I knew my second cycle of IVF had failed from the way the embryologist said "Hello?". When you've spent years reading between the lines, you become highly attuned to sadness, especially on much longed-for phone calls.
This particular "hello", in May this year, was in the same tone as one a month earlier. It heralded a call telling me that none of my eggs were mature enough to fertilise, probably from an overstimulated ovarian response to the drugs. There would be no embryo, no pregnancy, no baby.
IVF is portrayed as a medical miracle.Credit:Shutterstock
There isn't anything in the fertility books about this. It had never occurred to me that our chance would be over before I'd even been knocked up.
IVF can suck you in with "miracle" stories – couples who have got lucky the first time, or those who have endured 13 attempts but finally got their longed-for baby.
It can seem so plausible; so within reach. But the truth is that it's a very costly shot in the dark each time, and that's without counting the emotional burden. And after that phone call, I felt destroyed.
I rang my husband, Harry, and tearfully apologised on behalf of my eggs. Then I called my mother, and updated the anonymous Instagram account I'd set up to avoid depressing my friends. It wasn't enough. I felt lost in the vastness of grief.
It's something Lisa Faulkner has written about in her new book Meant to Be. The actress had three rounds of IVF before her doctor told her there was no point in continuing.
"I remember thinking: 'Why are you letting me go?' I didn't understand. Everyone else had many goes at IVF and I only had three," Faulkner says.
Like her, I thought I'd been prepared for IVF; I hadn't been nearly prepared enough. Infertility sucks your money, your focus, and often, your sanity. What's more, according to new figures published last month, IVF rates in Europe have plateaued. Only one in four cycles is now successful. Academics have suggested that we might have reached our natural limit when it comes to fertility treatments – roughly the same as the natural pregnancy rate – while others have pointed to the number of older women having IVF, who have a lower chance of success.
Infertility sucks your money, your focus, and often, your sanity.
Could Harry and I have done this any sooner? Unlikely. We first met at university, when I was 17 and even more immature than my eggs. We became a couple in 2013 and started trying for a baby soon after we married in 2015, then aged 36 and 32.
I wasn't bothered when I didn't immediately get pregnant: I had a new job and was enjoying having taken up horse riding. But I soon had to face up to the fact that no amount of regular sex, ovulation predictor kits or temperature tracking were helping. Our diagnosis, such as it was, was unexplained infertility, which affects approximately one in four couples. There's no reason for it, or at least, no reason that medicine has yet found.
When I turned 35, my GP fast-tracked us for IVF. It took 15 months and three hospitals before we got near a needle, but I was confident. I knew several IVF parents and it never occurred to me that we wouldn't be just as lucky. Harry is more pragmatic, but I reasoned that I had great egg reserves, his semen was smashing… in fact, all our tests had given Oxbridge?worthy results.
We were lucky. Our London borough offered us three attempts at IVF transfer on the NHS (one fresh and two frozen, like a depressing Ocado order). When they failed, I asked my doctor if we could continue our unused transfers in our next cycle, paying for the extras. I was devastated when he said that wasn't possible. We had to start a second, paid-for cycle as though nothing had happened.
While our parents have been brilliantly supportive, I have worried about letting down my family by not getting pregnant. It doesn't help when reading yet another article about selfish millennials preferring their pets over babies, and fretting that I am being selfish by taking solace in my beloved cat, Ambridge.
She sat by me while I had my hormone injections, and when I crawled into bed straight after work. Frankly, I'd have been as lost without her during the process as I would have been without Harry.
I have also worried about overloading my loved ones – I'd deliberately exited a couple of WhatsApp groups, including friends with children, before the egg collection began – and I didn't know what to tell them, so I just didn't.
But, oddly, I didn't feel any such awkwardness with strangers. After that call, I sent a tweet saying I was grief-stricken and, if anyone could spare a kind thought, to send it my way. When I checked my phone a couple of hours later – Harry and I having spent the afternoon lying in the garden staring up at the sky, still as sunny as it been the day before when we were waiting to go to the hospital – I was shocked at the response. There were thousands upon thousands of messages. Most were from men and women in the same situation, or from those who had gone on to adopt, use donor conception or come to terms with being childless.
There was no cruelty – the only strange reply I got was a recommendation for Princess Diana's acupuncturist.
I wore a Christmas jumper to our last consultation, because I didn't want my regular clothes to become tainted by association.
So many people said that they didn't feel able to talk about it, mostly for work reasons. It made me realise that infertility has a stigma around it akin to miscarriage or mental health. If you think infertile people are staring hungrily at your bump, it's not the case at all. We don't want your baby, just our own.
I've taken great solace in the Instagram accounts I've found through the #infertilitysucks hashtag, and in the Big Fat Negative podcast, run by two women documenting their own infertility. I even went to an infertility women's circle led by the campaigner Alice Rose.
But a community can only support you so much. After a while, you need to find a way through the pain. I found pleasure in taking a thank you card and chocolates to the clinic staff and handing in our surplus medicines so they could be used by students. And I wore a Christmas jumper to our last consultation, because I didn't want my regular clothes to become tainted by association.
Infertility is a struggle that goes on in plain sight. If someone you know doesn't have children, or "only" has one child, please be careful how you discuss it. When asked if I'd like to have children, I now explain our situation. I'm too tired to be ashamed, and I am increasingly met by conversation rather than awkwardness. So many people are touched by infertility themselves, or know others going through it.
I don't know what Harry and I will do next. Through nephews, nieces and godchildren, we are aware of the difficulties, as well as joy, that parenthood brings. Adoption is another long and arduous path, but one we cannot consider until at least six months have passed since our last treatment. We are blessed to have found each other. Perhaps that should be our "miracle"?
In June, I decided to take my life off hold and finally put up all those pictures I'd been meaning to hang since we moved house, two years ago. Life stands still for infertility, but it can't do so forever.
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