Well Woman Weekly: Fertility Support With Ashleigh Marie Brown

CLAIRE Fertility is an integrative wellness platform for women navigating reproductive obstacles. Often, women going through infertility or other fertility challenges find that other areas of their life go completely to hell while they’re in the throes of treatment or other interventions. Their close relationships, money, their sex lives, hormones…everything falls apart; and when/if they conquer their circumstances and achieve motherhood, they’re broken from the trauma of the journey. We’re essentially building a brand that works alongside this woman (and her physician) on her reproductive health and needs, but also caters to her unique emotional, mental, social, sexual, financial, psychological needs while she’s discovering her motherhood solution.

First, I LOVE the idea of CLAIRE. At Blood & Milk, we are always trying to shed light on topics that were once seen as taboo and have, as a result, suffered from such a lack of education and transparency, and fertility absolutely falls into that camp. Can you share a bit about your idea for CLAIRE and the platform/community you’re building?

Absolutely! I 100% concur with the lack of education and transparency around fertility. Unfortunately, as a culture, we’re woefully uneducated about women’s bodies and health, in general. And most of our fertility conversations as children and in young adulthood—the parts not shrouded in excessive ideas of “privacy,” at least—are around contraceptive efforts and not getting pregnant. So naturally, when a woman hits a speed bump in actually exercising her reproductive system in service of becoming a mom rather than trying not to become one, she not only doesn’t have the knowledge and tools to troubleshoot, but she’s been kind of indoctrinated with this intrinsic shame. How toxic is that?

I founded CLAIRE because I saw firsthand scores of women in need of a patient, compassionate source who really understands what they’re up against as people whose journey to motherhood is not as simple as Point A to Point B. They need someone who can explain exactly what they’re paying thousands of dollars for, in the case of fertility patients. And last but not least, they need someone who can help them keep their life together as they take this journey. Your career, your relationships, your sex life, your money…all of these are things that are often ravaged during reproductive challenges. CLAIRE is focused on creating stronger women who become stronger mothers. We want to help women save money, preserve their sanity and their relationships by being proactive about chasing wellness and transparency during what we call the “pre-prenatal process.” 

CLAIRE is the marriage of two things: frustrations on behalf of my clients over the course of my career iN Assisted Reproduction Technology (ART) and my own fertility concerns, two things which have kind of dovetailed over the past couple of years. When I began my career, I was in my 20s and my main fertility concern was preventing pregnancy. Now that I’m in my late 30s and want to become a mother, my concerns are very different; and even with specialized knowledge of this space, I still struggle with making decisions and protecting my wallet and my peace. So my heart breaks at the thought of other women’s stress and angst in being uneducated on the process of medically navigating infertility and then encountering clinicians who don’t have time to explain a process that’s only “simple” once you know it. 

Before I really started digging into the topic of trying to conceive (TTC) with friends, it kind of seemed like people either got pregnant on the first try, or were on an IVF journey. Now, I realize that’s totally not the case, with many of my friends getting pregnant in months 6, 8, 11…you get it. It’s kind of this middle ground of people who may end up conceiving naturally but really have no resources devoted to them because the advice is “just keep trying for a year!” even though 12 months can feel so lonely and painful. Do you have any advice for people for whom TTC is taking longer than expected, but it may not be time for medical treatment?

The beauty of starting CLAIRE, aside from the people I get to help and the company I’m getting to build, is being in the FemTech space. As women, we’re so often used to the ruthless and cold world of work where we are having to battle microaggressions and constantly assert our place in a corporate hierarchy. 

The FemTech space, conversely, is this almost mythical sector of medtech that is filled with some of the most amazing, magnanimous individuals you’ll ever meet. Which is why I never miss an opportunity to shout other FemTech pioneers and businesses out when I have the chance. There are so many incredible TTC tech and hardware products being designed for the woman who doesn’t live with classic infertility, like Mira’s Fertility Tracker and app, the Ava app and watch, and other apps like Kindara and Ovia, which are good for women who have irregular periods and are perhaps ovulating irregularly as well—which naturally makes the art of getting pregnant a much longer process. I’m especially partial to wearables like the Ava watch or Mira’s tracker because, since they’re actually worn on/in your person, it gets a real sense of your body (temperature, sleep, etc) without having to simply rely on our reporting, which isn’t always 100% reliable. 

Overall, I like to remind friends who reach out to me with concerns because their TTC journey is taking longer than they expected, that getting pregnant really is a numbers game for many. You have to be willing to dedicate a year to it if you’re under 35, and at least 6 months if you’re over 35. After that period it’s best to see a doctor—and not your OB-GYN, but a board-certified reproductive endocrinologist (aka REI or “fertility doctor”). The REI will have specialized residency experience and knowledge about infertility that a OB-GYN who is not a fertility specialist will not have. You can always check with your gynecologist to see if they are a fertility specialist, but many are not. 

In the meantime, we invite anyone struggling during that period with concerns or fears into the CLAIRE fold. We exist for this type of support!

Similarly to the “middle ground” people, it seems like there’s also such a lack of support and education for people whose fertility journeys don’t involve a partnership with both an ovary- and sperm-carrier, those working with a surrogate, etc. Is CLAIRE a good resource for these people?

Megan, I love that question. Yes, yes, and yes! I spent the majority of my ART career in third party assisted reproduction, coordinating the processes of matching and executing egg donor, sperm donor, and surrogacy fertility cycles. So, third-party is very close to my heart and a huge part of CLAIRE’s overall mission and work. 

