When I look at my three-year-old son, I am filled with an immense, empowering love. I feel I could lift cars, end wars and change the world. He is my life. He is also my prize – the IVF baby I thought I would never have.
Medical technology has made me a mother, and my amazing son is living proof of how mind-blowing science truly is. At the same time, IVF technology and the hope it proffers has driven a stake through the very heart of my life. I have a son but I also have a divorce to my name, a string of lost or radically altered friendships, and the emotional scars of years of medical intervention. Society would call me churlish for saying it, because I got my ‘prize’, but the relentless pursuit of fertility has been a poisoned chalice.
Every year, one UK couple in six has problems conceiving, according to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). Infertility is now the most common reason, after pregnancy itself, why women aged 20 to 45 see their GP. The latest HFEA statistics show that almost 37,000 women have IVF treatment each year, resulting in around 14,000 babies born (including multiple births). In other words, it takes an average of three treatment cycles to get a healthy baby. For most couples, it’s a journey replete with false hopes and disappointments. Choosing not to undergo fertility treatment can mean the heartache of turning your back on the chance to have your own biological child. But, in my experience, doggedly pursuing parenthood can devastate in its own way.
‘Infertility can take over your life,’ says Clare Lewis-Jones, chief executive of Infertility Network UK. ‘In a recent survey, 90 per cent of the 900 women questioned said they had experienced feelings of depression and one in five had had suicidal thoughts.’
When my husband and I began our IVF journey in July 2005, I had just turned 36 and my husband 35 (he hadn’t been ready to have a family before that and, as luck would have it, when we started trying naturally we found that he had problems as a result of his low sperm count). We were filled with anxiety about the procedure and whether it would work. Having been told I’d never conceive naturally, I felt I’d suffered a bereavement that family and friends had little sympathy for (even my own mother said, ‘At least you haven’t got cancer’).
But when our IVF specialist told us it wasn’t a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’ we had a baby, we were emboldened by his confidence and became convinced we’d soon be parents. Sure enough, within weeks, we had a positive pregnancy test from our first IVF round. Then we suffered a blow that was to mark the setting in of the infertility rot. I had a miscarriage at nine weeks. From that point on, neurosis was my constant companion and, therefore, my husband’s, too.
I was convinced that ‘it’s never going to work for us; we’ll never have a baby’. I was consumed by jealousy when I heard about anyone who was pregnant, whether they’d conceived naturally or through fertility treatment. I fell out with my best friend, who was terrified to tell me she was pregnant. As she later confessed, ‘I have to be honest, you were the last person I told. I was frightened that you would be upset.’ And indeed, when she did tell me, I was angry for days. Despite having been through so much together, including her brush with cancer in our 20s, we decided with sadness not to be friends any more. Although we are now back in touch, and are planning to get together so that I can meet her two children (she is currently pregnant with her third), our friendship has been changed for ever by my infertility. Her easy fertility was too painful for me, and my mania and selfishness were intolerable to her.
Within months of the miscarriage, after another round of treatment, my husband and I found to our delight that I was pregnant again, this time with twins – an instant family to put an end to our fertility journey. But at 20 weeks we discovered that one of the babies was severely brain damaged and were advised to end his life because it wasn’t viable. Leaving the termination until 30 weeks (they advised 32, but in the event I started having contractions two weeks earlier) would maximise the chances of our remaining son being born healthy.
Our world crashed down around us. I spent the remaining ten weeks of my pregnancy, before the selective reduction and subsequent premature birth of both boys – one alive and one dead – feeling suicidal. As I tried to prepare myself for the loss of one of the twins, wondering if I could muster the courage to kill myself, my husband battled to pull me out of depression, all the time dealing with his own sadness. At a time when we had very little money, he plundered his savings to buy me a piano so I could play to our unborn babies. His unerring goal was the pursuit of my happiness.
After the birth (our surviving son was delivered by emergency caesarean, six hours after the termination of his twin), I was told by a consultant psychologist at the hospital that I was suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder from carrying a baby who I knew was going to die. I thought I would never smile again, and even though I had a healthy surviving son, I learned that raw grief easily eclipses joy. It was 18 months before I realised I was feeling the kind of happiness I thought would elude me for ever. It was the most ‘normal’ I’d felt since the start of our infertility journey.
