Love in the time of infertility
How it feels to be the guy in the relationship when 'nothing happens'?
For many people, starting a family is a rite of passage. You meet the missing half of you, fall in love, cohabit, merge finances, marry and the next logical step is to discard contraception with a view that sometime in the not too distant future, you’ll be blessed with a pair of blue lines on a pregnancy test and your world will change forever.
For the majority, this is what it means to get pregnant – a decision, some sex of any discernible quality and then boom – sperm meets egg, embryo forms, blastocyst and voila. OK, so it’s not quite as easy as that, but somehow human beings have managed to reproduce for millions of years so the theory is sound – for most.
However according to the NHS, around 1 in 7 UK couples have difficulty conceiving. That’s 16% of couples who will struggle compared to the 84% who will conceive naturally within a year of trying if they have regular unprotected sex. However for couples like us (in our late thirties when we started in earnest) who try to conceive for more than 3 years without success, the likelihood of getting pregnant naturally within twelve months is less than 25%.
Having a baby is not a foregone conclusion. Despite evidence going back to nine months before the dawn of man suggesting otherwise, for some couples it can be really quite hard to conceive. There are many and varied reasons why a couple can’t just assume a shag at the right time in the month will hail a stork of happiness, as my wife C and I discovered during our own steep, perilous and still ascending learning curve over the past three years.
Ours is an all too common and, oddly, quite fortunate story in comparison to many other parents in waiting. Our infertility is termed ‘unexplained’, that is, there are no physical reasons related to the quality and volume of her eggs nor the number, shape or motility of my sperm that suggests we should be having problems. There is our age, of course. At the last birthday C turned 41 whilst I pass the same benchmark in a matter of weeks. In efficient conception circles, advancing age is not your friend, as these rather depressing stats from the NHS attest:-
In 2010 the percentage of IVF treatments that resulted in a live birth was:
32.2% for women under 35
27.7% for women aged 35 to 37
20.8% for women aged 38 to 39
13.6% for women aged 40 to 42
5% for women aged 43 to 44
1.9% for women aged over 44
In Cheltenham week, those odds are the kind of longshots only the drunk and the desperate would bet on. That’s to say, pretty dreadful.
C and I were advised on what to do to increase our chances. I’d already quit smoking, we started taking many and varied vitamin supplements, we cut down and latterly eradicated alcohol. C got into acupuncture (I lasted one session and dismissed it as codswallop, whilst nurturing a mint tea). We planned it like a work project and had sex at the appropriate times, as well as ad hoc. As a point of interest it became harder to be spontaneous when you’re on a schedule, but this might just be me.
We’d been having a go for a year or two, as advised, and despite the rare excitements as periods coming a day or two late you’re still no closer to generating that whimsical clone. What to do? Our path took us to the NHS first – no need to raid the savings with a costly fertility specialist while we were still in the relatively early stages for our age cohort, we thought. For C and I, this was pretty disastrous. An Italian ‘specialist’ with the bedside manner of a ticket collector and the personal hygiene regimen of a stubborn teenager gave us the frank assessment that we should give IVF a go. We were old.
That was it, so off I toddled to have the first in a series of many undignified wanks in a hospital north of Shepherds Bush.
Tug #1 was a grimy affair in a whitewashed room with zero internet access nor reading material. If I could tap my creative capacity from that afternoon I could sell it to the Tate for a king’s ransom.
We were diagnosed with what’s known as undiagnosed infertility – basically, nothing major was actually wrong. We were just relatively old to be getting on the parental bandwagon and the news was partially good, in that C’s inner workings and my sperm quality were relatively decent. Others have it much, much worse.
We had a brief chat shortly afterwards and decided to go private. After all, if this wasn’t important enough to invest the savings pot in, then what the hell was?
Year three began promisingly. A recommendation from a family friend who’d recently seen success with a leading fertility specialist, a trip to Harley Street (or thereabouts) and a series of blood tests for both of us, including one for all major STIs. At two hundred and fifty quid, give or take, they were mercifully negative but it did set our expectations that going to ‘the best’ was going to need some serious piggy bank raiding.
