People don’t mean to be hurtful, they don’t mean to be unkind. People are just generally nosey and volunteer unsolicited well-meaning advice. Sometimes I just smile and nod, other days I grit my teeth and try not to scream.
This is the typical conversation which frustrates me because it leads to one of the darkest corners of my life, something that I don’t want to talk about. With anyone.
Well Meaning Person: Do you have any children?
Me: No (insert polite laughter), My husband wouldn’t even allow me to have a goldfish until my pot-plant survives for more than 3 months.
WMP: Oh, but babies are different, they are special and they are so much a part of you that you won’t forget to water and feed them! You will learn to love them more than life itself.
Me: Ah huh.
WMP: You should really think about having children, they are so rewarding. You and your husband would make such good-looking babies. You are still young enough, and time slips away, I wouldn’t leave it too long….
It is at this stage which I often try to remind myself that he/she isn’t being deliberately malicious, they are just curious and maybe, interested in my life. Yet I am filled with the urge to yell, Shut up, leave me alone. We can’t have children.
I tried that once. Well, maybe not quite that rude, but the response I got was, ‘Why can’t you have children?’
Aaaaaaargh. What part of ‘Shut up, leave me alone’ did you NOT understand?
I don’t like talking about our infertility, to anyone. I resent anyone prying into my personal pain. I have problems finding the right words, and I find it agonising to even think about it. I am slowly coming to terms with the decisions we have made, and yet I shudder at how others would judge me for them. Everyday, I carry on with my life, my job and my responsibilities as if there’s nothing amiss, but not a single day goes by, do I go without that deep yearning I have for a child, and the profound ache in my heart that comes with it.
Maybe it is time I share our story. Maybe if I tell it, it will help me to move beyond that excruciating pain every time I think of it. It may stop my constant fear of being found out and being judged for our decisions. Oh dear, I haven’t even started telling you our story, and my face is already wet with tears as I am thinking of my next sentence.
Sometime this month, would have been Michaela’s 7th birthday.
I have had IVF treatment since I was 23 years old. I still remember my first appointment with my fertility specialist. I was sitting in the waiting room, for my number to be called, so my bloods could be taken for tests. Next to me sat a woman in her early 40’s. She was elegantly dressed in what looked to be a very expensive designer clothes. Her ears, neck and wrists dripped with pearls and she wore a beautiful stack of diamond rings on her ring finger. She turned and caught my eyes. She smiled as I fidgeted under her gaze.
‘Is this your first time?’ she asked me. I distinctly remembered the kindness in her voice.
I nodded nervously. ‘Yeah.’
She patted my hand. ‘Don’t worry. You are young. You will have no trouble.’
I thanked her for her reassurance. In an awkward attempt to make conversation, I asked her, ‘so how many times…. ‘
She smiled serenely as if to reassure me that I wasn’t offending her. ‘I have been doing this for 10 years. You never know,’ she looked up wistfully at the baby picture on the wall of the waiting room, ‘this might be my lucky cycle.’
Ten years? I remembered thinking. How can anyone put themselves through ten years of IVF? Isn’t Life trying to tell you something if you haven’t gotten pregnant after that many tries? Somebody please shoot me if I ever become so obsessed that I have lost that much perspective and insight! I promised myself there and then that when it is time, I will give up and get on with my life.
Little did I know.
I remember laughing at my specialist when he told me that the success rate of an IVF cycle was 30%. At the time, I told him that no one would offer their patient a surgical procedure with that kind of success rate. He said that unlike surgeons, he was an optimist. To him, it meant that every three women he treated, one couple will have the baby they desperately wanted.
Even that conversation did not prepare me for the amount of disappointments that followed. The first cycle I have ever had, I was so excited when all the tests showed that my body was responding enthusiastically to the hormonal treatments – so much so that they managed to harvest 10 eggs. Ten eggs?!! My partner and I were joking about a soccer team. Two days later, when I presented for implantation, they told me that 5 eggs had not survived and did not fertilise. I felt a little let down, but he reassured me that a volleyball team was fine too. I was given two embryos, while the others were put in deep freeze. Needless to say, the implantation was not successful, and only one embryo survived the thawing process at my next implantation cycle. That was not successful either. The whole process repeated itself. Cycle after cycle. Again and again. One disappointment after another.
Fast forward 8 years. I had spent over seventy thousand dollars, changed two specialists, endured hundreds of blood tests, ultrasounds and more than a dozen anaesthetics for egg harvests. I have had emergency surgery for an ectopic pregnancy, which was then complicated by postoperative haemorrhage, two spontaneous miscarriages, several D&C’s for non-viable pregnancies and so many episodes of morning sickness that I had lost count. During those years, I ran out of tears. I learnt not to celebrate or be hopeful with any positive results, I reminded myself to be patient.