I actually served as an egg donor to a client years ago, and I always say it was the best gift I was ever able to give, so I champion those connections and the idea of women helping women. I believe that any woman who wants to be a mother should have that honor, and sometimes it’s not going to happen with the material we have. Using a third party to build your family is beautiful and brave, and it’s a vastly rewarding process for all parties as well. If you can’t carry your baby, there is a woman out there who would be honored to do that for you. If you don’t have sufficient or high-quality eggs, there is a woman who does. And if you need sperm, you’re in luck because it’s literally the most accessible fruit on the fertility tree! 

I will add this regarding surrogates because I understand there’s a sort of miseducation about how surrogacy specifically works: 90% of the time, these are women who have had children of their own and want another woman to have that experience as well. I think culturally we’ve unfortunately got this Lifetime movie idea of sinister surrogates and sperm and egg donors, and those stories exist, but the vast majority of the time it’s altruistic. 

For now, CLAIRE is planning to begin supporting third party fertility cycles this summer, but we also have plans to utilize tech to democratize access to third parties later this year. 

I love that CLAIRE hosted a pre-prenatal summit. I’ve spoken with so many women who are like, wait, I spent my whole life trying not to get pregnant and now there’s so much I don’t know and feel unprepared for! Do you mind sharing a few takeaways from the summit for those just starting to think about TTC?

Sure! The Summit was honestly so inspiring for me because it really validated and confirmed the idea that who I felt needed us, really did need us. I was especially gratified when I was told by an attendee that we’d managed to distill nine months of her research into three hours of programming. That was the goal! We want to get women off the hamster wheel of Dr. Google when and where we can.

In terms of attendance, we were about 50/50 of women actively going through fertility treatment and women either TTC or trying to plan for the future. 

We had several reproductive endocrinologists and a natural medicine fertility doctor as well, and one thing they all agreed on was that women need to be looking into their fertility profile much earlier. And we know and hear that as millennial and Gen Z women a lot, but it’s really true. We need to plan for parenthood the way we plan for retirement. 

We had a geneticist and genetic counselor from Invitae there as well. And genetics is an interesting part of fertility that is rarely discussed; but it’s an area I’ve worked quite heavily in with ART and I wanted to have this conversation. So many people thanked us for this information.

The bottom line is that it pays for every woman preparing to get pregnant to ask her doctor to order a type of genetic test called “carrier screening” for her and her reproductive partner. This test is covered by many insurance plans, and even if your insurance doesn’t cover it, it’s just under $300 and totally worth it. It will uncover any potential genetic mutations that exist in your genetic makeup or your partners, and, to that end, any genetic mutations that you share—which would then likely show up in your child. Most of us have genetic mutations, but they’re largely innocuous—like a mutation causing lactose intolerance or something equally inconvenient but ultimately harmless. But occasionally, genetics will uncover more consequential concerns and sometimes it’s something that would predispose either of you to difficulty conceiving. It’s good to know if any fertility struggles are a result of genetic issues, and of course it’s also great to have the knowledge and faith that the two of you are not passing on anything concerning to your offspring. So it’s worth it to have this test done. It’s a must for those going through fertility treatment, but I 100% recommend for anyone trying to conceive. 

Something else that came up was supplements that support healthy fertility, which is something else we’re passionate about. I personally take several key supplements that make my fertility doctor tell me my profile is that of a “spring chicken”—which I’m clearly not! Genetics plays a role in your fertility profile as well, but I never skip a dose of CoQ10, berberine, and a great methylated folate prenatal (I love EU Naturals and the Thorne brand), and I haven’t for a couple years. I attribute a lot of good to that practice. The natural medicine doctor also raved about Maca Root as a regular supplement, which I don’t take but will likely start at some point. It’s rich in minerals, a hormone balancer, a stress reducer, and an aphrodisiac too, so I figure you can’t lose!

The fertility world feels so vast and overwhelming—how does CLAIRE make it easier for someone starting out on an infertility journey?

It is, you’re absolutely right. 

The first thing we want to do is check in. We want to know who our subscriber is, what her life looks like, what her triggers are, and identify any vulnerable areas so that we’re not only proactive about her TTC practices and/or treatment, but also about combating depression. 

The second thing we do is get on your page and help organize everything—your medical records, your conversations with your physician, and all things related to any treatment. Our HIPAA-protected platform is designed to partner you with an RSP (Reproductive Strategy Partner) who is an actual fertility clinician that you have access to in-app for chat or video messaging anytime. Your RSP will sit in virtually in your doctor’s appointments, she will help avoid repetitive testing if you see more than one physician during the course of your journey, and she’ll help strategize on ways to move forward when one course of action is unsuccessful. We are literally a partner in your process. And because we integrated, when you have a question or a problem or something isn’t going right, we already know where you are and what’s happening and we can help make an informed decision. 

And lastly, all of our subscribers have access to our ancillary services portal where they can book private meetings with all types of wellness experts and practitioners specializing in fertility care. These are hormone specialists, relationship psychologists, mental health clinicians, third-party expert support, pregnancy loss counseling, financial counseling, and sexual health practitioners as well. As a subscriber, you have access to these services as part of your subscription and you can book them throughout the month in the areas of support you feel you need. 

No one wants to hear this when they’re starting out, but troubleshooting challenged fertility can be a hike with lots of disappointing valleys. A lot of the support work is simply nurturing the emotions that inevitably come with having to work so hard to have something you want so badly, while it comes so easily to others.

We consider our job to be keeping your eyes on the prize and optimizing your comprehensive health and wellness during the process, while getting you to motherhood faster, stronger, and with more money in your account. 

I firmly believe there is a way for every woman who wants to create life to do it, and CLAIRE is dedicated to holding your hand while we discover that motherhood solution.

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