There is a happy ending, so let’s start with that
I came home from work one day, and Becky handed me a box that “came in the post” for me. Given that I rarely get anything other than woefully negative bank statements, I opened the box with a fair amount of distrust.
But there, nestled in a bed of tissue paper, was the almost-mythical sight of a positive pregnancy test.
I looked up to see Becky clutching a handful of positive tests, tears in her eyes and a huge disbelieving smile on her face. “You’re not?!” I said. And she gave a little nodding, laughing sob.
Without doubt, one of the best moments of my life.
But, as with most pregnancies, that’s not where the story begins. Starting with the positive test dismisses the hundred negative tests that came before it. And all the lonely disappointment and tears that came with them. So I thought I’d share the story of all the negative tests.
Because I know first-hand how heartbreaking it can be going through infertility. The barrage of baby announcements on social media. The monthly periods bringing a new wave of sadness, and unexpectedly ruining a Wednesday morning. The careless, ‘so when are you gonna give us a baby?’ jokes at family dinners. Catching each other’s eyes briefly across the table, our minds drawn into sadness while our faces laugh and continue the conversation. It’s all very tiring and lonely, and generally just a bit shit.
But I think it’s important to tell the story. Because the biggest issue with fertility is that no one talks about it. So here’s our version of events. And hopefully if you’re going through it yourself, this might help you feel less alone.
Let’s have a baby! *Tap tap* Is this thing on?!
So there we were, having just made the decision to have a baby. Excited. Nervous. Already talking baby names and choosing family Halloween costumes (Dorothy, Lion and Scarecrow, in case you were wondering). And then, all of a sudden…
Nothing happened. Then a few months went by, and still nothing. More sex, then more nothing (well, not nothing, I’m a talented man. But you know what I mean).
And it was weird. Having just made this huge decision to change our lives forever, the lack of an immediate baby was anticlimactic. Nothing had prepared us for this. No one had told us this might be a thing.
Thinking about it, the only warning pop culture gave me about all this was Monica and Chandler’s infertility. And even that was glazed over in the space of a few episodes: The One Where We’re Trying, The One Where We’re Infertile, The One Where We’re Adopting.
So unless you get pregnant on the very first try, you’re confronted by this unexpected wall of failure. And you become immediately frustrated. And this frustration is exacerbated by the fact that you know people accidentally get pregnant after a one night stand. Whilst using protection! It’s best not to think about this, because the injustice of it is really fucking infuriating.
Social media then rears its ugly head and makes the situation a million times worse. Because when you’re trying for a baby, the baby announcements come thick and fast, don’t they?! It seems like every day there’s a new one. I used to come in and find Becky sitting quietly by herself on the bed, or putting things away slowly in the kitchen with tears in her eyes. And I knew she’d seen another announcement. And of course you try to be happy for people, but bitterness and resentment are powerful poisons.
Periods have really switched sides
Periods are utter bastards. Once celebrated with grateful sighs of relief, they become regular emotional kicks in the teeth. “You’re still not pregnant”, they whisper cruelly into the already-grouchy ear of your partner as she sobs into her chocolate.
Another month. Another month. Suddenly, hope grows in your heart, ‘maybe this is the month? I think I’m late.’ Then the period comes again and the glimmer of hope is snatched away. And you find yourself grieving for something that never was. Another month. Clockwork reminders that no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you want it, there’s nothing you can do. And you feel like you’ve failed as parents before you’ve even started.
And every big milestone serves as a reminder that there’s still no baby. Birthdays, anniversaries, Christmasses, all become days of heartache and background sorrow.
All in all, infertility is a non-stop emotional shit show.
The sperm test
After around 6 months of blind frustration, we decided to get ourselves checked out.
You’ll be pleased to know, I absolutely nailed the sperm exam. I’d been practising for years; this was my Super Bowl. The tricky thing is, the time-frame is tight, so you have to do it in the hospital toilet.
It didn’t take much to pluck up the requisite courage (“if you can do it on the back of a National Express bus, you can do it here”, I told myself). But I was slightly perturbed by the CCTV camera focused on the toilet door, and the sheepish, lotion-scented man who exited the bathroom as I went in. I performed my duty and waited a few extra minutes so that anyone manning the CCTV would be impressed by my longevity. And then exited with as much dignity as the situation allowed.
A week or so later, the results came back. As it turns out, luckily our issues weren’t anything to do with my sperm. I say ‘luckily’ because I honestly don’t think I could have dealt with looking into my wife’s eyes in the advent of every period. Knowing the sadness in them was because of me.
PCOS and the one year wait
After several dignity-encroaching tests on poor Becky, we got a letter.
It told us our infertility stemmed from her having Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). Apparently it affects 1 in 10 women and basically meant Becky was having periods but wasn’t releasing the all-important eggs.
