Saturday, 12 September 2009


Hello. Is there anybody still out there?

I'm a little shocked to discover that it's been over four months since I last posted - and this isn't because I have nothing further to say on the experience of either infertility or motherhood, but more because I simply haven't had time to transfer my thoughts from my head on to the page (I know that I've also been pretty lax with regard to commenting, but have tried my best to keep up with those whose stories I've been following for a while and have been thinking of you all).

Even though I'd spent years longing for a baby, I was somehow ill-prepared for the reality of life with a newborn. Throughout my pregnancy, I found it difficult to believe unconditionally in the idea that there would definitely be a baby at the end of it all. It really wasn't until they first handed Little Miss to me just after she was delivered and I looked down at this tiny little creature that I first realised that I was henceforth going to be a mother. And yes, it is more wonderful than I could possibly have imagined, but also more terrifying than I could possibly have imagined. Those first few weeks were truly hard. Mr H went back to work after his two weeks of statutory paternity leave, and was away throughout the working week. Little Miss H suffered from colic, and so we spent night after night pacing up and down, up and down - her screaming inconsolably, me crying with pain from the c-section.

But now the blurry intensity of those first few weeks, when day and night seemed to meld into one, has begun to fade. I won't go so far as to say that we are in a routine, but there is at least some rhythm to our days. Little Miss is now almost five months old, and it goes without saying that she is a source of extraordinary joy to both her parents. She smiles and laughs, coos and gurgles, and is intensely curious about the world around her. She is (for the time being at least) sleeping through the night, but the trade off for an unbroken night's sleep appears to be that she does not nap much during the day - she will only sleep when out and about in the buggy or car, and so I find myself doing endless circuits of the park while thinking about all the things I should/could be doing/writing if only I were at home.

But now I long to be writing again. I'm itching to get back to my work, and to finish the dissertation. I also have a series of posts in varying states of completion - my birth story, some thoughts on how it feels to be repeatedly asked when I will be having another baby and, since this is now inevitably going to turn into a 'parenting after infertility and loss' blog, one on my current obsession - weaning. What would you like to hear about first?

Monday, 18 May 2009

A sharp reminder

I returned home from hospital with a new-born baby... and my very own sharps bin. Because I had a Caesarean section, I had to have daily injections of an anti-clotting agent for a week after giving birth. Before I could be discharged from hospital, the midwife looking after me insisted that I be shown how to administer these injections myself. Confidently, I hitched up my nightdress. 'I've been through two cycles of IVF,' I explained. 'I know what I'm doing in that respect.' But as I sat there, roll of thigh in one hand, syringe in the other, poised to inject myself, the full gamut of emotions associated with those two failed cycles came flooding back. I remembered the hope and the fear, the mounting sense of despair I felt as each attempt seemed to lead me further and further away from ever having a child of my own. And as I gave myself those daily shots, I thought of all the other women who were, at that very same moment, but for very different reasons, also psyching themselves up to inject themselves. I thought of the mixture of optimism and steely determination that had led them down this path. I thought of the boundless strength and courage of so many of my friends here in the blogosphere, who have been through more than I can imagine. And, once again, I thought of how lucky I am to have been given this chance at motherhood.

As I lay in bed this morning, nursing my daughter and watching the sky turn from darkest navy to palest blue, I wondered whether having a baby can be considered a 'cure' for infertility. It can, I think, go some way towards healing some of the emotional rawness. And yet it does not entirely negate all I went through to get to this point. Just as I carry the physical scars from both a laparoscopy and, now, a c-section so too do I carry with me the emotional scars associated with a six-year struggle to conceive and carry to term a child.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Baby girl

Little Miss Heathen finally came into this world at 4.16 on Sunday morning, weighing in at 7lbs 10 and a half ounces. She was delivered via emergency Caesarean section a mere fifty three hours after my waters broke (my birth plan had by that stage pretty much gone out of the window!)
I will post more in due course, but at the moment am beyond tired, utterly besotted with this extraordinary little being I have produced and feeling unbelievably lucky to have been given this chance at motherhood.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Better Out Than In

