We Need to Talk About Infertility

A couple of years ago, at possibly one of the lowest points in our infertility struggle, a friend told me that I was the strongest person they knew. It gave me pause for thought and made me truly consider how other people viewed me. What followed was a good deal of sensible talking from people blessed with greater clarity in their thinking at that time than me and they gently brought me round to the conclusion that I was doing myself no favours by keeping our infertility struggles such a closely guarded secret.

That part may astound you, if you were a reader of my blog back then, or you’ve delved in to the archives now. For a considerable period of time I gave a blow-by-blow, technicolour account of our story, dildo-cam dates and all, right here on the internet.

In my real life, however, I wasn’t being quite so open.

It turns out that it is much easier to type words on a screen and send them off to in to the ether to be seen by relative strangers than to look someone in the eye and say “we desperately want another child and can’t have one.” Of course my closest friends knew the score, but my life is filled with countless other people who couldn’t have helped but notice “something” was different, yet not had any idea of the truth.

I suppose I was worried, as always, about what people might think of me, or what they would say and do if party to those private details about me. I struggled with the acceptance of being imperfect, of needing help and support.

The problem, of course, is that we live in a society that so often prizes strength and coping. The ability to keep a smile on your face at all times and leave your problems behind you wherever you go without allowing them to cross over in to any other area of your life. However, it is easy to become too fixated on that. Too desperate to appear to be coping that you either forget – or, as in my case, more actively refuse – to let anyone know that you have anything to cope with. But strength is relative. Ironically I was hiding my struggles out of fear of judgement, yet what people were seeing was someone who seemed very “un-together” and more than a million miles away from “strong” as I randomly fell apart. In short, a mess. Because without the whole picture, that is exactly how I looked.

With even a small part of the picture (the desperate struggle to conceive, which was just a part of what was going on at the time) things instantly begin to look very different. And when I did open up, it was immediately obvious how it changed people’s perceptions. I wonder still how more honesty on my part might have influenced the support available to me and hence the entire experience from an earlier point.

There were plenty of truly horrible individual moments in the process of IVF. Sneaking around making surreptitious phone calls to the fertility clinic in working hours, terrified that someone may overhear. Shutting myself in my surgery at work to receive the phone call that left me in floods of tears as I learned that none of my eggs appeared to have fertilised, whilst the names of waiting patients came up in the appointment book. Beginning to miscarry the pregnancy that I already knew had failed down the toilet at work whilst patients shuffled in to the waiting room to await their turn to see me. Being asked at least twenty times a day by patients how I am and affixing a smile to respond that “I’m fine” when really I was anything but. Waiting those two long, hard, harsh weeks hardly daring to hope that the tiny bundle of cells you saw under the microscope is turning in to new life inside you. Then peeing on a plastic stick and facing the reality as stark as the blank white space that stares back at you, before leaving the house for “business as usual”, passing pregnant bellies and prams full of newborns and their piercing cries.

All of those individual moments, however – even the actual moment of physical miscarriage, – pale in comparison to the enormity of the whole thing together. The inability to do what high school sex education would have you believe happens at the drop of a hat as soon as a boy and a girl slide between the sheets together.

That and the fact that because we already have a child we were supposed to somehow be okay with this. Let me tell you now, wanting another child has never in any way meant that I don’t love and appreciate the child I have. He’s one in a million and absolutely irreplaceable. He’s my moon and stars, my reason for everything. I love him more than I’ve so far found the words to truly express. In fact, the love that I feel for him is one of the many reasons that I’d so love to have experienced motherhood again from the beginning. It’s not wrong to want another child in exactly the same way that it’s not wrong to not want children at all, or to want just one. We all have our own personal dreams, and more than one child was amongst mine. To be unable to achieve that dream is still devastating despite my beautiful boy.

(If you still doubt me on that, take a look at your own wider family and those of your friends. Having more than one child is not some sort of exceptional circumstance. Its a basic and common maternal desire that I shouldn’t find myself repeatedly apologising for.)

One of the many hard things about infertility after having a child is just how inescapable it is. People make assumptions that because you have one child you must be able to have another. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked when we’ll be having another – a drawback of working closely with the public is that they think it’s ok to keep asking me such personal questions when, really, it’s never ok.

I could not, and still can’t, take Thomas to swimming lessons, soft play or even school drop off without being faced by round beach- ball bellies and double buggies containing two smiling siblings. The friends that shared my first pregnancy long ago moved on to second and third children and it’s difficult not to feel somehow left behind. Everyone else moves forward whilst my own life stands still. It’s hard not to feel a bit jealous of those who didn’t even have a child when we started trying for a second child, but now have two, three or more. It’s hard sometimes not to think that it should be my turn by now.

