Our project exploring the topic of fertility began in May 2022 when we started speaking to families and individuals who have a wide variety of different experiences of fertility. The primary aim of the piece of work was to raise awareness of different fertility experiences ranging from IVF to surrogacy and including baby loss – giving a voice to topics and issues which are not always made so visible. The project explores 13 people’s stories through interview-based study investigating themes of stigma, mental health, self-perception and support and advice. The work also encompassed identifying what is working well and what could be improved within services across Essex throughout the fertility journey. This is Elizabeth’s Story.
In 2008 I experienced fertility treatment being both successful and not successful. I don’t think either one of those journeys were much different regarding your mental health and how you have to prepare. But obviously the outcome is very different, from having a baby, to having a miscarriage, or it not working. It puts a lot of pressure on you. Another area I found most difficult was the lack of support received when going through fertility treatment. When I first started, it seemed like there was stigma attached, people didn’t really talk about infertility and didn’t talk about fertility problems.
I received my treatment at Bourn Hall Fertility Clinic and the Bridge Centre in London. As a couple, my husband Michael and I felt very much alone. We didn’t know anyone else who had gone through it and so didn’t really have any support. We were just pushed through the system of test, after test, after test. We were quite lucky in that where we lived our hospital trust allowed three attempts on the NHS. That has since changed. We were very lucky in that ours did work first time, albeit the waiting time between tests, results, and further tests was extremely long. That’s really hard to cope with mentally. All around you, your friends are falling pregnant so easily. We then wanted a second baby and had to finance it ourselves, which is a great strain. So in all, it’s emotional, physical and financial pressure.
Going through the actual IVF process itself puts a huge toll on your body. After our successful attempt, we had eight tries. I fell pregnant three times and miscarried three times. In those eight tries, I don’t feel as though there was any support for my emotional wellbeing throughout that journey. Even though we had to go privately and there was a counsellor available, I didn’t find her particularly approachable. She lacked compassion and was quite black and white in her thinking, whereas IVF is not black and white at all. It’s a really difficult thing to come to terms with. It also put a lot of pressure on Michael and I when he decided that he’d had enough of the fertility treatment, but I hadn’t. There’s no compromise.
We had a lot of emotional battles and I think that more counselling would have greatly helped find the answers that you need to support each other, as well as support yourself. I feel like that was the main thing that was really lacking because we didn’t really have anyone else we could talk to. I didn’t have friends that were going through this. Although my friends were great and they tried to support me, unless you have been there, it’s very easy to misunderstand something or not really understand why you’re so upset about something.
I was lucky first time round because, having felt very nervous about telling my boss what was going on and having to take so much time off work for various tests and scans etc, he was very understanding. He and his wife had been through IVF treatment so he understood and kindly gave me the space to take time off work to attend appointments. He and his wife were a great support for me.
First time round I received support, but not from the NHS. It was from someone who had been through it and could give me a few answers and offer an understanding chat. This is so different from a professional who might have a great depth of counselling knowledge but not able to truly empathise.
When we first started our fertility treatment, we couldn’t see where the end goal was, there just seemed to be so many repeated tests without us being given a clear indication of how many were needed. Had we been armed with some guidance on the number of tests required, that would have been really helpful to avoid the sense of just being led down a dark tunnel. This would have been particularly useful first time round during our NHS treatment when we had no knowledge. Second time round with private treatment, there was more information given, but at this point we were already more knowledgeable.
Advice I would give to someone at the start of their fertility journey is to not lose focus on yourself and your relationship. During treatment, you’re very driven on what you want to get out of it, a healthy baby, so much so that everything becomes very regimented.
Romance completely goes out the window and, with having to be so regimented, there’s probably more pressure on the husband because he knows he has to perform. Fun and enjoyment are lost. Initially, Michael was very respectful of what we had to do, undergoing all the tests, and appreciated how much it affected me, but towards the end we’d drifted apart quite a lot and weren’t communicating well. After the success of one baby, he didn’t want to do it all again as he’d had enough. If it doesn’t work out it’s just a huge loss. And then if it does work out and you still lose the baby, it’s devastating. I was able to talk to the counsellor, but in all honesty I was a little bit embarrassed, not knowing if this was just us or whether every couple goes through this. Bearing in mind you’re trying to bring a child into the world and verbalising to the counsellor, “My marriage is on the rocks now because we’re arguing about this all the time“. I wanted to give the impression that my relationship was strong but that creates yet another pressure. Though we shared our fertility journey with our family, we found that when there was a bad outcome it was so upsetting for them, so in the end we refrained from sharing the experience with them.
I would like to see a good counselling service that offers group therapy for couples. I really feel that’s what’s lacking in this whole process, given the long term effects of the trauma on our mental health. It can’t be underestimated.