Throughout my struggle to conceive I frequently asked myself if I was better or worse off being infertile in a modern, digital age than in a previous era. Although infertility is not a modern problem, and history is full of women who were abandoned, divorced and even beheaded because they couldn’t produce a child, there is a commonly held belief that it is somehow easier to live with it nowadays. Before the 1980’s there was very little that could be done about infertility other than a vague procedure, referred to as ‘blowing out the tubes’, or going down the adoption route. Heartbreaking as it was, many couples had to accept their fate and get on with life.
Women of my parents’ generation could at least work and have a purpose aside from home-making and child rearing, but going back even further in time I can’t even begin to imagine how infertile women, when childrearing was seen as a woman’s main function, coped with the situation.
I, on the other hand, am part of the first generation not to know a world without IVF. The first test tube baby, Louise Brown, was born in 1979 – two years before me. Although I had always worried about infertility due to my medical history, IVF treatment was always there as a safety net in the background, or so I was led to believe. I remember hearing once that if you do IVF enough times, statistically it eventually works. At the time I took this information to be fact and stored it away in the back of my head somewhere with the label ‘Plan B’.
These days, infertile couples have access to a suite of medical interventions including IUI, IVF, ICSI, surgical sperm removal, embryo freezing, blastocyst transfer, assisted hatching, egg donation and surrogacy. Having gone through the emotional, physical, financial, ethical and practical side effects of some of these treatments I can’t help but question if I am better or worse off having access to them. In today’s world, more than ever, our fertility is something we mistakenly think we can control. We feel pressurized to exhaust every possible option out there so that we won’t have any regrets. I often wonder if it is the fear of regret that drives infertile couples, more than their belief that these treatments will work. There is a sense that you need to tick a box before you can even begin to try to move on.
We are willing go into debt, put our relationships under strain, jeopardize our careers, lose friends and push our bodies to the limit, all because we have options open to us that were not available to other generations. We believe that science and technology must have developed for a reason, so we feel we owe it to our foremothers to take advantage of it.
In most cases, the statement ‘knowledge is power’ rings true, but when it comes to infertility too much knowledge can be damaging. Although it must have been incredibly frustrating for previous generations not to have access to any information about their condition, these days we have more than we can cope with. An infertile woman can now spend hours on the Internet reading infertility horror stories, most of which are not written by medical professionals. As a result, we can’t switch off from it, even when we try.
Thanks to my search habits, I found myself bucketed into an infertility category and wherever I went online I saw adverts for fertility clinics, support groups and all sorts of other pregnancy aids enticing me to persist with my plan, each offering me a chance to achieve what I so desperately wanted. On the darker days, when I was already feeling low, these adverts would taunt me; they were a constant reminder of my failure.
If you are self conscious and embarrassed about the practicalities of trying for a baby, the digital age offers you lots of alternatives. There are online pharmacies where you can purchase ovulation kits and pregnancy tests in bulk, apps you can download to help accurately calculate ovulation, YouTube channels where you can learn how to correctly administer IVF medication and fertility ebooks galore that you can download and read furtively on your e-reader. There are even fertility clinics overseas where much of the communication and diagnosis is done virtually.
The digital age also makes it harder to avoid people who have children. Social networking sites like Facebook are the perfect platform for besotted mums and dads to share continuous updates about their offspring. I came to fear logging on to Facebook in case I was confronted with a picture of a baby caught in some comical pose or posts from the mummies boasting about the complete and utter joy that motherhood brings. There were many times when I resolved to shut down my Facebook account for good or set myself challenges not to Google anything infertility related for one whole day, but I always failed.
Despite the additional pressures it heaps upon them, infertile couples do have better odds at getting pregnant in this era than in any other, but it takes just as much courage to step away from all the options as it does to pursue them.