Coaching for Conception — Athena Reich, Fertility Coach
by Stacy Thomas | August 29, 2020, updated over 1 year ago
Starting a family. It’s a concept that fills most couples wanting children with feelings of love, hope, joy, and anticipation.
That is, unless they are not in a partnered heterosexual couple. Or they have fertility challenges. For those people, becoming parents often includes many difficult, expensive decisions.
For those who are not able to conceive easily, the idea of their own fertility can seem scary and intimidating. How does it work? How can I optimize my chances of conceiving? What happens if it doesn’t work? These are just a few common questions asked by hopeful and overwhelmed potential parents as they begin their fertility journeys.
For the majority of female sexed people in their child bearing years, their menstrual cycle regulates the different stages of fertility. The cycle begins on the first day of menstruation, and lasts between 28-35 days in general. At the beginning of the cycle, the body releases hormones which signal ovaries to release an egg into the uterus. Between days 2 and 14 of the cycle, those hormones helps thicken the lining of the uterus to prepare it for a fertilized egg. This stage is the follicular stage.
Ovulation generally occurs between days 11 and 21 of the menstrual cycle. At this time, the hormone called luteinizing hormone (LH) surges and triggers the release of the most ripe egg in the ovaries, and cervical mucus becomes slippery in order for sperm to more easily find their way to the waiting egg.
Usually, just one egg is released every month.
The egg travels down the fallopian tubes, from the ovary towards the uterus. This is the small window of time that the sperm has to find and fertilize that egg. If it doesn’t, the egg dissolves, the person gets their period, and the cycle starts over again.
With odds like those, if you are not a young, healthy, fertile straight couple who has sex regularly, it seems like the stars need to align in order for this miraculous event to occur.
Tips to Increase Your Fertility
There is a 16 percent rate of infertility in Canada. If you are someone who is trying to conceive naturally, there are some things that you can do that might increase your chances of getting pregnant. These recommendations may increase fertility, but are meant to be used in addition to methods suggested and prescribed by your doctor, or other health professional.
If you are trying to increase your chances of conceiving, your general health is vitally important. All the rules that apply to a healthy lifestyle, like eating plenty of fruits of veggies, eating fibre, exercising, and keeping your alcohol consumption down, apply. Here are a few key things to think about.
It’s time to de-stress. While studies around stress and infertility have had mixed results, it has been shown that reduced stress levels in women who are having trouble conceiving can improve results.
Free radicals can damage egg and sperm cells, so eating foods that are high in antioxidants like zinc and folate, can improve fertility for both women and men. One 2015 study found that women who are undergoing assisted pregnancies had higher rates of success with increased intake of folate.
Another study of young men showed that the consumption of a couple of handfuls of walnuts (high in many antioxidants) improved their sperm’s movement, form, and vitality.
Eat High Fat Dairy
If you are a dairy eater, there have been conclusive studies that have shown that eating high fat dairy like ice cream and high fat yogurt can improve fertility rates in women. In a 2007 study it was found that women who ate at least one serving of high fat dairy per week were 27 percent less likely to be infertile.
Switch Up Your Proteins
Switching out just five percent of your protein sources from red meat and other animal sources to plant sources has been shown to increase fertility. This study showed that when women consumed five percent of their protein from plant sources they had a fifty percent reduced risk of ovulatory infertility.
If this doesn’t work, it’s okay, you can eat all the right foods and take all the supplements in the world, and still have infertility issues. Fertility isn’t cut-and-dry.
So what happens if you’re not a fertile straight couple?
A Hard Road for Many
If you are not fertile, the idea of having a child can be fraught with high stakes decisions and expensive options—for example, the cost of one round of IVF (in vitro fertilization) in Canada can range anywhere from around $7,000 to $13,000. And this cost increases in the likely event that more than one round is required. You’ll likely spend more if a surrogate is needed. Oh yeah, don’t forget the cost of fertility medicine, which can run as high as $7,000 or more per round.
It is these people that Athena Reich devotes her coaching practice to. As a lesbian in her late thirties, Athena decided to have a child as a single person, and her own journey through the fertilization process informs the work she does helping people navigate the difficult world of trying to build a family outside the box.
Personal Experience With Fertility Treatments
At 36, with a busy, successful career in the arts, Reich decided it was time to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a mother. The problem was, after three serious relationships that hadn’t panned out, and no prospects on the horizon, she found herself ready for a family, but single. She didn’t want to wait. Determined to make her dream of motherhood a reality, with or without a partner, she sought to figure out her options.
Fast forward through seven IUI (intrauterine insemination) treatments; four IVFs; two miscarriages; years of fertility treatments because she was pre-menopausal and had low ovarian reserves; and an exploration of adoption and fostering options; Reich decided that egg donor transfer was her best bet. In December of 2014 she found out that her first transfer was a success!
Addressing a Wider Need
When her story of infertility was featured on an Emmy-nominated documentary, people started to reach out to Reich for guidance on their own journey.
“I’ve been through the wringer and back,” she says. “I went through everything that you can go through, pretty much, in infertility, and ended up conceiving my kids with donor eggs and donor sperm.” It is this experience that draws Reich’s clients to her. Trying to surmount infertility is such a particular experience with its own specific pains and challenges. For this reason, Reich says, a fertility coach who has lived through it is invaluable.
“I just have a lot of empathy and understanding for it. Infertility is a really unique experience; you need to talk to somebody who understands it, because it’s a specific type of experience that is unlike any other.”
Fertility and Queerness
For example, if it’s a lesbian couple, who will carry the baby? Where will the sperm come from—will it be from a sperm bank or a friend? If it’s someone they know, will they draw a legal contract? If so, is there a special kind of lawyer for that?
If it’s a male gay couple, do they use a surrogate? Whose sperm? Should they adopt?
“You need a lot of support, it’s basically a resource carnival. You can’t just have sex with your partner, and potentially become pregnant. So right away as an LGBT person your right to conceive and make a family is immediately medicalized.”
Reich conceived her first child in the U.S. where she was working for the New York City school board. Her second child was conceived through the same process in Canada. Compared to the states, Canada’s process for fertilization is much more affordable, with less barriers for queer people. In the U.S., Reich says, her insurance company would not cover IVF treatments because she hadn’t been attempting conception “with a man, at home.” In Canada, by contrast, the fertilization clinic she visited in Ontario “didn’t bat an eye” when she told them she was a single gay woman seeking to get pregnant.
In Canada, where one in six couples experience infertility issues, it has been long recognized that IVF and other assisted reproductive technologies (ART) are beneficial and necessary for many people seeking to build families. The country is still slow to provide significant coverage for treatments under federal health care. Provinces have different legislation around coverage, but currently only four provinces offer coverage for people undergoing fertility treatments, and Ontario is the only province which offers full IVF coverage (with exceptions).
With all this in mind, Reich says a large part of her role as a fertility coach ends up being cheerleader and keeping the hope alive, because fertility and the quest to conceive can be a long, discouraging process.
“You’re navigating the most sensitive part of you through the medical system, and you’re paying money, it can really feel disempowering. You have to involve other people, it’s a difficult process that usually takes longer, it’s fraught with expenses, stakes are high, it’s stressful.”
Stacy Thomas was born and raised among the orchards of the Okanagan Valley. She studied journalism in Vancouver, B.C., and has worked as a reporter in places such as Germany, Ukraine, Northern B.C. and rural Alberta. Passionate about nature, she now lives in Squamish with her partner Nicki and her rescue dog Harley. She is currently a student of creative writing at the University of British Columbia, where she draws comics and writes poetry.