A Mother’s Journey

A story of hope, loss, sorrow and a ‘crazy, heartbreaking, beautiful, joyous’ quest to create a happy family

By Tamara L. O’Shaughnessy
Photos provided by Ashley Howard-Heimbuch


Her word for this year: Survive.

And what Ashley Howard-Heimbuch discovered about herself this year — and throughout her and her husband Alex’s IVF journey to build the family of their dreams — is that she’s more resilient than she ever thought possible, that she can, in fact, survive all the highs and lows that come with becoming a family.

It hasn’t been easy, this journey to motherhood. She’s had to learn to stop comparing herself to others, allow herself to be vulnerable and to tune out those negative thoughts and loud voices of others that threatened to derail her.

She hopes her story is one not only of survival, but one that empowers other families to trust themselves in their own parenting journey and lets them know they are not alone.

“We are going to have really good days and really bad days and days when we feel we were wildly successful and days when we feel like I’m just happy they are still breathing. Just surviving is good enough. Sometimes good enough is enough,” she says.

The journey so far

A zero percent chance of getting pregnant on their own.

That’s what Ashley and Alex heard in early 2018 when they were ready to start their family. Scar tissue crushed around both fallopian tubes after reconstruction of her bowels courtesy of ulcerative colitis long before she met Alex. A 100 percent blockage.

In vitro fertilization, or IVF, was their only hope.

Like many couples, they started out naively, she says now, not understanding that all fertility clinics are not created equal.

Their first IVF cycle spring 2018: two embryos transferred. They learned the Chicago clinic was not for them.

Two more cycles at a new Chicago clinic: five more embryos transferred. A positive pregnancy test, followed immediately by a loss. How could they not be lucky enough to have a baby out of seven embryos, Ashley remembers thinking. They felt depleted.

A move from Chicago to Detroit to be closer to her family and a fourth cycle with no transfer.

A fifth cycle: Doctors discovered a benign tumor they suspected caused the losses.

A sixth cycle: Pregnant with twins — River and Brooks! An incarcerated uterus discovered before she delivered saw her body sliced apart to save their boys and left her in the hospital for a month, battered and suffering from PTSD.

A seventh cycle: Pregnant with Auggie! Their little girl died at the end of the first trimester. “We thought we were out the woods and we were completely blindsided,” she says, the pain still clearly present in her voice.

An eighth cycle: Canceled days before transfer.

A ninth cycle: Pregnant with a baby boy, due in March! She’s finally at a point she says she feels she can take a breath.

It’s been a life built around injections, medications timed to the minute, doctors appointments, failure and a glimpse of hope, she admits.

“Frustration, anger, sorrow, confusion, guilt, fear, lost, broken, hope; all feelings I felt during our infertility journey. Most of them I felt simultaneously. Most of the time I felt a burden so heavy, it was as if I was sinking in quicksand, drowning in the unknowns,” she shares. “There were many days when I felt like I had lost my joy, that I had lost who I used to be. Some days I still feel like I’ll never get back the same person I once was.”

It’s tested their strength. It’s tested their marriage. Alex, she says, wanted to give up at times, telling her, “we can’t keep chasing heartache.”

But what if the miracle was just around the corner, the family they both so desperately want? It would be worse, she says, wondering “what could have been” than to try and it not work.

Public backlash, public love

Ashley started her Instagram account @some_assembly_required_ as a way to feed her love for photography and to document their IVF journey — a way, she says, to share one little photo in one little box and how she was feeling that day. It was just meant for herself, but before long, people connected with her words and it exploded, particularly in the IVF community.

But it hasn’t been without downsides. She’s faced backlash on how the couple parents, the choices they make, the way she looks. She says she’s even been told she’s a horrible mother.

“These people don’t know me,” she says. “They see a small snapshot daily into our lives. That’s been harder for me. I thought I would have thicker skin. I know that I am not that person but having people think I am has been very difficult.”

To those who question their choices to keep going, particularly after so much loss and two healthy little boys and another on the way, Ashley simply says this: “We’re building what makes us feel complete and that’s the most important thing. We’re doing what’s right for us and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”

To be intentional and thoughtful with my words, tones and actions. Playing on their level and praising them, even for simple things, is so important for their growth and mindset.

– Ashley Howard-Heimbuch,
Lessons learned while parenting

Survival mode

Ashley says she’s not trying for perfection.

“Parenting is hard,” she says.

She’s struggled with a tug of emotions pulled between all of her longing for a family and admitting she’s sleep deprived and losing her mind. After the boys were born, there wasn’t the instant bond the media portrays and she expected, too. No one, she says, talks about the struggle it can be. She’s figuring things out as she goes, she says.

“I’ve realized you can be grateful but also struggling,” she says.

It can be hard work, this parenting thing.

She’s thankful she has a great support system in her mom and Alex, whom she describes as a complete natural at being a dad.

For other parents with infertility, she says she’s not going to be a Pollyanna with the “If I can do it, you can too” line that no one wants to hear. Her advice: Do what you feel is right and ignore the other loud voices in the room telling you otherwise.

“It’s been such a battle; it’s been such a long road. I prayed for the willpower to keep praying. I ached for more aches so we were one step closer. We hit rock bottom and dug ourselves out of the trenches. We embraced the ugly every single day. Each morning I woke up, put one foot in front of the other, determined to find answers. I had a willingness to turn every stone, unwilling to lose my hope. That’s something I’m really proud of, that I always kept my hope.”

Follow Ashley’s story on Instagram @some_assembly_required_

   In her own words:

Lessons Learned:
  • Perfect parenting is impossible and sometimes good enough is enough. Treat each day with fresh eyes and enthusiasm, regardless how yesterday went.
  • Remembering there is beauty in the simplest things. When I see my kids kiss the flowers in our yard or how jumping on the bed brings such joy to their faces or how they close their eyes and smile when we drive with the windows down, it’s all daily reminders to slow down and enjoy the little things.
Advice to people going through hardship, whether infertility or in motherhood:
  • You can expect days of high highs and low lows.
  • There will be times where you feel like you are more powerful than the fiercest lion, and times when you feel like a tiny, scared mouse scurrying around with no place to hide.
  • Some days you can conquer the world, other days it’ll be a struggle to get out of bed.
  • You are going to want to scream, to kick, to cry. My advice is to scream, kick AND cry.
  • At some point you are going to get stung, feel lost, feel like your world is ending. It’s not. Harness that brokenness and turn it into purpose. Each dead end is a chance to start down a new road; you won’t realize it but the new path has prettier scenery.
  • You are going to compare your journey to the women around you. It’s only natural and completely understandable. But remember, a flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it. It just blooms.
  • More than anything, remember you are capable, strong, worthy and so deserving.
    Keep that on repeat.
    I am capable. I am strong. I am worthy.
    I am deserving.