The opening line to one of my favourite books ever is ‘Why is the measure of love loss?’ (Jeanette Winterson’s Written On The Body). We stopped fertility treatments about 18 months ago, and the loss of not being able to get pregnant has since taken up a generous chunk of real estate in my head. The grief was deep and unexpected. How is it possible to grieve for something that never existed?
I’ve learned that this is called ‘disenfranchised grief’, and it helped me to name it. I’ve lost a version of a life I loved to imagine. Accepting it’s not going to happen has been tough.
We started trying to have a baby in 2018. I was 41 and my partner was 43. I knew my age was against me, but I believed my doctors when they told me that everything looked good. Plus, on balance, I’ve had a fairly lucky life. I figured that this would be just another thing that I’d plan and see through. I knew there would be difficult days, but I believed it would all be fine. I was wrong.
We were advised to try IUI as opposed to IVF because things looked so good medically. This was also more affordable. My partner had concerns about the overall lack of regulation of the fertility industry in Ireland, and we had many discussions about what felt like our complicity with an industry that profits off people’s deepest desires.
We had to purchase ‘straws’ of sperm in order to complete the IUI. This part felt like stepping into a parallel universe. We were directed to an online sperm bank. There, you filter by eye colour, height, skin colour. You can filter by the donor’s current occupation and level of education, which made no sense to me at all. The smack of consumerism was uncomfortable.
We had saved but we weren’t quite prepared for the level of expense involved with the testing, appointments, and so on. The pandemic happened in the middle of the whole thing, and when we finally came to our third and final round of IUI, we were presented with a bill for the ‘storage’ of our last straw of sperm because a certain amount of time had passed since our second IUI. I don’t remember being cautioned about this, but then again, I don’t remember much at all. My brain was already a cloud of grief, shame, humiliation, fear and despair from the two previous ‘failed’ attempts.
Like many of us, I’d been raised on a diet of Catholic shame and guilt when it came to sex and pregnancy. The ‘80s taught me that if you came anywhere near a rogue sperm, a child would result! My inability to get pregnant, despite those cautionary tales, was a source of shock. Looking back now, the stats for success with IUI are so low – 10 to 15 percent per cycle – I don’t know why I was shocked.
That first ‘failure’ was devastating. 14 days after insemination, you are encouraged to do a pregnancy test. I’d never done a test before so had to read the instructions. Pee on a stick, wait three minutes. How hard could this be, I thought?! Word to the wise: pretty hard. I did the first one wrong. The pee stick is sensitive, it turns out. You’re on a bunch of different hormones after fertility treatment, and because of that, your body feels pregnant. Moreover, I expected to be pregnant. If the ‘80s taught me anything, it was that sperm are powerful little feckers. Anyways, three minutes elapsed; ‘not pregnant’ flashed up. I’m not sure I’m yet able to put words on how that felt but it’s seared into my memory. I’ve kept the box from that test in a drawer under my bed. I don’t know why. Soon, I’ll recycle it but not yet.
For attempts two and three, I decided against testing and simply waited to see if my period came. It did.
Throughout all of this, I never considered whether I should take some time off work – it probably kept me sane. I liked the distraction but my mental health had taken a battering. I told hardly anyone, and after the first IUI, I wished I’d told no one. The kindness of others felt unbearable. I felt so ashamed. My body didn’t do the one thing it was supposed to do. My family knew, but after the first failed IUI, the family WhatsApp group became a minefield. Most of my siblings have children all of whom I adore, but the progress of their beautiful young lives became a reminder of what I’d never have.
I started to worry about the future – what would happen when I was older and needed care? If my partner dies, who is my next of kin? Who would I leave my millions to in my will?! The mind is a powerful weapon.
Things that I’m sure I’ll be well able to cope with when the time comes played on my mind. Since the last round of IUI, two of my siblings have announced pregnancies and had children. I’ve learned that it’s possible to hold two simultaneously contradictory feelings – deep joy for someone else and deep sorrow for myself.
There’s a piece of work to be done around the responses people lean on when they find out you can’t or don’t have children. ‘Have you thought about adoption?’ (as if no one going through fertility treatment had thought of that). And then there are the ‘at leasts’: ‘At least you get to watch TV in peace’, ‘At least you get sleep,’ etc. None of these things are said with ill intent, but it’s worth remembering that one in six are dealing with infertility and one in five women have had a miscarriage. We are surrounded by these stories. People who are CNBC (childless not by choice) miss out on a whole stage of life. These stories can be hard to hear and maybe even feel a bit alien if you haven’t shared this experience, but to heal, people need to feel seen and understood.
Recently, I’ve finally started to accept that my future doesn’t have children in it. I’ve been reading about amor fati, meaning ‘to love your fate,’ and this struck a chord. Ultimately, it means accepting what has happened in your life, the bad and the good. I’ve been working hard on this. I found my tribe in online support groups. I listen to podcasts and read books about being CNBC. Recognising my story in someone else’s comforts my broken heart. I’ve started to think about how to be happy when something I thought would make me happy is not mine to have, and I’m more focused on figuring out how to live a good life. I’ve been searching for voices more like my own – members of the queer community who are CNBC, and I haven’t found any yet but if there are others like me out there, I want you to know it gets better. Clichéd and all as it sounds, time is a healer.
There is always hope. You are not alone.