Infertility and fertility treatment are experiences which go beyond the medical and physical; they are also emotional experiences, and are affected by social norms, cultural and religious beliefs, health policy, technology, and IVF clinics’ commercial objectives. In the two films below, some of the people we talked to share their thoughts and feelings about infertility and fertility treatment. The stories demonstrate that no two people’s experiences of infertility or fertility treatment are the same.
Thoughts and feelings about infertility
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Skye has PCOS and is about to start IVF with her partner. She shares her thoughts on how she thinks society views women without children.
I think there’s definitely people that see women who don’t have children as being selfish, that’s how I feel that, people think, “Oh, they haven’t had children because they didn’t want them or they were too busy travelling or too busy with their careers,” and things like that. So I definitely think there’s a stereotype that women that don’t have children get put into. But no-one ever thinks it’s because they could – maybe just could not have them.
Kris and her husband have three children conceived with the assistance of an egg donor. She recalls the complicated mix of feelings she experienced on being diagnosed with early menopause soon after getting married.
Kris: And then I got a call from my GP, which I actually missed and I had a message on my answering machine saying that they got the test results back and it looked like I was in early menopause and that I should come in to the office or call so I could get to work on contacting a fertility specialist.
I was pretty much devastated because I was 34. I hadn’t really even considered that it could have been at that age, early menopause. I didn’t really even know what that meant.
It was such a hard piece of information. I felt really quite, and this is… I felt a little bit embarrassed because it was this big bit of information, I didn’t know what to do with.
I didn’t really know how to process that information into the identity as well at that particular point in time, where everyone’s talking to you about starting a family, because you’ve just got married. Everyone’s looking like they know that you’re a certain age and you kind of need to give… You kind of feel like you need to give people an answer, but it’s not necessarily always a conversation people want to have with you as well. People don’t want to hear, “Oh, actually I’m having problems.” But at the same point in time, if you’re phrasing this, it’s more than just having problems. I think it’s more than having a hard time having a baby when you’re just basically saying, “Well, actually I can’t have a baby.”
So, I think that was the hardest thing was sharing the news with people, but not being able to share at that stage, any hope with people. And so people that you love are also going through that pain with you as well, or you don’t tell them and you keep it to yourself and you don’t know which is better.
Interviewer: Those feelings of embarrassment and things, what were they linked to do you think?
Kris: I just think I felt a bit silly about not knowing as much about my fertility and maybe not realising that this was going on behind the scenes. I think I felt, ‘Well maybe I should have started trying earlier.’ That’s part of the… I felt guilty about not going off the pill earlier. I felt guilty about the times where, oh, well, it had always taken a while for the period to come back after going off the pill. So why hadn’t I investigated that before?
And I don’t know, there’s a little bit of that, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ as well. And I think maybe not really a hundred percent understanding what it meant, the menopause as well. So I kind of felt like maybe I hadn’t equipped myself well enough going into these meetings with specialists and doctors. Maybe I should have known more about what it meant. And it was all sort of wrapped around that sense of identity as well about what you feel like should be a really joyful time about starting a new marriage and a family and it’s just not going to happen.
Mary, who has struggled to conceive because of PCOS, reflects on possible reasons why her mother only recently told her that she herself also had fertility problems.
Mary: When I started the appointments and that they always ask, “Is it genetic? Has your mother’s side, have they struggled to conceive or anything?” I think I must get it from my mum because she keeps to herself, too. I always ask my mum, “Did you ever have trouble?” She said, “No, I was fine.” But it was only until, probably, the last three years, probably, that she started, so both me and my brother are both IVF babies. And so she speaks of how she struggled to conceive and stuff like that. So, it turns out it is from her. Her sisters, so all of them have had trouble to conceive as well. And they’ve all had children probably at around the age of 35.
