Three Long Years

It’s been three years now since we started trying to conceive a second child. Almost two years since our devastating secondary infertility diagnosis. And almost a year since our final attempt at IVF spectacularly failed.

Time is passing and my longing for another pregnancy, and more importantly another child to love and nurture does not diminish. It still sits heavy as a stone in the deepest part of my heart. Maternal instinct is a base desire, not a longing that I can control, and so I know it will remain, even if the intensity wanes.

I never imagined that I’d be someone who counted off so many years of trying, and failing, to conceive. Well, who does?

To clarify, I’d imagined infertility, I just did not imagine how it might weigh me down. Before we began trying for our first child, I expected to run into some difficulties. My complex health history made me believe it wasn’t going to straightforward. But back then I was naive. I thought if it didn’t work out then I would find a way to be okay with that, because I was prepared for the possibility. I certainly didn’t think I’d cry over every period for all eternity, or count off the months of failure one by one, always knowing exactly how many had passed.

And I don’t know, perhaps I would have been some approximation of alright if fate had destined us to be childless. To think about not having Thomas now hurts with an intensity I cannot put in to words. But if I’d never known him, and the joy he brings I could not miss him with that same passion. It would obviously have been different had we been able to have no children, rather than only one. I would be a different person and it’s impossible to know how I would have coped. I had so many consolation plans. Plans for an entirely different life. I knew we’d have extra money, I’d have more opportunities to invest in my career. I’d planned the places we’d go and the experiences we could enjoy. I guess in trying to have a child I was making a choice between having a family or completing other exciting life goals; the things that study, poor health and other circumstances had contrived to deny me in my twenties. I wanted a family, but the alternative was palatable enough – exciting enough, even – that it might just have been alright.

And it’s not as simple as saying that my current reality is not “alright”. I wouldn’t trade having my amazing boy in my world for anything at all. Nothing. I wouldn’t even change him for two children if neither of those were him. But having only one child whilst wanting more leaves you in a limboland where the absence is particularly acute. We’re still parents. But we’re also still incomplete. And if happiness is related to the difference between your expectations and reality, then I’ve fallen through the crack between both of my anticipated realities in to the one situation I did not foresee and so it’s unsurprising that it’s come with a weight of sadness. And whilst I know for sure that career achievements, exciting world travel or even learning to fly a plane are no replacement for, or in any way comparable to, having a family of your own, they must surely provide a better means of distraction from what you do not have. Instead I am confronted day in and day out at the school gates and swimming lessons, or the local soft play centre and playground, by other parents with their broods of siblings, or the buggy pushing mothers with their round beach ball bellies as proud evidence of the next addition to come. I cannot run, never mind hide.

In the last three years that we’ve been trying in vain to grow our family, I’ve seen people go from not yet being pregnant with a first child to having two children. It’s hard to shake that feeling of being stuck in the slow lane whilst everyone else accelerates past, reaching the destination that I long for, but can never attain.

I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s still hard. Even after all this time. And despite having Thomas – I’ve said it before but it always bears repeating that my sadness does not reflect a lack of gratitude for what I do have. I’m still allowed to mourn what I do not.

I think it always will be hard. But I recognise that it’s a bit like other forms of grief. It began as an endless ocean with soaring waves that I could neither avoid nor see past. Gradually the waves diminished a little, but they’d still strike me unbidden with no warning of their approach, often overwhelming me in the process. More recently the calm periods have felt a little longer. I can often predict the waves before they hit, even if I can’t avoid them entirely. I’m a little better at riding the storms. I go under less frequently. I know the ups and downs, the waves and the storms, will continue. But I also hope they’ll continue to lessen in their frequency and impact.

Three years is a long time to try for a baby. A long time to spend counting days and hoping. No one expects it to take so long. No one wants to believe that they will be the ones for whom there is no resolution, no miracle. No happy ending. So no one plans for how to stop counting. We’re not actually trying any more. We can’t pursue any further fertility treatment and even adoption is, currently, a blocked road. For obvious reasons we don’t use contraception, but we’re not “trying”.

