"It's one of those things where you keep pinching yourself and you keep wondering, is this real?" mom-to-be Gretchen Rossi tells PEOPLE

By Natalie Stone
December 17, 2018 04:48 PM
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After years of trying, hoping and believing, Gretchen Rossi and Slade Smiley are expecting a baby together.

“It’s honestly so surreal still. When you go through a journey like we’ve been through for the last four years together, it’s one of those things where you keep pinching yourself and you keep wondering, is this real?” the Real Housewives of Orange County alum, 41, tells PEOPLE.

Southern California Reproductive Center, where we go, they’re allowing us to come in every week and have ultrasounds and I literally still get so excited going in going, ‘Okay, is the baby still there? Is it still there?’ ” she adds. “Because you just get to a point where you for so long have been through so much and so much heartache and so many tears and so wanting this that when it does actually happen, you’re just like, ‘Is this still real?’ ”

Calhan Shanks

On Monday, the couple revealed the happy news that Rossi is pregnant with her first child, due in July 2019.

“It’s still a roller coaster of emotion. You’re super excited and then you become fearful that it won’t be successful,” admits Smiley, 50. “We go in and we see the nurses and the specialist there and they’re so excited for you and happy and then you start to wonder, ‘Well, am I still okay?’ It’s been unreal.”

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Slade Smiley and Gretchen Rossi
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While the lovebirds, who have been together for nearly 10 years, are elated about their little one, their pregnancy journey was a “difficult” one. Five years ago, at the end of 2013, the couple decided to pursue in vitro fertilization (IVF) because Smiley had a vasectomy years earlier.

“We knew that we had to go through IVF in order to get pregnant,” Rossi tells PEOPLE. “We went through a round of IVF and in that round we had 14 embryos that came out of that. We were so excited and just beyond ecstatic about the results.”

But about six hours before they were going to transfer the embryos, the pair received a phone call from the doctor “saying that all of the embryos had arrested and basically died.”

“We were just beyond devastated. I couldn’t even get out of bed because you just go from such a high thinking within the next 24 hours you were going to be pregnant to losing everything and losing 14 embryos. That was really, really hard for me and Slade to come out of that,” says the mom-to-be.

Gretchen Rossi
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“I was in a deep depression after that. I’ve never really suffered through that or been in that circumstance before. We all get sad at times, but I really went into a depression and I couldn’t even think about or talk about IVF or trying to get pregnant again because physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, spiritually, it just breaks you,” she shares. “And so it took a good year and a half for me to even be able to talk about it again.”

For Rossi’s 38th birthday, Smiley scheduled a vasectomy reversal, which he underwent in late 2016. “It was so sweet, it was so kind. He had already done one surgery for us, but now he’s going in for a second surgery,” says Rossi.

The “doctor was very excited about the results,” Rossi shares, but after 18 months of trying to get pregnant, “unfortunately, that didn’t work for us.”

“It’s a very tricky surgery when they do a [vasectomy] reversal. The little tubes that they’re reconnecting are smaller than the tip of a pen, and if for some reason you scar when it heals, it completely closes off the tubes again and it defeats the whole purpose of the re-connection,” explains Smiley, who has two sons, Gavin and Grayson, from previous relationships. “It is very challenging for them to be able to go in and actually find success in the reversals.”

“That’s ultimately why we decided to go forward with IVF first because the success rate on the reversal was a lot lower,” he continues. “Gretchen was allergic to some of the injections and we had a really hard time with the round, I didn’t think it was fair that she was having to go through everything on her own.”

Not losing hope, Rossi and Smiley “decided to go back to IVF and we decided to try a different doctor and a different facility,” says Rossi.

She admits, “I was scared. I was a 40-year-old woman going back in to try IVF. We went through two more rounds of IVF and we did not have the same amount of eggs and the same amount of embryos as we did the first round four years earlier. It was scary to sit there and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I retrieved 10 eggs.’ ”

“But out of 10 eggs, you only got one good embryo — one genetically sound embryo. And then the second round, the same thing happened. We only got two genetically sound embryos out of all of our rounds, so it was very nerve-racking going into this [transfer] because it was like, you only get two shots at this.”

RELATED VIDEO: RHOC Alum Gretchen Rossi Details “Struggles” with IVF: We’re Currently “Awaiting the Outcome”

Around the time of Smiley’s 50th birthday, Rossi underwent the embryo transfer, and in November, the two learned that they were expecting. But just a year prior to finding out that they would be parents together, Rossi questioned if she was in the right relationship.

After learning “the news that his vasectomy definitely didn’t work” and that they’d once again have to turn to IVF, Rossi asked herself, ” ‘Why did I think it was a good idea to fall in love with a guy who has a vasectomy knowing full well that I wanted to have children?’ ”

“There was a moment there that I questioned if I should stay in the relationship and I have to tell you it was a defining moment for my journey, [my] IVF journey and in also my relationship with Slade,” she tells PEOPLE.

Slade Smiley and Gretchen Rossi
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After having a heartfelt and uplifting conversation with her mother around the time of her 40th birthday, Rossi gained clarity about what she wanted for her future.

“I just realized that I truly am blessed with my relationship with Slade and that anything else shouldn’t matter. It was weird because at that moment, it truly was a defining moment for his and my relationship and the minute that I let that go is the minute that I think our journey really took off. We go to the right doctor and all the doors started opening and just everything started falling in place,” she says. “I really think that because of that conversation that I had with my mom is part of the reason that we’re pregnant today.”

While the road to conception hasn’t been easy for the duo, the journey has strengthened their bond. Says Rossi, “Now we have realized how much closer we’ve come through this process.”

“When you’re having your partner having to shoot you in the ass every morning with the needle and when you’re going through as many shots as you’re going through and mood swings and the ups and the downs and just everything, it definitely bonds you together and brings you back together,” she explains.

“It’s a lot and so for us to be able to survive and get through that together, I’m very proud of that and so happy that we were able to do that,” she shares. “I feel like we’re 100 times closer because of this journey.”

Slade Smiley and Gretchen Rossi
Calhan Shanks

Now 10 weeks pregnant, Rossi and Smiley are looking forward to finding out the sex of their “little Christmas miracle.”

“Obviously we’d love to find out. We’ve also got family members who are prepping gender-reveal events and parties, so we’ve agreed to not take that joy from them and we’re excited to see what they put together,” explains Smiley.

Adds Rossi, “There’s been enough surprises in this whole journey! I am a type-A personality where I like to plan and I definitely want to have a nursery done and ready to go. I’m just one of those people, so I feel like I’d much rather know in advance and be able to prep for all of that.”