*As featured on Fertility Planit
I was asked recently if you approach parenthood differently when it’s taken many years and medical interventions to finally get that baby into your arms. I guess the answer I will never know; after all, the long road is the only one I have travelled. But the question makes me wonder about the ‘other’ mother I might have been; the one in a parallel universe who fell pregnant the month after her wedding.
Without a doubt, she would be approaching these challenges of motherhood from a slightly different vantage point, she would have different children (a mind-blowing idea in itself), and maybe she would even be a slightly different woman from the one I am today.
What I do know for sure is that infertility is a game changer and, for some of us, it will leave its mark on the rest of our lives.
And there are also certain private and sometimes painful truths that all of us who have experienced parenthood after infertility seem to learn along the way:
Our pregnancies are not nearly as enjoyable as we’d hoped
I remember the days, weeks, months and years that I prayed to hold a positive pregnancy test in my hands. It was the finishing line I wanted to cross, and I never allowed myself to acknowledge that it would be only the beginning of the race.
After several years and three IVF treatments, the elation of that 3am test result (and there really is no elation like it on earth), lasted for somewhere between 12 and 24 hours. And then it was immediately replaced by the cold fear that our incredible good fortune was about to be snatched away.
The anxiety of pregnancy after infertility was almost too much to bear. With my eyes fixed on the calendar and my ears glued to the Doppler, I wished those 280 days away. And in the full knowledge that I, of all people, should be savouring every one.
Now, five years down the line with my eldest child about to start school in a few short months, I wish I’d booked the maternity photo-shoot. I wish I’d joined my local NCT group. Sometimes I wish I’d written even a few entries in the diary I bought to document that precious time. But I worried that all these things would be tempting fate, and I didn’t want to jinx us when we had already come so far.
Perhaps for those of us who’ve experienced infertility, pregnancy is the chapter that can only truly be enjoyed in hindsight, once we’ve read the last page and we’re sure that the ending is going to be okay.
The new-born phase is terrifying
It makes sense that parents who’ve been through infertility might be a little overprotective, even paranoid, when at last the baby arrives. But in those first days and weeks after we brought our son home from the hospital, it felt as though we’d been transported into a Final Destination-style script. Mortal peril lurked in every journey, every cupboard, every suggestion for where we might go for lunch. I looked at our new-born sleeping peacefully in his cot and imagined what it would take for a pair of scissors, a plastic bag or a hand-drill to somehow end up in his reach – or a meteorite to come hurtling through the ceiling while my husband and I had dared to close our eyes.
I guess when it had taken the skills of 25 medical professionals to get our baby here, it was just hard to believe that we could ever sustain him by ourselves.
Trying to conceive can leave a big gap in our lives
Despite the pressure and worry of having a new-born to care for 24/7, I remember feeling a little lost without the all-consuming mission of trying to get pregnant each month.
For such a long time my life had revolved around researching, planning, scheduling and hoping. My acute awareness of every stage of my menstrual cycle, I had to accept, could never now be forgotten.
I tried to reassure myself that the nightmare was over. I had everything I’d ever wanted. It should have been liberating to know that, for a while at least, I was no longer a hostage of the ‘trying to conceive’ regime. But it seemed I had developed a strange kind of Stockholm syndrome, and I didn’t know how to reconnect with the life of a pre-infertile woman that I had once enjoyed.
The night my son was born, I knew I would be eternally grateful that my husband and I were parents at last. And in that instant, I also felt desperate to do it all over again.
Contrary to what people may think, we are not (and nor should we be) always satisfied with just one child.
Just like any other parents, we might feel it’s important for our child to have a sibling, or we might always have dreamed of one day having a big family with three or four kids running around in the backyard. Infertility changes so much of our lives but it doesn’t necessarily change this.
I started mentally preparing for ‘TTC – The Sequel’ when our son was around eight weeks old. I told no-one, of course; I worried I might have sounded obsessive, even ungrateful. But in my head the battle had commenced. And it opened all my barely-healed wounds when people advised me not to leave it too long to have another, or when friends whimsically plotted out the most desirable timings of their second and third pregnancies over lunch.
It was a reminder of the uphill struggle that almost certainly lay ahead, and that none of it was remotely within my control.
We are confronted with ourselves when we meet a fellow traveller
Amidst the idle pregnancy chatter from the fertile majority, we will often find another mother who has walked a similar path. We are the one-in-six, after all, and we should never need to look too hard before we find somebody else who took the long and winding road to get here.
At my antenatal course, I remember a woman sitting beside me who seemed on the verge of exploding (or perhaps imploding) with questions and worries. Her anxiety was palpable within the four walls of that hospital room, and I realised, to my discomfort, that she was giving a voice to every unexpressed worry that had been patrolling my own mind.
