From Oroton to a Tumour: Ana Maria Escobar’s Extraordinary IVF Journey

Talking to Ana Maria Escobar has a similar effect to drinking a coffee and getting a workout in before breakfast. Her energy is dynamic and infectious, and somehow makes you feel you’re ready to accomplish anything. Which is hardly surprising, when you glance at her CV.

The former GM and Creative Director of accessories powerhouse Oroton, Ana knows her way around a boardroom as well as she does a moodboard. In 2018 she founded LMND, a women’s label that boasts what Popsugar calls “the best white shirt you’ve ever worn”. And as if a Bondi Beach shopfront and a thriving online presence wasn’t enough to manage, Ana also designs capsule collections for brands like Tigerlily, and consults for brands like Ksubi.

There was only one job description that didn’t come easily to Ana: motherhood. Now mother to seven year old Emilio, Ana and her husband endured years of IVF before her doctor gave her the strangest announcement of her life: “I’m so excited, you have a tumour in your head!” While the diagnosis was confronting, it explained why her fertility journey had been so challenging, and meant she was able to finally fall pregnant once the tumour has been treated.

When I ask her about the hardest part of IVF, Ana says “it’s that phone call to tell you it hasn’t worked. You’re waiting and waiting and they call you in the middle of the day, so you walk out of a meeting and then you have to come back smiling, sit back down, and no one knows exactly what you just went through. That’s really hard.”

But working throughout her IVF treatment was vital to Ana. She is frank about the judgement she felt during her IVF journey: “hearing people blaming my job for me not having a baby was hard. People would say ‘oh, you work too hard and you travel so much.’ But I love what I do…I thought there was a little bit of an unfair conversation, the implication that I had to slow down, that I’ve been too stressed.”

Something tells me that Ana Maria Escobar will never slow down. And why should she? She’s light years ahead. Here, we talk about her glittering career, her unshakeable positivity, and the advice from her mum that got her through 8 cycles of IVF.

Photography: Trish Chong | Additional imagery courtesy of Tigerlily and LMND

Tell us a little bit about your work…

I do a little bit of everything. I was GM and creative director for Oroton for nine years. From there I moved to work for Woolworths for about three years in private label, and that was a great learning curve for me as well. It was a pretty amazing space to learn. And then from there I decided to start LMND and do my own consulting. Right now I’m working with Ksubi, as well as with Tigerlily on accessories but also helping them with strategy.

And was your background in design originally?

It’s funny because I started as an industrial designer, and as an industrial designer you’re more of a 360 degree designer. You’re very close to supply chain, to factories, and close to price and materials in that space. So it makes you think in almost more of a numbers way, more of an engineering of design.

From there I did fashion and textile design at UTS. So, merging the two, that’s where I appreciate numbers and business development and that kind of structure, but I love the creative narrative story bringing products into life. I guess working for Oroton for nine years, very close to the CEO and being a public company, gave me that real view and appreciation for numbers and results.

Is that quite unique to have those two perspectives?

I think designers are more methodical than people think, to be able to get product end to end. It doesn’t matter if we tell a lot of stories and have a lot of narrative around it – that’s part of what actually sells, and more so now with social media and everything we have around it.

Tell us about your family…

I was born in Australia and I grew up in South America, in Colombia – that’s where the crazy surname comes from. I came back to Australia on my own when I was 19. My whole family is in Colombia. Then I got married – my husband is Colombian as well and I’ve known him forever. And so it’s my husband, our seven year old son Emilio, and me. The three of us.

Did you always want to be a mother?

I always wanted to be a mum. We grow up thinking we’re going to fall pregnant in a second. So it’s always in the back of your mind. I thought ‘oh, when I’m 32 maybe that’s when I’ll start’. It happens for some people, but they never told us that for other people that doesn’t happen. I’m a planner, so I thought ‘I’ll do this and that and then I’ll have a baby’.

I remember when I started and it didn’t work, I was always really pragmatic about the process. I thought ‘okay, no, it will happen’. I started doing IUI, and it didn’t work, but I thought ‘this will happen’ and I was really positive about it.

But I remember going through IVF and one day I called my mum crying. I just said to her “mum, I never wanted anything more than to be a mum. I really want to be a mum.” And she said something that has stuck with me. She said “Ana, I don’t know the way and I don’t know how, but I know that you’re going to be a mum. You have to remember that everything you have done in your life has had a narrative and a story, and I don’t think pregnancy is going to be any different. Whatever happens, I know that you’re going to be a mum.”

I believe everything my mum says, so that moment made me feel ‘okay, I’m definitely going to be a mum.’ It was a really hard journey but those words gave me strength. I’ve said it to a lot of my friends who have been through IVF since. Just think, regardless of what happens, of your journey or your story, you’re going to be a mum if that’s what you want.

At what stage did you decide it was time to start trying IVF?