At 39 weeks and 3 days, a strange air of expectancy has settled over the Heathen household. Although I have treasured every moment of this much longed for pregnancy, I am increasingly uncomfortable, and anxious to meet this as yet unknown little being, who seems to spend much of his or her time kicking me under the ribs or else bouncing up and down on my bladder. Our tradesmen, who have heroically re-arranged their work schedules so as to do as much of the outstanding work on the house as possible before my due date, greet me every morning with the words, 'so you're still here, then.' I have had a couple of bouts of what feel like bad period pains, ensuring that Mr H is on a permanent state of high alert (he is now thankfully at home after several weeks away in London, although hogging the home computer after breaking his laptop - hence the blogging silence). My hospital bag is pretty much packed, my birth plan written, and labour is suddenly starting to feel something that I will - no matter what the outcome may be - definitely experience, rather than a mere hypothetical.

It strikes me that there are two very different ways of approaching giving birth. Either you can see it as something messy, bloody, painful and potentially dangerous, which needs to be sanitised away as much as possible; or you can view it as one of the most profound things you will ever experience as a woman. Within western culture, birth, like death, has become something from which we are largely insulated - for most of us, our own labour is the first we will experience – yet both are an inevitable part of the life cycle. Given our long struggle with infertility, conception became a hugely medicalised event – what is generally a private act instead required the intervention of doctors, nurses, embryologists and anaesthetists; what is generally an invisible bodily process was instead played out on screens for all to see. It is perhaps for this reason that I would like my birth to involve as little intervention from the medical profession as possible.

It is, however, a fine line to tread. As much as I want to trust my own instincts, and to believe in my body’s ability to birth my baby, I am also aware that sometimes things do go wrong, and that urgent medical intervention is required – for some women, having a Caesarean section is not a question of being ‘too posh to push’, but a life-saving procedure. Too many of the women in my yoga class appear to see the medical profession as the enemy, and determined to have a home birth, even when they have been warned that they are at risk of significant complications.

All of this does, of course, come down to a matter of personal choice; any woman will labour best in the environment in which she feels safest. But, having been through so much to get to this point, I am not willing to put either my baby or myself at what I feel to be unnecessary risk. If things go according to plan, I am hoping to give birth in a midwife-led birthing centre, which to me feels safer than a home birth. We went to look around the centre a couple of weeks ago, and both felt very comfortable with the level of care they offered. There has been much adverse publicity about the provision of maternity services within the NHS – basically, there simply aren’t enough midwives to go round, and postnatal care in particular is patchy to say the least. At the midwife-led centre, however, I am guaranteed one-to-one care during labour and delivery, which isn’t the case in my local hospital, where the chances are that one midwife will be trying to look after two, or even three, women at a time. I will also have my own private bathroom facilities (call me picky if you like, but I don’t particularly want to be trekking off down a hospital corridor in order to visit the loo in the middle of labour). Where our local hospital has only one birthing pool, each of the labour rooms at the centre has a pool. If things do go wrong, I will be a short ambulance ride away from hospital, during which time I will be accompanied by the midwife who has been looking after me up until that point. Although I had to sign a form accepting that I had understood that I was at increased risk of having to transfer to hospital owing to my advanced age(!), this seems a small price to have to pay for what seems a far more personal and homely experience.

So now, all we have to do is wait.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Thoughts On Mother's Day

Mother's Day is fast approaching, and the nation is in the grips of the usual sentimental idealisation of the maternal role: daytime television shows compete to find 'Britain's best mum', while the shops are full of cards, gifts and flowers.

For those mourning their mothers, and for those who are remembering a lost child, however, this slow buildup to Mothering Sunday serves only as a painful reminder of all that they are missing. Just last week, Prince William gave a moving speech about the continuing impact of his own mother's death. "Never being able to say the word 'Mummy' again in your life sounds like a small thing. However, for many, including me, it’s now really just a word - hollow and evoking only memories." The Prince was speaking on the occasion of the launch of the Child Bereavement Charity's 'Remember on Mother's Day' campaign, which asks people to spare a thought for those mothers bereaved of a child, and those children bereaved of their mothers, this coming Sunday.

Yet it is not only these significant anniversaries that can serve to remind us of what we no longer have. Sometimes the most trivial of events can precipitate us abruptly back to an earlier loss.

