Baby madness: how I survived not having one

 (published Herald Sun, 31/10/09)

Everyone loves a winner. The magazines are full of them. Their stories are uplifting, they make us feel all warm inside. We like to think that we, too, would be in the 20% that succeed, that we are unique enough, that the universe holds us to 20% more special than anyone else. But what happens to those who don’t succeed? Where are their stories? This is one of them, and I’m telling it because I didn’t win and yet somehow I did, and I think it’s important that we talk too. Us silent ones. I can’t exactly remember the numbers but they were pretty similar to that 20/80 split. And I completely believed with all my heart and soul that I would be in the 20% of women who conceive, through IVF, after the age of 40. I remember looking at the 80% as if it were some kind of weird foreign category, as if the doctors had said there’s 20% and then there’s blind mice and I thought well it’s impossible that I am blind mice so of course I will succeed.You see I wanted this pregnancy with every single cell of my body. I have never wanted anything as much, and at the time I held the ridiculous belief that if you want something that much, it will happen. For this maybe you can blame my parents, who love me a great deal and often let their strong-willed only daughter have her way. Or just maybe you can blame our culture, where we are told all the time that you just have to work really really hard and everything you want will finally materialise.

Just to keep things tidy, I might summarise under some headings what three years of useless fertility treatments taught me.

Where’s there’s a will sometimes there isn’t a way This is probably the most important thing that I learnt. I grew up with this idea, it permeated my schooling and further education, and in many areas, yes, wanting something and working towards it means you will finally get there.

But having a baby proved to be entirely out of my control, and it was horrifying. I generally do get things done. However karma or some mental flaw means I have chosen a career in the arts, so of course I’m pretty used to failure. But this itself was one of the reasons I was so baby mad.

Trying to make films feels a lot of the time like banging your head against a concrete wall for the fun of it. I started trying to get pregnant at 38. During my twenties and thirties, I developed a number of film projects, 99% of which never came to fruition (there’s those damned statistics again). This certainly was not the brilliant career I had envisaged for myself post film-school. To add to my slowly diminishing self-esteem, I had also had a number of relationships which hadn’t worked, due as much as anything to my own competing and contradictory need for intimacy and space (and probably also my love-hate relationship with my career).

At 38 I found myself in a new relationship. I was making a lot of compromises, but I just kept telling myself hey, you are rubbish at relationships, just sit there, shut up, and try to get one right. One Easter we were away down the coast for a little holiday, and W said quite casually let’s have a baby, the sort of way you might say let’s have a cup of tea. I was immediately completely flooded with joy, as if I’d won tattslotto, and I threw all doubts aside.

You see, I knew that the baby I was going to have would save me. I would finally be a success, and the wee one would be a project which would give me something to do, after all, that mothering business looked pretty hectic, no doubt there would be no time at all for me to write yet another screenplay which will never get made. And, I get to join the large and diverse club of motherhood – and having been an outsider all my life, the idea of belonging even to this broad and unfussy group filled me with excitement. I knew that having a baby makes a woman a real woman, and I knew this baby would somehow erase all that had gone before. Uh oh you say. That’s a heap of expectation. Indeed. But that’s only the half of it.

Only women bleed

First we just tried, you know, the way you do. I think I added in naturopathy some time during that year, taking my temperature in the morning, stuff like that. Then, on my doctor’s advice, I went to the fertility clinic at the Freemason’s Hospital. If you don’t know it, you’re lucky. It’s really a huge sausage factory of dreams, with multiple doctors servicing sad-faced singles and couples. You sit on these dreadful communal couches, trying not to look at each other, variously depressed or cheerful depending what news you are expecting, or have just been given. Even the pregnant ones sit there. Some bring along the children they already have. Everybody hates those people.

First up we did assisted reproduction, which meant W’s sperm was collected and inserted into my vagina at the time of ovulation. Amazing stories, I got pregnant, first time! I was extremely pleased with myself, in fact, I think the word is smug. Then, at the first scan, around 4 weeks in, my doctor commented that the embryo was small. He told me to come back in one week, but warned me it was likely to not survive. I’d gone by myself, W is a lawyer and was probably off with a client, I can’t remember. I do remember that it was a really horrible week. The next Friday the tiny heartbeat had gone. This was my first taste of despair, but I still had Hope (yes, even with a capital), after all, a pregnancy was a very good sign.

After the D & C we moved fairly quickly into the full monty – IVF proper, on the advice that my age was fast becoming a problem. In reality, it’s a problem after 35, but all I’d ever heard about were women popping out babies whenever they like. I had honestly never had a conversation with anyone who had been unable to conceive. I guess that’s because we just don’t like to admit it. Plus, and this is pretty funny in hindsight, I remember as a sullen teenager hearing my mother and aunty banging on about how wonderful it was that such and such was pregnant and I thought to myself oh god, why the fuss? After all, any moron can get pregnant. Oh how those words returned to haunt me.

Some time between the D & C and the first scan, it was a Friday night and W and I had a fight about something – not an unusual occurrence – and he dropped a bombshell. He told me that if I didn’t have a baby he would leave me for someone else who could. There wasn’t anyone he had in mind, it’s just children were a top priority for him. I remember this all so clearly, where I was sitting, the arrangement of the furniture, the look on his face when he told me. It was like he had slipped a knife into my heart. I always thought he would take it back, I mean any of us can say crazy horrible things when we are angry, but he never did. He never softened it, or refuted it, over the coming 2 years that I rode the IVF horse.

