Twin campaigns: My secret mission to get pregnant while covering the presidential election

A Wall Street Journal reporter reflects on finding work-life balance during the 2016 election

By Heather Haddon
Published July 2, 2016 9:30PM (EDT)
A photo of the author (lower right), covering Chris Christie's visit to Mexico City, Sept. 4, 2014.   (AP/Rebecca Blackwell)
A photo of the author (lower right), covering Chris Christie's visit to Mexico City, Sept. 4, 2014. (AP/Rebecca Blackwell)

Presidential campaign coverage is a reporter’s dream and a functioning adult’s nightmare. One 16-hour day fueled by granola bars, airplane peanuts and deadlines leads to the next, while clothes in dire need of laundry are worn again.

“Did you bring your mittens? Do you have enough snacks?” read a memo the Iowa Republican Party sent to reporters this year before its caucuses. “You never bring enough snacks and then you get cranky.”

But as a campaign reporter in a year like no other, I had an extra reason to be cranky: the stress and potential heartbreak of my secret campaign for a kid.

Zany work schedules interfere with family life for countless professional couples — even the youngest and healthiest — but my husband and I needed medical help. Waiting for an entire election cycle to pass would have vastly decreased my already diminishing fertility. Our backs against a wall, we went ahead with what medicine could offer to help facilitate one of life’s very oldest processes.

So, from the ramp-up to Iowa until the early primaries this year, I attempted to schedule assisted reproductive treatments around campaign travel, rolling the dice that my ovulation would sync up with the Republican field’s schedule.

Covering the presidential field and tackling fertility in tandem was mad. It was also funny, exhausting, isolating and strange. And it offered yet another example of how shoehorned parenthood has become into our high-paced careers, leaving science as our crutch after years spent establishing ourselves.

My husband and I first tried the old-fashioned way. Everyone who winds up in this boat does. We had met just before New Year’s Eve in 2013, moved in together the following July, and married last fall (I have fond memories of folding ceremony programs while watching September’s Republican debate). I experienced the thrill of ditching methods used to prevent birth before our wedding, and the sorrow of realizing nature wasn’t going to yield one months later.

This lead to the alt-reality phase. I started in on weekly acupuncture sessions. I went to an herbalist and drank down cups of brown, medicinal mud. An immaculately dressed Manhattan naturopath dispensed comforting advice, along with creams, pills and tinctures that cost $446.65. She told me to sit under a full moon and bathe in its fertile light. I suspended my reporter’s skepticism to do all this — for no tangible results — as the prospects of infertility at 37 years old drove me batty.

Eventually, a fertility clinic and a blood test quickly pinpointed the problem: my estrogen was so low I should be getting hot flashes already. Without hormones flowing, I couldn’t ovulate. Without an egg released, I couldn’t get pregnant.

Dr. Glenn, my affable fertility doctor, who indulged in pastrami from Katz’s Deli during weekend clinic shifts, put me on courses of drugs to try to induce ovulation. If it worked, we could go for Intrauterine Insemination, or IUI. This was a more sophisticated — and costly — turkey baster method, complete with a $350 sperm wash that was supposed to increase potency. If three rounds of that didn’t work, off to In-Vitro Fertilization we would go.

Time ticking, I started in on Clomid, a drug that tricks the body into going into hormone production overdrive, to stimulate follicle production. My first round of drugs in October was a dud, so the clinic tripled the dose. I took the drugs for five days, went to my fertility clinic in the far reaches of the Upper East Side most mornings for blood work and an ultrasound — or “monitoring,” in clinic speak — and hoped Dr. Glenn detected progress. If a sufficient number of follicles bore mature eggs , I’d return the next day to trigger their release with an injection and then get inseminated 24 hours later.

In November, I got the green light. In a sign of things to come, I had to squeeze the trigger shot in before going to cover a two-day politics powwow in New Jersey immediately after. I sat on my wound for two hours on a Greyhound bus to Atlantic City, then took a 6:30 a.m. bus back the next morning for our first IUI attempt.

Having scheduled an appointment for a pregnancy test on Dec. 3, I began the terrible two-week wait to see if sperm met egg and managed to stick around. This is when campaign work was a healthy distraction. The more time covering Republican candidate Chris Christie’s claims he would shoot down Russian planes over Syria, beat Hillary Clinton’s “rear end” in a general election or expel Syrian orphans coming to the U.S., the better.

