When I agreed to write my personal experience of fertility treatment, it was with a view to provide insight into how to support people.
I originally envisaged sharing lots of bittersweet, yet amusing anecdotes. And I have lots of those, from the flatulence episodes (caused by progesterone suppositories) while travelling on a packed Waterloo & City line. Or the lucky escape one driver had, having cut me up on my bicycle, inducing a hormone-surged bout of near psychotic rage…. But, while I could share those, once I started to write, I realised that my real story is the loss and grief that often accompanies fertility treatment.
The injections, the indignity of the intimate examinations, the chemical-induced menopausal hot flushes are all challenging, but pale in comparison to the emotional turmoil that so often accompanies fertility treatment and so often is kept private, secret even.
My story is not typical (at least I don’t think it is), but I know there will be many women (and men) who will have experienced something similar and if their employer and colleagues have more knowledge, then they will benefit from their empathy and support.
Initially, I treated the process of fertility treatment naively. I approached it exactly the same way I have for anything I else I decided I wanted to go for. Apply yourself, research endlessly and work hard. I had no real idea then that fertility treatment is, in lots of ways, like a game of Russian roulette – with the result pretty unpredictable and out of your control and influence.
The first two cycles of IVF were physically tough going, but each time I took comfort in that they went to textbook (‘your ovaries are excellent responders Mrs Walden’ is a quote I’ll always remember). Yet, both times on the ‘test day’ circled on the calendar, the pregnancy test stayed stubbornly white on the window I longed to see a blue line. And another year gone.
The third cycle was a little different because in our area you qualify for x2 fresh IVF cycles and x2 frozen (basically a last ditch attempt to use up any frozen ‘extra’ embryos you made during the first two fresh ones). So to extend the metaphor, this third cycle was the last game at the roulette table. This time, rather than transferring one embryo, they decided to implant the last two frozen embryos we had made from previous cycles in one go. This appealed to my sense of efficiency and if I’m honest, my drive to be a high achiever – if I was going to ‘win’ at IVF then what better outcome than twins.
This time, on test day, both windows on the pregnancy test did show a blue line (for the first time in my life). I did this test at 4am, having not slept at all the night before, willing the day to arrive. I felt like the chapter in my life I’d wanted for so long was finally about to start and the joy and optimism that lasted for the next 12 weeks is painful to recall now.
After two scans at six and eight weeks, we were discharged from our fertility clinic with flying colours and transferred to the NHS maternity care. We eagerly awaited for our 12 weeks scan. It is such a rite of passage, the way you skip into that clinic, happily handing over £5 for the photo you’re about to receive and exchanging ubiquitous smiles with the other couples cuddling and holding hands in the waiting room.
Our names were called, and I literally jumped onto that couch in the sonographer’s room, and now when I recall the (photographic) memory of that day, I realise she never uttered a word, I saw the terrified frozen expression on her face, and it was me that said, ‘they’re gone aren’t they’?
It was a bit of a blur after that, we were ushered back through the busy waiting room of happy expectant parents and into a small room (with a sofa that smelled terrible) and told to wait for a Doctor. All I really remember after that was the smell of the sofa and a poster about spotting the signs of FGM, I vaguely remember someone turning up in blue scrubs who had a pager that kept going off who told me to ‘go home and let nature take its course’ but to come back on Monday so they could check presumably that nature had taken its course?
After a long, painful and traumatic weekend, I was fairly convinced that any trace of the babies I had eagerly hoped to see on a scan the previous week were gone. But Monday came, and after another examination, I was then told I needed an ERPC or to give it its proper name ‘evacuation of retained products of conception’. I can remember, even now, how painful this description was and how hard it was to convey to my employer. I went back to work a couple of days after, a bit dazed, very raw, but in characteristic fashion determined to ‘power through’, I even managed on my first day back to conduct a workshop for 100 people at a client site, finding a clenched-jaw autopilot mode I didn’t know I possessed.