I had no idea. It just came out of a conversation one time. I remember I was talking with my mum, I just finished an appointment, and she said, “Oh, how’s it going?” And I said to her, “Don’t worry, Mum. It’s just never going to happen.” And she goes, “You know what? Yeah, it happened to me.” And I said, “Pardon?” And she goes, “Yeah. You and your brother, you’re both IVF babies.” I said, “How can you leave that information out from me?” And she goes, “Oh, I never told you?” I said, “No, you never told me, Mum.”
Interviewer: Do you just put that down to people being quite private about these sorts of issues?
Mary: I don’t know if it’s private or if it’s just a cultural taboo thing that they don’t talk about with their children, especially. I never – my mum and her sisters, they will share about everything except for their struggles with infertility and stuff like that. And that’s what I noticed even with their health, I notice that they don’t share their health issues either. I don’t know if it’s just them or if it’s a cultural thing, I don’t know.
Melissa and her ex-husband tried IVF but without success. Although Melissa feels she doesn’t ‘fit in’ as a woman without children, developing other interests has been helpful.
Melissa: I feel like I don’t quite fit in because the majority of people have children and so much is centred around them. So I feel like I’m on the outside of that. But in saying that, I have my interests and I’m very involved in those and that’s in another world away from the people who are parents and taking their kids to school and that’s all they can talk about. And I found myself, if anyone says, “Have you got kids?”, I say, “No, I can’t have children”. I say that very clearly, so they get it straight away, because many people like to jump in, “Oh you’re so lucky you don’t have any!” which is so offensive.
Interviewer: And how do they respond then when you say that?
Melissa: They are usually sort of taken aback – “Oh!” and that’s all they have to say. Nobody ever goes any further because they just cannot relate to it.
Interviewer: So you were saying that you’ve got a range of interests that kind of give you another focus?
Melissa: Yes, yes. And they’re the sort of interests I’ve had a for a long time but, it’s sort of enabled me to, I guess, spend much more time involved in those types of things now. And that’s how I still feel like I’m a part of society. [laughter]
Interviewer: Yeah, absolutely.
Melissa: Just a bit, a different section. [laughter]
Tallace is expecting her second child conceived via IVF. She recollects the ‘vision’ of a life without children she reassured herself with after her first unsuccessful attempts at fertility treatment.
So, the thing that I found most comforting when I really believed that it was never going to work, was to imagine a life for myself that didn’t involve having kids. It was probably one of the first times that I had tried to do that, actively, and I decided that if I couldn’t conceive, that I would have a really fabulous life where I would travel a lot, and do things extravagant. That was really comforting, actually, just to have a… to know that it wasn’t actually the end of the world if I couldn’t conceive. I just… I needed there to be another possibility. So I had to craft that vision for myself.
Thoughts and feelings about fertility treatment
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Kate would like to see more education about the limits of IVF and about the importance of protecting fertility.
It gives people hope but I do think it would be worthwhile having education around the fact that IVF isn’t the be all and end all and it doesn’t work for everybody. Because people think when they have fertility issues, ‘It doesn’t matter because I’ll just go to IVF if I need to.’ So I do think it would be worthwhile for more education around the fact that IVF doesn’t always give you the outcome that everybody thinks it does.
I certainly think when I told my mum that we were going to do IVF that she just assumed that was a done deal. And I’ve had to sort of gently let her know that, ‘This may not work out. And I’m not feeling confident that it will.’
So, I just think it’s a fine line between giving people false hope. I would love to see more education going in earlier into women understanding their fertility. We spend – there’s a lot of education around stopping pregnancy, very little around how to get pregnant and how to protect your fertility, how fragile that is. How important that is. And I don’t know if people don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want women to feel the pressure that, ‘You’ve got to have kids,’ but I think understanding your fertility isn’t just important for having children, I think it’s important for health. So I would love to see more education around that.
Sarah, a solo mum by choice, is grateful that Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) makes parenthood a possibility for people like her.