Last summer, a fantastic new cafe opened around ten minutes walk from our house, serving the most wonderful cakes, pastries and coffees. We went there for Saturday brunch a few weeks ago, and I had a plate of pancakes served with maple syrup and fresh bananas. Earlier this week, I found myself dreaming about those pancakes. I tried to put the craving behind me, and to plod on with marking my final round of undergraduate dissertations, but to no avail. By eleven o'clock, I had managed to convince myself that I was craving pancakes for a reason - that this was my body's way of telling me that I was dangerously deficient in potassium. Clearly, the baby urgently needed me to eat a further helping of those pancakes and bananas! I grabbed my coat and set off.

It was only after I'd found a seat and ordered my pancakes that I realised that the cafe was full of women with small children. Even in my vastly pregnant state, I still had to fight those old familiar feelings of exclusion - of stumbling across a mysterious club that I would never be part of. Yet this time I noticed something different. Many of these women were accompanied by their own mothers. Looking around at all these grandmothers, mothers and babies, the question suddenly hit me: Without my mother to guide me, how will I know how to take care of my own child? How am I going to mother in the absence of a mother?

For the past few weeks, I have been attending antenatal classes. The other women in the class talk about how their mothers have offered to help out after the birth. For some, the thought of having their mothers on hand in this way is an evident relief; for others, it seems an intrusion or irritation. Would I welcome the help and guidance of my mother, or would I be adamant that I wanted to find my own way of doing things? The truth is, I simply don't know. She died during my late adolescence, at a stage when I was struggling to assert my independence from her. I never had a chance to rebuild my relationship with her from the perspective of an adult woman. Yet this gap, this lacuna, does not stop me fantasising about what might have been. And so I find myself grieving anew for my mother. And not only that. I find myself grieving on behalf of my child, for the grandmother he or she will never know.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

On surrogacy and sensationalism

My experience of being part of the IF community has taught me that there are many, many different ways of building a family - whether that be through fertility treatments such as IUI or IVF/ICSI, the use of donor gametes, or else via adoption or surrogacy. Each and every one of these potential paths to parenthood brings with it its own highly complex set of choices, its own unique dilemmas. Yet it seems that, by focusing on only the most extreme stories, media coverage of these issues all too often fosters misunderstanding and suspicion, rather than promoting any real acceptance.

As many have already suggested, the recent furore surrounding the birth of the California octuplets is, of course, a case in point. The media coverage of this event here in the UK has been marred by an erroneous use of terminology (viz., the persistent use of the word 'implant' to describe the transfer of embryos into a woman's uterus), and has sparked a pronounced backlash against the use of assisted reproductive technologies (after the Nadya Suleman story first broke, I caught the tail end of a radio phone-in on the topic of the octuplets, in which caller after caller suggested that IVF should be outlawed on the grounds that it interferes with the laws of nature. Many of those who rang in to voice their opinion were of the view that, if a woman cannot have children, she should simply 'get over it', or else adopt.)

On Monday evening, a documentary entitled 'Addicted to Surrogacy' aired on Channel 4. While this could have been a golden opportunity to explore this complex and emotive issue from the twin perspectives of both the surrogate and the intended parent(s), it all too quickly descended into sensationalism, with the filmmakers choosing to focus only on the most extreme cases.

Firstly, it presented to us Jill Hawkins, a woman who is described on the Channel 4 website as Britain's most prolific childless surrogate, having 'given away' seven babies over the past 18 years. The programme followed the forty-four-year-old Ms Hawkins as she described the process of home insemination and then waited to carry out a pregnancy test, which turned out to be negative, leading the programme makers to ask, Is it finally time for Jill to wean herself off her need to have babies for other people, and start living her own life? Once again, then, we are back to that time-honoured stereotype: that of the baby-hungry woman trying desperately to drown out the ticking of her biological clock.

Next it turned to the case of Janie and Peter, a couple in their fifties who have been trying to have a baby through a surrogate for three years. After several [unspecified] bad experiences in the UK, Tammy Lynn in Kansas is now having twins for the couple, and they've travelled the 5,000 miles to be with her at the birth.

After that, we moved to Essex where Amanda - a first-time surrogate - is having a baby boy for Stephen and Olga. With Olga and Amanda not always seeing eye-to-eye, we witness the complex and emotional journey that leads to having a surrogate baby.