Sharing just what exactly was happening behind the closed doors and the tear stained face was definitely a turning point though. When work colleagues knew what I’d been hiding, my behaviour obviously made sense. It wasn’t so much that I was forgiven, as that they were reassured I hadn’t changed fundamentally as a person. People suddenly saw someone who was actually coping reasonably well with difficult circumstances rather than the slightly flaky person who’d been standing before them a moment before. The “strength” word came up again because people could see the heavy load I was carrying, rather than seeing someone who was beginning to buckle underneath seemingly nothing at all.

And some of the conversations around me changed, because topics that were off limits were easier to see. It turns out that you cannot always expect people to be sensitive in their questioning if they don’t have any idea. Although, for reference, it’s not really anyone’s business when or whether other people plan to have children and it’s never really appropriate to ask. Just because someone has one child, don’t assume that automatically means they can have another. If you know a woman has miscarried don’t tell her “its for the best” or even “you can try again”. Sometimes trying again will cost thousands of pounds, or simply not be possible at all, never mind the emotional toll it will take.

Actually, that is the other reason I was glad that I started to open up.It gave me an opportunity to educate a few people on these home truths about the suitability of their questions. The fact that this is necessary to do though simply underlines how much of a taboo infertility still is. It turns out that I was far from alone in hiding what we were going through behind closed doors.

In recent years we’ve seen a lot of progress in the conversations about miscarriage, about subjects like birth trauma and about mental health. Yet infertility doesn’t yet seem to be a fair game topic. So many women hide what they are experiencing and so often they only reveal it when they have a positive outcome. Their happy news is shared with the story of what a struggle it was to get there.

The problem with that is it not only allows the struggle to be immediately glossed over by the fantastic ending, it also sometimes gives a false impression of the success rate of infertility treatment. If people only ever hear the good outcomes, it’s natural to assume that that is all there is. But sadly that is not the truth. Whilst success rates have improved, and we have much to thank modern medical science for, there are still plenty of us who don’t ever get that happy outcome. Sometimes miracles don’t “just take a little time” – they may never arrive. And sometimes it really is the end, even when it is not okay. Dreams, it seems, don’t always come true and believing you can is not always enough.

I’m glad I ended my personal infertility silence, but I wish I could do something to support others – who want to – to do the same. Of course fertility and trying to conceive is a very personal thing, and not everyone wants to open up. But we need to create the right environment for those who do. It’s time to open up about infertility and all the myriad ways it affects us. It’s time to normalise it, to raise the profile and end the inappropriate questions of young women (and men) about their family plans. It’s time to let others know they are not alone, no matter what the outcome. It’s time to be there for people facing infertility, so they don’t feel they must carry the burden in silence.

Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday

12 Replies to “We Need to Talk About Infertility”

  1. I absolutely agree, I think the more that is shared, the more normal things get and whilst that can never eradicate the pain, there is definitely comfort in knowing that you are not alone. Without wishing to hijack your point, I think the same is true of miscarriage – when it happens you feel you are the only one in the world who ‘failed’ and yet it’s incredibly common. I suspect that by speaking out you are helping people left right and centre, just without ever knowing.

  2. I think reading about it, even though it doesn’t take it away, helps in that you don’t feel alone. I know I would look for others stories just to comfort myself and feel less alone. #kcacols

    1. You’re right – there is often comfort in shared experience, which is why it is good if more people feel supported and able to share.

  3. I know whatever I type will be the wrong words because I don’t trust myself in sensitive situations.

    We are currently at the start of our journey of trying for a second and I’ve told everyone this time. Whereas before we kept it secret to avoid the ‘pressure’. This time I haven’t felt any pressure as I always assumed if I could have one, I could have two. Naive I now realise after reading this post.

    I honestly don’t know how I’d feel if that dream actually becomes an impossibility.

    I am very sorry to read of your heartbreaking struggles and the way you silently ploughed on is immensely admirable. I hope you find your happy ever after, whether that be coming to terms with your infertility or finding comfort another way.

    Thanks so much for sharing this and for linking up to #KCACOLS.

    1. Thank you – not the wrong words at all.

      You’re not alone in that assumption that having one means another will be a possibility. It’s not a ridiculous assumption to make. That’s part of the reason that I feel a pull to speak out though, because secondary infertility isn’t something about which there is huge awareness. It’s why people ask things like “when will you have another”.

      Of course, the lack if awareness isn’t only down to people not talking about it, but also because the majority of people don’t have major problems conceiving again. I really hope that is the case for you!

  4. Thanks very much for writing and sharing, I feel honoured to be part of the people to read your blog. I dont have the words to express all I feel after reading of what you have gone through. Sharing your experiences are an amazing support to others.
    Mainy x

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