I wish I knew then what I know now. So, I’m going back in time, and giving myself this starter pack.
It’s May, 2019. You’ve just been given your infertility diagnosis.
This is devastating and life-changing news, and I’m so sorry you are both going through this. I say this because no-one else will. Your dream of having children has been ripped away from you and placed at the back of a very long queue, in the hands of a high-tech medical team who will get to know you very intimately.
You’ve been handed the news like a grenade, and they’ve taken the pin out and run for the hills. It’s just the two of you, and you’re in completely uncharted territory. Where the fuck do you go from here?
Don’t worry, I’ve got you. I know you’re feeling pretty lonely and lost right now, you don’t even know where to start. So I’ve written up a starter pack for you. A survival guide of sorts, based on what I’ve learnt in your next year. There are no quick-fixes or cures I’m afraid, but hopefully it’ll help to hold you up when you need a hand.
INFERTILITY STARTER PACK
1. Welcome to the club. You are now in a club that no-one wants to be part of, but let me tell you, you won’t find more kindness, understanding and superhero warrior strength anywhere else. It’s a support group born from heartbreak, and these #InfertilityWarriors have Got. Your. Back.
2. Your feelings are valid. There is a lot going through your head right now; a lot of conflicting feelings and emotions. And it may not be the same things that he’s feeling. Be kind to yourself and to each other. Get comfortable with those feelings, and allow them to breathe – it’s likely they’ll hang around a while and will crop up again when you least expect it. Welcome them. They’re real, and they’re valid.
3. Get on Instagram. You’ve deactivated all your social media because it’s toxic and exhausting. This is different (I promise!). Set up a new, private, anonymous (if you wish) account and join this wonderful community online. Lots use a name that’s TTC (trying to conceive), or IVF (in vitro fertilisation) related but honestly call it whatever you like. Search some of the following hashtags to connect:
#InfertilityWarriors #TTC #IVF #Infertility #FertilityStruggles #ttccommunity #IVFcommunity #TTCjourney #ttcsisters #InfertilitySupport #IVFstrongertogether(the IG community are pretty heavy on the #hashtags so they’re easy to find!)
4. Seek support and connect with people in a similar situation. Infertility is incredibly isolating, and misunderstood by those “on the outside”. Now that you’ve got your account set up (which can be as public or private as you feel comfortable), make it your safe space: fill it with wholesome content that makes you smile. Puppy photos will make you cry because your heart yearns so viscerally, but follow all the dog accounts anyway (sloths, happy news, funny art, beautiful books etc. will help too).
There are a few ‘big’ infertility/TTC accounts which might be good to follow to get you started (but you’ll soon make friends with those on a similar ‘timeline’):
@bigfatnegative: The BFN Podcast. You will binge this 30-hour series in a week. Just two friends, talking through their fertility “journeys” in real time, real talk.
@definingmum (Becky): Fertility and donor conception advocate. Her #FertilitySupportSaturday will help you connect to others so get in touch. She does loads for the TTC community.
@the.infertile.midwife (Sophie): She’s a Midwife and shares her ongoing IVF treatment after the loss of her twin boys. All-round good egg.
@theeasybit: a documentary exploring the male perspective of infertility. There aren’t nearly as many infertility accounts by men as there are women, but seek them out, and leave them somewhere he can find them.
@feathering_the_empty_nest (Elle): Author of Ask Me His Name, after losing her son Teddy. Great support for baby loss and some beautiful home decor pics!
@jenniemonologues (Jennie): Journalist and author of The Uterus Monologues, you’ll find solace in her blog about life after #recurrentmiscarriage.
@thisisalicerose (Alice): a super chill and mellow account. She runs campaigns for the infertility community, provides mindset courses and has a podcast.
5. Talk, talk, talk. If you don’t, you’ll combust. This is all so huge and you need to make sense of it, so talk about it to anyone who will listen. You’ll soon learn that nobody understands, but some are better at trying. Find those people, lean on them, and love them with all your heart. Keep a mental note of the hours you’ve clocked up – you owe it to them to pay them back in kind.
6. Write. This has always been your coping mechanism, your outlet. Some of your best work arises from darkness – ride with it. Write for you, it is therapy.
7. Get a diary/calendar/countdown app. Your life will disappear into the moments between appointments. Try to fill them (you won’t), and not waste your days in pyjamas literally clock-watching (you will).
8. Take up a new hobby. Learn crochet (Here’s how you’ll get started). It will make you feel like you’re achieving something and will be a very welcome distraction during those days of waiting (at least until you’ve run out of people to give handmade cuddly toys to).
In a time when you’re constantly told “you can’t”, find something that “you can”.
9. Go easy on the studying. You will devour books, podcasts, documentaries. It will make you feel better and give you a sense of control. But sometimes ignorance is bliss. When it comes to the final test, no amount of revision can guarantee a positive result.
10. Instead, learn to read. I mean really read. People. Emotions. Him. It’s a fucking hard subject to talk about and the only time you’ll really manage it is in the space between words. The silences. In the petty fights and vicious remarks, in the soap-level shouting and slammed doors, in the tears and the tearing away. Read those moments. Those moments say everything. And when all you want to do is run, hold onto each other for dear life.
11. Forgive. Not just each other. Have patience with the kind hearts behind the well-intentioned-but-poorly-formed comments. This is taboo territory and people don’t know what to say. You’ll quickly learn the difference between an ignorant bigot and a well-meaning loved one. One wants to help and the other can’t be helped. Forgive both, then neither can hurt you.