I found these latter two cases particularly hard to watch, although for different reasons. While Janie seemed anxious to forge a relationship with Tammy Lynn, and to maintain some contact with her after bringing the babies back to the UK, in order that they might grow up to have a sense of who their 'tummy mummy' was, Tammy Lynn resisted all overtures on her part. The second intended mother, Olga, on the other hand, seemed at times to behave with gross insensitivity towards her surrogate, and in particular her surrogate's children, refusing to allow them to say goodbye to the baby. Although I have obviously never been in the position of having to negotiate such a complex relationship, from reading other people's stories here in the blogosphere, I do have a sense that many surrogates and intended mothers are able to form a more productive connection. But I guess that those cases don't make for such compelling television.

As if these cases were not quite gripping enough, the programme was then rounded off by an interview with Carole Horlock, the world's most prolific surrogate, who tells the story of her career-low: when she discovered that a baby she had given birth to had been accidentally conceived with her own partner.

While one could argue that any television programme that explores some of the issues raised by infertility and assisted reproduction is a good thing, it saddens me that all too often their aim is not to foster awareness or understanding, but rather to provide an hour's entertainment. It seems to me that much media coverage tends to reduce infertility and its treatment to a circus sideshow, rather than acknowledging it as a genuine medical condition.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Things I have learnt from having the builders in

  1. That all tradesmen can drink copious amounts of extremely strong tea and are 'quite partial to a biscuit should you happen to have any in the cupboard, love.'
  2. That the plasterer does not hold with women working. We should all stay at home and bake cakes, apparently.
  3. That the plumber is 'so fertile that he only has to look at his wife to get her pregnant.' He has as a consequence had a vasectomy. So too has the plasterer.
  4. That the electrician is a man of few words. For this small mercy, I am grateful.
  5. That the joiner is a huge Michael Jackson fan and can hit nearly all of the high notes when singing along to 'Bad'.
  6. That, given all the dust, noise and general upheaval, it is now looking increasingly unlikely that I will manage to submit my PhD dissertation before the baby is due.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Home improvements

On almost every pregnancy-after-infertility blog that I have ever read, sooner or later it becomes time for the obligatory 'decorating the nursery' post. Even now, I find these posts difficult to read. I look at the photographs of the crib, of the rows of little outfits hanging expectantly in the wardrobe and of the lovingly stencilled bunny rabbits scampering around the newly painted walls, and I wonder, how can you forget so easily? How can you read of the terrible losses that occur each and every day in our little community and somehow assume that you are safely immune from such tragedy?

At a little over thirty weeks, I have yet to buy so much as a bootee. I still find it difficult to make the imaginative leap from 'pregnancy' to 'baby'.

My husband, on the other hand, has decided that we need to start Making Plans For When The Baby Arrives. We live in a teeny-tiny, two-up, two-down terraced house that was initially built by an enlightened Victorian factory owner to house his workers. For the two of us, it is perfect. Factor in a child, however, and it starts to seem very cramped indeed. In the current economic climate, now does not seem the right time to attempt to sell the house, or indeed to take on a bigger mortgage in order to buy somewhere larger, and so Mr H has decided to embark upon a series of home improvements, designed to ensure that we have room for a baby as well as for all of our existing stuff.

I currently use the second bedroom as a study. Now, however, I need to be re-homed so that the baby will have somewhere to sleep. Mr H has hit on the bright idea of turning the cupboard under the stairs into a workspace for me. This in turn means that we have to find somewhere to put everything that previously lived under the stairs. Mr H's master plan is to incorporate into the house as much built-in storage as possible. In addition to my new under-the-stairs workspace, we are having additional shelving built in the living room and new wardrobes fitted in our bedroom. His plans for the re-model have got progressively more ambitious and now also include having new flooring fitted throughout the house, as well as additional lighting in the dining room and kitchen. Last week, he decided that, while we were having all the work done, we might as well also have the boiler replaced and the kitchen ceiling replastered.