It was a very difficult time in our lives. My husband (M) and I weren’t married at that stage (because we chose to save money for treatment rather than a wedding, and we couldn’t have time off from work at the same time), both of us were trying to get onto the surgical training program, and we did not tell anyone (not our family nor any of our friends). One of my spontaneous miscarriages at 8 weeks occurred whilst I was operating. my heart sank when I felt a slight gush between my legs. I finished the case, went to the bathroom, cleaned myself up, doubled over in pain from the cramps, and cried. Ten minutes later, I took some painkillers, washed my face, opened the bathroom door and carried on with the rest of the operating list. One of my D&C’s was done in the morning at 8am. I went home, slept it off, and then started my surgical on-call at 6pm that night.Through the years, we told no one, and I worked hard at hiding the treatments, the nausea and vomiting, and all the procedures from my colleagues. I didn’t want sympathy or questions. This was something personal and painful.
My father once told me that if I worked hard enough and wanted something bad enough, I can get anything I want in Life. I wanted to yell and scream at him for telling me a lie. No matter how good I was, how hard I tried and how much I wanted – I couldn’t have a baby. I realised, during those years, that sometimes I just simply have absolutely no control over my destiny.
Then, two months before my specialist exam, I found myself sitting in the waiting room for my usual blood test.
‘Hey Tiff.’ I looked up. It was my specialist. She waved me in. I sat down in front of her, and she smiled at me. ‘Do you know what today is?’
My head was still full of classifications for skin cancers and the reconstructive ladder from two whole days of studying, I could only look at her blankly.
‘You are twelve weeks today.’ When I just stared at her in stupefied silence. She reached over and touched my hand. ‘You are now in second trimester of your pregnancy.’
I was pregnant? I asked myself in shock. Of course I was. I was so used to miscarriages and non-viable pregnancies that I never allowed myself to believe tha I was pregnant in case of another disappointment. But now I am 12 weeks, the chance of me losing my pregnancy is minimal. It was as if something opened inside me. It was Hope. I was so excited I could barely write down the time of my first baby ultrasound before I left her office. That night, M and I talked. We planned what we were going to do with our career in 6 months when the baby arrived, we dreaded what we were going to say to our parents, we argued about names, we calculated our finances. We held each other tightly, with his hand on my belly that night as we fell asleep in the early hours of the morning.
The next morning, both us blurry eyed from too much excitement, I drove M to the airport – he was leaving for an interstate conference which was booked over 6 months ago. He told me he couldn’t wait to get home in a week’s time, so that we could continue our debate on baby names. Then I drove to the hospital, to have my first baby ultrasound. I hummed to the music on the radio, and I vividly recall the happiness that bubbled inside me, I could barely keep a lid on it, it was threatening to overflow. I had forgotten about my looming exams; even the thought of having to do long hours of studying when I get home didn’t dent my elated mood.
Little did I know, that half hour later, my world would come crashing down around me.
The first inkling that something might be wrong occurred when the ultrasonographer went out to get two other colleagues. There was some whispering between them. They told me that it was most likely a girl. Then they asked me to wait. An elderly woman, with silver hair piled on top of her head in a loose knot came in and introduced herself. She was obviously a very experienced obstetric radiologist. She also had a go with the probe. She concentrated very hard on the screen and started to press quite hard on my belly. She asked me to change my position several times. Then she left, and I could hear her having a conversation with someone on the phone.
I laid there, resting my hands protectively on my flat tummy, and tried to make out the shapes and shades on the screen – but, like every other ultrasound I have ever tried to read, the picture looked like an abstract art of cows in a snowstorm. The silver-haired-lady walked in. She sat down beside the bed.
‘Tiff.’ She took a big breath. ‘The ultrasound is showing me an abnormality with the baby’s heart.’
With those words, within that split second after she had uttered them, I withdrew into myself. It was as if the world had suddenly gone from full Technicolor to black-white. She kept talking. I heard everything, but it was as if she was on the other side of a glass wall. The sound was muffled, and there was a loud buzzing noise in my head. I felt…. nothing. I was told to go straight to my specialist, so numbly, I did. The specialist sat me down and told me the implications of the findings. She told me that it was my decision what I wanted to do, and that termination was available up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. I wasn’t sure what expression I had on my face, but when I left her office, the receptionist kept asking if she could call someone for me. I smiled through a face that felt like it was carved out of a stone and decline. I drove home. I turned the radio off in the car. I couldn’t bear the noise and the normality that the radio represented.
I rang M. He was quiet on the phone. As a cardiac surgeon, he knew the implications of having a child with congenital heart disease. He sees the suffering of these patients and their families day in day out. He knew this particular condition, it was one with a bad prognosis. He told me that if we went ahead, one of us will have to stop working. He told me that we will be burying our child when she turns 13 if we were lucky. He told me that it wasn’t a life he would want for anyone, let alone his own daughter.