12. Recognise triggers and protect your heart. Your heart has been broken and is fragile: protect it. Put it first every once in a while, and be kind to yourself. Triggers come in all shapes and guises and may strike when you least expect it. As your secret Instagram is your safe space, so too is your social circle. Fill it only with things that make you feel good. If there’s an event that’s going to be too emotionally exhausting for you, don’t go. If there’s a date that’s a difficult milestone or anniversary and you need to curl up until it’s over, then pull those blankets tight and hibernate. Protect your heart.
13. Protect his heart too. You’re in this together but your experiences and perspectives are completely different. You won’t always understand each other, or even agree with each other. But you don’t have to. Just be there. You might not always be on the same page, but you’re both part of the same book, and that anchors you deep.
14. Warning: pregnancy announcements will hurt. And I don’t mean a little discomfort, I mean hurt, like a punch in the heart that flattens your lungs. Cherish those who tell you their news via text; they are doing you a kindness by allowing you the space to process. Respond with love despite the tears. “Happy for you, sad for me” will become very familiar.
I’ll let you into a little secret: it gets easier when the baby arrives. A squishy little blob of a human works wonders on grief.
15. Smear-test anxiety will become a thing of the past. I’ll tell you right now, every single appointment at the clinic will involve your legs in stirrups and a doctor having a right good look, so get pretty comfortable with “Wanda” or “Dildo Cam”. And wear easy-to-remove shoes and clothing. It’s quite something, silently fumbling over a pair of Docs whilst a consultant lubes up a 12-inch ultrasound wand.
16. You are very susceptible to hormones. Though not the case for everyone, the hormones in the myriad of drugs you are injecting daily will affect you hard and fast. From day one you’ll experience headaches, nausea, mood swings, fatigue and stomach bloat. And you’ll make sure everyone knows about it. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
17. Be kind to all the clinic staff. You may not feel particularly chipper, but be kind to all the staff you encounter. Chances are they will all take a look inside your uterus at some point and some are much gentler than others. Let the lovely ones know they are lovely. You’ll be in for internal scans and blood tests Every. Other. Day for two weeks, so make it a nice place to be.
18. Ask for hints and tips. Everyone will be on different protocols and drugs, but someone will be on the same as you. This is when your Instagram community is invaluable. Turn to them for hints, tips and reassurance. They get it, and between them they have a wealth of experience. (Here’s one to get you started – stool softener. Egg Retrieval will have you blocked for days.)
19. You don’t have to do it alone. You won’t realise how gentle and lovely the Gonal F injection pen is until you add Fyremadel to the mix. That fucker. It’s thick, it stings, and it wakes you up at 7.30 EVERY morning. Ask him to do it for you – he may appreciate being involved and it allows you to drift off back to sleep (ice helps too!). Plus you’re exhausted. All. The. Time. There will come a day when you’re so sick of it all that you cry before he even prepares the syringe. You’ve got this. And he’s got you.
20. Egg collection is scary for him. This is the moment it all comes down to; your weeks of scans and bloods and injections. Arguably, you have the easy bit here – you’re put to sleep and you wake up with a cup of tea and a biscuit. He, on the other hand is freaking out. Not only is he terrified that you’ll never wake up but as you’re “being harvested” he has to go and do a sample. No sample, no embryos. This is make or break. So be kind to him today, he may need to be carried through this. And as you come round from the anaesthetic, you’re going to be talking a lot of nonsense (mostly about the staff – this is why it’s important to have the lovely ones at the forefront of your mind).
21. Relish the victories. Between you both you are going to smash egg collection. You’ll have 21 eggs collected and as the days whittle on the numbers will drop, but you’ll end up with 8 embryos which make it to day five (blastocyst). One is transferred (in the most surreal moment), and your 7 remaining embryos are frozen. You’ve done it! You know how lucky you are to have “spare” embryos to freeze and you can finally relax a little and celebrate getting this far. You are now PUPO (pregnant until proven otherwise) and have just 11 (of the longest days) to wait until you can test.
22. Enjoy PUPO. You remained positive (for the most part) throughout this whole cycle, and (besides the dreaded progesterone pessaries), you have no more medication and can relax a little. Keeping busy is a welcome distraction. You’re technically pregnant and the progesterone makes you feel pregnant (nausea, fatigue, headaches). You argue over names and smugly turn down wine, you rub your bloated stomach each morning, and the pair of you dare to browse at prams and cribs and newborn dungarees. You feel superhuman. Pregnancy is actual magic and you’ve yearned for this since your last one ended too soon. You were born for this.
And that is where I run out of tips for this survival pack. I want to end it there. I don’t want to tell you what happens next. Hope is so important to getting through an IVF cycle.
Sometimes hope simply isn’t enough.
You’ll know yourself, before test day, that you are not in fact superhuman, that there is no magic. That the symptoms were just the progesterone, of course they were. He’ll know the answer before you even speak by the way you look at him from the bathroom, test in hand. There aren’t any ‘tips and tricks’ for a negative result.
How could it not work? What did we do wrong? Why us (always us)?
You are both broken. What now?
Hope isn’t completely lost of course; IVF is a numbers game after all. And you are the lucky ones. You have some tiny little parts of you in a freezer in a clinic, waiting to be returned home.
–Enter Coronavirus, stage left–