It was like something out of Love Island, except I wasn’t fifteen years younger, didn’t have a swimsuit flossing my lady garden and Dr Alex George – presumably by virtue of his absence – was down the road at University Hospital Lewisham, hopefully not being rejected by his patients as he was by the ladies of 2017. “I got a text!” I screeched to the cat and empty sitting room. The invite of the year was here.
Would I have been so excited had I been the eight weeks pregnant we both so much wanted me to be? It certainly wouldn’t have been so clear cut I’m sure, despite us both being from medical families and trusting the science. But once again, we were in the big bad bitch they call reality – and reality for us has been, once again, getting through the weeks after yet another failed embryo transfer.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot spoken about this particularly desolate moment of time, other than posts on Instagram which have the collective community holding the person in public and private support as words such as “devastated, shocked, numb…..will it ever be my turn….looking at adoption…..surrogacy….no toxic positivity please” spill out. For wider friends, colleagues and families not vagina deep in trying to have your own moving money pit, I think it is almost impossible to understand, this dichotomy between a rock and a hard place, accepting childlessness not by choice, or pursuing further treatment or different routes to parenthood all requiring just as much mental, emotional and physical resilience as offering up your own womb, if not more.
This is what I know. I know that on Easter Day I managed to sleep until 6am before jerking wide awake, heart pounding. My husband got the cup ready for me to piss in (spoiler: NEW pregnancy test technique so I didn’t have to do it on my own) and even as we both told ourselves it hadn’t worked and we would somehow be ok, I had managed to miss half of it and the poor man’s hands were shaking as he dipped the pregnancy test into my fresh out of Crofton. We looked down and I knew, I knew before him it hadn’t worked.
I know that just two weeks before the hugely empathetic doctor and embryologist had wished me a happy early birthday and shown me the black and white laboratory photo. I sat there, mask on, heart silent, not daring to even think further than how good going for a piss would feel in less than half an hour, after a journey into Blackfriars that involved an incredible friend on instagram reassuring me as our original AA embryo didn’t survive the dethaw. “Here is your baby,” the embryologist said. “We’re very pleased.” “Baby’s in there now,” said the consultant, removing the speculum. “This is your birthday present. We have everything crossed for you.”
I know the language of infertility can sometimes get it very, very wrong, but two professionals calling a black and white photo of an embryo a baby was in that moment the recognition and acknowledgement of what I was doing there that day, and what the stakes were if this did, and if it didn’t work.
I know that when you don’t see two lines on the test, the relief that you won’t have to do any more intra muscular progesterone injections and you may actually be able to sit down or turn over in bed without gritting your teeth is a short lived split second compared to the heart stabbing, familiar recognition that in a few short days you will be bleeding the cramping, clotting blood that isn’t a period, because it is an early miscarriage.
“You’ve done an amazing job,” my husband choked, enveloping me in his arms. “Thank you.” Later, on the sofa with a cat who must have a Mogfather hotline to every clinic we go to: “let’s look at adoption now,” he said, the words not quite matching the look of shock and exhaustion on his face. “Let’s make the best of this horrific situation.”
Re-entering a well-worn groove of grief, we hunker down. The progesterone injections have left my entire behind beyond tender. I brace myself for a drug withdrawal like the last time. It takes five days for the miscarriage to start and when it does, I know I cannot look again at that magical black and white photo. My phone fills up with the most wonderful, empathetic messages. My boss once again looks heartbroken on the screen as I weep and clears a safe area around me.
My brain must switch to pragmatic, practical. Once again I save letting go of myself to the sanctuary of the bathroom, shower, or daily walk because these are tears of absolute despair that I don’t want to put on my husband who is reeling, absolutely reeling from where we find ourselves. I recognise we will be coming out of lockdown and life will come back and I want to grab it tight and never let go. There have been so many fucking years of this trauma, physical anxiety, feelings of failure, fear, so much fear. Inner thoughts tumble and I look plainly at what I do, and do not want. Being childless becomes almost attractive compared to everything we’ve been through. I try it out in my mind, this idea of finally having mental peace, look at my beautiful husband, cat and house. A life of privilege, friends, support, love. I know, if we dig deep, if we make changes to how we live, go travelling, get a dog (don’t tell the Tilderbeast) we could do this. We could eventually come to terms. We could.
But we don’t want to.
