'When you lose a child you lose your future'

Many couples take having children for granted, but Fiona McPhillips and Liz Lyons found a different reality that included miscarriage, infertility and, finally, children

Fiona Phillips

No couple expects to be in for the long haul when they start trying for a baby. It is supposed to be a time of great hope and anticipation, when you plan excitedly for your new lives together. It is true that having a baby changes your life, but not having one changes it so much more. Sadly, this is something that one in six couples will find out.

This wasn't supposed to happen to me. I had a child, conceived without any problems. We were good at this. When we started trying again, I did conceive after a few months but miscarried. I had known how common miscarriage was (approximately one in four pregnancies), but I wasn't prepared for the onslaught of emotions it would bring. I felt angry, cheated, desolate and so, so sad. Everyone said I could try again, but I wanted that baby, the one that would be born on that due date.

When you lose a child, you lose your future. It doesn't matter how long your baby has been with you, you feel the gap that their death has left behind. From the moment you know about your baby, you plan their future -- your future, together. You work out the due date, pick names, imagine who they will look like. When these hopes and dreams are taken away, it often seems like you are expected to forget you ever had them. I couldn't forget for one second and I knew that, for me, the only cure for miscarriage was another pregnancy.

If I had been eager for a baby before, I was desperate now and trying to conceive (TTC) became all-consuming. I started a blog and originally called it The Two-Week Wait. The two-week wait is the time between ovulation and when you can test for pregnancy -- that's how long I expected to be writing the blog for. Well, two weeks came and went, and another, and another and, before I knew it, I had unwittingly documented the slow descent into infertility.

A year after our first miscarriage, an IUI (intrauterine insemination) yielded success but the baby died at three months gestation. Further IUIs were fruitless, so we moved on to IVF (in-vitro fertilisation). Two IVFs and two further miscarriages later, we were running out of options physically, emotionally and financially. We were lucky enough to conceive naturally twice more, but lost both babies. Finally, with the help of all of the fertility and miscarriage support drugs available to (wo)man, we conceived our daughter and carried her to term. There are no words to describe how lucky we feel.

I always wanted children, lots of them. Although infertility was one of my greatest fears, it was not something that bore heavily on me -- at least, only to the extent that I didn't want to put off having children for too long, just in case. I didn't know anyone who was infertile, so I could only guess at how hard it might be.

I didn't have a clue. My guess only extended to the long-term pain a couple might feel about not having a child in their lives. Thanks to television, many people assume that there is a once-off diagnosis that a couple has to deal with, and that they are then free to return to their lives and reshape their future without their much-wanted child. If only it was that easy.

It is very difficult to explain the cumulative effect of month after month, and year after year, of hope and disappointment, without making it look as though you are just not coping very well with TTC, something most people breeze through. After a while, everything hurts -- other people's bumps and babies, anniversaries of failed cycles and lost babies, and every new birthday, Christmas and Mother's Day you face with empty arms.

There is a huge lack of understanding of infertility in the outside world. It is just not viewed as one of the very bad things in life. A common reaction is, "Why can't you just be happy with what you've got? Focus on all the good things in your life". When you can't have a baby, nothing else matters. It is not possible to forget about it, channel your energy elsewhere, take up a hobby. The desire for a child goes beyond the desire for the joy that a child brings -- it is a primal, uncontainable urge that overpowers all reason. Yes, I had a child and yes, I knew how lucky I was -- nobody knows that more than an infertile person. And yet the thought that I might never carry another baby, that my son might never have a sibling, was unbearable.

Infertility is a very difficult and painful struggle. The research of Dr Alice Domar, professor at Harvard Medical School, suggests that the stress endured by infertility patients is comparable to that experienced by people undergoing treatment for cancer and Aids. A 2004 study found that 40pc of infertile women suffered from depression, while 87pc had anxiety.

I was one of the 40pc. I stopped socialising beyond what I considered absolutely necessary. I could go through the motions of a wedding, a christening, a birthday dinner; I just didn't want to. The day itself wasn't usually that bad, it was the anticipation that was the killer -- the fear of announcements, of the blithe conversations about pregnancy and kids, and the terror of the platitude.

"I just know it's going to happen for you soon." "Don't worry, it could be worse." "It's God's will." "Why don't you just adopt?" And the old chestnut: "Just relax and it will happen." If there is one piece of advice I can give to those who have friends and family members suffering from infertility, it is that it is better to say nothing at all than to say the wrong thing and risk upsetting your loved ones. If you feel awkward and don't know what to say, then just say sorry, and give the person a hug if you feel it is appropriate. And one more thing, if I may: stress does not, I repeat, does not cause infertility, but infertility sure does cause stress.

I dealt with my stress by writing. I wrote on internet message boards, I wrote my blog, I wrote my book. I wrote comebacks to insensitive comments in my head while in the shower or on a bus. Sure, I was obsessed, but I decided to channel that obsession into spreading the word. If I couldn't have a baby, I was going to try to make sure that some good came of the whole sorry mess. And along the way, I met some wonderful women who listened to my rants and kept me sane, and I hope I did the same for them.

The greatest piece of advice I can give to those battling infertility or recurrent miscarriage is to talk to others in the same boat. The easiest and least intrusive way of doing so is to join an internet forum for those who are at the same stage as you, or facing the same obstacles as you. The Irish Infertility Support Forums -- set up by Helen Quinn, who has been there, done that (www.irishinfertilitysupportforums.ie) -- is a caring and supportive community of women (and a few men) who are dealing with all aspects of infertility. It is also an invaluable resource for information on local fertility clinics and services.

For those who would prefer to meet other women or couples face to face, the National Infertility Support and Information Group (NISIG) can put you in touch with your local support group. You can reach them online at www.nisig.ie or call them on 1890 647444.

Finally, it is important to remember that most couples do go on to have a child, one way or another. My doctor once said to me, "Brave women are generally rewarded". There are no guarantees, but it can and does happen -- even against the greatest of odds.

Fiona McPhillips is the author of Trying To Conceive: The Irish Couple's Guide, (Liberties Press). See also www.makingbabies.ie