Still that little flicker of disbelief that this is where I find myself burns on. Unconsciously I suppose I still hope for a miracle. I still cry each and every time my period arrives. That is increasingly infrequently these days, which at least reduces how many times I face the hurt of that particular reminder of what is not to be, but in itself reminds me of the ever worsening state of the situation. The dwindling chance of a biological possibility of a miracle. Sometimes I wonder if using contraception would help cement the absolute reality of the fact that we will not conceive. If I was actively trying to prevent a pregnancy, would I be better able to move forwards without counting how many months have passed?

No. Probably not.

There is no conclusion to this really. I’m in no doubt that those waves of sadness will keep coming and when I focus on it, infertility will always hurt. But for the majority of the time the joy in the family I have surpasses the disappointment of the unfulfilled dream. That’s a positive, three years down this endless winding road that began on that fateful September day three years ago where we committed to “trying again” without a thought at all to the possibility of failure.

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IVF, One Year On

A year ago today, I shared some really exciting news on this blog. I’d already known for a short while that our first roll of the IVF dice had worked, but today was the day I chose to share that news. Of course, it wasn’t meant to be, and I was soon un-sharing our happiness.

I look back at that day now and I can remember the pure joy of seeing that second pink line on a pregnancy test. The moment where all the disappointments of the previous 18 months faded to grey, unimportant against the technicolor headline of a positive pregnancy test. All of my hopes and dreams suddenly felt as though they were finally in reach, if I could just hold on. I can remember feeling it, but I can’t recapture the actual emotions. These days it feels as though there is a wall of glass separating me from such elation. I can see it, but I can’t imagine attaining it. All I can do when I think of those moments now is will myself not to cry, biting my lip as I push the image of the four-month old that might have been from my mind.

Last year feels, in some ways, like a dream. I almost believe that I could wake up at any moment and discover that it never happened at all. It’s only the pain in my heart that tells me otherwise.

I look back on it too, in amazement. I look at what we managed to get through. Not in simple terms of the pressures and logistics, emotions and stresses, of multiple IVF cycles, their failures and a miscarriage. I know there is much worse that happens to people. It’s more the fact that I got through it whilst also maintaining as close to a normal existence as possible. While I may have whinged about almost nothing but infertility for the last year on this blog, reality has been very different, and I suppose I want those of you who’ve seen nothing but brow-beating and woe-is-me in my words here recently to really understand that it isn’t the whole picture.

The bits you didn’t always see included me working hard in a demanding job, all too often faced with a rude and demanding public. Better yet, I furthered my career with additional study. We gave Thomas a happy year, with days out, three trips away and innumerable cuddles and kisses. I kept on top of life, keeping the house in order, clean clothes in the wardrobe and good food on the table. I kept on top of my chronic health conditions not just during treatment cycles, but every single day. Few people in “real life” knew anything about the frantic paddling that was going on under the surface. And all of those who have since found out about it in retrospect have commented that they didn’t have a clue. Because almost without exception, I managed to hold it together.

And sometimes I just want to scream “Do you know what, that was really, really tough.” It’s an achievement that I feel right to be proud of. Because infertility, and the associated treatment, is hard, even if it isn’t the worst life can throw at you.

Sure, there were moments I’m not proud of. The moments that Thomas saw me cry, especially when he thought it may be his fault. The times my temper was not entirely kept in check. The time I dissolved in to a heap on the floor when I found the “Your Pregnancy Day by Day” book – left over from my pregnancy with Thomas – under the bed, covered in dust, where we’d pushed it out of sight on the day I began to miscarry.

I didn’t always cope perfectly, and I still don’t. But one year on, with empty arms and baby-shaped hole in my heart, I’m getting on with life. I smile, laugh and joke on a daily basis. I brush aside questions of whether we’ll have more children without my composure cracking.

We came though a year of IVF with unresolved infertility and no where left to turn. We were never going to be unscathed by the experience. There are few days that pass where I don’t contemplate how different they’d be if I were on maternity leave instead of working. If I were struggling through long nights and short days with a breast fed baby. If Thomas had a sibling to dote on and dislike, all at the same time.

But I’m still moving forwards. It’s taken a lot of strength to do. And that is what I’d like people to know.

