More than 20,000 IVF babies are born in the UK each year. But, for every success, there are many heartbreaks. Could more be done to support the mental health of those going through fertility treatment?
Injecting yourself night after night. Endless prodding while the sonographer figures out whether your lining is perfect, and your follicles are the optimum size. Then, it’s time to go under anaesthetic to collect your eggs; to jump every time the phone rings as you wait to find out which embryos made the cut, until the time comes to put them back in again.
Time slows down – from waiting to get started (something that can take years due to NHS waiting lists, or saving to self-fund), to waiting to see if it’s actually worked.
If you’re reading this and nodding along, then chances are you’ve experienced IVF.
I sometimes feel a fraud for talking about how IVF affected my mental health. Why? Because I was one of the lucky ones. I was one of the large percentage of women for whom IVF didn’t work but, after the tears had dried, I found out that I had naturally fallen pregnant with my son.
Yet, since my son celebrated his first birthday, I realised how much my failed IVF played a part in my antenatal and postnatal anxiety. And it’s only now that I’ve felt ready to talk about it.
To tell or not to tell?
Women are often told to keep their pregnancy hidden until they’re in the ‘safe zone’ (although, there really is no such thing), making IVF an isolating experience. Fertility issues can affect mental health before IVF has even begun (a study showed that women undergoing IVF were more likely to experience depression), and this is exacerbated by the fact many tell no one what they’re going through.
I hid the hospital trips, the injections, and the side-effects, from everyone but my husband and parents; creating anxiety over turning down work without explanation, or cancelling plans because my egg collection was suddenly moved forward.
But telling terrified me – with the pressure of ‘any news?’ messages, and the pain of telling someone it hasn’t worked when you’ve barely processed it yourself.
It’s difficult to know exactly how you’ll cope when you see a stark white pregnancy test. Telling the few I had confided in was awful. And yet, equally, having to go on as normal with those I hadn’t, was just as painful.
Is there a right choice? Mandy Worsley, a freedom fertility specialist who herself has been through six IVF cycles, says: “One of the burdens we carry around is the fact that we are having fertility issues, as it can be a very private journey.
“But research shows that not feeling able to share with our close family and friends, can add to our stress levels. I encourage those undergoing IVF to choose a support network who will help them at this very emotional time,” explains Mandy.
The blame game
Much of my anxiety has always stemmed around control, so when IVF failed, my question was: what did I do wrong? It’s hard to accept that IVF is very much a numbers game, so my brain would attempt to answer an unsolvable question. Was it that glass of wine I drank, or did I overdo it the day after transfer?
It’s something Mandy Worsley knows well. “As women, we feel our body has let us down with infertility,” she says. “This feeling is further heightened during an IVF cycle when we have so much hope, mixed with fear. Having been a nurse for 26 years, I trained in emotional health support, and specialised in fertility. The work I do aims to help people reprogram these thought patterns by understanding how our brain works, and how our emotions have a real physical impact on our body.”
If I hadn’t had a successful pregnancy with all the medical intervention I’d been given, how could my body do it alone?
When IVF fails
I can always remembersomebody telling me that my failed cycle wasn’t a miscarriage. And, perhaps, technically it wasn’t, but the overwhelming sense of grief remained.
For all purposes, I was pregnant until, just like that, I wasn’t. An IVF failure occurs earlier than a miscarriage, so usually medical intervention isn’t necessary. I was simply told to give my body a few months to recover. My menstrual cycle reset itself soon enough, but what about my mind?
When I fell pregnant naturally, two months later, IVF changed how I viewed my pregnancy. I was constantly cautious, and waiting for something to go wrong. After all, if I hadn’t had a successful pregnancy with all the medical intervention I’d been given, how could my body do it alone?
It is a cautiousness which remains. I have one embryo ‘in the freezer’, and I’d like to think if I try IVF for a second time, I’ll be more open and forgiving of myself. But, in all honesty, I don’t know if I’m strong enough to go through it all again yet.
When IVF works
It’s important to remember that IVF is an innovation that has changed so many lives. So, what happens if it works? Well perhaps we underestimate how much support those women still need, too.
Denise Stringer, who runs dog business Slumbering Hound, fell pregnant at 37 with her last fertilised egg after three IVF cycles. Later, in her 40s, she had a miscarriage. “I’m one of the lucky ones and have an almost 13-year-old daughter, but IVF had a profound impact on my life, and 14 years ago it was a lot more difficult to talk about,” she says.
“My pregnancy was tinged with worry the whole way through. I’d just accepted my infertility before falling naturally pregnant six years ago. I went on to miscarry and it brought back all of the grieving and distress of IVF. I think I’d have coped better if I’d have talked it all out when it was happening, but the support I had from the infertility network seemed to dry up when I had a baby. I’m so glad there are more avenues now.”
Don’t suffer alone
Whether you’re struggling with infertility, or dealing with fertility treatment, it’s important to know you’re not alone, and help is there.
• Fertility Network is the national charity for anyone struggling with fertility issues. Their support line is run by a former fertility nurse, and can be accessed 10am to 4pm Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (0121 323 5025 or email firstname.lastname@example.org).
• World Childless Week (14–20 September) is designed to shine a spotlight on those who are childless not through choice.
• ‘Big Fat Negative’ is a podcast all about IVF and infertility.
• For friends and family who want to show support, Brown Paper Packages sell a baby loss and miscarriage care box to support women (available from £24).