But I agreed. I agreed that if there was no pregnancy or baby within that time then we would go our separate ways. I thought that I could live with that hideous bargain, but I couldn’t, and it slowly ate away at my heart like an invisible disease.

In the end it’s only yourself

So you see all the pressures I had put on myself. At my first scan there were pretty much no eggs. This was bad. It meant my system was not responding in the way it should, and I would have to go onto the highest hormone levels. My doctor at the time told me as much. He advised me to walk out the door, book an overseas trip, buy a dog. To just forget the whole thing. I was devastated. It was an impossible suggestion, completely impossible.

I changed doctors and wrote my first doctor a sharp letter about his lack of bedside manner. He wrote back, apologetic. I’m sure he gets that sort of thing all the time – no one wants to hear the hard truth, and everyone’s emotions are running so high. Sometimes I really wished I had walked away then, but I didn’t. I guess I needed to put myself through the whole thing.

So there you have it. Two years of cycle after cycle. Scans, blood-tests, daily injections, operations, procedures. Hope, and betrayal of hope (small h now), over and over and over again. Alongside that, I added in naturopathy, diet restrictions (no coffee, no tea, no alcohol!) and acupuncture. Just to ensure that I had done absolutely everything. Of course this complete focus actually ensured that my stress levels remained through the roof, and I thought about pretty much nothing else. Except my Masters project, which some tiny internal voice of sanity made me start in order to have a complex project to sustain me through. Near the end of the two years, when it began to become clear that it wasn’t going to happen, the multiple vitamins and minerals were joined by anti-depressants. Every cycle, and there were five in total, I did pretty much alone, with the support of two very good friends.

If this sounds like some sort of self-inflicted hell, you’re right. Looking back, I do think in the thick of it I was quite nutty. But as I slowly began to understand that this rescue of my life wasn’t to be, I began to notice a weird by-product of the whole horrible process. I had finally become proud of myself. I learnt that I can completely rely on myself, that I am strong, resilient, and that I have a ridiculous amount of tenacity (and just need to choose what to apply it to!)

The smugness of mothers, or the club you cannot join is a rubbish club anyway

I think acceptance comes in layers, like a big sponge cake, but you have to let yourself move through the layers at your own pace, which is sometimes frustratingly slow. For a long time I was very very angry and full of pain. When my friends fell pregnant it would be like God had done it on purpose, to make me feel like shit. I tried to smile through it but sometimes I caught the hideous little thought in my mind ‘perhaps she’ll lose it’. Worst of all are those who fall pregnant the moment they starting ‘trying’ and tell you with glee, even though they know what you have been through. You certainly find out lots of people are rubbish at saying the right thing.

Luckily I decided long ago that I’m not a very nice person, and this has given me fantastic freedom to have those thoughts that other women might forbid themselves to have. When I meet a smug mother, and let me tell you, there are few mothers who aren’t, I like to concentrate on a few things which cheer me up. One of them is their stretched vagina. There’s also saggy breasts and stretch-marks. Then there are the children themselves – enormous seething bundles of ego and need. And that’s not counting teenagers. You see, I can see the cost that children extract. You, who have had them, can hardly allow yourselves that luxury, because you now have them for the rest of your life.

Bitterness is unbecoming

Having said that (and enjoyed it a great deal) I really think dealing with bitterness is the most important work we have to do as we age. I work hard not to bitter, and I do that by reminding myself how fantastic it is to have the freedom of no children. I can do my writing, my exercise, my hobbies, in my own time. I can go out to a movie, or a drink with friends, when I chose. I can eat what I like, when I feel like it. Plus, those smiles that parents have when they are out with their kiddies, don’t be mistaken, they are often rigours of boredom, and the sweet loving hugs from their little ones are only a passing fancy. Just a little later that very same day and the darling will have turned into a wailing tyrant. Kids are really hard work, let’s not pretend it isn’t so.

One exquisite torment is the old age one. Childless people sometimes worry about a lonely old age, but when I do, I take a moment to think about the families where the children hate their parents, where the children live overseas, contest the will, or have their parents slapped into an old persons home too early. I suspect fully functional loving family units are about as rare as lonely old spinsters.

Good friends are what you need, people who grow old with you. Include friends from younger generations (you need them so you can roll your eyes, unimpressed, when they tell you about their orgiastic adventures). You need things that deeply engage you, and connect you to the world in a way that is somehow beyond yourself. Like creative work, a fabulous garden, or volunteering.

And you need love. Finally, finally, I’d had enough of the selfish W, and left him. This shocked him to the core. I do believe he had thought our bargain an entirely reasonable one. Now I am seeing a kind and loving man, a man moreover with three children of his own (!), so slowly I am having to soften some of my anti-children stance – a challenging exercise in itself!

Now, two years later, I am pleased that IVF did not work for me. But I cannot lie, sometimes when I see a brand new little baby, I feel a twinge of that old desire again. But that’s about as frequent for me as my desire to climb Mount Everest, so I put that in the basket of highly unlikely, and concentrate on the likely. And to be completely honest, it no longer makes me sad. And that is a success unlike any I’ve ever had.