Instead of basking in this contentment, I forged ahead with my next mission – to have another child, to continue my pursuit of the ‘perfect family’ and to compensate for my dead son. My husband said he just wanted me ‘to be happy’ and went along with my plans, even though it meant spending more on expensive treatment and putting our life on hold again. Within 12 months, we had had three more disappointing rounds of IVF, chiefly because of my ageing eggs, and had nothing to show for it but around £70,000 of debt (later to creep up to £100,000).
But instead of accepting where we were – the lucky parents of our own biological son – we made a decision that, although my husband didn’t seem to need any persuading at the time, was to prove a bridge too far for our marriage. We decided to pursue the egg-donation route. I now look back on my doggedness with some embarrassment, because I was like a woman possessed, prepared to ask any woman who’d listen whether I could have her eggs – but there is little that will deflect a desperate, infertile woman on her mission to grow a family. I knew I wanted any child born of donation to have access to their genetic mother because I think it is really important to know where you come from.
Aware that in the UK, children born via donated sperm or eggs through a fertility clinic can’t know anything more than the donor’s physical description, occupation and interests until they are 18 (or 16 if they need to ensure they aren’t marrying someone they are genetically related to), I turned my sights to Canada where we could choose our donor and go further than gleaning mere tantalising facts about her. In the UK, anonymous donors are matched to families by fertility clinic staff, but in Canada you can see pictures of the donor – and possibly even get to meet her if the clinic or agency helps you find a non-anonymous donor who may be happy to have an ongoing relationship with you and your child.
After months of intensive searching, we found a student who seemed perfect – she had Scottish parents (my family are Welsh) and my husband remarked, ‘She looks like she could be your sister.’ She even played the flute, like me. I was bowled over by possibility and my tunnel vision intensified. In retrospect, my husband was showing signs of anxiety, but I ignored it.
Seven months after I started my research into Canada, we were on a plane with our son, flying out to – with luck – get him a sibling. But barely 30 minutes into the flight, my husband had what we now both describe as a ‘meltdown’. He burst into tears and tried to tell me that he had misgivings about the treatment, that it just didn’t feel ‘right’, that we had our son and should see him as a miracle and leave it at that. But I didn’t hear it – I didn’t want to. I explained away his outburst as being more to do with work pressures than anything else. And I felt irritated that he was trying to get in the way of my happiness, especially as I felt that the reason we were having to use donor eggs was because it had taken him five years after we’d met to be ready to start a family, and it seemed my biology could have done with starting much earlier than we had.
During our two weeks in Canada we got to know our donor, and I even held her hand when she had her egg-collection procedure. My husband continued to have mini-meltdowns, crying at times, saying something didn’t feel quite right but then rallying round and saying, ‘Let’s go ahead with it.’ I was worried about his state of mind, but selfishly I was more worried that he might pull the plug on the donation process, whether for financial or emotional reasons; or might refuse to provide the sperm. All I could think was that I wanted our son to have a sibling and I wanted to be pregnant again. At one point I made a mini-concession, saying we could always freeze any embryos, return to the UK and have a ‘cooling-off period’ to think about it. He was mollified by this, but the next day he said, ‘Let’s just do it now.’ Even though I remember saying to the doctor that I was worried about my marriage, I didn’t realise what deep trouble it was in.
When we got back to the UK, we discovered that I was once again pregnant with twins, and it was at this point that things started to unravel. My husband didn’t come with me for the first scans and didn’t show anything like the interest he’d expressed during my pregnancy with the boys. Known as a man who loved nothing more than being at home, he stayed out late at night and went straight to work. The deterioration in our relationship was palpable, but I was on the way to completing my family and that was all that mattered to me. I also blithely concluded that we’d been through so much together that we were permanently bonded by our experiences.
But when I was eight weeks pregnant and visiting my parents, I received the phone call that changed that belief system for ever. ‘It’s not good news, I’m afraid – I want a divorce,’ he told me. He said the marriage had ‘snapped’, like a Perspex ruler when you bend it under stress for too long. Returning home, I pleaded with him to give it a chance, but he said it couldn’t be fixed. It was my turn to go into meltdown. I had wanted to be a mum again so much that I’d been prepared to travel to another continent and be impregnated with another woman’s eggs. But the thought of being a single mother to three children, two of whom had a father who didn’t want them and wouldn’t be sharing their home, and a mother who wasn’t genetically related to them, was too much to handle. I asked him to move out. I felt it would just be prolonging the agony if he stayed. And, as rationally as I could while still in shock and with my hormones all over the place, I made the decision, with him, to have a termination.