Misery Loves Company

I’m pretty sure that some of the feelings I’m about to admit to in this post make me a pretty despicable person. But you know something? They’re real. I can’t help how I feel, and actually admitting it makes no difference to who I am, because whether I’m honest about it or not, this is my truth. I know that I shouldn’t waste time on such negative feelings, or concerning myself with the lot of others, but again, I just can’t help it. My blog has always been real, so here is a little more of my reality:

Something that comes as an inevitable side order, a buy-one-get-one-free of sorts, with infertility is jealousy. I know that I’ve touched on it before, but it’s completely impossible to keep the green-eyed monster entirely at bay when you desperately want a baby and it seems as though it is happening all around you. For everyone but you.

My general motto and reminder to myself is that I cannot know each person’s own, personal experience. What I frequently see are the bumps and the babies. But I recognise that these are each the product of a journey that I do not see and cannot know. Those apparent happy endings may be the result of years of heartache; Failed efforts at fertility treatment; Multiple miscarriages. I remember that and, many times in the last couple of years it has helped to soothe my sore, impatient soul, wracked with longing and envy.

Lately, though, my green-eyed monster seems to have morphed in to a new beast. One that is turning me in to what feels like a very nasty, bitter kind of person. One that is unleashing thoughts that I am – and should be – utterly ashamed of.

I guess my new super jealous state is defendable, if not entirely excusable. It’s been a couple of months since we smashed in to the brick wall at the end of the road. Since the light at the end of the tunnel went out. Ours is no longer a journey in motion. My hope can no longer be fuelled by tales of triumph over adversity or success after repeated failure. When I see a round, pregnant belly I can no longer tell myself that one day I too will get to rub away the kicks and thumps of a growing life inside me again. And tempering my envy with the fact that this may have been a longed for, hard won pregnancy is no longer enough.

All of a sudden, my jealousy extends even to those whose battles I know. Those women who have experienced the pain of infertility and put themselves through IVF, ICSI or other invasive, unpleasant and costly assisted reproductive techniques. Those women who’ve had to wait patiently for this, their shining moment. It shames me to say it, but I begrudge even them – the ones who truly know infertility – their happy outcomes. Whereas once upon a time anyone overcoming infertility was a cause of genuine happiness (and of course a source of hope too) now I can’t bear to hear of those who got lucky on their first round of IVF. Especially with twins! I can’t help but think we were only even allowed two embryos on round one because they were such poor quality, because we were supposed to have good odds. Yet here we are in the total failure pile, whilst for others it seems to just work. Two embryos in, two babies out. (I know that twins are no walk in the park, and have never been my desire, but it’s more the super success they seem to represent, when we could not even get a single embryo to stick.) I hate myself for thinking it, but it just doesn’t seem very fair. I cannot stop myself wondering why them, and not us?

I know it makes me sound like a terrible person, but I cannot help but roll my eyes now when I hear people describe themselves as “devastated” because their embryo transfer was cancelled due to hyper-stimulation but they’ve got six, or seven or more embryos in the freezer. I can’t take it seriously when they say they feel as though it will never work for them. Right there they already have more opportunities that I’ve ever had. They’re right there in the trenches of infertility, but I still envy them. I still want what they have.

I know it doesn’t do to compare. Fertility is so complex and so individual that one person’s story rarely has any relevance for another’s. But it’s all part of the horrible jealously I’ve succumbed to. The feeling, no matter whether right or wrong, that having a single successful cycle is nothing like trying over and over. That feeling that everybody else is achieving something that I cannot. Will not.

And it really does feel like “everyone”. When you try for a baby, pregnancies and newborns suddenly pop up everywhere and this is in no small part because you’re primed to notice them. I know that not “everyone” is really pregnant. But within infertility communities I struggle to find the people like me. The ones who’ve been forced to walk away empty handed (or more specifically with empty uteri). The ones for whom it never worked, never mind working first time, or more than once or with twins.

And yes, before anyone raises it, I’m still very aware of just how blessed I am to have one child, and these feelings do not for a moment dilute that. I understand that I too could be the object of others’ jealousy as I have a happy, healthy three year old. And I also don’t for a moment think that these women who’ve had such great outcomes should censor themselves, or that they should not be proud and happy in their success and share in any and all ways that they wish – I know I would in their shoes. But equally, I can’t force myself not to feel this way, or pretend that I don’t.