He wasn’t telling me anything that I didn’t know already. I have congenital heart disease. Mine wasn’t anything structural, but it affected my childhood and subsequent years. I spent a lot of time in hospital as a child, I saw things in hospital that a child wouldn’t normally know about. I met other sick children, their parents and all acopic behaviours that came with it. I was introduced to the concept of death before I turned 5 years old, and I experienced the sensation of dying at the age of 6. I suffered from pathological envy – of all the normal children that went to school everyday, kicked balls and played tag in the park. I endured the embarrassment of collapsing in public places and schools, lying on the ground, gasping for breath and helpless while strangers stared on with pity in their eyes. I remember my brothers resenting having to visit me in the hospital, and spending hours sitting in doctors’ waiting rooms. I used to watch them play while cuddled in Dad’s lap, wishing I was the one climbing up the slide and digging in the sand. I was not allowed to socialise with other children in case I caught an illness, as one of the gastros I contracted from my brother tipped me over into heart failure. He cried when my mother explained what had happened (so that he wouldn’t do it again), he was upset because all he wanted to do, was to share his favourite cookie with me.
I remember feeling like I was 20 years old when I turned 13, even though by then, I was getting better, getting to do more things I had missed out on as a child, and going to school like any regular kid. I felt old at school, I couldn’t fathom why a conversation on who was friends with whom held so much fascination, and what one got for their birthdays was worth boasting about. I just wanted to reach my next one.
My experiences made me what I am today, and I am thankful for some of it but it was not a childhood I would have chosen, for myself and or anyone else. Was it worth the survival? I am not so sure. My condition is treated and stable, and I have been able to lead a very productive life, but severe structural congenital heart disease is on another completely different level of suffering. It means repeated open heart surgery throughout childhood and enduring multiple associated illnesses. Every hours in the day will evolve around medications, treatments, and painful tests. All this would be for nothing but suffering a short 10-15 year life-span, which consisted only of limited moments of true care-free quality. It was be a life filled with restriction and fear.
Then there were the selfish thoughts which I was afraid of exploring. Was I strong enough to watch my child endure all this, as there was no doubt that I would love her so much that it would be as if I myself was going through her suffering. And I knew how much harder it would be, second time round and seeing it happening to someone I love rather than myself. Would my world collapse when she dies? Would my marriage survive all this? Was I prepared to give up my career for a decade or more and not develop resentment for doing so? Would I regret or hate myself when I see her suffer? Thoughts that I knew I would be judged on by others.
I thought of talking to my mother, but she didn’t know and I wasn’t married, it was going to be a conversation with a lot more issues than the ones I was facing now. I wanted to know what it was like for her to watch me during my childhood. She didn’t know that I had problems until I was born, but if she did, would she have made a different decision?
So we made our decision, and as it would have it, I was due for a long weekend at work, so I booked in with my obstetrician. I asked M if we were doing the right thing. He told me that we were doing what was right for us. I asked him if he was upset. He said that there was no point in getting upset about something we had no control over. I begged him to come home. He told me that there was no point for him to fly home as it wasn’t going to change anything, he had a presentation to do and it was important to his career. I didn’t dare to be demanding, and so I didn’t argue. I told myself that one day I may be able to forgive him, but I would never forget that he wasn’t here when I needed him most.
I checked myself into hospital on the Friday and had my procedure. I woke up and found that my face was wet and my fair was saturated with my tears. I was kept overnight because there was no one home with me. I checked out the next day, and couldn’t bear the thought of having polite conversation with a taxi driver, so I walked home. It took 45 minutes. When I unlocked the front door of my house and sat down on the lounge, I curled up in physical pain and cried. I didn’t move for 24 hours.
On Sunday, M came home, and it was as if nothing had happened over the week he was away. We talked about his trip and the conference. We talked about the friends he caught up with, and the places he visited while he was there. Monday came and we both went back to work and back to our normal routine. It wasn’t as if he was avoiding the subject, he didn’t cut me short when I spoke about it. He was just quiet and listened to whatever I needed to say. We talked about the possibility of starting another cycle of treatment after my exams, and he told me that I needed three months to allow my body and mind to heal. The conversations were always devoid of any emotional overlay. One would have thought we were talking about the weather. He would then ask about my studies, and how much more I had to do before the exams. Life moved on.
Three months flew by, my exams were successful and we had just been out to celebrate. That night. we were both lying in bed, listening to each other’s breathing, waiting for sleep to overcome us.
He suddenly spoke into the silence. ‘When I was on the plane over, I decided on Michaela, but we would call her Mischka.’
It was then I realised. He was grieving for our daughter.
WMP: But why wouldn’t you want to have babies?
Me: (another polite laughter), I don’t need children when I have patients. They keep me busy enough and I can’t even tell them off when I want to.
I stopped IVF treatment a few years ago. It was enough. I have tried for over 12 years and I was out of tears.