And this unfortunately meant more waiting and hoping. As much as I love the NHS (and I do), they can’t give you insanely expensive treatment like IVF just because you want it. And whilst you understand they can’t do it for everyone, you can’t help but get annoyed when they don’t bend the rules secretly, just for you.
So instead of IVF, we were told to wait 6 months and come back. Then came another meeting in which we were told to schedule another meeting in three months’ time. Then more tests, then another few months’ wait.
When you’re desperate to get something fixed, changing nothing and being told to hope for a miracle is infuriating.
Eventually they brought Becky in for the horrifyingly named “ovarian drilling” operation.
This would involve cutting into her belly and- as the name suggests- drilling holes in her ovaries to encourage them to release eggs. Neither of us had been in for serious surgery like this before and I was so scared something would go wrong.
It was a very minor surgery and everything went fine. But there’s always that worry at the back of your mind, isn’t there? The onrushing of terrible ‘what ifs’, and the opaque spectre of crushing loss. It was one of the worst days of my life.
Men have it easy
In the infertility world, men have the easy road. Or at least, that was my experience of it.
Women have to sit there with their legs apart, whilst total strangers prod about in their most intimate parts with medical probes and clinical, blue-gloved fingers. They’re made to endure surgery and invasive tests, and all manner of other sufferings that make the problem physically, unavoidably, unquestionably theirs.
And the biggest indignity we have to endure as men is wanking in a public toilet. And let’s be honest, most of us have done that just to kill some time.
Woohoo! An embryo!
Eight months after the ovarian drilling, Becky went to a private fertility therapist who gave her some pills to take and massaged her womb into place. Externally by the way, before you get any ideas. And Becky swears this was the turning point.
I think another big factor was lockdown. Becky has a very stressful, high-energy job and the Covid lockdown forced her to chill out for the first time in years.
Anyway, whether it was the womb massage, the pills, the ovarian drilling, the lower stress levels, our countless prayers, or some combination of all five, it finally happened for us.
On a random Tuesday after work, Becky sat me down. And handed me a box that “came in the post”.
Aside from the physical side of it, I also think it’s harder for women because they simply want it more. At a core, biological level, Becky yearned to have a child. And I know some men are really desperate for children as well, but I didn’t really get that same desire. I knew I wanted to have a child, and I really wanted to start a family with Becky. But I wasn’t consumed by it, if that makes sense?
And so although I’ve been saying, ‘we went through it’, and ‘we suffered’, I guess I only experienced the whole thing vicariously through Becky. Because whilst I gave her all the love and support I had it in me to give, I couldn’t have begun to understand what she was going through. And so she went through it alone.
Now that Winnie’s here, I love her more than I ever imagined I could. But this feeling only really began to stir in me after she was born. Flourishing into proper love at around the 6 month mark. But Becky has always felt like this. Even before we’d decided to start trying, she had this unconditional, overwhelming love. And she had no one to give it to. An all-consuming devotion with no home.
And so my pain from infertility as it was came from Becky’s suffering. The impotence of watching my favourite person in the world go through something I couldn’t ever fully grasp. And being utterly helpless to do anything about it.
But amongst the field of bitchy little thorns, there is one blossoming rose. One small plus side to it all. In that we are definitely better parents because of it. Never will I resent spending a day with her. Never will we take her for granted, or not cherish the time we have with her. Because we waited so long for our little sleighmate to join us in the world. Wanted her so much, and prayed for her so desperately that she will forever be given all the love we have to give.
The first rule of infertility club…
I think the biggest problem with infertility is that no one talks about it. And because no one talks about it, you instantly put walls up to protect yourselves from the world. Because you feel like you’re alone in your struggle. But you’re really not.
One in eight couples struggle to conceive, making it more common than being left-handed. And yet it’s taboo. The infertility Voldemort who shall not be named. We whisper it behind closed doors, like it’s shameful. It’s hard and disheartening and frustrating and devastating. And so so common. So why don’t we talk about it?! Reach out to each other for solace and companionship?
And I guess that’s why I wrote this. So that anyone reading this might find some comfort in being unalone in their burden. Find some peace in not being the odd one out.
If you are going through infertility yourself, I recommend reaching out to friends and family who have children. You’ll be surprised at how many people went through the same thing. And it’s incredibly comforting to know you’re not alone. If you have no one to talk to, please reach out to me and we can chat.
And don’t ever lose hope. Because I know it’s exhausting and frustrating, and sometimes it feels like there’s nothing left to hope for. But keep the faith, I promise it’ll be worth the wait. Miracles take time. And when I look back through our infertility journey, I’m grateful for it. Because if our baby had come at any other time, it wouldn’t have been our Winnie. And I love her more than anything in the world.