A 33-year-old Texan stands in a bathroom, filming. In front of her on the countertop is a plastic cup containing fresh breast milk donated by a friend, and a pregnancy test stick. She dips the test in the milk and carefully lays it on kitchen towel to dry. The experiment's aim is to see if breast milk can create a false positive pregnancy test result (it doesn't).
Her name is Ashley Morrison, and she is a self-confessed pregnancy test addict. Her website, Peeonastickfreak.com, which is constantly updated with the latest information and advice on home pregnancy tests or HPTs, gets up to a million hits per month from visitors in the United States alone. In the last couple of years, Morrison has done more than 50 'experiments' with pregnancy peesticks, which she posts online. In the most popular, with nearly 78,000 views, she pregnancy tested with two samples of first morning urine, to one of which she added sugar, in an attempt to discover if it's true that sugary urine can create a false positive result (it doesn't).
Morrison is a veterinary nurse-turned social media maven, and she knows as much, if not more, about pregnancy tests as the brands who make them. She built her encyclopedic knowledge over 15 years of infertility, before she fell pregnant with her son and daughter, now five and six. The decision to launch Peeonastickfreak.com and its associated YouTube channel and thriving Facebook community, two years ago, was triggered after suffering a miscarriage. She has, she explains, "a passion to help women who may be going through infertility… I try and help women get pregnant. It's my job, to research, and test out various [HPT] brands and ultimately give my review."
Morrison is just one of a vast number of pee-on-a-stick, or POAS, addicts around the world. POAS addicts often spend a fortune on HPTs, routinely taking ten or 20 HPTs over the course of a few days, and share photos of their test sticks on sites like Fertilityfriend.com and Babycenter.com for detailed discussion. Many broadcast their 'live' pregnancy testing on YouTube, and visit testing sites and Facebook groups like Peestickparadise.com and All About Pregnancy Tests, which are hives of activity.
The friendship networks that develop among strangers who POAS can be sanity-saving. Saran McGrath, a member of Morrison's Facebook circle, has found support through two pregnancies and one loss, and calls the group her 'safe haven'.
Often women 'tweak' apparently negative tests using Photoshop to reveal ghostly second lines the naked eye might not see. Tweaking apps like Early HPT+. have sprung up in response to demand. And then there are 'pee parties', where a group of women test at the same time and share results online. There is no end to which POAS addicts will not go in the quest to see that elusive, life-changing second line. This year, it's not enough to post a picture of a test—you place your wedding ring next to it, apparently to help the camera focus on the test strip more clearly.
I've been there. When TTC my children (now five and two), I went pretty far down the route of POAS obsession. Buying the tests became a sort of fetish in itself. I would gaze at First Responses in the supermarket, getting a rush just planning when I would let myself buy a fresh pack. I limited myself to around ten of these expensive tests each cycle, but online I bought 'internet cheapies' by the 50, and I'd impulsively add random other brands I saw in chemists just for an added thrill. Sometimes I even took ovulation tests when my period was due, in case they somehow told me I was pregnant, and also just because I craved to POAS.
I was rigid about POAS scientifically, torturing my body to hold off from weeing for as many hours as possible so my pee would be ultra-concentrated, and timing seconds when I dipped the stick using my phone's stopwatch. My heart beat out of my chest as I watched the moisture spread across the testing window. Then, when only one cruel line appeared, I stood in the garden or under the harshest lights I could find with the tests, searching for a 'squinter' of a line (though when I thought I could see one, it was just an 'evap' or an 'indent'). In desperation, sometimes I took the tests apart, even though you're not supposed to—wondering if I might find a line that way. Obviously, when I got a negative, I just tested again, and again, and again, even when I knew it was virtually impossible.
My knowledge of antibody strips was immense at that time and I spent many hours every day on fertility forums. There is something extraordinary in the idea that having a baby can be reduced to a single line (or digital word: 'pregnant')—and when all your hopes come to rest on seeing that line or word, it's hard not to become fixated.
Like any addiction, POAS is incredibly exciting to feed, but it also has a dark side. For women suffering infertility or repeated miscarriages, POAS can be a seriously anxious experience. Sonia, a 31-year-old stay-at-home-mother from Oxfordshire, who is currently pregnant with her seventh child, has had nine miscarriages. She started making YouTube videos last year, documenting every step of her TTC journey, with many live vlogs of taking HPTs, including once putting 13 different brands to the test. Now into her second trimester, she says: "I don't buy tests any more, but I am enjoying using up the ones I have, just because I can. Part of me cannot believe tests are now positive and the other part of me has to keep testing in case the lines get weaker and I miscarry again."
In a recent vlog, Sonia tested when she was nine weeks pregnant to demonstrate the 'hook effect' in which the second line gets fainter as the pregnancy hormone exceeds the test's upper limit. "Many people test for the same reasons as me," says Sonia, "they're scared of another loss, and seeing a test go fainter, they may panic. I aim to spread awareness and put people's minds at ease."
Modern pregnancy tests are so sensitive that we now have easy access to information previous generations of women never had. I had the now common experience of being painfully aware of an early miscarriage or 'chemical pregnancy' which happens around the time a period is due. Without the HPTs that allow a positive result almost a week before your period, the loss of such a pregnancy would just appear to be a period. Of course, the answer is not to test until you're late, but if the technology is on offer, it's hard not to use it.
Morrison shares another concern about highly sensitive tests. "These tests often cause women TTC much distress nowadays as they produce highly visible antibody strips that can be misconstrued as a true positive result. Blue dye tests are extremely notorious for dye runs and false positive results. A line is not simply a line anymore."
Ultimately, pregnancy testing all comes down to finally getting your BFP [big fat positive]. There's nothing else in life like that moment, and part of the intrigue of the modern internet fertility community is being able to experience this thrill vicariously, watching others' BFPs online (check out this one, after years of infertility, and this, where the partner underreacts spectacularly). A significant minority, of course, never get that second line.
I'm not planning any more children, yet I find myself missing the suspense of pregnancy testing. I find myself longingly gazing at the First Responses in the supermarket again, this time sadly, because I know I'll never take another.