There is so much going on across social media, television and the news recently about infertility that I can’t keep up, it is great to see more awareness being raised especially surrounding the incredible #ttc (trying to conceive) community on Instagram. I have been saddened, however, by the fact that this has also highlighted, through some people’s responses, a severe lack of understanding and compassion in those who clearly have no idea what it is like to experience infertility or fertility related issues. I could write a whole post on this but there are plenty of responses out there at the moment.
Instead I’ve been thinking about how much I learned and came to understand through our journey and one area that it is not so often talked about is what it is actually like to be pregnant following IVF. I am writing this with the benefit of being able to look back in the knowledge that we had a happy outcome, our daughter, but I know and appreciate that is not the case for everyone. For some they will experience all of this and still not have the child they so long, I really just want to share what this time can feel like and for friends and family who might mistake the happy news of a pregnancy as the end of the IVF journey when in reality it is a continuation and can still be a difficult time.
The Holy Grail
Surely a positive pregnancy test is the holy grail for anyone going through infertility treatment?! No, not necessarily, it is another step or goal post that you desperately want to reach but by the time you have reached a pregnancy test through infertility treatment many women will have already experienced among other things loss of a pregnancy, ectopic pregnancy, false positives, and months if not years of crushed hope after crushed hope. These couples already know that a positive test can still lead to heartache and whether it is a blood test or an at home test the road ahead remains rocky and uncertain.
As with so many major life moments our expectations of that moment can be in some way misinformed by the movies. If you are lucky enough to become pregnant on your first month of trying perhaps you get to live that typical movie moment where you pee on stick in the bathroom then hold hands with your partner for 3 minutes nervously waiting for the result and then cry with happiness when it shows that positive result or perhaps you find out by yourself and plan the perfect way to tell your partner.
It didn’t occur to me at the time but on reflection I felt this moment was, in a way, stolen from me. I went for a blood test early one morning and due to the stress, anxiety and depression I was already experiencing we decided to have the results call be taken by my husband. While I had long given up any hope of surprising my husband with the happy news of a pregnancy it never really occurred to me what the reality might be like. I had certainly never imagined it would be him giving me the news. My husband called me to tell me it was positive, I was on a train and unable to process the information. I was, all at once, experiencing disbelief, shock, happiness, fear and denial. I was painfully aware that this did not necessarily mean our happy ending. The first cycle in IVF treatment is often looked upon as a trial run where other issues or complications may be highlighted as to why you haven’t become pregnant or carried a pregnancy to term and can inform future cycles and adaptations to treatment, to become pregnant on your first cycle and carry to term is, sadly, not the norm.
Just Keep Swimming
With a positive test in hand you quickly have to look to the next goal post. Medication must continue or be altered so injections, progesterone pessaries and tablets are still ongoing often right up to the 12 week scan. There is no time to stop, rest or reflect on what is happening as there is so much going on. Add to this that for many they are also carrying the financial burden of treatment or the stress of knowing this is their last embryo before perhaps having to go through the whole process again, there is no one path that anyone follows, every IVF journey is unique. The hormones and medications can leave you feeling all kinds of side effects and play havoc with your emotions, weight and skin too. Yes, in the big picture this may seem a small price to pay but it is by no means easy especially when you are incredible vulnerable and often keeping the whole process under wraps from friends, family or work. The lack of emotional and mental support in this area is something we really should address.
Waiting For A Scan
The next goal post is usually a scan at around 6 to 8 weeks. If you have experienced the torture of the two week wait (the time between the window of opportunity to get pregnant and then getting the result) this can be very much like an extension of that. The highs and lows, the constant checking for symptoms, trying to eat, drink and do the ‘right’ thing and fear of spotting or seeing blood, it is like walking on a knife edge. The purpose of the scan is to identify where the pregnancy is and to see the heartbeat. This was never that straightforward for us, they couldn’t be sure about the heartbeat at our first scan and we had to wait a whole week to come back and have another scan to see if they could find it. What could have been a happy moment, seeing our baby for the first time, left me terrified and quite frankly a mess. Fortunately we saw the heartbeat at the next scan and we were discharged from our clinic into ‘normal’ maternity care through the GP and midwifery team, not that it ever felt normal for us. Please don’t misunderstand me, I appreciate any first pregnancy can be a scary journey into the unknown, I am simply trying to highlight the extra dimensions IVF can add to this.
