by Hazel Leonard, Fertility Educator & Midwife RM & Founder of The Prepared Pineapple
I qualified as a Midwife in 2008. At the time, IVF and infertility were not something I heard much about. I can't say I remember many of my patients, in the early days, discussing or disclosing the long and arduous journeys they had been on to get pregnant. There was some debate at the time as doctors would write 'Very precious baby' in the notes of those that had had IVF or fertility treatment, but weren't all babies precious? It was a debate we had frequently and as a naïve and optimistic 24-year-old, I had no idea how complicated it could be.
My own 'journey' started in 2014 after my husband and I got married. We had put trying to get pregnant on hold for a couple of months so that we could enjoy our honeymoon. I look back now and can't quite believe I was so blind to the fact that it would 'just happen'. My view at the time was that we would simply try for a couple of months, and it would be easy. How wrong we were! In the end, it took us 5 years of investigations & tests, one round of IUI, one round of IVF and two rounds of ICSI for us to achieve our only positive pregnancy test, which I'm very pleased to say resulted in the birth of our son. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. If I could go back to my 30-year-old self in 2015, what would I say to her? What do I wish I had known about infertility before it rudely invaded my life?
Infertility is the most all-consuming thing you will ever experience
Once you start trying for a baby, you find yourself thinking of nothing else. It's not long before you start googling signs and symptoms of pregnancy and feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness and disappointment each month when your period arrives. It almost becomes a full-time job and part of your daily focus. Whilst it is a challenging process, you should know that these feelings are completely normal. It's okay to sometimes feel overwhelmed and it's okay to take a break now and again if you need to.
You will find triggers in things you had always taken for granted.
Before infertility, when a friend or family member announces a pregnancy you are genuinely happy for them, excited to hear all about how they are feeling and you cannot wait to meet their little bundle. However, once you start trying to conceive a pregnancy, announcements (for many) become a trigger of huge emotion. You will be happy for others, but extremely sad for yourself. Simple trips to the supermarket can lead you to the baby section by mistake, triggering such overwhelming emotion that you had no idea where it came from. Everyone has very different triggers but whatever yours is, you are not a bad person. It's okay to feel all the feels. Try different coping techniques such as journaling, mindfulness and meditation to help give you an outlet for these feelings.
Fertility treatment is not only financially expensive
The financial implications of infertility can be huge (unless you are fortunate to have it covered by NHS or private medical insurance), but the investment won't just be from your pocket. You will throw everything you have into treatment including your time, your mental health, time away from work, your relationship, cancelling social plans, changes to your diet and lifestyle and so much more.
Never underestimate the power of male factor infertility
This would be the biggest message to me. Infertility is not just a woman's issue and with male factor contributing to 40% of all cases, it certainly deserves more time and effort. In our case (and with many others) my husband was essentially ignored for 4 years because his seamen analysis 'looked normal'. We were diagnosed with unexplained infertility until one doctor listened to us and took a closer look. What did we find? You guessed it, male factor infertility in the form of poor-quality sperm DNA fragmentation. DNA fragmentation takes a more in-depth look into sperm quality and DNA damage. He saw a urologist and they found a varicocele in his testicle (similar to a varicose vein but in the testicle). He had surgery to remove it, took vitamins and changed his lifestyle. Over three months later, we saw a huge improvement in the quality of his sperm, which ultimately lead to our first successful round of ICSI.
Educate & never be afraid to advocate for yourself
After the first few years of feeling ignored and not part of our treatment, I took it upon myself to gain a better understanding of infertility and the tests and treatments available to us. We suspected male factor infertility after the last two rounds had resulted in our embryos arresting before reaching the blastocyst stage (day 5). Because of this, we were able to voice our concerns with a doctor that took us seriously and took the next steps. I feel strongly that it should be a partnership between you and your doctor, not a dictatorship. If you feel as though you are not being heard, don't be afraid to ask more questions and stand up for yourself. Ensure your knowledge is up to date, you are aware of all your options and are part of the decisions being made in your care.
It's no one else's business
The questions will come thick and fast (especially if you’re getting married). 'When are you going to have a baby?', 'Why aren't you pregnant yet?', 'Just relax I'm sure it will happen when you stop thinking about it!' (my personal favourite…not). Although well-meaning, these comments can be the most hurtful and invasive questions. Sometimes (or all the time) you will just want to tell people, not so politely, to bugger off! These are questions that you don't have to answer, but I always found it helped if I had an answer prepared, such as, 'Well we are trying right now so if it happens, I'll let you know' or 'I'd rather not talk about it right now thanks'. Whatever your response, do what feels right for you. You don't need to justify yourself to anyone- it really is none of their business.
It will feel very lonely, but you are certainly not alone
Approximately one in seven couples will experience infertility. This is a huge number of people. The next time you are out with a group of friends, take a look around you, it could well mean that one or two of you in that group will have experienced this. It will look different for everyone. Some will achieve a spontaneous conception with minimal intervention, others may need to go through IVF, while others may leave the process childless. The key message is you most certainly will not be alone or the only ones going through this. Support is out there and there are some amazing Facebook groups and Instagram accounts dedicated to this very topic. Consume what you feel you can, but know you are not alone.
Following on from my experience I completed some additional training to become a Fertility Educator and now work supporting women and couples on their journeys. I have created online programmes with all the information I wish I'd had access to when I was trying to conceive and going through IVF. You can find me on Instagram at The Prepared Pineapple or www.thepreparedpineapple.com