I always say how lucky I am that I’m just living in this time, when I can access these treatments, that science has advanced so much that I was able to do that. Because obviously if I was born in a different time, or a different generation, it would have been frowned upon, and the science wasn’t there, to be able to do it. So I just do feel lucky every day, that I was able to do this, because in earlier generations, I would just have to either accept I’m not going to be a mother, because I haven’t met the person, or I would have felt that societal pressure to get married, even though I possibly didn’t love that person, and then hope that I could get pregnant anyway with that person. So, there’s many different ways it could have gone, but I’m just lucky enough to live in this time and place, and it was possible for me.
Marika found the counselling provided by the IVF clinic did not help her with the many ‘philosophical’ and ethical decisions that needed to be made.
Interviewer: The clinic-provided counselling – my impression so far is that, that varies a lot in quality, I think.
Marika: But there are other decisions that, you make along, there’s loads of decisions you make along the way that you don’t, you’re just left to make. You make lots of decisions and engage in all this philosophical thought around doing medical intervention to fall pregnant and I would have conversations and friends would say to me, “That’s wrong.” So it’s with the whole moral element as well that you have to deal with going through it.
There’s a whole re-evaluation of your values and beliefs. And you’re confronted by other people who will challenge your decisions and around, you can have medical intervention, if you have a heart attack, you can save your own life. But when it comes to creating life and ending life, there’s still very much, a lot more problematic for people on an ethical level or moral level. So you have to work – well, for us, we worked through those sorts of issues and questions as well. But you don’t do that in the clinical setting.
And the discussion around what we might do with leftover embryos that was so far down the track. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m, I’ve got nine embryos here and I have to make a decision. I didn’t even think of that and no-one told me that.’ And then that opened up a whole other – things I had to consider that I’d never thought about. And I thought I would have really liked to have been able to think about those things before I started going down that road.
Interviewer: So you’re saying the clinic didn’t really engage with you on any of that stuff. It was something you had to kind of decide for yourself.
Marika: It was more, much more around the risk of, ‘If you do this procedure, it will cause this risk or side effects to your other conditions or you might have this symptom or,’ – but not in terms of your holistic sense of being. And so, I mean, deciding what to do with embryos was like, for me, having to decide around having an abortion or something.
But for me, they were the equivalent types of decisions I was being faced with that I didn’t know I would be faced with, or donating them to another couple. And then what that might mean and, or having conversations with our children about, it’s the long-term.
And everyone’s needs are different in terms of what information they want and you don’t know at that time, what you need to know. So I look back and go, I would have liked, really to have had those discussions upfront and I’m sure I would’ve still gone down the road of doing it, but at least I wouldn’t have had to have thought about them when I’m in it.
Claire reflects on how many people can’t access IVF because of the cost.
It’s ridiculously expensive and we were really fortunate to be able to access it, so many people aren’t able to. I’ve had friends that had to stop early because they just couldn’t afford to keep going. I know for – for me if I had to do that at that point when I was committed it would have been really heartbreaking. So I suppose in a sense it’s kind of, a middle-class sort of – or middle- or upper-class kind of luxury in a sense because the cost is so inhibitive.
Chelsey faced several delays to starting IVF. As a result, she didn’t mind having to go through the treatment as it meant she was finally able to ‘actively’ do something to try to have a baby.
For the first time I felt like I’d actually had a chance to try and have a family, and then I had other people sort of controlling me every step of the way. It was very frustrating, particularly as someone who is quite independent, has always been independent from quite young. So by the time we started, I was 33 and I had my first child a month before I turned 34, and in that time people had one or two babies. Some people had already given birth to their second baby and I felt like my friendship group were moving ahead and having babies, and that I wouldn’t have that support from them because their children are going to be four or five years older than my children and they’re going to be in a different stage of their life. So, it was a time where I felt I was not in control of anything.
I found having the treatment, from my perspective, hormonally wasn’t too bad. I actually felt that I was quite, very even-keeled at that time because I felt finally that I was on the path and trying to control it, and that I felt like I was actually doing something to have a step towards having children and making a family.
I felt myself quite positive during that treatment because I was actively doing something to help.