Many women wrestle for years with all the decisions tied to becoming a mother – how and whether to find a partner, how to balance children with career, whether they’re waiting too long to get pregnant.

But what if you didn’t have years to figure it all out? What if, at age 21, you needed to make a plan and act now? And worse, the odds were stacked against you?

Gloria Chueca Puerto Mendoza was 18 when doctors first told her it would be difficult for her to ever get pregnant. Since childhood, she had suffered from endometriosis, a disease in which tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus grows outside it. Ruptured cysts wreaked havoc on her system. She’d had six surgeries to help relieve the pain.

It’s a condition that affects about five million women in the United States, some more seriously than others.

When Mendoza was 21, doctors warned her that she’d probably go through menopause by age 28, plus she had a cyst that, if fully removed, would have taken much of her uterus.

“If you want to have kids, right now would be the best time to try,” she recalls doctors telling her. One recommended she not even try, saying it would be futile. The latter offended her; she didn’t want some stranger deciding her fate.

At the same time, she didn’t feel financially or emotionally ready to become a mother. She had a job but she wasn’t earning much. She spent most of her free time partying with friends.

She talked her dilemma over with her boyfriend at the time, but he was unsure if he was ready to be a father. They broke up. She kept telling herself she didn’t need a husband. “It’ll be my baby.”

Little did she know how hard her path to motherhood would turn out to be.

In many ways, Mendoza hadn’t realised how much she wanted children until she was told she might not be able to. She is part of a big, sprawling family with roots in Honduras as well as in the United States, where she grew up. She has nine siblings, including half-siblings, and stepsiblings, and attentive aunts and uncles.

“It’s our culture, we’ve been a tight family, always had brothers and sister – being a mum was just ingrained – ‘inculcado’,” she said.

After researching her options, she decided to pursue intrauterine insemination (IUI), a slightly less expensive and less invasive fertility treatment than in vitro fertilisation. For IUI, a doctor places sperm – often from a donor – inside a woman’s uterus.

By the time she was 25, she had saved enough to try IUI four times.

The first time she injected herself with the fertility drugs, it felt like someone was shooting hot fire into her stomach. A few days later, a doctor used a catheter to place sperm in her uterus. Then a 10-day wait started.

The first time – no baby. Still hopeful, she tried again, but no luck. After the third, she was mentally and emotionally exhausted, worried she should have put her money toward adoption instead.

“In three months, like US$6,000 (RM25,800) was gone,” she said, “And I had nothing to show for it.”

She decided to give up until her dad, her closest confidant, sat her down. “You’ve made it so far,” he told her, reminding her she’d spent four years getting to this point.

She took a month-long break, then tried again with the fourth, and last, vial.

Good and scary news

One day at work, she started to feel sick. She threw up for two hours and decided to go to the emergency room. Her hopes of ever getting pregnant were so low that when the doctor congratulated her, she couldn’t believe it. She later took six pregnancy tests, just to be sure.

She was happy, but also frightened. While she’d been scared she’d never have a child, now that it was happening, she feared she couldn’t handle being a single mother.

Still, she thought that for at least a few months, she’d settle into the role of expectant parent, buy a crib, prepare the nursery and wait for the baby to come. Once again, it wasn’t that easy.

First, she developed hyperemesis, which she described as “morning sickness times a million”. She lost weight and ended up in the hospital with dehydration. Then, two weeks shy of her third trimester, she started having signs that labour might be starting.

The obstetrician at the nearest hospital quickly arranged for a transfer to a hospital which was better equipped for premature births.

Three days later, the baby – a girl – came out in one push, weighing 567g. She was what doctors call a “micropreemie”, a baby born before 26 weeks’ gestation or weighing less than 1kg, conditions that can lead to complications, if the baby survives.

Mendoza didn’t see her until an hour later. Before they brought Lola to her, doctors and nurses warned: She is not going to look like a baby. Her size, her skin, it will all look different.

pregnant

Lola’s tiny one-day-old hand could barely wrap around her mum’s fingertip.

First encounter

When they finally met, Lola’s tiny hands could barely wrap around Mendoza’s fingertip. They didn’t leave the hospital for four months.

Mendoza was afraid to hold her daughter at first, because she was tiny and seemed so fragile. But she learned from the nurses how to properly care for her, and over time felt more confident taking her out of the bed, changing her diapers and holding her for long periods of time.

Some days Lola seemed to progress rapidly, improving her eating skills, gaining weight and staying awake for longer. Other days seemed like they were taking three steps backward.

Through it all, Mendoza focused on the positive. Yes, Lola struggled because she was born so early, but she was doing OK.

“The road to her has not been easy,” she said, adding, “But it’s my life. I’m going to do what makes me happy and I really wanted to be a mum.”

Finally, in mid-February, Mendoza and her dad loaded Lola, her stroller and her oxygen tank into Mendoza’s dad’s truck and headed home where her dad had prepped a second-floor room in his house for them.

More decisions ahead

Lola is now nearly seven months old. She still has to go for check-ups and has weekly, at-home appointments with an occupational therapist and a physical therapist, as well as a speech therapist who helps with her eating skills.

Mendoza monitors Lola’s oxygen levels and replaces her daughter’s feeding tube, often with the help of her dad, who whispers baby-talk in Spanish to distract Lola from the discomfort. She is also working part-time from home, doing clerical and scheduling work, an arrangement her boss made so she could still work while juggling all of Lola’s daily needs.

But Mendoza now has more decisions to make.

Throughout her pregnancy, her endometriosis subsided. Now it’s coming back. She has two options: another surgery that offers a temporary fix, or a hysterectomy.

Once again, Mendoza is asking herself: What’s she willing to do to have a child, especially knowing what she knows now about what that can mean?

She’s still not sure what she’ll decide. – Seattle Times/Tribune News Service/Lauren Frohne