Having formulated this master plan, he then promptly disappeared to Geneva on business, leaving me to schedule these various works. The joiner is currently assembling the new bedroom wardrobes, the electrician is chasing holes in the dining room and kitchen walls, while the plumber appears to flit between the kitchen and the loft. Tomorrow, my band of merry men will also be joined by a plasterer, who will begin making good where the other tradesmen have been. I have had no heating or hot water since Tuesday, and the entire house is covered in a thick layer of dust. Various radios, all of which appear to be set to competing stations, are blaring forth, and the loo seat is permanently left up.

The cat and I have retreated to my study, which we now share with a mountain of precariously stacked boxes. In the evenings, we move downstairs to the living room, where, after having wiped up the worst of the dust, we huddle together for warmth under a blanket. Mr H certainly knows how to schedule his work assignments!

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Family planning

While waiting to see the midwife a couple of weeks ago, I read a magazine article which suggested that having four or more children is, in certain circles at least, regarded as a symbol of both wealth and status. The author of the article interviewed several women who were married to high-earning bankers or lawyers, and who commented on how lucky they were to have been able to afford to have a large family without having to continue to work themselves. The article went on to contrast their situation with that of 'most women', who choose only to have two or, at the most, three children, for primarily financial reasons.

Reading this article, I realised how alien the whole concept of 'family planning' now feels to me. When you are dealing with infertility, you hold tight to any possibility of having a child, no matter when or how that possibility comes along.

I was reminded of this article over the weekend. My old friend from university and her fiance came up to visit (let's call them Jane and Patrick). The four of us went out to dinner to celebrate Jane's 37th birthday, which was on Saturday. Over the meal, our conversation turned to the topic of children. Jane and Patrick are 'definitely' going to start trying for a baby in around eighteen months or so. First, however, they want to get married and then move to a bigger house. Jane has a very successful career as a lawyer, and also wants to try and make partner before she has to go off on maternity leave.

I have another friend, Victoria, who is around the same age as Jane and myself. Victoria is an academic, and about to publish her first book. She then wants to secure a promotion at work and apply for a period of research leave. She thinks that she'll probably start a family after that, once her second book is well underway.

It strikes me that both Victoria and Jane have fallen for one of the great urban infertility myths: that it's OK to wait, because even if things don't happen naturally, there's always IVF. Over dinner, Jane made a comment about wanting to 'get it all over in one go', by having twins or possibly even triplets.

But it seems to me that my friends are taking one hell of a risk with their fertility. I want to grab them by the shoulders and tell them that, at the age of thirty-seven, their fertility is already in decline. I want to tell them that IVF is by no means a guaranteed treatment, and that success levels fall rapidly once you are in your late 30s. I want to tell them about my own diagnosis of diminished ovarian reserve, and about how, after two poor responses to stimulation, I was forced to think long and hard about whether it was worth continuing with assisted conception.

But is that perhaps the equivalent of someone with no apparent fertility problems suggesting to me that I should simply relax?

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

The Scarlet Letter 'I'

When I was caught up in the day-to-day struggle of infertility, I tended to avoid the company of those who were either pregnant or raising small children. Sometimes, it was simply too painful to be confronted with such a tangible reminder of what I myself could not have. At other times, I found myself bored by lengthy conversations about the intricacies of weaning or potty training - let's face it, other people's children's toileting habits just aren't that interesting. But what used to infuriate me the most was the ever so slightly smug, self-satisfied and patronising attitude that certain (though by no means all) women with children tend to adopt towards those without children. I can well remember having a (rather one-sided) conversation with a fellow PhD candidate who had recently given birth herself about the joys of motherhood. 'Of course,' she said to me confidentially, 'you'll only really understand what I'm talking about once you have children of your own.' I resent the underlying implication behind such statements: that those who remain childless - whether by choice or as a consequence of infertility - are somehow to be considered 'less womanly' than those who are mothers.

But I also found that my resistance to spending time with these women was often matched with a certain discomfort on their part. As we grow increasingly vociferous about our condition - whether as individuals or as a community - we force others to confront an uncomfortable truth: that infertility can happen to just anyone. We serve as visible reminders of the fact that it could just have easily have been them with their feet in the stirrups. To certain members of the 'mummy brigade', the realisation that pregnancy and motherhood are by no means a 'natural' or inevitable stage in every woman's life strikes deep at the very core of their identities.

