Fertility treatment is not for the faint of heart. Or, for the light of purse. It is a hard, hard, expensive road that tests relationships, drains bank accounts and, more often than not, ends in disappointment. The stats vary somewhat from clinic to clinic, but roughly 20pc of women aged 40 will have a baby using IVF. Which means that two in 10 do. So, while the odds aren’t great, it can and does work, depending on the cause of your infertility.
To figure out whether or not you need fertility treatment, first talk to your GP and have the relevant tests done. The general rule of thumb is that if you have been trying for a year without success, it warrants further investigation. There are things you can try before moving on to the fertility treatment – your GP will advise, and if necessary you then move on to the fertility clinic where they will explain your options.
Treatments in a fertility clinic run from drug-assisted IUI – hormones are given to women to stimulate the ovaries and then washed sperm is injected into the womb at a fertile time – to IVF, where a higher dose of hormones are taken, by injection, over a period of time before the eggs are extracted under anaesthetic.
Any mature eggs are then fertilised with sperm and either three or five, or sometimes six days later, the resulting embryos are implanted in the womb. If there are issues with the male partner, ICSI can be used – where the best sperm is selected and injected directly into the egg.
Donor gametes are also an option – donor sperm from known and unknown donors and eggs from anonymous donors are currently available through Irish clinics, but it is planned to ban unknown gamete donation under legislation contained in the 2015 Family and Relationships act.
Everyone’s fertility experience is unique, but there are a few things that may help anyone setting out on their baby-making journey.
Don’t wait: Fertility treatment is not an insurance policy for your eggs
The older you are, the less your chances of getting pregnant with or without fertility treatment. IVF increases your chances of getting pregnant by maximising the amount of eggs released in a cycle and by ensuring they have the best chance of being fertilised, but it cannot turn back time.
If your eggs are past their sell-by date, no fertility treatment in the world can change that. Fertility wanes as we get older and sooner rather than later for some. Where possible, have your children as young as you can. Of course there are scenarios that make having a child in your 20s and early 30s impossible, but if you do want children and you are in a position to get going, just do it.
Especially if you want to have more than one child. Secondary infertility is quite common amongst those who start their families in their late thirties. I myself am an example. I conceived my first daughter effortlessly at 37, so I assumed I would have no problem conceiving a second and waited until she was two before trying. By then I was almost 40 and it took three harrowing years of fertility treatment before her sister arrived. If I had my time back, I would have started a lot sooner.
You are not alone
There are lots of people who understand what you are going through and I found the internet a massive support and consolation when I was undergoing treatment.
Whether I was preparing for IVF, follicle tracking (during treatment you go in every few days to have your follicles measured), waiting to hear how many eggs fertilised or in the dreaded two-week wait, I found support and solace in message boards from all over the world where I felt connected to women going through the same thing as me.
The kindness of strangers becomes so important, particularly if you find it hard to open up to friends and family during such a difficult time. The forums can also be a good source of information regarding experiences of clinics, but beware of copying the supplement regime, special diet etc of others. Which brings me to my next point.
Beware of complementary treatments/special diets
IVF works of you have a good clinic, good raw materials – egg and sperm, a receptive womb and a lot of luck. There might be a few things you can do to scupper your chances – drink too much, smoke – but it is almost entirely out of your hands. When I started treatment I did all the stuff – gave up coffee, sugar, ate ‘fertility’ foods, had loads of acupuncture, stopped exercising and so on. I scoured the internet looking for the secret diet or supplement regime that would unclick the secret to a successful IVF.
When things didn’t work out in one way or another, I beat myself up for exercising too much, or drinking too much coffee, or having a bar of chocolate. After two years, I was so demoralised, I had lapsed into a terrible lifestyle of no exercise and binge-eating in front of the TV every evening.
It was during this time that my daughter was conceived. I was eating crap every night and drinking at least two strong coffees a day. No acupuncture, no yoga, no extras.
I say this not to recommend an unhealthy lifestyle – I am now stuck with 30 pounds of fat to lose – but to reassure you that you can live a normal life while undergoing IVF and it won’t change your chances.
Also, there is no need to spend money on extras – keep your money for the treatment, it is the only thing in this whole arena that has any evidence behind it. By all means engage in anything that reduces your stress or makes you feel better if you can afford it, but it’s about the science, not your willpower or special supplements bought on the internet, or rigid diets. Talk to a qualified dietitian if you are worried about your diet.
It changes your relationship – with everybody
For a couple, going through fertility treatment is hard. How could it not be, involving as it does financial hardship, disappointment, inconvenience and pain – all the bad stuff, and often over a significant amount of time.
Because the majority of the physical impact is on the woman, men can be forgotten in the process. If someone had said this to me during treatment I probably would have spat, but now I do see that it wasn’t all about me.
It also affects your relationships with family and friends, especially if you don’t disclose. Because timing is of the essence, you miss important events and occasions, and because you are not being open, it can be very isolating.
When I was going through treatment, I told only two friends that had also been down that road. They were an amazing support and it strengthened our friendships immeasurably. Telling other friends and family would have made me feel too vulnerable, too open to questions when I wanted to process my disappointment in private,
It becomes an obsession
For my family, thankfully, the journey ended with a baby, but for many it does not. I often wonder what would have happened if we didn’t have success. What would have had to happen for me to stop trying. Probably bankruptcy or menopause. I was truly obsessed.
Because I had my eldest daughter, I couldn’t accept that I wouldn’t have another. I just assumed that it would happen so my husband and I never discussed what our end point would be.
If you are embarking on the journey, it might be a good idea to have one in mind. It might help keep the mania at bay. Now I can see that we would have been OK even if we had not been blessed.