Consuming social media when you can’t get pregnant can be a hugely miserable experience; trying to engage with social media when you’re in the early stages of pregnancy presents further challenges. Here Katherine Ormerod talks about her experiences and offers a frank, highly personal account of her journey to motherhood thus far...
I have some very lovely news as my boyfriend Haden and I are expecting a little boy next February. While we couldn’t be any happier, posting this message on social media is certainly bittersweet, because for the ten months it took me to conceive, I found it increasingly hard to stay upbeat as every woman I seemed to know or follow on Instagram effortlessly produced one bundle of joy after another. So as I make this ‘announcement’ I really wanted to be entirely honest and let any woman who is in the same position know that they really and truly are not the only ones going through it. In fact as around 1 in 7 couples have trouble conceiving — that’s 3.5 million Britons — whatever social media might suggest, you are actually part of a vast minority and very far from being alone.
I’m not used to feeling the deep stab of social media envy as I well know there’s no point coveting what anyone else has based on what they project on a public platform like Instagram or Facebook. But the baby thing is different because it’s not money or ‘happiness’ or ‘success’—it’s a biological process. Motherhood is so tied up with identity and can penetrate to the core of who you are, not just what you have. Unlike other life achievements, there are no halfway houses. You can’t ever be nearly pregnant—you either are or you’re not. Trying to conceive while you’re consuming endless images of beautiful, cute babies can feel lonely, bewildering and horribly, horribly self-centered. No-one wants to feel anything but elation for other couples having babies, but while I’m ashamed to say it, I didn’t always feel entirely happy for other people. In fact seeing other women getting pregnant, especially on social media where I had little idea of their backstory often caused me pain as well as biting jealousy. It’s no-one’s fault—lots of the posts I can remember feeling like daggers to the heart weren’t at all boastful or smug—just simply poignant snapshots of love. But the experience has definitely moderated the way I feel about sharing my journey to motherhood as I know that there will be women reading this and registering images of my bourgeoning bump who feel just like I did. I’m not saying that I’m not going to post pictures of myself or if all goes well my baby, but I do promise to always keep in mind that my happiness might strike some other not-so-happy chords.
“ If I hadn’t sought specialist help, I wouldn’t be pregnant now — because I’ve been advised that due to a condition, I will never be able to get pregnant naturally ”
Not being able to get pregnant when you desperately want to is one of the most wretched experiences a couple can go through. The monthly cycle of dashed hopes, the constant questioning (if I had to pay for every time I Googled ‘causes of infertility’, I’d be literally bankrupt. And let’s not talk about what I’ve Googled since…) and the insidious feeling of self-doubt can have an impact on all areas of your life. I know I’m by no means alone going through nearly a year of ‘TTC’ (trying to conceive) and many, many women go through longer and considerably more heart-breaking journeys which include devastating losses – but those months have armed me with some really strong opinions on how the medical profession and we as a community deal with it. Ten months might not seem that ‘long’, but if I hadn’t sought specialist help, I wouldn’t be pregnant now—because I’ve been advised that due to a condition, I will never be able to get pregnant naturally. And had I listened to pretty much everyone around me impatiently telling me to be patient, I’d still be at square one.
It’s a Lose-Lose Situation
In the U.K. women trying to conceive are bombarded with two entirely contradictory messages. The first has been endlessly discussed—and involves the ticking clock. Approaching 35—colloquially known as the fertility cliff-face—we’re told that our egg quantity and quality is reducing at a clip every six months or so. Aged 28 a GP told me to start trying as soon as possible as I couldn’t ‘expect’ to have children after I was 30. Unfortunately, there was a slight spanner in the works as my husband left me right around that deadline, so understandably baby mama plans were stalled. It took me another couple of years to meet a new, willing partner so I was 32 when we started trying. If I carry this baby to term, I’ll be 34, meaning if we were to try for another, I’ll be the ‘wrong’ side of that cliff face. By 40 only 40% of willing mothers will be able to have a baby naturally with that decline in outcome dwindling swiftly from around the critical age 35 marker. Even if you live under a rock the advice is clear—don’t hang around too long when it comes to procreating. The other message which flies entirely in the face of THE DEADLINE is that of serene perseverance. G.Ps in the U.K repeatedly told me that I needed to try for 12 consecutive calendar months before we could even have a discussion about my fertility and then probably another 6 months just to be sure. When I brought up specific concerns from my cycle history—like the fact that sustained exercise often stopped my periods coming or that my ovulation pattern didn’t seem to match up to what all the ‘how to get pregnant’ guides advised, I was treated as if I was an entitled brat, impatient for her Starbucks order. I get why the message of patience is followed—it takes some time to get your cycle back on track after coming off contraception, then maybe a month or two more to get your dates right—but a year or 18 months of patience when you’re also being counselled that the end of the runway is coming ever nearer is just too long.