I suppose what I do want is to feel less like the only one in my situation. It’s true that misery loves company. And whilst I truly wouldn’t wish the experience of infertility on anyone else, right now I’d love to surround myself with people who not only “get” infertility, but “get” that it isn’t always able to be overcome.

There isn’t always a happy ending.

“Just Relax”

Since we reached the definite end of our fertility journey, I’ve found myself opening up about it more. I don’t mean that I’m telling everyone I meet or walking around with a sign attached to my back, but I am talking more about it as and when the subject comes up. I’m talking about it because, in an odd way, it’s therapeutic for me to share, but also because infertility still remains such a taboo despite affecting so many people. If my tiny voice can make a tiny change in awareness, then that has to be a good thing.

There is one place that the subject comes up more than any other. You can’t get a group of mothers with similarly aged children together without certain topics arising. You know the ones – food choices, schools and… the subject of “more children”. Of course, my closest mum friends have known all along about our struggle to conceive another child. But there are plenty more mums that I class as “good acquaintances”. The ones that I see week in and week out at the same groups or activities, or at pre-school drop off and pick up time, but never outside of those arenas. They’re not friends, yet we know a fair amount about each others lives through our children. They’re exactly the people I’m opening up more to about our experience of secondary infertility.

And for the most part, the reception has been great. Warm and supportive. Others have confided their own, hitherto unknown, difficult journeys. People have told me how sorry they are with sincerity, and validated my desire to have another child when I’ve still been wondering myself whether all of this isn’t just selfish indulgence. Not everyone has known what to say, of course. Some people can’t help but offer practical solutions, or supposedly helpful anecdotes of their sister’s-best-friend’s-cousin’s miracle conception. Sometimes I’m in the mood to try some gentle attempts to alter perceptions. Sometimes I’ll patiently explain things like why the adoption road is fraught with difficulties for a couple in our circumstances and it isn’t necessarily the simple solution they present it as. More often I’ll just let it roll over. I’ve been doing this just long enough now to have become good at self preservation.

There is one thing, however, that people say that is guaranteed to generate entirely the opposite reaction to the one that they are promoting.

It’s that old chestnut “Just relax, and it’ll happen.”

Sometimes it’s dressed up in one of those miracle stories. You’ve all heard the one about the couple who “stopped trying” after countless years and many rounds of assisted reproductive techniques only to conceive a healthy baby the very next month, simply because they’d “relaxed” and “stopped trying”?

That’s the one that raises my blood pressure and pushes the anger buttons that lie right at the bottom of my heartache.

So let me tell you, right here, why this seemingly innocuous little statement is so offensive to people struggling with infertility of any sort.

For starters, it’s not even accurate. Even leaving aside the fact that relaxation is not going to magically alter the number and quality of my available eggs or Ian’s sperm, there is not a single well-designed scientific study that shows any positive correlation between relaxation and successful conception, whether naturally or by IVF or other techniques. Furthermore, there’s not really all that much anecdotal evidence either. The tales of long-lost family members, or distant friends, conceiving simply because they relaxed are far outweighed by the number of women who conceive in, for example, war zones. The women who conceive as a result of rape, under unimaginable stress. The huge number of babies conceived in deprivation to which our middle-class, developed-world problems not only pale in comparison, but simply cease to exist as problems in comparison. Life prevails. Women have proved this over and over again and conception can happen in the most horrific of circumstances. The vital ingredients are eggs and sperm, not a zen state of mind.

That aside, however, suggesting that relaxing is all we need to do in order to conceive is completely ignoring the fact that we did not wake up one morning, decide we wanted to have a child, and then have a complete meltdown at the stress of the situation. I can assure you, if I’ve ever seemed stressed about our infertility (clearly, I have) the stress is a product of the situation, not its cause. Hell, IVF is bloody stressful, especially when you are juggling a demanding professional career and a toddler to boot. But when we started trying to conceive a second child, it was fun. Imagine that! Sex at the start was not about timing. I wasn’t taking my temperature the moment I woke, examining my cervical mucus or peeing on sticks to confirm a hormone surge back then. We were just making love.

