This week was National Fertility Awareness week. The aim of the campaign is to raise awareness of fertility issues, the treatment they require and to provide support to the couples that need help.
One in six couples will experience fertility problems. One in SIX. Think of your group of friends; one of them is likely to be in their wilderness years, and I can tell you from bitter experience, it sucks. Your friend may not have told you about their struggle to conceive. They might shrug off their childlessness or failure to produce a sibling for their firstborn with a brave, “Oh no, I like my lie ins too much.” or “How can we improve on our perfect firstborn?”. Trust me, inside they are bleeding.
Unless you’ve lived in the doldrums, you cannot imagine how hard it really is. On the outside, you look okay. You look healthy, a functioning human being. You keep yourself busy. So busy that finding time to spend with friends with children becomes difficult, accidentally on purpose. But inside, something definitely isn’t working and even the most pervasive painkillers won’t stop it hurting.
Every time you log into Facebook, someone has posted a scan picture. Every time you go to the supermarket, you wish you had blinkers on to avoid the protruding bellies and glowing faces. Even popping into Costa for a caffeine fix isn’t safe; over in the corner is an NCT meet up, with perfect babies in their mothers’ arms. Suddenly, yours just feel so empty. In fact, all of you just feels empty. Cavernous. Empty, empty, empty.
Every month, you bleed and you mourn the loss of another opportunity. You cry, you hit the wine and you order an enormous take away. It doesn’t help. As your period subsides, you begin to build your hopes again. You buy gadgets that will tell you exactly when to jump on your partner (these are real passion killers). Instead of cosy pillow time, you shove a pillow under your pelvis and start bicycling your legs like crazy. You don’t drink. You only eat fertility foods. You have acupuncture, reflexology and any other ology that someone has told you might help. This time… It’s definitely worked, this time. And then you start to bleed again, and the tears just keep coming.
Then there are the people; oh my, the people. The helpful friends that tell you their partner only had to look at them (bully for you), that you need to relax (oh, silly me, I’ll just pop my desperate desire for a child out of my mind!) and even question if you’re ‘doing it’ right (yes, really). Then they’ll ask why you don’t ‘just adopt’. Adoption is a huge process in itself – it’s not like going to the supermarket and picking a child off the shelf. For some, it signifies an acceptance that a natural child is never going to happen for them and to these brave people, I take my hat off to you.
You may not know that your friend is currently going through IVF. They may have just gone a bit quiet while they’re treading the path through their own private hell. The process is overwhelming and all consuming, so if you suspect they’re going through a cycle, just back off – especially in the first two weeks.
In most protocols, the first fortnight is spent being plunged into menopause by a drug called Buserelin. When we undertook our first cycle, our lovely consultant told Lovely Husband to go on holiday. By himself. Mood swings, hot sweats, headaches on top of headaches and absolute exhaustion start as soon as the needle has left your skin for the first time. For the first time in years, you wish for your period to start. When it does… If it does (sometimes the Painted Lady likes to play her own little games on you and mess up your plan) you then live for your scan that tells you all is quiet and you can start to stimulate your ovaries to create eggs.
Now, your ovary is about the size of an egg. During ovulation, it grows to around the size of a walnut. During IVF, it grows to the size of a large orange. So yes, the uppers improve your mood a little, but you bloat and look pregnant, prompting the obvious questions. You need to drink gallons of water to prevent a condition called Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome that could put you in intensive care. You live for the progress scans. The stress of these is worse than running huge budgets for major companies (trust me, I’ve done both). If you’re not ‘performing’ as the clinic want, your cycle is scuppered. Eventually, you (hopefully) get there. Egg collection. A surgical procedure to remove up to 20 eggs from your ovaries using a long needle.
Then the 24 hour wait to see if anything has fertilised. In our first cycle, nothing happened. The embryologist called and said it was like a school disco with the girls on one side and the boys on the other. We moved on to a more intrusive process called ICSI, which ultimately was successful, but I’ve seen friends who’s cycles have failed and every time, my heart has broken for them.
Assuming you successfully made embryos, you go for transfer and begin the bum bullets – a progesterone supplement that supports a potential pregnancy. The side effects mimic those of early pregnancy. You will feel nauseous, have sore breasts and go off certain foods. For the next two weeks, while you wait to carry out a pregnancy test, you live on a see-saw of has-it-hasn’t-it-worked. You plunge from wild optimism to abject despair at what you’ll do if it fails.
Your friend is dealing with all of this; they don’t want to deal with you as well. That said, if they tell you they’re going through IVF, be there. Listen to them. Don’t feign interest – really listen. Be there with a bottle of wine and a vat of chocolate if it fails and let them cry. Whatever you do, don’t dismiss it. And for god’s sake, don’t ask why they don’t just adopt.
The World Health Organisation lists Infertility as a health condition, meaning that sufferers can and should be offered treatment. With so many primary care trusts now refusing to fund IVF and the criteria for those that do provide funding becoming ever more obscure, the treatment of couples suffering from infertility is becoming inhumane and the condition is being labelled as a ‘lifestyle choice’. And that’s just it, it’s not a choice. PCTs will fund gastric bands, treatment for smoking and drug related conditions and not those that are living with failure to conceive? If we’re going to base clinical treatment decisions on whether a condition is borne because of a lifestyle choice, then we can slash the NHS budget considerably. Infertility leads to mental health issues, depression being a major factor. Is that a ‘lifestyle choice’ too?
I realise it’s not that simple, and I shouldn’t be flippant. I realise that not every couple can be helped, just as not every cancer sufferer can be saved. But this condition needs to stop being brushed under the carpet as something appertaining to ‘lifestyle’, or being labelled a ‘choice’, because trust me – those wandering in the wilderness really do not choose to be there and think about the process itself: Would you choose to go through that?
We have always been open about our wilderness years and the inception of the three ICSI pixies, and our consequent Miracle. But they are all miracles and without funding to those that need it, the joy of parenthood for those with fertility issues will become domain of the rich.