Around four months later we sat together drinking coffee, our new-borns by our sides. She told me her son was the result of IVF, and I told her that mine was too. We smiled at one another across the table. Yeah. We had known that all along.
There’s an unspoken camaraderie in the discovery; in those few small words, it communicates so much. I knew about the daily injections she’d have taken and the many undignified procedures she would have endured. But, more than that, I knew about those bitter tears she’d have cried in a hundred different toilet cubicles, the prayers she’d have whispered, and the soul-searching that would have commenced at around 5am when she couldn’t sleep for fear of what the future may not hold in store.
I saw her staring at the tiny person who lay in the pram by her side, and I knew without her saying a word that she could barely comprehend how he was here.
All of this comes with a side order of guilt
In my experience, the biggest downside of parenthood after infertility is the level of guilt we feel.
Having been so desperate to land the job in the first place, it’s easy to assume that parents who’ve survived infertility will automatically be first-class parents. It’s not the case. Some of the best parents I’ve met are the ones who got pregnant a month after coming off the pill. And the truth is that we are just as overwhelmed and unprepared as everyone else.
So many times, I’ve berated myself for being unable to access the endless reserve of patience that infertility must surely have helped me acquire. So many times, I’ve imagined the gods checking up on me, deciding I haven’t quite lived up to that bold list of promises I made five years ago.
Sometimes what we really need is for someone to reassure us that it’s okay not to enjoy every single second, and it’s normal to find parenting downright impossible at times.
We’re less likely to miss the ‘good old days’ before kids
Of course, there is always a flip-side to any coin, and sometimes I wonder if infertility has granted me even more than it has stolen.
I catch other parents staring wistfully at child-free couples, and lamenting the exciting plans they used to make for weekends, holidays and even random weekday nights. These shell-shocked mums and dads are left trying to conduct their crazy new life where everything is in rationed supply: social life, money, sex and sleep.
For parents who’ve been through infertility this kind of rationing comes as less of a blow. Okay, the lack of sleep will still knock us sideways, but the rest will likely fail to shock. Long before meeting my son, I had taken a pay cut, quit a ‘stressful’ job and spent more money on fertility treatments than I’d care to admit to myself.
Those exotic holidays my husband and I took? They were only ever the consolation prize for not being pregnant yet again, and sex would always serve as an unwelcome reminder of what our bodies could not achieve.
There is very little reason for nostalgia whenever I glance back upon my child-free years. And, if there can be such a thing, I think this might be the first gift that infertility leaves in its wake.
The most everyday of moments can leave us with goose-bumps
Infertility’s second gift. It happens when I least expect it: the sight of a pack of dinosaurs and superheroes guarding a corner of the garden, a beloved soft toy found discarded on the floor, or simply being in a toddler music class or a rhyme-time session surrounded by other parents. I’m suddenly blown away by the realisation that this is my house, these are my friends, this is my life – and somehow there are children at the centre of it. This house that I feared would always be quiet, and these children I feared would stay stuck in my imagination forever. For a few moments, the mundane challenges of every day will simply fade into the background, and I have to pinch myself to make sure it hasn’t all been a dream.
The bad days are never that bad
The final gift of infertility. Just like every parent, I have experienced sleepless night after sleepless night, and my kids have thrown epic public tantrums that I have no idea how to contain.
But, though it may be well hidden to the rest of the world, there is a tiny part of me smiling as I stand in puke-stained joggers amidst a sea of biscuit crumbs, Lego and beige-coloured playdough, a squirming toddler screaming in my arms. Because I remember how hard I worked for this day. How I prayed for this day. How I got down on my knees and begged every deity whose name I could remember to let me experience this very specific brand of hell. The irony isn’t lost on me. But infertility has left its mark on me. And I know, no matter how bad this gets, it could never compete with the bad days that I experienced before these children came into my life and turned my world upside down.
The truth is that anyone who has travelled the long road to parenthood wouldn’t change it for the world. And this is hardly newsworthy, because neither would any other parent we know. We can’t even try to love our children more than regular parents love theirs because that would be like a search for the number that follows infinity.
For all our differences in the journeys we took and the scars we may bear, parenthood is the ultimate leveller, and for the most part we are now just like all the regular, everyday parents at the school gates.
And this comes as the most incredible revelation because, in my lifetime at least, I know that a regular everyday parent is the thing I have most wanted to be.
* Rachel Cathan is the author of 336 Hours, the very funny and devastatingly honest diary of one woman’s quest for motherhood.