As I sat in the waiting room, I thought, ‘I’ve sat in clinics for five years wishing I was pregnant, and now I’m sitting in one waiting not to be.’ I’ve read since that, according to HFEA statistics, 80 women each year have a termination following IVF, despite having gone through so much to conceive in the first place. Before my own experiences, I would probably have thought, ‘Why would they do that?’ but now I can see how such a tragic decision could be made. When they put me under the anaesthetic, I remember thinking, ‘I wish they could give me a big dose of this and wake me up in six months when I don’t feel so distraught and shocked,’ and crying when I came round afterwards. Family and friends were devastated for me – for both the termination and the divorce that followed ten months later.
The pursuit of fertility has left an indelible mark on my life. I felt immensely sad for my son, who the other day asked me for a brother or sister and I had to say, ‘I’m too old’ (I’m 41 now and although technically I could do egg donation again, I couldn’t bear to go through it). I also felt for our donor. I still haven’t told her about the pregnancy ending, and when I do pluck up the courage I intend to tell her I had a miscarriage rather than an abortion. I would have given birth at the beginning of June, and I try to keep thoughts about the termination at the back of my mind, otherwise I feel a huge sense of loss.
To other people’s surprise, my ex-husband and I are now good friends, partly for the sake of our son but mainly because we always were, especially before infertility loomed so large in our lives. We were together for ten years and married just short of seven. We feel a shared sadness for how the baby race left us so weather-beaten. He has told me that we tried so hard to have a family (or rather my vision of the ‘perfect family’) that we lost sight of what we actually had. Living with my tireless striving for motherhood made him feel trapped and helpless, and he believed that whatever he did, I would never be happy.
He was right. The pursuit of fertility dominated every waking hour. Jenny Clifford, a counsellor with the British Infertility Counselling Association, talks about the ‘imprint of the kind of family you thought you were going to have’, the dream you may have had since childhood, and I now realise that my husband could never have made me happy while I held on to this lifelong expectation.
So I am facing up to my family, which is ‘perfect’ in many ways but is not what I had envisaged. I am alone with one child and, with scant hope of having any more, I am starting to accept the hand that life has dealt me. But that doesn’t stop me wondering how life (and our marriage) might have ended up had we not been faced with the decisions infertility forced us to make.
My experiences have opened my eyes to the unacknowledged devastation IVF can wreak. No one talks about how the pursuit of fertility can bring negative consequences: you are expected to set your eye on the goal and just keep going until you get there. And when it has worked for you, no one will countenance you talking about how long or difficult the process was. Every discussion tends to be rounded off by someone saying, ‘At least you’ve got your little boy,’ as if what you went through is cancelled out by the end result.
Of course, mothers say that, however awful the pregnancy or birth, having a baby makes it all worthwhile. Society (including doctors, nurses and health visitors) tends to prevent women who have suffered any motherhood ‘loss’ (including the inability to conceive) from acknowledging it and thus working through it.
A few years ago, fertility expert Lord Winston made a speech to a reproductive and genetics charity in which he said, ‘The fertility clinic is more distressing than anything else in medicine. Even if you compare it to the cancer ward, there is no contest. In my early days, I was doing a lot of the work that young doctors do, which included cancer patients. It struck me that although cancer patients were often distressed, they live with the hope that they might get better. Infertility patients don’t always have that hope: they realise that most of the time the treatment doesn’t work.’
My husband and I went through five years of stress brought on by our desire to be parents, and amazingly we have our son. But we also have the scars borne by many parents who have been through fertility treatment. A friend of mine who has one IVF son and another conceived naturally, as well as having lost a twin pregnancy, says:
‘I still feel traumatised by fertility treatment and I don’t think that will ever go, even though I have my family. People, including my mother, tell me I should be grateful. But infertility leaves its mark, like when you move a sofa and there are still dents in the carpet long after the furniture has gone.’
It has certainly left an indelible mark on my life and my marriage. Fertility expert Professor Alison Murdoch, then chair of the British Fertility Society, once told me that infertility can ‘tear a couple’s world apart’. I was able to comprehend the sense of joint loss but couldn’t see how it could become so seismic. Now I understand.
Originally posted on Daily Mail UK