Yet now I find that my pregnancy appears to have afforded me automatic entry into a club that had hitherto eluded me: other pregnant women catch my eye in the supermarket and smile conspiratorially; harassed mothers struggling to deal with tantrumming toddlers ruefully tell me that I 'have all this to look forward to.' For the past few weeks, I have been attending a weekly 'yoga for pregnancy' class. I'm finding it helpful not only to stre-e-e-e-e-tch, but also to pick up practical tips on how best to prepare for and cope with labour. But on another level, I find it difficult to accept that I really belong in this room full of pregnant women. I cannot escape the feeling that I still have a scarlet letter 'I' for Infertile emblazoned across my chest for all to see, and that, sooner or later, I will be found out and asked to leave.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Great Expectations

Infertility has made me feel a failure - as a woman, as a wife, but also as a daughter.

My father and, perhaps more particularly, my stepmother have for some years had a palpable longing for a grandchild. While many of their friends have gone on to become grandparents, they have been forced to sit back and watch helplessly. My two stepbrothers show absolutely no signs of settling down in stable relationships, let alone reproducing, and so all their hopes have been pinned on my rapidly ageing ovaries. Although they have been very supportive of our decision to undergo IVF, in all the time I was struggling with my own complex feelings of guilt and failure in relation to my inability to conceive and carry to term a child, I was also acutely aware of just how disappointed they too were.

Eventually, they befriended a French couple of around the same age as myself and Mr H whom they met on holiday. I met this couple for the first time over the summer - they are lovely people, who have clearly been to hell and back as far as infertility is concerned: after several failed cycles of IVF, they eventually adopted two little boys from Estonia, a process which took them over four years (the question as to why we too couldn't 'just adopt' has often seemed to hover, unspoken yet reproachfully, in the air). My father and stepmother absolutely dote on these two children: they go to visit them as often as possible, and have even talked about moving to France permanently in order to be close to them. Their house is filled with photographs of the French family, and every time I go to visit them I feel even more guilty for not being able to provide them with the one thing that they seem to want above all else.

Since we told them that we were expecting a baby, they have been absolutely beside themselves with excitement. While we have yet to buy a single piece of baby-related paraphernalia, their plans for the new arrival seem to be well under way: my stepmother has already knitted a small stash of hats and bootees, while my father has been leafing through back issues of 'Practical Woodworking' in search of something he can make for his first grandchild (we had tactfully to reject a rather wonky looking crib on health and safety grounds).

Yet somehow the sheer weight of their expectations continues to press heavily upon me. Even at 25 weeks, I find it difficult to believe unconditionally that there will be a baby at the end of this process. While everyone around me makes plans, I am still very much living from moment to moment of this pregnancy.

Friday, 2 January 2009

In which Mr H puts his foot in it

When you yourself are battling infertility, it can be very difficult to feel much sympathy for those who moan on endlessly about their pregnancy symptoms. I have in particular very little patience with those who complain of feeling fat and unattractive during pregnancy. About eighteen months ago, we had an extraordinarily difficult weekend visit from Mr H's best friend and his pregnant girlfriend, who spent the whole time going on about how big she thought her arse was. It took every ounce of self-control that I had not to tell her to shut the f**k up. 'Why can't you see just how lucky you are?' I felt like shouting at her. 'Have you any idea of what I would give to be in your shoes right now?'

During my own pregnancy, I have been determined not to fall prey to such culturally induced self-loathing. I have tried very hard to embrace my changing body shape, and to focus on feeling voluptuous and womanly. Yes, I have suffered some minor discomforts, but they seem a small price to pay for the privilege of becoming a mother.

My fragile self-confidence has, however, recently taken a knock. The other day we went round the January sales. Hr H pointed out a cardigan that he thought I might like. 'You'd probably still fit into that,' he commented.

The cardigan in question was in the window of a shop specialising in plus-size clothing. I am a UK size 8 (around a US size 6); this particular store starts at UK size 18 (US size 16). Once this was pointed out to my darling husband, he immediately started back pedalling. He wasn't for one moment suggesting that I should try on the cardigan; he was simply pointing it out as a particularly fine example of its kind.

My position on the moral high ground of the relationship is now assured for the next few days at least. From my vantage point, I am rather enjoying watching him squirm!