I moved into it fairly quickly because I did feel in my heart that it wasn’t going to be that easy. Trying naturally hadn’t worked, IUI didn’t, then I did acupuncture – I did everything you can imagine. And in my personality, I’m very action-based. I don’t procrastinate or stay thinking on things for too long. So I thought look, IVF is there, and we are so lucky that we have access to it. Let’s see how we go.

I remember I used to finish the cycle and they would call me to tell me it didn’t work. Every time I hung up the phone I’d try to think okay, I’m not sick, I’m fine. Everything is going to be fine. And I still have another one that I can go for straight away. And the doctor would be say, ‘are you sure you want to do another one?’ I just felt, let’s do it. I stayed really positive.

But then I had a moment in the middle where I thought, ‘this actually is not going to happen, or maybe there’s a possibility that it’s not going to happen’, and that really scared me.

So I changed doctors. I remember my first appointment with my new doctor – he said to me, ‘have you ever had an MRI?’ And I said no, thinking, ‘that’s a funny conversation.’ And he said, I’m going to send you before I do anything else. We need an MRI because I’m looking at your blood and there’s something happening with prolactin here.’

What did the MRI reveal?

I came to the doctors office and he said to me, “I’m so excited, you have a tumour in your head!”

I was like, ‘I’m sorry?’ In that moment all I could think was ‘what am I going to tell my husband?’

But the doctor said to me, “look, the word tumour sounds really scary, but it’s not necessarily. You have a growth or a tumour in your pituitary gland, and that’s putting pressure on your hormones. So that’s what was making all your hormones go crazy. If we manage to suppress or manage that little tumour, then that will give us more possibility with the cycle.”

How did your IVF journey continue once the tumour was dealt with?

So as he said, the quality of the cycles was better, but it still didn’t work. So from there, my doctor said to me, “look, we are actually doing a research piece. It’s called the Bondi protocol. And we would like to try it on you, if you’re open to do it.”

Did you want to try it?

My instinct was – do I want to be a human guinea pig? That’s a bit scary, I’m not sure. So I talked to him about it, and he explained “it’s all about the immune system. So we just want to suppress your immune system, do a cycle and see if it works. But first we have to check if you are eligible for it.” They checked my immune system and saw that I had really high levels of certain cells, which act like natural killer cells. It’s basically your immune system being really powerful. So the doctor said to me, “I think you’re perfect for this – let’s try it.”

They did the cycle and I fell pregnant straight away.

I think that was my eighth cycle of IVF.

And how did you eventually find out that you were pregnant?

Because I was doing the trigger injections, I knew that it could give me a false positive on a home pregnancy test. So I remember the doctors told me, it’s 14 days until we can test you, so don’t test at home before that. And I didn’t. I went and saw the doctor at 14 days and he said “yes, you’re pregnant, but this is the first one. It can be a false positive, so come back again in a week and we’ll re-test.” It wasn’t until I actually heard his heart beating that I went, “Oh my gosh, this is actually happening.”

How did you feel in that moment?

Very, very scared. After hearing his heartbeat I realised “I don’t think I can deal with anything going wrong”. It was quite confronting, for me and my husband.

Did that fear and anxiety ease with time?

From there it’s just getting used to the fact that it’s a normal pregnancy. You normally see yourself as a patient, the doctors can see you every two days, you’re getting phone calls. You almost got used to that so to hear the doctor say “no, you’re done, I don’t need you to come next week. You’re pregnant. I’ll see you for normal checkups” – that was just crazy.

It was quite funny because when I was three months pregnant, because I went through all those cycles, I still didn’t believe I was pregnant. I remember my appointment with the doctor. I walked out the office and I had to come back again to ask him “so, can I tell people?” The doctor said “yes of course. Ana, you’re pregnant. It’s like any other pregnancy now”. But of course for three years I was training myself not to get too excited. You’re always waiting for the worst to happen, and the worst kept happening.

When it finally happened I just had the best pregnancy. I had no problems whatsoever, worked through my pregnancy, no issues at all. Emilio was super healthy and it was pretty incredible.

Had you shared much of your IVF journey with the people in your life?

At the beginning, for my South American family it was a little bit hard to comprehend, and to go through the whole conversation of IVF. My mum was super supportive after I explained it to her and told her exactly how it worked.

I was GM and Creative Director of Oroton at the time and so hearing people blaming my job for me not having a baby was hard. People would say ‘oh, you work too hard and you travel so much.’ But I love what I do. So I found it quite confronting to have to defend that it was okay for me to work really hard, because I truly loved it. Sometimes I felt I was being blamed for having a passion, or that it was almost my fault that I work too much and that’s why I had no baby. I thought there was a little bit of an unfair conversation, the implication that I had to slow down, that I’ve been too stressed. I thought ‘well, no, I’m really not stressed.’ Being busy is ok. And of course every now and then we all have to stop regardless anyway, but it doesn’t mean that because I work really hard and I do what I love to do, that’s the reason why I don’t have a baby.

What was the hardest part of IVF for you?