A whole lotta love.

Yeah, it was a lot of fun. Especially as we were coming to the end of our first year of parenthood when physical intimacy hadn’t been the highest thing on the agenda for months. It took a long while for the stress to set in, as it does for every other infertile couple that I’ve spoken to. If relaxation were the missing ingredient, we’d have  had a much better chance of hitting the jackpot right back at the start.

The biggest reason, though, that I cannot stand to hear the relax line is this: When you utter those words, it implies that you think this is our fault.

Think about it for a moment.

When you tell us to relax what you’re really saying is “If only you stopped worrying about it so much, you’d have your baby by now. This is all in your control if only you could manage your emotions.”

And you know, I’d give up work tomorrow if I thought it would help. I’d give up every possession we have to live on a remote island in the sun, to do nothing but sip cocktails, practice mediatation and have heavenly massages if that would give me what I long for.

I’d move heaven and earth to have another baby.

Trust me. Even if I relax to the point of melting away, neither heaven nor earth are for moving.

In Black and White

A couple of weeks ago we returned to our fertility clinic for a “follow-up” appointment after our last failed cycle. It’s what’s affectionately known in the infertility community as a “WTF” appointment, as in “WTF went wrong?”

The thing is, we pretty much know what went wrong. I didn’t get pregnant (obviously). And I didn’t get pregnant because my eggs are crap and because we have virtually no sperm to work with. In short, the raw materials are rubbish, and that’s a huge problem before we even get to the complicated, roll-of-the-dice chance of whether an embryo implants and continues to divide and grow. There are all kinds of solutions, proven and otherwise, that can be thrown at things like implantation issues, but without the essential ingredients of the appropriate quality to make embryos in the first place we’re… well, we’re screwed. We don’t have any options.

I knew all that before we went. And I don’t think in my heart-of-hearts that I expected to be told anything else. We went because I needed some kind of closure. Some kind of point under which I could draw a line. I needed the last time that we walked out of that clinic, and the last time we saw staff there, not to have been a limbo moment. I didn’t feel finished somehow.

From that point of view, I suppose it helped a bit. It was the final chapter in a story which, if not exactly long, was certainly intense.

But in other ways it also left me feeling worse.

There were a lot of snotty tears. A lot of wishing for a magic solution, as if I really thought they’d have been withholding something miraculous that might work for us. I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t descend to that, and I knew I sounded ridiculous and looked an idiot. But I’m so not ready for it be over. And desperation is never a particularly rational (or attractive) emotion.

And then we got the letter summarising the appointment and it really hit home. The part which stated “further treatment is very unlikely to be successful for you and it is therefore my recommendation that you do not pursue further IVF and ICSI.”

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There was something about seeing that written in black and white that reached right in to the very deepest part of my heart where I’m suppressing all the feelings about our failure to conceive another child that I don’t yet feel able to fully confront. Seeing it written like that meant it was no longer a choice that we’d made to stop. We were being told that we had to stop. That this clinic won’t treat us any more and they advise that we don’t go elsewhere either. And if it’s not a choice, then it’s out of my hands and out of my control. Somehow that just makes it hurt all that much more.

I don’t do failure.

All my life I’ve worked incredibly hard to achieve everything that I’ve set my heart on. I don’t accept being told “no” very well. It’s like a red rag to a bull, and the higher the barriers people raise to stop me getting where I want to go, the higher I’ll climb, the harder I’ll try and the further I’ll go to get past them. I’m tenacious. And I always get there in the end.

This is different. No amount of hard work or effort will change the facts. I can’t make a baby simply by trying harder. We can’t do more. And I’m finding that so hard to accept.

This time last year I had so much hope that we could be “fixed”. I still have that lingering spark deep in my heart and I think I’ll feel it flare every month for ever more. But I do have to start coming to terms with the fact that this isn’t going to happen. We have absolutely no choices to make because our bodies have made them for us. There is nothing to do.

For the first time in my life, I’ve failed.

It’s there on that piece of paper.

There, in black and white.

Letting Go of Hope

The last week-and-a-bit, since finding out that I’m not pregnant, has been tough.

