3.5million people in the UK have difficulties conceiving, according to The Fertility Show. That’s one in seven couples. Fertility problems are as likely to affect men as women – sometimes they’re altogether unexplained – but regardless of who they originate from, infertility can impact on both people in a relationship.
For women struggling to get pregnant, a number of challenges lie ahead. Not only are there doctors appointments, examinations, tests, and – if they choose it – treatment, but there are also psychological difficulties: feelings of low self-esteem, lack of confidence, grief.
Infertility can devastate. And it doesn’t just affect those suffering, it can affect those connected to the people suffering too. Relationships with friends, especially with those who are parents, can suddenly become strained. Indeed, infertility has the power to drive friends apart, as one woman found out…
Elizabeth started trying for a baby with her husband in 2012. They were a healthy, fit, young couple – she was 26, he, 27. By the following year, nothing had happened so they decided to seek medical advice. They underwent tests and when the results came back, the couple discovered they had ‘unexplained infertility’. Their GP told them to keep trying and come back in six months time.
Six months on, still nothing had happened. Elizabeth visited a private clinic and was advised to try immune therapy. After two months, she did become pregnant. But just weeks after receiving the news, she tragically suffered a miscarriage. ‘That was really tough,’ she explains. ‘We’d been trying for such a long time...’
It was incredibly difficult for the couple, but their situation only got worse. She had been told that she would have to have three years ‘unexplained infertility’ before the NHS would fund one round of IVF. But because she had managed to get pregnant she had effectively ‘reset the clock’. She would have to wait another three years.
It was during this time that she found herself distancing herself from her friends. ‘We didn’t tell anybody,’ she says. ‘You sort of feel a bit ashamed – you shouldn’t at all – [but] I think you don’t want people to judge you… I took myself off Facebook. I found it really difficult, seeing people’s pregnancy announcements.’
Anyone who has experienced any kind of social media-related envy can imagine how Facebook might have impacted on Elizabeth at this time. ‘[It’s] a multi-edged sword,’ says fertility counsellor Tracey Sainsbury. ‘Social media is a way to raise awareness of infertility… But then, there are moments – or days – when you can feel persecuted. Not just by images on social media but by someone walking down the street with a ‘Baby On Board’ badge... The good thing about social media – that you often forget – is that you can choose to turn it off.’
The same, however, cannot be said for friendships. For those in a similar position to Elizabeth, Tracey’s advice is to be open with friends where possible. ‘How a lot of the people I’ve worked with have coped with weddings where there have been children present, or family christenings, where there’s an obligation to attend, is to say: “I’m coming, but I might have to nip off and have a lie down if I just can’t manage the whole time”.
‘When we know we’ve got an opt-out, we can make it easier,’ she says.
For those on the other side of the friendship equation Tracey’s advice is simple: ‘You’re given two ears and one mouth for a reason. It’s: listen more and talk less.’
For Elizabeth however, speaking to friends wasn’t an option. Once she had deleted Facebook, she went further. ‘I became obsessed with lifestyle changes and tried everything there was to help me get pregnant’.
This included changing jobs – twice – and moving house. Ironically, it was this last move that changed the course of her and her husband’s fertility troubles.
Elizabeth’s new GP told her that in her new neighbourhood she was now eligible for a cycle of IVF – a fresh cycle and a frozen one. She had been skeptical of IVF previously – reading other people’s experiences online had made her hesitant – but she went for it anyway. The fresh cycle of IVF didn’t work, but thankfully, the frozen cycle did. After four and half years of trying, Elizabeth finally became pregnant. She gave birth to her daughter last June.
‘We found out we were pregnant on the day we went to The Fertility Show,’ she says. ‘We decided to still attend the show due to our previous miscarriage and because it was good to know what was out there and what clinics were offering.’
Elizabeth is now happily settling into motherhood. But when it comes to settling back into her friendships – those she lost during her struggle to conceive – she feels it’s too late. She has managed to reconnect with some, but is largely focusing on making new friends.
Undoubtedly, it’s a complex situation. ‘There really isn’t a right or a wrong,’ says counsellor Tracey. ‘If they were good friends, there’s something to be said for a letter… “I recognise that I isolated myself but our friendship was important to me and I’m sorry it was affected by our infertility or by trying to conceive”. See what results you get back. If they were worth it and they understand, then there are opportunities for bridges to be built.
‘But if you felt that they weren’t able to push through, to provide unconditional support at a time when you needed it, then actually there’s nothing wrong with making new friends.’
She adds, ‘What we need from the people who love and care for us is understanding and acceptance… We know they can’t fix it. But we want them to be available for us.’
The Fertility Show, 4-5th November 2017 London Olympia, 24-25th March 2018 Manchester Central, book tickets here Tracey Sainsbury will be speaking at The Fertility Show