I have always liked young children, and they seem to like me. I have been lucky enough to have great parents who have provided me with a happy childhood and thus I always assumed I would become a mother as surely as night follows day. When I got married at age 27, a baby and family crept further up my list of things-to-do, but we were unable to reproduce at that point, being preoccupied with completing our education and professional training, finding permanent jobs that paid enough to safely fund family life and finding somewhere suitable to live.
When I was 32 in 2003, we had acquired all of those things. I was thrilled to finally start my family as most of my peer group were doing. Although my menstrual health had slightly altered that year, professionals reassured me it was nothing to worry about and, though that made me feel uneasy about my fertility, I looked forward to what the future might bring.
After the first time of unprotected intercourse I went into work the next day happily assuming I was pregnant, not least because my schooling had led me to believe if no contraception was used, conception would inevitably follow. I now know full well that this was very naive. however I suspect I’m not the only woman around the world who’s ever thought in that literal way at a similar point in their lives.
Immensely surprised to find we were not pregnant, my husband and I promptly and optimistically embarked upon what we now remember only as nine interminable years of misery and sadness in which we both hit rock bottom again and again.
The furies of hell
Our agony lasted seven years, until I was finally diagnosed with premature ovarian failure at age 39 at a private fertility clinic (not Bourn Hall) to which we had gone when we were at our wits’ end. After a couple of quick blood tests, I was told I had almost no eggs left and my reproductive hormones were extremely imbalanced (something I had myself suspected for some time) and thus I would almost certainly never conceive naturally unless I used donor eggs from another woman.
At this point, if the previous years had been purgatory, the diagnosis unleashed the furies of hell. After the blood tests, we were faced with what we perceived to be a frighteningly large bill for private treatment; we were not eligible for any NHS funding because of funding restrictions set by our CCG, and my age.
By taking on extra jobs, and working ourselves to the bone, we scrapped the money together and tried three rounds of donor-egg IVF with ICSI in an egg-sharing programme where a wonderful anonymous lady agreed to share half her eggs with us in return for her own free treatment.
The first round resulted in a negative pregnancy test on the day my husband’s father died.
The second round resulted in a ‘strong’ positive pregnancy test … followed seven days later by gentle yet persistent bleeding resulting in a miscarriage, finally resolved three months later by an operation to remove the products of conception. A third cycle, using frozen embryos, resulted in a weak chemical pregnancy that quietly faded after two days.
To lose any baby is tragic although miscarriage is relatively common even for normally fertile women. To lose one after IVF with your own eggs is particularly hard. Such loss when you’re in premature menopause relying on an extremely expensive and limited supply of ova from another woman is one of the many frightening cruelties that occur alongside the wondrous miracles that modern reproductive technology can now achieve
IVF and beyond
To add insult to injury, at each point in this nightmarish process I became even more terrified of what I felt was the only other route to motherhood: adoption. Indeed, we felt ourselves slipping towards this cliff edge as each month passed and each medical intervention failed. The whole process was a mystery to us and we felt ambivalent about making a decision about it. This was especially so since it tends to be talked about as ‘second best’, and because our fertility clinic always remained optimistic about the chances of pregnancy despite our flagging stamina and our growing deep distress at treatment failures.
Such was the very deep black pit my husband and I found ourselves in in December 2010 and our sense of profound depression, and powerlessness over our lives, was absolute at that point.
Emerging from the pit
Yet, five years later, I can now associate with pregnant women, hold new-born babies and mostly experience either no reaction, or love and joy when I do so. This was something I would never have believed was possible whilst in the middle of our ‘fertility journey’ outlined above.
Whilst this transition to relative peace and contentment was not at all easy, it has been achieved; and it was the thing we feared most – adoption – that has enabled us to break away from the horrific story we were locked into and live a different one where we assume a primary identity as parents.
Two things helped us finally decide to do this. First, by the third IVF treatment I knew that, had someone given me thousands of pounds in a lottery prize, I would definitely not have spent it on any more medical interventions. I could no longer face the cycles of drugs, hope, disappointment, miscarriage and operations any more and I was sick to death of reserving every single spare penny to pay for treatment.
Second, the main question that preoccupied us transformed from ‘when will we become pregnant?’ to ‘do we want to parent?’. This represented a profound shift in our thinking that brought tremendous relief to both of us because we realized, quite suddenly, that acquiring a baby is simply a way to become a parent of a child, and that is what we should really focus on. For, if you wish to parent, and feel you cannot fight the fertility war any longer through medical interventions, there is a good solution within your control: adopt. It is this route that will certainly enable you to assume this particular role.
Thus it became clear to us that that was what we had to do. Obviously our decision was not made overnight. It was made whilst using the really excellent counselling services.
Our own counsellor and sessions offered enabled us to feel confident moving forwards. Addressing the aforementioned question shifts your thinking away from the pregnancy test, gestation and birth, to the longer-term commitment all reproducing adults must make: being mum and dad for the next couple of decades at least!
Birth lasts only a few hours and babies last only a few months, but parenthood, once you commit to it, is with you for all of your life.
Moving beyond treatment
So, if you too suspect you are nearing the end of your own fertility journey and have not acquired the new-born you worked so hard to give birth to, ask yourself ‘do we want to parent?’ rather than ‘will we ever get a baby?’ and think carefully about whether you want to be a mummy or daddy in the first instance. The answer may not be easy to find, and it will involve, inevitably, a whole range of complex, strong feelings about the notion of ‘someone else’s child’ and the final acceptance of the terrible and unfair personal loss that you have indeed experienced and cannot unfortunately change.
You may feel this is a question to which the answer is ‘no’. If so, treat yourself gently, know that you are allowed to feel and express your grief and take heart from the thousands of couples around the world who are successfully living child free. Know that this is a tremendously courageous, valid decision in its own right which can eventually lead to peace and acceptance of a predicament that is one of the most challenging life can throw up.
But if you think the answer to the query is a definite ‘yes’, and you do not want to get to the end of your life without that life-long parenting experience, consider making that first, terrifying phone call to the adoption agency and rise above all the myths, fears and confusions about adoption that you may well hear from the media and well-meaning colleagues or friends. This is because the adopted child that you will almost certainly eventually obtain if you do so, is or will become ‘yours’ in so many ways, and it’s just the process of acquisition that will be rather different from the one you originally expected when you tried to conceive in the first place.
I have found that all the love I had reserved for the genetic babies cruelly taken away from me through a premature menopause can indeed be successfully redirected to ‘our’ little boy who, had we not adopted him, would have had no-one else in the world at all.
We knew we had to be parents and we finally found ‘our’ lively, funny, messy, energetic young son; he was just delivered in a way we never expected in a million years.