In many ways, life simply goes on. I’m still a parent, and my son is still needs to have me fully present in that role. Whatever I’m feeling, it’s not fair to let it affect him any more than I can help. He knows I’m sad, but I need to make sure that he sees he is not the cause of that. I spend my days proving that to him, no matter how hard I may be finding it.

But when the day is done, and he’s safely snuggled in his bed, the thoughts and feelings that I spend all day avoiding come bubbling back to the surface.

There have been more than a few tears. Hysterical sobs, if I’m honest. The “denial” part of this process has been strongly in evidence as I’ve found myself desperately searching for alternative options – researching overseas clinics and actually contemplating what it would mean to seek further treatment abroad. Looking at different treatment regimens that could work and the cheapest options within reach of home.

The first morning that I dropped Thomas at nursery after the negative test, I was confronted with a group of other parents dropping off their (same age as Thomas) children and every single one was either heavily pregnant or cradling a younger child. And my reaction was to text Ian immediately and tell him we had to try again because I couldn’t cope with the idea of never having another child.

But deep down, I know that we can’t pursue this.

It simply isn’t going to work.

Or at least, it’s so unlikely that I can’t justify the financial and emotional cost to all of us.

It’s not as simple as saying I’m “giving up”. People seem to think of the idea of “not giving up” as somehow strong. But I’m not weak. In fact, i’ve oft been told that tenacity should be my middle name. But sometimes, it’s a more courageous to stop trying. To face up to the reality of the situation rather than keep flogging a dead horse. And I know it’s fairer to us all to accept what we’ve been blessed with and to try to move on. No matter how much we’ve tried to avoid it, there has been a certain degree of putting life on hold in the last two years, and I recognise it needs to stop.

It turns out, though, that I may not be completely giving up after all. Because it turns out that the one thing I just can’t let go of is hope. So even though there will be no more treatment cycles – no more drugs or scans or the very best that scientific technology can offer – I still have a lingering dream, and a tiny spark of hope somewhere deep inside that says “this could still happen”.

While “giving up” on the actual process is relatively straightforward, it turns out that turning off a dream is almost impossible. Even when all logic points to that dream being virtually unattainable, and there being almost nothing you can do to make it happen, it appears in can be difficult to quash that little spark inside saying “maybe, just maybe”.

I’m simply finding it impossible to believe that we won’t have the second child I’ve always pictured in our lives. I still believe it, against all the odds. I believe in it to the point that when I booked our follow up appointment at the fertility clinic and could only arrange it for just over a month away, I slipped in to a fantasy that I could be pregnant by then anyway.

I thought it, and felt it and fantasised about it for a full five minutes, despite being well aware that it’s nigh on impossible.

I don’t know if it’s a crazy form of self preservation, or if I’m just setting myself up for an even bigger fall down the line. I don’t know if I feel this way because I stillwant it to happen so, so much. I don’t know if I should be forcing myself to let go of these hopes and dreams.

More to the point, I don’t know if I can.

End and Beginning

It’s odd how a make or break moment of my life has come down to a plastic stick and three minutes. That’s not something you foresee when you imagine how your life might pan out.

Of course, they were three minutes that felt like a complete eternity, sitting together in the darkness of our bedroom at 6am, unable to prolong the agony by waiting for the sun to rise.

When the clock had ticked its full three revolutions, we made our way, hand-in-hand, back to the bathroom. And there one life – or it’s promise at least – ended, and another began.

Negative.

Failure.

There will be no second baby for us. No sibling for our son.

No happy ending here. Just the beginning of an acceptance that you can’t always get what you want. That dreams don’t always come true.

But then I always knew that and perhaps I was greedy to expect anything else.

We clung to each other in the pitch darkness for a long time. Long enough for salty tears to make my eyes to puff up and stick together. Long enough for my neck and head to begin to ache from crying, until I realised that the strange, animal-like sound I could hear was my own sobs.

Grief is completely real even when what you’ve lost is something that you never even had, at least not outside your dreams. I know that now.

But life goes on.

Thomas stirred, and rose from his bed wanting to play trains.

And so there we began a new life. It’s one where hope is gone, but replaced at least with some degree of certainty. The certainty that we are, and always will, be a family of three.

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I know it could be a lot worse. But it still hurts like hell.