Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The only child and the 'if only' child

*** This article was written about five or six years ago and has been published in a few magazines under various titles ***

I previously underwent a total of ten (yes, count 'em, ten!) assisted and IVF cycles in an attempt to conceive a brother or sister for my son. I am publishing this as a way of reaching out to those brave women who share my journey.

So first of all there are the strangers who comment on the size of my family within moments of meeting me. There was the waitress who blithely asked me when I was having another baby while she took my order. There’s the ex-landlord who I bumped into at the shopping centre, and who asked lots of questions about my husband, about our new house and when we moved in, and never once asked about me. (Clearly he could not even remember my name.) But despite any friendly courtesies, by way of farewell, told me it was high time that my son (almost 4 at the time) had a brother or sister and I must produce one immediately. But the person who takes the cake is the complete stranger who was nursing her baby in the food court. My son adores babies and wandered up to her, and shyly enquired whether he could hold the baby’s hand. The mother, within a mere five seconds of meeting me, told me “its time to get busy!” I could cheerfully have shot them all in the head.

What is it that gives people the right to tell me that one child is not enough? And why is it that I feel so compelled to mutilate them when they do? If I am brutally honest with myself I’d say it is probably because my biological clock is in complete agreement with them, even when my reproductive system so patently is not.

I do not have to be reminded that my life is rich with blessings, perhaps the most perfect of which is my almost-four year old son. I know that, and I thank my guardian angels every night for him, and for everything that he gives me. But I am deeply upset that I haven’t been able to have another child, something I crave at the very deepest of levels. It sounds so self-pitying to call myself a victim, but there are days when I seem to be a helpless and flailing casualty of my biological clock which whose drive is as relentless as it is powerful. At times I feel like I’m swimming in a sea of (artificial and self-injected) hormones and am trapped by the current. I am flailing, desperate and exhausted.

I hear messages daily that I must be positive, keep my chin up, count my blessings. I am and I do. But I can’t help but think that these well meaning words are spoken by people both in my life and in the media who have never experienced the sheer grief of infertility. Of being reduced to tears by inane soap commercials and Christmas carols, of wanting to stab pregnant strangers with a screwdriver and simultaneously devour the entire contents of my fridge. Even as I write this I can feel the cringes these words will evoke, and that’s probably why I so seldom speak them out loud. My husband will think I am depressed, and he will criticize me. My girlfriends won’t know what to say, and will look away. If I am lucky I will get a tentative hug or a pat on the back, before they scurry away on a transparent errand and gasp for air when they leave the room.

I actually feel sorry for my friends, I think it must be quite tough for them since they quite clearly wish me the best, and want to be supportive. But they don’t have the words, or the strength to keep up with me. ‘Is she on another cycle? Oh god, I forgot to even ask how the last one went. I want to know how she is doing but I don’t want to upset her. I wish I could do something for her, but I don’t know what. I just don’t know what to say.’ I understand their dilemma, but curiously I resent it too. As mothers of dozens of children, or effortlessly pregnant, they inhabit another universe and I feel so left behind, so hurt and so abandoned. Today for the first time, as I write this down, I am giving voice to thoughts and feelings that I haven’t been able to say to anyone before because I know they won’t understand me, and almost certainly won’t know what to say.

The thing is I am permanently sad. Not depressed, I really don’t think so. Just sad. Sorry for myself, isolated by what I perceive as my unique lot in life, and frustrated as hell by the permanent purgatory of yet another IVF cycle. I am scurrying on a hamster-wheel of futile appointments, calendars, injections, blood tests, egg collections, inseminations, transfers, waiting rooms and tests only to be told “don’t worry, there’s always a next time.” It’s been more than three years and I am beginning to long for a finish line. I don’t want there to be a next time. I want to stop this stupid and insane rollercoaster and make the decision to give up IVF. Eventually, I hope, my heart will catch up with my head and I will be okay. But I have another two god-forsaken frozen embryos to transfer before then, and who knows how many more months of anguish, self-obsession and disappointment to endure in the imprudent hope that I might, might, might get lucky.

I can’t be positive about this any longer, and I simply don’t want to. Lord knows a positive attitude has not brought me any success in the IVF stakes thus far. I have jumped through every hoop in the book. I have sworn off alcohol, I have exercised, I have swallowed folate and vitamins and cQ10, and guzzled red clover tea. I have even given up my beloved coffee. I’ve consulted naturopaths and herbalists and spent a small fortune on twice-weekly acupuncture appointments. But more than that, I have spent weeks and months and years planning babysitters and appointments and counting days in a cycle and picking out names and racing to the obstetrician’s and lovingly fingering baby outfits and wondering and dreaming and hoping and holding my breath. I have come to loathe putting tampons in my shopping trolley because each tiny blue box reminds me of another forthcoming period that I really don’t want. I seem to have made so many sacrifices, and not one, not one has paid off to date. Bloody hell, this is so unfair. And lord help me, but I have had enough.

IVF is a bitch, and hope even more so.

I realized the other day I am probably entering my mid-life crisis. I am 36 years old, half way to 72 and probably entitled. My whole life has always been aimed at something, I guess I have always just assumed that this would be the mother of at least two children. So much of school and university and my early career was partly invested in finding a husband, and when I found him, finding a way for us to be together. Our wedding day was blissful, imbued with sweet joy and family and friends and an extravagance of love. We promised to love one another ‘in good times and bad, sickness and health’ and in time those promises truly tested. DH was diagnosed with cancer but fought his way through it with a bravery and purity that took my breath away. His surgery is the reason we cannot conceive naturally and we have both had to cope with this new and shocking status. Every day, every purchase, every decision we have ever made on every single thing we have done since our son was conceived was based on the assumption that there would be another baby to share our lives with. Every outfit that that our son has ever worn has been carefully packed into storage in the hope of a baby brother, expensive strollers were justified on the grounds that they would serve a second use. I began working part-time because I wanted the flexibility to attend my children’s school concerts and play dates and be there for all the critical infant developments. But my son will start school in a year and I will have all this spare time on my hands. And if there is not going to be a second baby, then what the hell am I going to do with my life?

It’s the most profoundly unsettling question I have ever asked myself, and I truly have no idea what the answer is.

For now I will find the endurance, from somewhere, to complete another two frozen embryo cycles. Partly because I want to, partly because I can feel hope raising her treacherous head again and partly because I owe it to my husband and my son to try. But I can’t wait for the day that this is over. I can’t wait to close the door on this hideous process, and walk away from it all.

I probably won’t get the baby I crave, but I want the freedom to grieve properly and to say goodbye to him or her and to find the space to consider my new life as the mother of one beautiful boy. I will find ways to relish the financial benefits, the time and the resources that this will give me. One day I will find ways to invest in other children, and charities, and I will travel the world. I will read books and drink wine (yes!) and wear expensive shoes and I will dedicate myself to being a loving wife and a fabulous mother and a true friend, and I will make a wonderful life for myself I am sure. But not today. Today I will just breathe in and out and try to make sense of the pressure in my chest and the fur in my head and remember where I put the car keys and try to have dinner ready on time.

And when friends ask me how I am doing, I will say I am fine. Because I am, or at least, I will be.

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