De-stigmatising Infertility

They are IVF babies

Picture Credit: Bassie

I have issued this statement to so many people in response to different questions ranging from “Is it you or daddy who carries the twin gene?” Are they your firsts? You took your time!”…

I have regarded these questions as natural and innocent and my response has been a consistent, impromptu honest “they are IVF babies”. Over time however, as I reflected on this response, the conversations that it provoked, and the associated insights I realised the response had evolved into a message of HOPE. 

My ‘tagline’ has opened dialogue with strangers and acquaintances… “I know a colleague, friend, couple… I have a sister, cousin… who has been trying for a baby for some time now. Mind sharing information? Can I pass your contacts? Maybe they would want to meet with you…”

I have met with several women so far, who needed more than just the contact details of the fertility health facility, but a testimony from someone who has gone through the journey, failed and tried again! We have had heart-to-hearts that divulged the sad stories of stigma and heartless utterances that deepened the pain and further perpetuated the prevailing secrecy.  A few of the common remarks include:

“If you don’t bear children for this man, he will leave you for another woman”.  [The sad thing is some men have in deed left, only to realise they are carrying the problem with them]. 

“It’s your thin waist that is the problem. You can’t fall pregnant.”

“You look good, are happy, and successful because you don’t have children.” Now this one left me wondering where the conflicting narratives come from, because on the one hand there is this ideology that proclaims motherhood as the ultimate form of self-actualisation, which I am not going to argue with. Given this supposition, while reminding us of our inadequacy and shooting down our efforts to be the best versions of ourselves under the circumstances, I find this remark to be inadvertently giving motherhood a bad name. Motherhood has its challenges. So does a career, business, marriage…challenges that do not determine one’s happiness but require us to be inward-looking and solution oriented as opposed to adopting a victim mentality. 

There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding the issue of infertility, which often silently label it a women’s problem, a mysterious condition that very few understand and the most extreme views regard it as a problem affecting celebrities and women with lots of money. My take on these views are not from an expert position, but from the wide research I had to undertake to make sense of my situation, which included attending very informative seminars by renowned experts in fertility, hosted by Melbourne IVF. This was way before we could see any fertility specialist because we could not afford the procedure. When we finally went for medical intervention, I was awestruck at the level of empowerment endeavours that the doctors displayed. I read every pamphlet, watched videos and listened to podcasts, followed and read blogs and most of the online content on links I was directed to. 

Infertility affects a significant enough number of people and cannot be trivialised or ignored. It is not a women’s problem, but a couple’s. It knows no status (social or financial). Medical experts do understand infertility because it is a medical condition. As to why medical aids in Botswana do not cover the IVF treatment, is a story for another day. 

What is medical about infertility? Fertilisation takes place in the fallopian tubes. Fallopian tubes can get blocked due various factors, be damaged from previous ectopic pregnancies or cut following tubal ligation. Fertilisation involves the fusion of the ovum and sperm, and when the sperm count is low or the sperm has deformities it could lead to fertility problems. Doctors also have documented cases of unexplained infertility. In all the above cases (and several others) conception cannot occur naturally and that is where scientific manipulation comes in. This is in the form of medication combined with surgical procedures for the couple. From experience, once IVF has been determined as the only route to conception, the woman becomes the subject of interest.

On why women get more attention during fertility treatment! 

Women don’t only carry the evidence of successful conception; their system has to undergo rigorous operation. This entails initial tracking of menstrual cycle in order to effectively control ovulation, followed by administration of steroids to trigger production of many eggs. The eggs have to be monitored, through regular scanning in order to determine their growth rate and the most suitable day and TIME for harvesting. The ovum harvesting (collection) is a procedure done under mild anaesthetic. Things then go to the lab…and the final stage is embryo transfer into the uterus! And the wait begins…The longest two weeks ever! With its further pricks and medications, accompanied by the anxiety of adhering to times! Tell me this is not an operation.

I named my IVF files and saved the contact details for the Centre of Advanced Medicine ‘Operation Bambinos’ 

Procreation may seem like such a natural effortless phenomenon, just like breathing, until a couple realises they are not falling pregnant. The realisation can be paralysing, fraught with shock, denial, fear and the state of inaction can last for years. Depending on the couple’s financial situation IVF treatment could become an option. Some couples are successful after the first attempt. Others go several times. The process is financially, emotionally and physically draining. Failure from a cycle of treatment is not only shattering, but heightens the fear for subsequent attempts. For these reasons and many others that I could not delve into in this post, couples going through this journey need no probing to talk about the issue. They just need their silence to be understood and respected. They need kindness. No unsolicited advice. No judgement.

Image of myself striking a cool pose Picture Credit: Caron Phalane

Here is to my IVF buddies! Your feelings are valid. 

Happy Mother’s Day

3 Comments

  1. This is more than a read, but a load of testimony from one who has experienced the journey! Issues surrounding infertility are usually a bitter pill to swallow and only one who has tasted it can give an honest account of its smack. This piece of writing deserves more than credit!! It is substance for both men and women, young and old, families and societies: that we may learn to embrace those that need our support….Happy Mother’s Day!

    Liked by 1 person

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