It’s National Fertility Awareness Week. When you want a baby and can’t have one, it’s like a a hole that threatens to suck you and your partner and the whole world dry. It starts as a tiny tear: you’ve been trying for a while and nothing’s happened. You’re waiting to meet the right person. You’ve met The One, but they want something different. But there’s time. So you keep praying and put it to the back of your mind.
Time passes. A few years maybe. Nothing has changed. But you’re aware you’re getting older. And that tiny tear is beginning to rip across the fabric of your relationships. Friends with families. Your marriage. Your experience of church. Your sense of self. So, when the Hole becomes bigger than the Fear of What If, you make an appointment with your GP. You lay your heart and your hopes on the consultant’s desk. You tell a stranger about your sex life. They do tests. You wait. Hopefully it’s something simple you can change. A new tablet. A lifestyle adjustment. But if it’s not, they’ll refer you. And that’s when you might start thinking about other options. Like IVF.
In fact, even without thinking about IVF, IVF will probably be thrust upon you. Our NHS experience was very like a conveyor belt. If you present to your GP with infertility issues then the motor starts and – whether you’re aware of it or not – you start being moved towards this kind of treatment. If you haven’t thought beforehand about what you believe, the consultant’s surgery is not the ideal time to start. So here are some pointers…
1. For many doctors IVF is just the go-to procedure for infertile couples. Adoption and other fertility treatments don’t often get a look-in in their calculations. So, check out the alternatives in advance.
2. Remember that the decisions lie with you. Quite often treatments are presented to you as “package deals”, but you have choices and you will need to research and fight for these. As you’ll see below, we had to be clear at many points that we wanted something “off the menu”.
3. Whatever treatment you opt for, it’s a process. This is also important to stop you living on a knife-edge every time you get a blood test or wait to see if your eggs are growing or if they implant . There are lots and lots of little milestones; and for your own sanity, you need to think long-term. The NHS recommended no of tries is 3. But that will depend on whether or not you can face more than one, if you’re able to get funding towards it and whether or not you’re suitable for IVF.
4. Give it your best shot – but remember that it’s not down to you. So, if there are obvious things you can do to improve your chances, then do it. Quit smoking, stop eating junk, cut back or out on alcohol. Maybe take a multi-vit. If you’re underweight or overweight, try to get to a normal BMI, (your consultant will probably recommend this too). BUT. Don’t go mad on moon cycles, goji-berries, tantric breathing etc. Don’t go on the Brazil nut diet. And try to live as normally as possible and focus on other things.
5. You are not alone. Infertility affects one in seven couples in the UK. It is not a reflection on you or your worth or your partner or your relationship or your sexuality or your faith. You’ll need to remind yourself of this, sometimes on an hourly basis.
6. Be aware that your consultant and team may have a completely different world-view to you. Listen to their advice, but don’t be intimidated, remember that it’s your body and your choices and that you can set the agenda, providing…
7. you think through some big questions in advance. Things you need to know before you start the process. I can’t emphasise this enough: it’s hard enough trying to work out what you feel, without doing it pumped full of hormones and with a consultant who may not agree with your views. Your emotions are very powerful, so work things out with your brain first and you won’t be led by them later. For example:
a. When do you think life begins? And how will this affect your decisions e.g. about how many eggs to fertilise/implant?
In a normal cycle, you collect and fertilise as many eggs as possible (say 8-10 eggs), and then pick out the best looking ones to put back. You then either destroy the others or can opt to freeze them, (they can be stored for two years, though 40% die during the thawing process).
We worked on the principle that life begins at fertilisation. So we did a modified version of IVF where we fertilised only two eggs each cycle (so that even if both fertilised, both could be implanted). From our consultant’s perspective, this was crazy: and he tried very hard to persuade us otherwise. (From his perspective this dramatically reduced our changes of success and thus the clinic’s overall performance). If we hadn’t worked it out in advance we would have found it even harder to stand our ground – and as it was, it was difficult. Here’s another question;
b. How many times will you try IVF? This may be determined by all sorts of things, including finance and mental health. But its good to work it out as a team in advance – and to think ahead about what you’ll do if it doesn’t work. Be aware too that you can’t be considered for adoption whilst you are trying for IVF (or for a short time after).
c. What will you do if things go wrong? One of my cycles was cancelled because I didn’t respond to the medication, (this is very rare and we still don’t know why). On another, the clinic phoned to say that one egg hadn’t fertilised and the other wasn’t viable. We went into the clinic to find out what they meant, and it was only then that we were told the other egg had fertilised but was triploid; in other words it had a complete extra set of chromosomes and would die shortly after birth, if not before. The clinic assumed that the egg would be destroyed but we wanted it to be implanted, ( a decision that involved calls to lawyers and the Human Embryology Centre). Regardless of whether or not we made the ‘right’ decision, had we not asked difficult questions and fought our corner, we wouldn’t even have known what had happened.
d. How will you build your life whilst the process goes on and if it doesn’t work? Infertility places couples under enormous pressure and is emotionally, physically and financially draining. If you let it, it will define you and your lives. It’s also very easy to withdraw from others, precisely when you need reminding that there’s a world outside of the IVF craziness. This doesn’t mean sharing your experiences with everyone, (unless you want to), but it does mean thinking in advance about who you will tell and letting them know how they can pray for and support you. Your relationship with the Lord is absolutely critical: if that’s going well and everything else is falling apart you can stand; if that’s going bad, then it’s very hard to keep going. So make time to spend with other believers, praying about the process and reminding one another of the truths of His word. Also, take those messy feelings – the anger and sadness and grief – to Him. You can’t carry it all, but He can.
Places that can help (see also blog page):
Christian Medical Fellowship: Brilliant resources on lots of medical issues, including fertility options
Hannah’s page: Christian support for fertility challenges
Bethany.org; Christian support for infertility and pregnancy loss
BAAF: British association for fostering and adoption