Eight weeks after that, I was driving to work when I had the strangest shooting sensations across my breasts, it was like nothing else I’d felt before and while completely irrational (given my history), I knew I was pregnant, but this time naturally. I felt so wary. I told no one except very close family and even after the 12 week scan didn’t allow myself to ever really believe I was going to have a baby at the end of the process. With hindsight, trying to suppress all the hope and optimism I would have love to have felt, made me brittle, snappy and probably very hard to be around.
For those close relatives who did know we were pregnant, some seemed to find it very hard that I wouldn’t ever discuss the pregnancy or join them in their (perfectly natural) daydreams of whether I was having a ‘boy or a girl’, which pram did I favour etc. I couldn’t even bear to have a photograph taken of my growing bump, in case it came me to haunt me as an unwelcome reminder.
Perhaps these feelings were prescient, I doubt it, but nothing was to prepare me really for what happened next. It was the weekend before my 20 week scan was due, now this is a real milestone, it’s the time when you see your unborn child on screen but in a form that is recognisable as a baby and often when you discover if they are a boy or a girl.
I was consumed that weekend that something was wrong, I had bad dreams and didn’t sleep at all on the Sunday. On the Monday morning I informed my (then) husband that I was not prepared to wait until Thursday for the NHS 20 week scan and instead was going for a private scan that day. He (not unreasonably) thought I had lost my mind, and that I was simply in the grip of irrational anxiety caused by the previous loss of pregnancies. I was resolute. I was going for a private scan and he could come or not, his choice. A couple of hours later, we were in a very Surrey ‘Mummy coffee shop’ that also offered scans for parents who wanted some extra quality time at their scan and a souvenir book of photos to take away. There, everything changed.
Once again, before the sonographer said a word, I could tell the mood suddenly became very sombre. She said, ‘there your little one is, all curled up’, but even then, I knew. ‘Your baby is very ill indeed, he has a condition called ‘fetal hydrops’ and you need to go to a hospital today’.
I don’t remember the hours between that appointment and the ones after it. However, I do remember (as though it happened only yesterday) being told ‘your son has a condition ‘incompatible with life’ and we would advise ‘interrupting your pregnancy’. What’s surprising, is even with all the medical terms and euphemisms, I knew exactly what they were saying, the kindest thing to do is to deliver now and say goodbye.
‘Terminating a pregnancy for medical reasons’ is a term that (in my experience) both then, and now is a subject that is very rarely discussed nor understood. I, along with many other parents dislike the terminology because it implies more choice than you realistically have. For me, it was an act of selfless love for the child I already loved and dearly wanted.
It took almost two days of induced labour in a sound-proof suite (provided by a brilliant organisation Sands) at Royal Surrey Hospital for my son Ruairidh to arrive. He was tiny but perfect and I’m glad I had the chance to hold him for a few hours before I said goodbye. He would have been seven next month, and today (when I wrote this), on my daughter Beth’s fifth birthday I have thought about him often.
This year for International Women’s Day, ‘my choose to challenge’ is to challenge us all to face into the complicated experiences that pregnancy, fertility treatment and loss can bring.
Curiously during lockdown, while we’ve never been so far apart, we’ve also become closer to our colleagues than ever before. We (literally) see into each other’s homes and lives on a daily basis and for many, our co-workers have been there as a real support network as we battle on through challenges like social isolation and home-schooling. I know I would never have been so open and vulnerable with my colleagues and shared this story a year ago. Now, I feel safe to do so, since I count many of my teammates as trusted confidantes and supporters – you go so far beyond people I just “work with”.
So to the male colleague who physically flinched and retreated as fast as he could to the safety of the office kitchen when he first saw me walk in the door on my first day back – I forgive you. I realise now that you couldn’t find the words or weren’t sure of the right way to deal with me. My hope is that by sharing this story, if you had your time again you may have acted differently, paused for thought or just told me you didn’t know what to say.
For anyone reading this who would like to support anyone they know experiencing a similar loss – saying nothing is worse than saying something clumsy. And be brave, if the parents have given their child a name – use it. Nothing gives me more comfort than hearing Ruairidh’s name and knowing that his existence, albeit it so brief, is acknowledged.