When one child just isn't enough...
The devoted mother of a daughter, Alex Blackie describes the pain and guilt associated with her struggle to conceive again
From day one, we both dreamt of a big family made up of our own as well as adopted children. And truthfully, I think we could make damn good adoptive parents
I'm embarrassed by my chirpy eight-year-old daughter Bella, who is under strict instructions not to chat. I'm struggling to find where to look, avoiding all eye contact as well as leaflets with babies on their cover, strewn across the waiting room. The people around me make me feel guilty and the baby pictures make me feel jealous.
Today, I am the person I don't like; the person that secondary infertility makes me. I'm scared it's going to turn me into a bitter old woman. I mean, who actually cries when their best friend tells her she is pregnant?
Women like me, that's who. Women desperate for a child – or, in my case, another child. I hear my mother: "You should be grateful for your beautiful daughter." And I visualise the online comments that may follow this article: "How can people be so selfish to want more children when the world is overpopulated? What gap is she trying to fill?"
And, most painful, I feel guilty about the couples who can't have children at all, and I strain myself to imagine their pain. I look at them in the fertility clinic waiting room and wish Bella hadn't been off school today.
This internal turmoil of guilt, jealousy and feeling ungrateful doesn't dull the pain of wanting another child. It's a deep desire that follows me like a shadow and, at my lowest, injects me with shots of pain. For example, when we opened Bella's boxes of baby stuff, carefully packed years ago for the sibling who never arrived. But now I'm getting used to the shadow, used to wincing every time someone uses the term "only child".
My acupuncturist tells me not to waste my energy on the guilt of already having a naturally conceived child, or of ever feeling jealous. I listen to her advice like an enamoured pupil; she has recently had her third baby at the age of 45. "You only need one egg," she reminds me. I love that sentence.
So what am I doing about this apart from acupuncture and crying at least 96 times in the past eight years? (That's every time I get my period plus the odd outburst caused by the evil shadow.) I've found the supposed magical Peruvian Maca powder raved about on the fertility forums. I dote over my neighbour's magical IVF baby and have manic doorstep conversations about whether it was the sweet potatoes that did it for her.
Prayers on our behalf are being offered up to not one, but two Gods. This is a caution to anyone who meets me – never to ask me why Bella is the only one. Our local Muslim shopkeeper did and, saddened by our intense small talk over a bag of tomatoes, told me Allah would help. Then there is our priest, who says he is praying, too.
Those close to me would assume that we've been trying different types of fertility treatment for years. The truth is that we haven't properly had even one go.
We've been tested for everything – I've had more scans than a daily Eurostar commuter and so many blood tests my arms look like those of a serious drug addict. We now know that I suffer from something called unexplained infertility.
We know that my ovarian reserve is very low, using a measure called AMH (in other words, my tank of eggs – which all women are born with – is nearly empty). We also know that not everyone believes this is the most important indicator of success. And here we start to uncover the murky, shark-infested waters of the fertility industry.
I naively dived in, assuming kind doctors and modern science would try their best to help me grow my family. Instead, I discovered a multimillion-pound industry full of businesses preying on vulnerable and desperate women.
Like so many other things in life, it's something you're oblivious to until you need it. Three years ago we decided to have some tests done to understand why we hadn't conceived. None of the results rang alarm bells, but when the egg-stimulating drug Clomid didn't sort things out, we were told our next option was IVF.
We didn't consider it at the time, something I find difficult to understand now. I think it was a mixture of delusion, optimism and a consuming job.
But after a tumultuous year in which I gave up my career for my family and crept a little nearer to my 40th birthday, we decided to get our act together.
So we spent lots of nights calculating the comparative probability of conceiving looking at the number of cycles we could afford (one) versus clinic success rates.
When we finally arrived at the clinic for our first proper appointment, we watched the chase of the Boston bombers in the waiting room alongside a woman in a wheelchair and lots of same-sex couples.
We spent an hour filling in forms about the ethics of IVF. At one point, my husband Dave found himself consenting to me still using his sperm if he died before insemination. But when the consultant finally saw us, she told us not to waste our money on the three-cycle package because our chances were so low. Realising we only had one chance, we decided to put all our eggs in one basket – or rather, Petri dish – and moved to a different clinic. But the new consultant told us he wouldn't even try IVF.
Some cynics suggested he didn't want to damage his own success rates, others that he was genuinely trying not to take advantage of us.
We were told we could try something called stimulated IUI (intrauterine insemination), which involved the use of drugs on me, and the insemination of Dave's sperm. It has much smaller chances of success because nobody is bringing the egg and sperm together. But it is also far cheaper. It felt like we were buying a tin of own-brand tomatoes instead of a Jamie Oliver pasta sauce, but we were willing to try anything.
Three months and three false starts at IUI later, I decided to take the summer off the fertility-clinic conveyor belt. I'm desperate for someone to accept our remaining money and give my depleting egg supply a chance, but actually this break already feels like a holiday.
I haven't gone anywhere, but I have stopped going there. No rush across the city during school hours. No bruised stomach from self-injections. No more chatty hopeful conversations followed by stilted disappointing news.
I've eschewed my "proper roots" for a fresh alternative approach; I can see my family shudder at those words. I've cut out yeast, dairy and sugar. My homeopath (motto: "You're not infertile, you just haven't managed to conceive again") is convinced it will improve my AMH results and I can't wait to be tested again in a couple of months.
I decided the delay was worth the risk in exchange for a remote chance of building up my follicles into superbionic egg-producing machines.
So for now, I'm happy sticking with homoeopathy and acupuncture. They've both given me hope.
We have considered adoption. Strangely, we discussed it on our first date over 10 years ago, on a Sydney beach.
From day one, we both dreamt of a big family made up of our own as well as adopted children. And truthfully, I think we would make damn good adoptive parents; not least because we're already a bit of a mixed rainbow family. Yet I'm not quite ready to sign up to the waiting list. I'd feel as though we're saying we won't ever conceive again.
I don't pretend any of this is about logic. I put it down to instinct, the desire to reproduce, which is still greater than the desire to do the sensible thing.
Our lack of money is, in some ways, good news. We've got a small pot, now already much depleted. Once it runs out, we can't do any more treatment. This makes me sad when I hear about people who succeed on cycle 11.
But Sensible Me reckons it's not a bad thing. And I suspect we're close to the point when friends will rest their hands on my shoulder and say: "Don't you think that's enough?"
Dave's support of the process is testament to his deep desire for a bigger family. He's been willing to sacrifice our financial safety net for the remote chance that we might grow our family and give Bella the sibling tribe that we had.
Bella, meanwhile, is desperate for a brother or sister. She's always asked questions, from the day at school when she had to draw our cat while classmates drew portraits of their siblings. But recently she said: "I don't think you'll have another baby, mummy. You're too old."
She may be right. But I feel like I've only just begun. My tank may be close to empty, but that doesn't mean I'm a write-off.
Alex Blackie blogs regularly at motherfirst.wordpress.com