smalley’s second IVF treatment in Denver. It covered all travel costs, testing and more, which totaled over $40,000.
But toward the beginning of her second IVF attempt, Smalley still had one concern.
What if, after all the fundraising, it didn’t work?
“And I, speaking for everyone that I know on the team, would say … ‘We’ll raise it again. If it doesn’t work, we’ll raise it again,’” Dean said.
In 2018, they hope the campaign can begin helping other couples afford IVF or adoption. Details about the application process for receiving funds is still in the works as well as the new Give Grace product line for 2018. Right now they’re in the process of transforming it from a fundraiser for the Smalleys to a foundation.
As the Give Grace Campaign raised money for Smalley, she tried to be a voice for those walking through infertility. When the campaign started, people weren’t talking about it.
“For whatever reason, it’s a struggle that is so silenced and that people are afraid to speak out about because I guess they feel shame,” she said. “So many women feel like this is what our bodies are born to do, and when you can’t, you feel like a failure.”
She decided to start a conversation based on her experience, knowing there were people who were enduring the same pain. She didn’t want to suffer in vain.
“I wanted it to be a platform to share my story from a really raw and open place when I was in the middle of it so that people would feel less alone,” she said.
When she restarted the IVF process in October in Denver, she wanted to share her story play-by-play while in the process, regardless of the outcome.
“I wanted people to see me praising the Lord and being grateful for the struggle and using this for God’s glory in the middle of it,” she said. “Not once we got our happy ending.”
So she began an email list for people who wanted updates, and now, 2,500 people from across the country follow her story and prayed for her during the process.
Ever since the campaign, Smalley said she’s heard more people speak out about their experiences and share their stories. She described it as a domino effect: After she shared her story, people felt empowered to share theirs.
Shoppers crowded the stores two days before Christmas. People would shut their doors for the next two days to spend time with their children and their relatives. It was that day that Smalley would find out if she, too, would spend next Christmas with a child of her own.
At 7 a.m. on Dec. 23 she took a blood test at the hospital and awaited the results that would confirm or deny her pregnancy.
She stared at the phone all day. The weight of the world seemed to rest in the sound of a phone call. She needed the results that day as much as someone needed that last-minute Christmas present.
“The first time around, I knew I wasn’t pregnant. … Every time I pictured getting the phone call, it was always bad news,” she said. “And this time, it was the total opposite. I couldn’t picture it being bad news.”
She almost knew for certain she was pregnant, which made the waiting easier. She had become accustomed to waiting.
She finally forced herself out of the house for lunch. She and some family members had settled in at a local restaurant in downtown Auburn when her phone rang.
Her nurse from the Denver clinic, who wasn’t on duty that day, had the nurses in Denver tell her the faxed results so she could call Smalley personally.
“Are you sitting down?” the nurse said.
Smalley said she was.
“Girl, you are super pregnant,” she responded.
Two weeks later, she found out she was pregnant with fraternal twin boys. She said she had girl names picked out, naturally, but decided that the boys’ names will be family or biblical names.
It’s turned her life upside down. She joked that sometimes she’s worried she’s carrying more than two children.
“Every time I go in for an ultrasound, I make them double check again that there’s only two,” she said with a laugh. “Like, ‘Can you just make sure there’s not one hiding in there somewhere?’”
She’s due in early to mid-August and hopes to start planning for the children after her first trimester.
Sitting on her couch, 11 weeks into her pregnancy, Smalley thought on the heartbeat of the Give Grace Campaign.
“I felt like grace is something that is so needed on both sides of any struggle,” she said. She learned to give herself grace in her struggle but also saw the importance of giving people grace in their limited ability to understand and respond appropriately to the struggle.
During her difficulties, Smalley learned that others often don’t know what to say when people go through tough moments in life. Often times they don’t say anything, even though saying something and simply being supportive goes a long way.
“Whatever the dark season, I just wish that as a society we loved people better through hard things,” she said.
Before infertility, she said, she hadn’t faced any major struggles in life.
“Before that I would say the hardest thing I went through was not making cheerleading the first year, which so pales in comparison to a struggle like this,” Smalley said.
She didn’t understand the sorrow people walked through. Now she sees others’ sufferings with a new perspective — one person’s burden is different from another’s. With the newfound understanding, her sympathy has grown.
“I’ve learned to love people well and to put other people first and to care about somebody else’s heart before my own,” she said.
Everyone is promised suffering in life, she said. No one can escape it. And she hopes that through her story she can help people who may not fully comprehend loss or extreme sorrow at least understand it to some extent and encourage them to be more sympathetic.
Even with loss and pain, she’s thankful for her experience because it’s made her who she is. It taught her how to love people in their dark moments.
“For me,” she said, “it’ll always be a part of who I am.”