I have enormous respect for the NHS and since I’ve become pregnant I couldn’t fault the service received via my hospital and midwives. But when it comes to not being able to get pregnant, I truly believe all women should say bugger patience. If you are doing everything right – peeing on sticks, registering ovulation, making sure you’re having sex over the 5-day fertile period—and your cycle is regular every month, I’d recommend getting a fertility MOT within 6 months of trying. To be honest I wish I’d done it before I even started, as for me personally that year of TTC was pretty much a waste of time. Of course, the MOT could end up being totally useless and you might be like the 20% of couples who fall pregnant the first time you try. But the mantra of patience means that women with problems—many of which are fixable—are condemned to months of sadness before they even begin to address their issues. Plus it never hurts to know how many eggs you’ve got in there just in case you want another child somewhere down the line. So what’s a year? It’s very easy to say that and I definitely thought it too when I started out. But the logistical and discipline sides of TTC aren’t to be scoffed at. Firstly—at its most basic—you have to be in the same bed as your partner for a specific 5 days every month. As we both travel for work, it took often fraught planning to make sure we were always together and I missed hen dos and family birthdays (all of my immediate family live abroad) to keep everything on track. On the advice of my G.P., I stopped drinking (except for when I had my period because I am not a saint and I was very down over those days) and made sure I was taking prenatals every day. I avoided raw meat and fish, unpasteurised cheese, missed an annual trip in a Zika zone and did everything I could do month after month in an attempt to improve my chances. I also reduced my exercise routine and gained weight—two things which friends and family suggested to help—especially as my periods seemed to be affected by exercise (we’re not talking an Ironman here, more like 5 one hour classes a week). The sex which is fun at first, gets less fun. So no booze, not much exercise (which I love), no burrata, no Mexico. Of course, these things all pale in comparison to having a baby and I would do it all again in a heartbeat—it’s just that for me personally, it was a year of living like a nun (well except for the scheduled sex obviously) with no chance of success.
“ The mantra of patience means that women with problems—many of which are fixable—are condemned to months of sadness before they even begin to address their issues ”
After another depressing visit to my G.P., I decided to pay privately to see what was going on. It wasn’t cheap by any measure, but at £450 for a full M.O.T for both my partner and I, it was an investment we decided was worth it. There are broadly speaking three types of issues with fertility. The first is an issue with the gametes – the sperm or eggs—the second with fertilisation and the last with implantation. My issues ended up being the latter as I don’t ovulate until day 20/21 in my cycle meaning that even if the egg is fertilised it doesn’t have the requisite time to implant in the lining of the womb. The condition is known as luteal phase defect or LPD and is associated with low levels of progesterone. As for causes, they are contested, but low body weight, ‘excessive exercise’, stress and other reproductive issues including polycystic ovaries, endometritis and thyroid issues are said to be factors. Through the research I’ve done into the condition—which by the way my G.P. ‘wasn’t aware of,’ and told me to refer back to my fertility doctor for further advice—it’s common amongst women who have multiple miscarriages with up to 60% suffering from the condition and is said to be an issue for around 20% of women struggling to conceive. An issue for maybe 1/5 of all women struggling to get pregnant and no-one I knew, including my doctor, had heard of it.
The treatment is pretty straightforward—from the day you ovulate progesterone supplements are taken as suppositories (so sexy, not). After 14 days you take a pregnancy test and if it’s positive you continue with the hormonal medication to 12 weeks. I happened to be at day 19 on my cycle when I had my fertility M.O.T so saw my egg in the ovary about to release on the ultrasound. I started the medication the day after and I was pregnant in two weeks. Of course, it’s not always that immediate and the treatment doesn’t work for every couple, but the fact that is was that quick from diagnosis to pregnancy just makes me so frustrated with myself that I let myself be swayed into keeping quiet about my worries and going along with the patience programme. One of the reasons that I didn’t do the checks earlier was because I didn’t want to seem like just another neurotic 30-something woman pestering her overburdened G.P. for ‘unnecessary’ help. I had that feeling of not wanting to make a fuss. I was also probably nervous about what the results might reveal—but truly the sooner you know where you stand, the sooner you can contend with whatever nature has thrown in your way. This is 2017 and there are many, many options. Yes, they take time and money which can sting, especially when it’s something that everyone else seems to get for free. But whether it’s PCOS, depleted egg reserve, fibroids or your partner’s low sperm count, there are treatments and protocols to help. Knowledge has always been power, so I can only encourage other women—if they want children now or within the next few years—to arm themselves with information and not lose 18 months of life under a monastic regime or more critically lose further eggs resources. Another recommendation would be to read Alisa Vitti’s Woman Code. Aside from offering the keys to understanding how hormones are affecting your life, she makes the excellent point that cycle issues are medicated rather than addressed head-on. If you have gynaecological issues, it’s more than likely you’ve been prescribed contraceptives or hormones to correct the issue—which is akin to sticking a plaster over the problem rather than treating the cause. Her book made me realise how little I knew or even paid attention to about my own cycle—I had no idea about the direct link between stress levels and blood sugar on progesterone production. I wish I’d read it 15 years ago.