But by the end of the two weeks, my body let me know there was no need for a pregnancy test. Science was great, but the chance of the IUI method working at my age was 10% a cycle. Carly Fiorina was polling higher than my odds at that point.

Blindly determined, we moved on to the next round. On the up side, the drugs kept stimulating follicle development. Less ideally, they also made me hallucinate. Lights danced around the bathroom mirror in the morning and a blurry computer screen spooked me as I tried to read early-morning campaign news. The visual flickering typically subsided later in the day, but I had several white-knuckle drives on the campaign trail as street lights blurred along narrow, unfamiliar New England roads. I squinted, clung to the steering wheel and collapsed when I finally reached my hotel.

“Are visual problems common on these drugs?” I asked Dr. Glenn.

“They can be,” he said. He offered to discuss other types of drugs down the road.

I never brought it up again. In the hierarchy of needs, getting pregnant took rank over maintaining one of my own five senses.

After the second IUI and another trying two-week wait, we discovered the latest round hadn’t worked. Later that same day, a chatty beautician was applying foundation to my face in MSNBC’s makeup room for an appearance on “Meet the Press Daily.” I managed to smile and say something semi-smart about the state of the race that night.

This was becoming a strain. Day after day I would run to 7:30 a.m. monitoring appointments, only to arrive at my office desk two subways and a Band-Aid later to an inbox overflowing with campaign announcements. My travel was becoming more frequent, making it hard to link up my fertility cycle with the New Hampshire campaign schedule that increasingly determined my whereabouts.

My main candidates this election cycle were Donald Trump and Christie — a focus I came to think of as the loudmouth beat — and New Hampshire was prime territory for both. Christie had basically moved to the Granite State, a smart move, as the New Jersey Republican was one of this year’s best retail politicians. New Hampshire voters are a demanding lot, and the ebullient governor generally enjoyed the back and forth. He took rounds of questions at two-hour town hall meetings at veterans’ halls and working-class bars, tiring out his much younger aides. He sipped a Bud Lite with football fans deep in New England Patriots country while his wife chewed on chickens wings by his side.

Trump did a handful of choreographed diner stops and two town hall meetings, but he had no interest in glad-handing or kissing babies. New Hampshire voters didn’t care. They lined up for his rallies and brought copies of “The Art of the Deal” in the hopes he would sign them. His controversial campaign manager at the time, Corey Lewandowski, was a New Hampshire man, and he’d staked his name on winning the state, at a time when Trump’s nomination wasn’t inevitable.

One bitterly cold New England weekend in January, my highly choreographed pregnancy-and-politics dance went for a spin. It nearly fell flat on its face.

I caught an early flight out of New York after navigating the morning bathroom hallucinations. My travel bag contained enough prenatal vitamins, ovulation monitoring sticks and fertility drugs to get through the weekend. We were on IUI attempt number three, with IVF just around the corner if that failed.

As with all of these trips, you are wired the minute you land, pick up a rental car and orient your GPS. I covered seven events and filed four stories across those two days. My “offices” included a Keno parlor, the back of a smoky civic hall and a basement NFL watching party.

The trail afforded plenty of vignettes to bring home to curious friends. I sat with Christie on his campaign bus with his wife and four children as he confidently assessed his bid in saying, “I am good at this.” I sat with Trump at a booth in the classic Red Arrow Diner in Manchester as he ordered a hamburger covered with fried macaroni and cheese, then devoured it plus fries on the side.

But on it went. Parachute into a town, talk to lots of voters, look for candidate news on the stump, find a cafe with a power outlet and space to work, and drive to the next new town: Epping, Hooksett, Derry, N.H.; Brooklyn, Ankeny, Marion, Iowa; Vienna, Girard, Niles, Ohio.

The pace left little time for food, rest or speed limits. I passed countless curiosities while on the trail — the Cedar Waters Nudist Park in Nottingham, N.H.; the Danish Windmill Museum in Elk Lodge, Iowa; a barn roof emblazoned with a huge confederate flag along Rt. 77 in Ohio. But seeing this campaign circus up close in a year was the real draw. And after a campaign swing, returning to one’s own bed couldn’t be sweeter.