On my side of the fence I had it easy – a trip down the road to a private basement medical facility which felt very much like a mid 90’s Ad agency – all smoky glass, chrome and slick-looking staff. A code-entry room, comfy chair and the raised eyebrow suggestion of a draw full of jazz mags from the nurse on her tip-toed exit. I had a good time, which is more than could be said for C down the road who was having the equivalent of a curling match taking place between her ovaries, care of the world’s least sensitive consultant physician.
Tests done it became apparent that there was a stumbling block between us and a bouncing bundle of joy. C had a fibroid (in very basic terms a mass of tissue) the size of a grapefruit in her ‘atrium’. “No matter”, we chimed, our jollity and enthusiasm beginning to rent a little at the seams “…we’ll get the embryos, freeze them then whack one in when the fibroid’s been removed”.
In preparation for egg extraction C went through the rigmarole of hormone injections, firstly each morning then in the evenings too. I tried to help but really just got in the way. It was gritty, but necessary. On the given day she was ready for egg collection so we returned to the clinic, said our goodbyes and she was put under for the procedure. I went to do my bit with yet another knuckle shuffle downstairs.
My third planned mastubatory session was far less Orwellian than the first and even more luxurious than the second. At nigh-on five hundred notes, it really should’ve been. A La-Z-Boy chair, Plasma TV, DVD player plus two folders of vanilla porn, one straight, one gay. My sample went into a double sided safe in the wall. I jokingly considered taking a photo of my sample pot – something to show our future son or daughter on their 21st birthday. The levity past, rapidly – and I went to check on my soon to be waking wife.
We did well. Ten eggs, all of which fertilised, four growing to an appropriate size, all looking goo… oh, shite. A phone call. They’re all duds.
IVF round one complete. You lose. Thanks for paying.
C continued with the plan to have the fibroid removed by the same automaton consultant. Dr Doom, still studiously avoiding any conversation or eye contact with me, the husband, despite the fact that I’d recently fed the best part ten grand into his cavernous wallet. He did the operation, managed to nick a nerve and left S pretty much housebound for the best part of six months. If I could have sacked him, I would have. As it was, and is in these situations, you just move on. We took some collective advice and went to another, equally expensive but supposedly more friendly clinic.
And started over again.
That was at the start of January 2018. More tests. We were both still clear of any STIs (you aren’t allowed to plead innocence – making you wonder how many marriages have come to a rapid and unscrupulous end in those very whitewashed corridors…). I had to have yet another chat with Mrs Palmer and her five daughters (clinical room, no DVD, more vanilla porn magazines without folders. Urgh… Five out of ten).
Foundations in place, we were ready for IVF part two. Cash in the bank (Eight grand, give or take) and a plan to start on April’s cycle. As per our plan, C left her (much loved) job so she would be as relaxed as possible and we could focus entirely on the creation of a tiny, expensive, most likely bad at maths and quite annoying sprog.
Her last day at work was the Friday. We had, as usual, nothing planned for the weekend so after a walk with a borrowed dog on the Saturday we ate leftover chicken, watched a film and went to bed just after ten.
As I brushed my teeth, thinking how boring I’d become to be looking forward to reading the next chapter of Robert Falcon Scott’s biography by Ranulph Fiennes on a Saturday night, I felt a poke in my side.
It was C. Prodding me with a pregnancy test. On it, in a tiny window, in which I could see a thin blue line.
Next to it, faintly, another.
I started writing this article a week ago when our resolve was being sorely tested and my confidence in our chances for a natural conception had, rather inevitably, wavered. We had heard many, many stories of friends of friends having success with IVF at as many as their eighth attempt. I had my personal fears about how long C’s bravery and resolve would last if we were forced to keep trying for that amount of time. Could we finance it? Could we bear it? Would we be able to handle it? That horrible floating question - when do you call it quits and admit the unbearable?
This wasn’t meant to be a Hollywood piece with a magical fairy godmother of redemption parachuting in, just in the nick of time. In fact, I simply saw it as a little therapy and a way to order my thoughts.
Now we have our own pair of little blue lines, my fears have been transferred. The stats are in our favour, but not comprehensively. All I want with every fibre of my soul is to meet our future child face to face.Both of us are hesitant in our private celebrations, limiting our happiness to mutual bursts of laughter then a fist bump (from her) and a small gift (from me). We’re cautious, nervous and mentally prepared to face further battles. However for now there’s happiness as out of nothing, we now have something. Which is all we’ve ever wanted.
For now, I’m over the moon – and I hope this feeling never ends.