Our clinic – and I know it’s not good form to compare clinics, but this squad are showing monumental depths of emotional empathy – arrange for us to speak to the Professor to give us his expert opinion. In the two weeks between a negative pregnancy test, miscarrying and asking him to give it to us straight, we start to see adoption and surrogacy as a real life potential as opposed to an emotional life buoy. I have no energy. I feel old, properly feel my age. I’m not sure I could physically carry a pregnancy now. I write a summary for the Professor and speak to his PA, Francesca, who listens as I do that very British thing of sounding incredibly matter of fact about where we are while also practically holding up a neon sign above my head screeching ‘breakdown’.
We speak, every day, all the time, about how we have reached the end of the line. Part of me hopes the Professor puts us down quickly; tells us with kindness it’s time to look at surrogacy or adoption. Offers to let us have our last three embryos for the surrogate (we have no idea if this is a thing with our clinic). We know IVF is selling hope. We of all couples see this as clearly as we see that without it we would never have had Pumbaa. The Professor pops up on the Microsoft Teams chat and I feel mentally and physically sick. Very quickly, with kindness, he says that while he is heartbroken to read everything we have been through, we still have a very good chance and three embryos left. Clinically he does not recommend adoption or surrogacy at this point. My uterus works. I have held a pregnancy, albeit five years ago, to 13 weeks. He understands where we are emotionally and physically; he doesn’t think I have NK cell or endometrial receptivity issues and that in cases of recurrent implantation failure, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is an issue. Cruel, but in his expert opinion, true. The embryo picks whether it wishes to stay or not. He recommends that I get both vaccines done, enjoy the summer and come back to them in the autumn for another embryo transfer.
We are suspended in disbelief. As one of my best friends wisely points out, “I don’t quite know if this is good news or not.” You can go to visit the wildest destination of your heart, but we can’t guarantee you’ll get there. You can have the baby in theory, but no one knows if you wombing it will work in practice. You can read the fostering to adoption document but really you have sweet fuck all idea.
We have lived without our darling Pumbaa for almost five years, a real person only to us. We wonder who he would be. What he would love. What he would dislike. Whether, whisper it, he would have been a she. It almost seems like a dream, the tendrils silent unless disturbed. I’ve given up so much for it. My career put on the back burner. Confidence continually submerged. I look at my friends at work and think what must it be like to have the job and the kid and be able to put all that positive energy into both. I simply can’t comprehend. It’s like I have become a professional at fertility treatment. And while I will always have respect for this route of science that works for some of us, I don’t want to be this expert. It has power that I simply don’t wish to share. It takes more than it gives. It leaves me in the depleted state that gives me physical anxiety and drains my confidence, my ability, my very self.
Our vaccinations are booked on the same day, my husband at 8am, me at 5.30pm. As London Bridge pulls into view and the few commuters rush out through the ticket barrier, I feel the same queasiness seeing all the familiar spots. The ground floor café at the Shangri La in the Shard, where we went for celebratory coffee and cake after two blue lines in the hospital loo. The clinic, just down the road. And, at the bottom of the escalator, the signs of Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital. I am older and so much wiser – truth – but as we head towards the vaccination tent I immediately heave silent, wracking tears. We are not heading into the main entrance as we did, so many times. This time we are veering right, past the Science Gallery, where I will explain how badly anxious I am after an eighth failed round, and the staff at Guy’s will once again take me into their arms metaphorically speaking – it’s still a panny d after all – and let me be jabbed at the same time as my husband. I will sit in the cubicle with a nurse and a dental student who will provide me with the compassion and decisiveness that I have always loved about this hospital, and I will come out with another precious gift from Guy’s – this time greater immunity towards a deadly virus. I will come out and run straight into my oldest, and best friend, her beautiful eyes peeking out above her mask, declaring today a major social event. I will smile, crack the shit, get back on the train home relieved. I will run through the options in my head, continually, like the perverse comfort you get from a treadmill. Maybe I will birth a book? Perhaps there is a small person not yet even born who is coming to us? What can we do to get through this?
“If you could have a baby, or a guaranteed 7kg British Shorthair who adored you which one would it be?” says my husband, playfully, holding my hand. “What a choice,” I smile. “Almost impossible.”
For Lisa, Ruth, Michelle, Jenn, Elle, Sophie, Emma and Becky. Thank you xxx