This article was published in the December issue of NEXT Magazine here in New Zealand. Actually, let me qualify that. The published version was edited a bit, and given a title I didn’t particularly like.
In general I was happy with the finished product and the editor was very respectful, going out of her way to let me look at the sub-edited draft and give it my final blessing.
Here, however, is the original version, with the original title, and with the two paragraphs taken out by NEXT added back in.
This is a story of great happiness and great heartache. It is the story of the joy and love that having a child brings. It is also the story of a deep yearning for a second baby; a yearning that has never been satisfied. It is a story about the grief that doesn’t get a lot of press – the grief of secondary infertility.
I was 36 when we first started trying for a baby. To our huge surprise, I was pregnant within weeks, but our excitement and happiness didn’t last long. I miscarried, and a few months later, miscarried again. The pain, especially with the second, when we saw our little baby’s heartbeat on the scan then lost it a few days later, was intense.
Thankfully, pregnancy number three ended, in May 2007, with the primal cry of a newborn. The gift of motherhood was finally mine.
When my little girl was almost two we decided to try again. We thought we couldn’t possibly be unlucky enough to lose any more babies. And we were confident that even if we did suffer another setback, eventually we would have our second child.
We were wrong on both counts.
Over the next year and a half I would suffer three more miscarriages (including a particularly horrific one which landed me in hospital), endure a raft of specialist tests for recurrent pregnancy loss and have my uterus and fallopian tubes “flushed” with dye and oil in the hope that this would make a difference. Every month we diligently had sex on schedule. At that point we were still reasonably confident we would succeed, as I seemed to conceive so easily.
I did everything I could to help myself. I took Chinese herbs and did acupuncture. I lost several kilos. I cut out caffeine and alcohol (most of the time). But as month after month passed with no luck it was evident that our problem had gone beyond recurrent miscarriage. We now needed help just to get pregnant.
We made an appointment with Fertility Associates – the first of many. After some investigations we were told that IVF was not a viable option as I simply would not produce enough eggs to make a cycle worthwhile. So we underwent three unsuccessful IUI (intra-uterine insemination) attempts. Eventually, when I was nearly 42, my partner and I were advised that it was not worth trying any more intervention. In the words of our specialist Dr Richard Fisher, nature hadn’t been kind to me. My fertility had basically dive-bombed. My ovarian reserve was now lamentably low and it was likely I would undergo a relatively early menopause. Our only viable option now if I wanted to carry and give birth to a child was considering the use of donor eggs.
So that was that. This was the verdict we had been dreading, and now it had been handed down.
To be honest, along with the shock and sadness, I felt a measure of relief as well. I had had a hard time when my daughter was born. I struggled with the huge change in my life and resented her for “stealing” my freedom. I took some time to bond with her. In particular I despised the sleep deprivation and did not handle it at all well. I was relishing the increased freedom in my life now she was nearly four. There was quiet relief that I would not have to go all the way back to square one again, and relief that perhaps we could finally put all the uncertainty, struggle and disappointment behind us and get on with our lives.
But there was the other side of the coin. I had learned that every hardship of mothering is more than outweighed by the gains. Quite simply, my daughter is the best thing I ever did. I cannot put into words how much I love her or how immeasurably my life has been enriched because of her. I could not let the chance to have another child pass me by.
We made an appointment to talk with a Fertility Associates counsellor about the donor egg programme. During that hour the reality of my situation hit me like a tonne of bricks. My choice was either to not have another baby – or as I saw it, to have another woman’s baby. I was never going to have another child who was biologically mine.
The next few days were dominated by enormous sadness – and anger. I kept repeating over and over in my head: “It’s so unfair, it’s not fair…I want MY baby, MY OWN BABY, not another woman’s! It’s not FAIR!” I lashed out at my partner. I yelled at telemarketers. I swore at other drivers. I wanted to scream and scream and scream and then collapse in a broken heap. I wanted someone, anyone, to wave a wand and make it all magically better. But I wanted the impossible. No-one else could bear this for me. This was my pain, and I had no choice but to face it and work through it. What else could I do?
The pain of secondary infertility can often go unacknowledged. Many people assume you’re OK if you’ve got one child. You yourself compare your sadness to that of childless couples, and you almost feel guilty for wanting more than one. You wonder if you have a right to feel such despair. You know you are luckier than them, a little voice whispers. Surely you’re not entitled to feel like your heart is breaking. Yes, two would be nice…but you’ve got one! You should be grateful!