At 8 weeks however I had a heavy bleed in the middle of the night and was convinced we had lost the baby. It was a weekend and I was away from my husband but lucky to be visiting my parents. We called 111 and were incredibly lucky that their local hospital were able to fit me in for a scan on a Sunday morning. Often in the first 12 weeks the response is simply to wait and see, either you will continue to bleed and loose the baby or it will be ok but you have to wait for your 12 week scan to find out. I’m sure you can imagine what that does for stress, anxiety and depression levels but remember you must relax, stress is not good for the baby, hmm thanks for that! On this occasion we were lucky to again see our baby doing fine and the bleed was not affecting the baby. Of course this could happen in any pregnancy but given the hormones and medication I was on I had to be careful that I was still doing all the right things and that none of them needed to be amended.
Until recently I wasn’t aware how much you could actually bleed during pregnancy and for everything to be ok. You can have all the typical symptoms of an early loss; heavy bleeding, clots, cramps, fever and the bleeding continue for weeks and yet everything can still be ok. No one told me this and to go through this once, twice or however many times, it can still be terrifying. I don’t wish to give out false hope, if you experience any of these things you should call your midwife, hospital or 111 immediately and get professional advice but it did make me feel like we are sorely undereducated about our bodies and the process of pregnancy.
12 Weeks And Beyond
It occurred to me as we went for our 12 week scan that this would be the time that most people would make their happy news public but I found myself shrouded by denial and fear still. I hadn’t expected that, I wanted to be able to tell everyone and relax in to the fact that we were pregnant and everything was looking ok. By this point though we had been through so much and I became painfully aware that I wouldn’t really be ok until I was holding my baby. This won’t be the same for everyone who becomes pregnant following IVF but for me it cast a shadow over everything. I have said before how some of our friends and family, those we didn’t see during the 9 months, had no idea we were expecting until we announced the arrival of our daughter.
The 20 week scan was another one where I thought I would maybe relax more but I didn’t. I didn’t want to find out the sex of our baby either because I was scared to bond with my baby at that level, lets face it I was still in denial about what was going on. I’m not sure what my feelings would have been on this if we had become pregnant naturally with none of the baggage but I knew from the start that I wanted this aspect to be a surprise and it was without a doubt the right decision for us. I will never ever forget holding my baby for the first time and being amazed I had a real baby and discovering we had a daughter, its probably the closest thing to magic I’ve ever felt.
During the whole pregnancy though I was constantly torn between wanting to get ready for the baby’s arrival, looking at baby clothes etc and wanting to leave it all until the last minute just in case. We’d gone through years of heartache that I just couldn’t believe it was finally happening for us. If you know someone who is going through fertility treatment or is pregnancy following IVF please bear in mind the emotional turmoil that they will continue to experience which leads me to my final point today.
You Don’t Have To Love Pregnancy
I want to finish by making this point. I struggled with pregnancy, I never had the glow, I experienced a lot of pain and some complications and I felt guilty for not loving pregnancy. After all it was all I had wanted for so long, I should be ecstatic, over the moon, glowing and making the most of it all not complaining about it, but I couldn’t love every minute and if you’re feeling the same please let me be the one to tell you that it is ok not to love it. I was also having regular face to face counselling throughout this and that made a huge difference for me. Pregnancy after IVF is still a pregnancy and it can affect everyone differently, sure you might breeze through it or maybe you wont and that is ok. I strongly recommend building a support network of people who understand what you’ve been through and making time with your partner, if you have one, a priority, continue this journey together and prepare yourselves for the highs and lows, give yourselves time and don’t be afraid to be honest when things are hard.
Denial And Reflection
Ok, ok this is my final point. I experienced so much denial, fear, anxiety and depression leading up to and during fertility treatment and continuing through pregnancy that it wasn’t until long after my daughter had arrived that I realised I had never had a moment to catch my breath. There was never a time to pause, reflect or really, truly relax because I was always looking to the next goal post, the next thing to try and once you’re in the process of treatment there is no real off button even if a cycle fails because there is always the next hurdle to cross whether it is treatment or deciding how long you continue with treatment. I don’t know what the answer is here because I haven’t found one. I guess I would say that beyond building a support network is to let people love you in your darkest moments, lean on people if you can, take time where you can and know that you are never alone. There is an increasing amount of support and awareness and connecting to the IVF communities online is a great way to give and receive support.
I hope this post will help those who can relate to anything I have mentioned whether you are going through treatment, are pregnant following treatment or a friend or family member supporting someone is going through any of this. I’m always happy to be contacted about this topic and will try to respond as quickly as I can.