Do you remember the first time you ‘tried’?

The first time you didn’t use contraception on purpose? I remember ours well – it felt exciting, it felt right and it felt, well, a bit naughty after 15 years of trying my utmost NOT to get pregnant… But most of all, it was an adventure we were embarking on together – an adventure that would be fun, exciting and end in the ultimate  happiness, if less sleep than we were accustomed to.

I look back on the newly contraception-free me of 2018 with envy, but also with compassion, because how little she knew, how naive she was about how it could – would – all turn out. As it happened, the adventure was only fun for a little while, and somewhere along the way it has turned into something more resembling The Lord of the Rings than Knocked Up: challenges, fighting, determination, blood and gore, and learning valuable lessons about ourselves along the way.

Let me start at the beginning. My husband and I met in 2013. He’s a maths teacher, I’m a marketer and we live in south London with our rescue dog. We got married in 2017 and went a bit rogue for our honeymoon, deciding on trekking in South America instead of more traditional destinations, meaning that we had to wait for a while to start trying for a baby due to the risk of Zika. I had my contraceptive coil removed in July 2018, and we got cracking with the fun bit of ‘TTC’. And it was fun – even when we didn’t get pregnant in the first few months, we knew that it could take even healthy, relatively young couples like us a while to get lucky. We were both 32: it would be fine.

Somewhere in early 2019, we started to feel a little irked that we hadn’t had a glimmer of a line or even a late period, so we asked our GP to do some tests. Officially, we shouldn’t have qualified for tests on the NHS for a few more months, but I think my doctor could see we were anxious. Everything looked good for me, but my husband’s semen analysis revealed that he had poor sperm morphology; in one doctor’s words, they were shaped like hammerhead sharks, so could only butt against my eggs rather than penetrate them. It was a blow, but we were referred for IVF without any further ado. In an aside, it has since occurred to me that male infertility is the only condition for which someone other than the sufferer is treated – perhaps a topic for a future post! Although the cause of my husband’s issue was later investigated separately to our infertility and found to be a varicocele – it’s always worth investigating! 

The consultant at our fertility clinic assured us that, with IVF plus ICSI, it would be a straightforward problem to overcome. He even said that, of all his patients, he was most confident that we would ‘succeed’ because we were young, healthy and had an easily surmountable issue.

So we took the plunge with our first round of IVF in May 2019. I started down-regulation at the end of a trip to Lisbon with friends, injected my first dose of stims during my best friend’s hen do, which I had organised, and a couple of weeks later we collected a good stash of eggs, which resulted in seven beautiful blastocysts. It all felt, well, pretty easy actually, and we were giddy with relief that we had just created our babies without too much difficulty. We transferred one, got our first positive pregnancy test and began to believe that, while it wasn’t the precise path we had imagined, we had achieved what we most desired.

But our little bubble of bliss would last for just a week. We were on holiday, and I started to bleed while we were at the beach. We went to a local hospital where a kind doctor who spoke very little English confirmed that my HCG was falling and that all we could do was wait for me to miscarry. It was bad luck, our consultant said when we got home, but unlikely to happen again and, after all, we still had six embryos in the freezer. We just needed to dust ourselves off and start the process for a frozen embryo transfer, which we had three months later. 

But I miscarried that one. And the next. And the one after that failed to implant. Then we had an enforced break, when Covid closed the IVF clinics. Then, after some tests, we prepped for a fifth embryo transfer – but, having decided to do PGT-A testing on our remaining embryos, neither of the viable ones survived the thawing process. Just like that, all seven of our precious embryos were gone.

I won’t go into detail about the ensuing year here, but it has involved three more egg collections, three more miscarriages (one after a very unexpected naturally conceived pregnancy), a plethora of tests, many thousands of pounds, two miscarriage specialists, surgery and gallons of tears. It’s been the bit of the film with the blood, guts and gore. In fact, my body feels like a battlefield, and often looks a bit like one as well – I’ve had some pretty remarkable bruises. We think my immune system is to blame, but we can’t be sure – and some doctors don’t even think that the immune system plays any role at all.

We haven’t got to the happy ending bit yet. We’re at a crossroads now. We’ve tried almost everything that fertility science has to offer, including some pretty wild and whacky treatments. We’ve recently had our fourth egg collection which produced just one viable embryo, and transferred one of our PGT-A tested embryos from a previous batch, only for it to result in a ‘BFN’. So what do we do now? Do we try again? Or is it a waste of our beautiful embryos to put them in my body? Should we enlist the help of a surrogate mother? If so, how? Where? Is that ethically ok? Do we adopt? We are lucky to have four euploid embryos in the freezer, so we have options, but it’s hard to know what to do.

In those heady summer months of 2018 when we got busy trying to conceive, I was aware that for some people it wasn’t easy. I was also vaguely aware that miscarriage was more common than you’d think. But never did I imagine that we would be one of the one in eight couples who struggle to conceive, have six of the one in four pregnancies that end in miscarriage, and be one of the one in one hundred couples who suffer from recurrent miscarriage (three or more in a row). It’s been hellish, but I’m starting to understand that some good has come of it too.

It’s tough, this journey, but there’s light as well as dark. The light often comes from the people you encounter on the path – the nurses who hug you when you cry, the doctor who wants you to succeed almost as much as you do, the people you meet in real life and online who are in a similar position, your family cheering and supporting you from the sidelines and of course your partner, holding your hand and injecting you with hormones as gently as they can.

I’m looking forward to sharing our journey with you. I can’t promise an inspirational happy ending, but I hope that by writing my experiences, it will help you to know that there are others out there that ‘get it’ – because that has helped me more than almost anything else over the last three years (that and the odd glass of wine…).

Please feel free to contact me via my Instagram, @writing_infertility, if you have any questions or just need an empathetic ear.