Well, I am grateful. I am blessed to have a daughter and I thank God for her every day. But I will probably never experience the joy of having another biological child; the wonder of having another chance to create a little daughter or son. There is a gap in our lives that will never feel filled; an incompleteness to my experience of family. I am entitled to grieve for these things. Couples experiencing secondary infertility, as well as those who can’t have children at all, need to know their heartbreak is valid and legitimate.
For me, that heartbreak includes regret and guilt (All those wasted years of fertility. All those might-have-been children. Why did I wait so long?), and sometimes feelings of shame and inadequacy, as if I don’t qualify as a “real” mother. I feel as though my credentials are not enough, and all the mothers with two or more children are part of the real motherhood club from which I am excluded. I also feel tremendously sad when I realise my daughter may never have a sibling.
Being an only child doesn’t have to be catastrophic, and having a brother or sister in no way guarantees happiness. But not having one is a form of loss. My daughter will never be a biological sister, or an aunty. She will never have blood nieces and nephews. She will never know what it is to laugh (or moan) about Mum and Dad with a sister or brother who completely understands. So I grieve for myself, but I also grieve on her behalf; for the fact that she will not experience the rich, extra dimension that a sibling relationship can bring. I feel like I have let her down. Oh God, please just let her be happy. This is my prayer when I creep into her room at night and gaze at her lovely little face.
During this tough journey many friends became pregnant. One of them was having her first, and I was pleased for her. The others were having their second or third, and it was much harder to feel happy for them. Another friend, my Secondary Infertility Buddy, gave birth to a much-wanted little boy. We had both been struggling to have our second, and she finally succeeded via IVF. I felt like the last, lonely woman standing. At times like these, the yearning and the injustice of it all felt almost unbearable. I wanted to stop all the world’s women from having second babies. I could not.
Before I had my daughter, when I was feeling raw and vulnerable after my second miscarriage, I was able to withdraw from the world of babies and children if it all got too much. I could avoid playgrounds. Say no to baby showers. Cross the road rather than walk past Pumpkin Patch. No such escape is available to me now. When you already have a child, you inescapably inhabit the world of little people, and you just have to grit your teeth and carry on. But every playgroup, every party, every kindergarten drop-off is a potential rude reminder of what you long for, yet cannot have.
What advice would I give, then, to someone who knows a woman or a couple struggling with secondary infertility, and who wants to offer their support?
Most importantly, please do not say, “Well, at least you’ve got one.” It doesn’t make us feel better. It makes us feel like our sadness is somehow unjustified. Please just listen. Acknowledge. Be there. Get used to seeing tears. Let them fall without trying to make things better. Don’t expect us to “get over it” in a month. Or a year. Or even longer.
This is what we all need in order to heal after life wounds us: to feel that our grief is valid, and for it to be heard and accepted. No-one can take away my hurt. But they can acknowledge and affirm it, which will in turn help me to weave it into the tapestry of my life experience and gradually move on.
My daughter started school this week. I am excited for her as she embarks on this next stage of her life. But saying goodbye to the baby and toddler years has triggered those feelings of grief yet again, and I have been thinking a lot about my five might-have-been babies. I am surprised at how sharp and immediate the sadness feels, and how copious the tears are. But then, I always knew that the pain never really goes away. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “Things don’t go away. They become you.”
I am gradually starting to accept that we will, in all probability, have only one child. Donor egg, adoption, surrogacy…none of these options seem right for us. And at 43, I almost feel like my time has passed. Perhaps it is time for me to finally let go of the guilt and regret, as well as the soft and not altogether believable “just maybe” whisperings of the heart. Perhaps.
My precious only daughter comes to me and wraps herself around me, and whispers “I love you, Mummy.” She covers my face with kisses. My heart feels full to bursting. Perhaps, one day, I will believe that my family is OK just as it is, regardless of whether we end up with one child or two. After all, it is love that makes a family, not a number.
We arrive at the ticket booth
And ask for a Family Pass.
“Two adults, two children”, says the ticket man.
“We have only one”, I say, and feel ashamed that we are not enough.
Everyone waiting in the queue for their Family Pass looks at the three of us.
Mum, Dad, and one child. Where is the second?
“We only have one”, I say again. Are we counted as a family?”
The ticket man smiles. “You’ll do”, he says.