My own IVF journey - and yes, I’m well aware that word is all sorts of cringe but I have to say in this instance, the process of IVF really is a journey! - started almost 7 years ago now, and honestly, reflecting back on that time for this article has brought back a mixture of feelings from pain and heartache to hope and excitement…
Like many women and men, I just assumed the whole baby-making process would be easy and straightforward for me and my husband. I was 31 years old, free of any serious health issues, had a healthy, straightforward and fuss-free menstrual cycle and was happily married and in love. After three years of marriage, surely a baby was the logical and natural next step, right? I approached having a baby in the exact same way I had approached marriage a few years earlier – definitely on the cards but not desperate for it to happen. Truth be told I was ignorantly sure in my mind that these big life stages – weddings! kids! – would happen in due course and that there was no rush. While it was true of my marriage, my husband and I met, dated and married within 3 years all pretty easily and naturally, it couldn’t have been further from the truth once we started to actively try and have a baby.
After just under a year of trying to naturally fall pregnant, and after various tests for both my husband and I, we were told that the only way we could have children was to go down the IVF path. This was a huge shock for so many reasons, but mainly because neither of us had known anything about infertility and what the actual process of IVF entailed. No matter what way you look at it, or which way you actually embark on IVF, the whole thing is a lot. A lot of appointments. Statistics. Numbers. Waiting. Hurting. Arguing. Hoping. Googling. To say the whole thing is a minefield is putting things mildly. So, in the hope that this may help someone out there going through the exact range of emotions I did, here’s what I wished I’d known before going down the path of IVF…
Photography: Grace Alyssa Kyo
1. Needing Help To Conceive Doesn’t Make You a Failure
Admittingly, it took a while for this one to sink in. When you’re told you can’t have a baby naturally, it’s easy to blame yourself, particularly when there’s so much emphasis on the word “natural” right now. We’re all born to procreate, right? Absolutely not. While there are a host of possible issues both men and women can have that prevents them from being able to conceive naturally, none of these are self-inflicted. As part of our IVF process, my husband and I attended counselling sessions, and one of the things the counsellor said to us while I was in floods of tears, was that the myth “good things happen to good people” is a misconception that has to stop. Our counsellor, rather bluntly but oh-so-perfectly-timed, told us that bad things happen to good people all the time, which is proof enough that no one is to blame, particularly for something as complex as infertility. Honestly, I think back to this quote almost weekly and it helps to bring me back to my senses if I’m in a particularly bad moment of self-doubt and negative talk. Infertility is no one’s fault, and it’s so important to remember that for healing and moving forward.
2. IVF Doesn’t Have To Be So Secretive
I didn’t tell anyone outside of my immediate family that we were undergoing IVF treatments, and I’m really not sure that was the best approach. While I was rushing to doctor’s appointments and dealing with the often uncomfortable side effects of hormones and injections, I tried to put on a happy “I’m totally fine!” face at work and with friends, and in hindsight, it’s that sort of approach which only contributes to the thinly veiled sense of shame that often surrounds women and infertility. While I don’t see the need to shout it from the rooftops, I do believe we should be having more open and honest discussions about conception and infertility to remove stigmas and increase conversations. Sharing the bad stories with the good is vital for so many reasons, particularly when there is no one, right way to have a baby these days.
3. It’s Uncomfortable and At Times, Painful
I’m not going to sugar coat it, IVF can be painful in both the physical and mental sense. Yes, we all have different thresholds when it comes to pain, but I can assure you there isn’t anything remotely fun about being prodded with needles, constant internal ultrasounds, numerous blood-tests (my veins were so sensitive at one point they had to start using children’s needles to find an unmarked area of my arm), intense bloating… I could go on. Obviously all worth the desired end result, but to say that it doesn’t hurt or isn’t uncomfortable is being disingenuous to women everywhere. Real talk, I cried a lot when my husband gave me the needles and I’ll never forget the feeling inside my stomach on the days leading up to the egg retrieval. It wasn’t fun.
4. Listen To Your Medical Team
I’m going to put bets on the fact that having a baby and all that it encompasses is one of the most searched and discussed topics on the internet. No matter what you’re searching for – infertility, ovulation, gender selection, natural births, caesareans, sperm count, miscarriage – you better believe there’ll be thousands of articles and forum topics on the very subject, but when it comes to IVF, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Once you embark on the IVF process, you’ll undoubtedly be assigned a team of doctors, embryologists, and nurses who are all experts in their field and trained to answer all your concerns and questions throughout the process. Trust them, listen to them and do exactly what they say. While it’s tempting to think Google has the answer to everything, it really doesn’t, particularly when every infertility case is so different and personal. I’ll never forget the time I went in to have my second embryo transfer (which turned out to be my son, Louis), I overheard a lady in a room next to mine while I was in recovery. She explained that after her first IVF attempt, she took a home pregnancy test which isn’t usually recommended, and it resulted in a false positive. She was in tears recalling the time she thought was pregnant, but actually wasn’t. There’s a reason the experts suggest you don’t take pregnancy tests at home after your embryo transfers, and it just cemented the fact that you really need to listen to medical advice when it comes to your own process. I trusted our doctor wholeheartedly, and the nurses who came along our journey with us were the support system we desperately needed in a pretty lonely and daunting time.
5. The IVF Journey Doesn’t Really Ever End
I realise my husband and I are lucky, and our IVF story has a happy ending resulting in two healthy babies. I never experienced the pain of miscarriage or failed embryo transfers, but I will admit that the entire process had more mental challenges than I ever anticipated, and I’m still working through them now. I still get pretty emotional when I think back to our time in the waiting room at the clinic, watching a mix of hopeful parents-to-be at different stages of their journeys. I often think back to the time I was lying on the bed waiting for my embryo transfers and looking at the room filled with doctors and scientists and nurses thinking, “wow, this is certainly not the way I expected to make a baby”! And when I saw a psychologist after my first child was born, it was clear that some of the challenges I was facing with anxiety and depression were actually a result of the entire baby-making process and not just motherhood. IVF was the best thing to happen to me – my children are the kids I was always destined to have – but that doesn’t make the entire journey to have them any less intense. IVF and infertility can leave more emotional scars than physical, so it’s imperative that you arm yourself with all the tools to get help if and when you need it most. Whatever the outcome of your IVF journey, I can assure you that the feelings and emotions that come along for the ride don’t just disappear after it’s all over. When I used the word journey, I really meant it.