I think everyone describes it perfectly as an emotional roller coaster. You’ve gone for the big prize and you have to go into it positively, you have to have your mind completely open because no one goes into a process thinking they’re going to fail. So you go through the cycle with these emotions, thinking ‘this time is it, I can feel it, I can absolutely feel it.’ And then the universe preps you wrong again and again and again and you start getting a little bit disheartened. And then you’re dealing with the idea that maybe this is actually not going to happen.

But I think the hardest part is that phone call to tell you. You’re waiting and waiting and they call you in the middle of the day, so you walk out of a meeting and then you have to come back smiling, sit back down, and no one knows exactly what you just went through. That’s really hard.

What was your husband’s experience like?

I think for you partner or husband, it’s quite tough as well. My husband said to me “at the end of the day, you’re the one that is putting needles in your tummy and doing all these things and all I can do is stand here and help you. But I don’t want to end up without a baby and with you sick as well.” So for him it was quite tough, but he was super, super supportive. He didn’t let me give up, but he also never made me feel like ‘we need a baby’. So I had so much support in that space that it was amazing.

You thrive on your work and you're so passionate about it - did you find the shift into newborn life challenging?

For me, it’s not necessarily about the newborn, but it’s about the toddler. When Emilio was born, I had my mum, I had everyone – we actually had to create a timetable for my family to come! One sister in law, who lives in New York, came for two months, another for three weeks… so between us all it was perfect for bonding time, and perfect for me as well. I was really lucky to be able to manage that.

I went back to work when Emilio was four months, so it was quite quickly, and I had the best time! My husband took time off as well to spend time with him, and he absolutely loved that. They have an incredible relationship, and we really did share that time between my husband and I, and then my family and his family.

Because what I do is so much of who I am, it was a very seamless for me to get home and continue with Emilio, and my energy was the same. It wasn’t like I was coming from a job that I hate, to be able to then find my spark and be happy with my baby. I didn’t ever feel that one was taking something away from the other. And I did have incredible help and people around me that gave me that space as well.

And has that continued as he’s gotten older?

Now, after working in corporate and doing work that was quite heavy, that’s when I felt that I was missing time with him. He would be having Halloween, or something was happening at school, and I wasn’t there. And it was more that he was aware that I was away, or he understood that I missed something.

So now I have that flexibility and that’s why I started my own business and started to do things in a different way – so I can have that little bit more balance with him.

So many women end up starting their own businesses when they become mothers because they want to create that flexibility…

Yes, women by nature are creators. We can create things from nothing, and it’s quite empowering that we are able to do that. And I think it’s very important that we change the narrative and the conversation. A day is long, there’s time to do many different things and be good at all of them. You can be this and that. I think the more we just have it as a normal conversation, the more young people will be able to think it’s just a natural thing to be able to work and have a baby.

I’ve been very lucky to be able to transform things and move things around a little bit to adapt. Of course, it hasn’t been easy. Oh my gosh! Going from a stable job knowing this is where I go every day, to ‘I’m just going to do it on my own’ – that’s been so, so hard. But that’s just life and it’s exciting!

Since founding LMND and working on all these capsule collaborations, how do you find the time to fit it all in?

It’s been quite organic for me because they’re all good things and all good moments during the day. I’ve been able to work with incredible creative people and I’m in a very different space as a creative, because I see things more from a business point of view, and then I can adapt to a brand and understand what they need. And then working with very diverse types of consumers or different types of brands or stories – I feel that I’ve been able to add more value and that’s where I’m at now. After 40 is an age where you just go, ‘I just want to add value’. So that’s been really nice.

Do you think that having to wait so long to eventually get pregnant changed the way that you see everyday motherhood?

You do just feel so grateful to be waking up at one o’clock in the morning! You can do a four o’clock in the morning feed and all those little things that maybe you would have taken for granted otherwise – I was just so grateful to have him with me.

Of course, when you have the first one, everyone asks you when the second one is coming. But that’s not for us because now, I do have a lot to lose. Now I would lose time with Emilio, because I’d be emotionally attached to this new journey trying to have another baby and I can’t do that. I’m so happy and complete with him.

Do you have any advice for anyone starting an IVF journey?

Gain perspective on your health and understand it. The call they give you to tell you that it didn’t work is not the end of the world. I think you have to know that you’re going through a process that, as much as it’s managed by doctors, it has this natural element to it that if it’s going to happen it will happen. So I think people need to almost see it with a positive heart, more than saying ‘I had to do IVF’ and it’s all very negative.

What resonated with me when my mum spoke to me, was the idea that if you want to be a mother, there are different ways of being a mother. Your journey is your journey and is unique, and you just have to enjoy it. It’s all part of your life story.

Tell us about Emilio…

Oh, he makes me laugh every day. He just came back from camp and usually he talks a lot, like me. So I asked him, “why are you so quiet?” And he says, “mum, don’t talk to me. I’m jet lagged”. He was one hour away! He’s hilarious.

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