Covid-19, AKA the ‘Rona, has brought many things to humanity’s table, not least of which an increased reliance on Netflix’s game (strong). Here, in the depths of drama, comedy and pre corona comfort reruns, I have witnessed the emergence of a true life – dare I say fertility struggle – icon: Mr Michael Jordan.
Court hero, global sporting legend and cultural icon in the days before social media, ‘The Last Dance’ charts the rise of the Chicago Bulls dynasty with Jordan at the helm, focusing on their historic sixth championship win in 1997-98. Clearly Michael wasn’t shooting duds – he has three children with his first wife and two with his second – but the passion, ruthlessness, and some might say outright bullying that drove his “seven year struggle” to win his first NBA title resonated. When the camera zoomed in on a young Michael clutching the NBA trophy, uncharacteristically sobbing and saying these words – on Father’s Day no less – it encapsulated every single emotion I’ve ever felt throughout our personal (eight years long and counting) battle to have a child. The poetry we saw on court was the public face of relentlessly hard teamwork and sacrifice, a refusal to accept defeat, an unwavering drive to deliver the dream. Jordan; Pippen; Rodman; Kerr; Kukoc; Grant; Cartwright: the blend of talent and personalities which took hard work and opportunity and created their own luck. Phil Jackson’s razor sharp focus and handling of emotional bandwidth as their coach would not have looked out of place amongst ladies in an IVF clinic. That team literally made their dream happen.
I once laboured as passionately but under a different apprehension. If the Bulls had had different biology and been asked to undergo a full round of IVF – flatlining your system down to menopause, cranking up ovaries through stimulation, an operation for egg collection feeling and looking like a fucking hen, pain and hormonal come down while sperm and egg are brought together to create embryos, days of anxiety to see which ones develop or fail and then – if you’re lucky – more drugs to thicken your womb lining for a fresh or frozen embryo transfer – I’m sure they would have attacked the process with equal competitive gusto. Luck is when hard work meets opportunity, right? A plethora of added extras such as pre genetic screening (where your embryos are screened for abnormalities with the potential it leaves you with nothing to transfer); an endometrial biopsy to detect natural killer cells, a GCSF womb wash to change the chemistry of your flange, intravenous intralipid drips to reduce the natural killer cells in your body – that entire team would have psychologically slayed it. A two week wait to see if you go from technically pregnant to ‘actually’ pregnant after embryo transfer, including copious progesterone supplements up every orifice, inter muscular and bruising clexane injections? No problem. Their self-belief, physical and mental resilience would have left them in no doubt they were bringing home the championship.
But losing the trophy – in my case my first pregnancy – and then choosing to repeat this entire process using existing and newly created embryos another five times, in other people’s cases sometimes more over a period spanning years? Those men would have been out. Something would have snapped physically, mentally and emotionally. In the case of IVF, all the hard work and sacrifice in the world doesn’t necessarily get you the result. It is at times brutal and if it fails, it is bitter. I suspect Denis Rodman would have chosen the mother of all benders in Vegas with Carmen Elektra well before then. Mind you, repeated IVF failure to them probably would have been preferable to failing the final season – the Last Dance – with Jerry Krause in charge, proving a short man who’d effectively served you and your dedication notice that it was time for a rebuild.
I am not anti IVF. Without it we would not have had our first baby. We would not have known the wonderful consultants and nurses who took care of both of us at a time of my life when I picked my way through fear, longing and loss. We wouldn’t have felt the tenuous, butterflies in tummy life affirming joy of seeing a photo of ‘the baby’ and their siblings, including the non-identical twins delicately implanted in my womb. It is a deeply sobering fact that while “more people in the UK are undergoing IVF with the procedure becoming safer and more successful than ever,” [Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, May 2020], the average birth rate for women of all ages using their own eggs has reached 22%. Women under 35 using their own eggs have the highest birth rates with 30% for a fresh embryo cycle and 27% for a frozen embryo cycle. That is a hell of a lot of us who don’t gain a live baby outcome, something that I didn’t and couldn’t acknowledge during these years. It is hard to read these words now.
Fear of never having your own child is both a powerful motivator and rational thought constrictor. For various reasons, our consultants had always put our odds at 50/50 and on one cycle, 70/30. Having got pregnant on our first round of IVF, I saw no reason why it wouldn’t work again, if I did what I was told, undertook all the extras, took the pain, discomfort, drips, pessaries and rode the hormonal coaster at Altered State Towers. I was powering ahead on Jordan-esque, all encompassing, higher than ecstasy long time hope. Focused on getting through every uncomfortable procedure, hundreds (and I do mean hundreds) of injections, pills and pessaries, hope steeled and encouraged me, allowing me to endure what in effect was the best fertility medicine and consequently, relentless bullying of my body and my mind. I thought it was for the best possible cause and that, if all else failed, I would never look back with regret at what I could have done, because I had given everything, absolutely everything in me to achieve the dream.
Engrossed in the Last Dance with the rest of Netflix, I could only wonder, in my own slightly wine addled brain, what it would be like to have a changing room pep talk with Jordan and Jackson on getting up the duff and staying there. Chew the life fat with Pippen and Kerr! Evaluate your IVF stats, the hope, the dream, re-centre the focus. It would have been the 90s. Bad trousers, Matrix style sunglasses, Rachel from Friends haircuts, good times! Back in the days when we were unequivocally told not to get pregnant, sex was purely for fun, and turning 40 seemed light years away. What would their advice have been?
“It started with hope,” says Michael Jordan, looking straight at the camera, his tone changing. “It started with hope.”