Back to that New Hampshire weekend. I was finishing up my last story over a tall mug of coffee at Cafe Reine in downtown Manchester when an email arrived from my editor. Trump was holding a campaign rally Monday night in Massachusetts, she wrote. Could I extend my trip and cover it?

Absolutely.  Trump was speaking in Lowell, Mass., once the cradle of the Industrial Revolution in the U.S. and now a blue-collar backwater. Protests were planned, and even before his rallies in Chicago and San Jose set new barsfor unrest,t, anti-Trump activists were as exciting to cover as his rowdy supporters.

It took a few beats to realize that my flight change wasn’t the biggest headache I had to confront. I had brought one dose of Clomid, not two.

Precision is surely key in all medicine, but assisted reproduction is particularly regimented. Swallowing hormones one night and skipping the next wasn’t an option. As I hustled to a Christie national security speech, I called my nurse. “Could you FedEx me the three pills I need tonight?” I asked, breathing heavily and stalker-like into her voicemail, my hands frozen in fingerless gloves. “Can I skip a night?”

I waited, returned to work and worried.

Those hours in Manchester waiting for my nurse to call were a reminder of the private angst for those struggling to get out of the pregnancy gate. Rather than swapping family stresses in an office cubicle, I was furtively trolling fertility message boards that offer new sources of anxiety as often as comfort. You seek out friends in the same sad boat to whisper about the latest results, but the boat feels comparatively small.

My nurse, Hannah, called back as Christie took thinly veiled swipes at Trump — the candidate he would later endorse — dubbing him “entertainer-in-chief.” We finally connected as I ran to the governor’s next town hall meeting at a school in Concord. “We can call in an order for you at a pharmacy up there,” she said calmly.

An hour later, I was the woman with the wild-eyed look at the Manchester CVS. The line was long, and the woman ahead of me was dropping a mountain of prescription bags into her walker. The Trump rally start time was getting dangerously close, and I nervously scrolled through Twitter as the clerk explained that the Monday after New Year’s Eve was a crazy day for pharmacies.

I made it to Lowell, drugs in hand. It was nine degrees out that night. The Merrimack River had frozen. Regardless, thousands of Trump fans queued up outside, and the college students and other protesters gathered in an improvised “free speech zone” marked by a flashing LED sign. Reporters were pushed into a metal pen that was the hallmark of the campaign’s approach to the press.

A jumbotron at the Tsongas Center arena flashed family pictures of Ivanka, Eric and Don Jr. as Aerosmith’s “Dream On” and “Music of the Night” from The Phantom of the Opera played at ear-shattering levels. I regretted not adding earplugs to my travel kit.

“You are tough up here. There are people standing outside for hours in the cold,” Trump boasted. Fans stomped their feet on the cold floor.

The chase for the presidency and pregnancy share some things in common. They are acts of bigger purpose with strong elements of ego. “Make America Great Again” translates roughly to “My kid will be an awesome gift to society.” Both are fueled by faith and audaciousness, belief and chemistry, money and timing. They are exhausting, humbling and at times humiliating. And one has to ask at times: Why are we throwing so much money after a miracle? Is this how the best president, or child, is conceived?

Perhaps my case of juggling work and conception was extreme. But given the sheer numbers of those seeking help, I doubt it. There were 190,773 assisted reproductive cycles undertaken in 2013, nearly double the number in 2005, according to the Center for Disease Control. Those fertility sessions yielded 54,323 live births in 2013, more than twice the number in 2005.

The crowds assembled at my Manhattan fertility clinic for morning monitoring left few overstuffed chairs free. The reception line stretched to the elevators at times. Brown and black and white women all gathered in various states of anxiety, fatigue, boredom. We clutched our Starbucks cups, hung on to hope for dear life.

Days after returning from that cold January in New Hampshire, I was back among them. Dr. Glenn was amused by what little he’d heard about the most recent Republican debate, and pleased by what the sonogram showed about my follicles.

That Friday, Trump put up his second television ad, drawing on footage from his Lowell rally, where he declared that “we are going to take our country and we are going to fix it." And I again bent over to receive a shot to trigger the eggs that had grown despite stress, sleeplessness and cold.

These twin campaigns for pregnancy and the presidency had another night in the stadium lights, their outcomes still a work in progress.

Heather Haddon

Heather Haddon is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. She is due to give birth to a future president — or campaign aide, reporter or none of the above — in October.

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