Three things about trying to conceive that no one tells you

When it comes to fertility there a limited number of stories women are told, in the mainstream. The first and shoutiest is how you need to get cracking NOW before you’re 30/your ovaries shrivel to raisins. Invariably these stories originate with unhelpful fertility experts who just happen to be offering private fertility MOTs or egg-freezing for selfish career women.

Second is how very EASY it is to get pregnant. This starts when we’re teenagers in an attempt to scare us straight, and then is inadvertently perpetuated in adulthood by recently knocked-up types who’ll say things like ‘oh we weren’t even trying.’ Or ‘He just looked at me and I got pregnant!’.

Then, finally, there are the miracle babies. The years of gruelling IVF; the women who give birth after 18 miscarriages. I’m (obviously) very sympathetic to the latter. And, as a journalist, I understand why they make the papers.

But somewhere in between these narratives is a vast undiscussed hinterland of what it can be like to try to conceive – couples with no fertility problems who still take the best part of a year or longer; miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies; ovaries that are ‘a bit’ polycystic; those who are fertile but have to go through IVF because of genetic conditions; women who need a bit of chemical assistance to ovulate…There are acres of grey here.

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Been there, done that, bought the book called The Impatient Woman’s Guide…

‘How to get pregnant’ made the top 10 most Googled health questions of this year (as revealed by this piece by a very clever national newspaper health team…) and somehow, I doubt this is a question about the mechanics. We all know what you need to do to make a baby. But sometimes, for some reason, all the sex in the world doesn’t do the trick, at least not straightaway. And when that’s you, it is frustrating and lonely – and it dawns on you how little reliable, honest information you’ve heard about this before. You are fumbling around in the dark. In every sense.

So, with that in mind, here are my top three things I wish I’d known about trying for a baby…

  1. You will probably have to actually try

It’s not cool to admit you actually have to try at anything in life, is it? And neurotic women who try too hard to conceive are the stuff of sitcom punchlines. We’re supposed to roll our eyes at their efforts to pinpoint ovulation, jumping their poor, poor husbands and forcing them to have sex on schedule. Just relax, love! Even some fertility experts like to get in on this shtick, wagging their fingers about ovulation predictor kits and cycle apps and how counter-productive this sort of thing can be.

It’s only my opinion, but I think this attitude is supremely unhelpful. And disingenuous. Bearing in mind you only have a really good chance of getting pregnant on maybe two days a month – five at best – and that most women don’t ovulate precisely on day 14 of their cycle, it is very easy to miss your window – and so go for months wondering why nothing is happening, all the while the stress and pressure building. Pinpointing when you ovulate just makes good sense to me. Sure, you could simply have sex every other day for the whole month, as some experts suggest. But show me a working couple who’ve been together more than a year who say they find this easy and I will show you a pair of liars. Or a woman with horrendous cystitis.

It took us seven months to conceive first time round. Nothing compared to what some people go through, but I was pretty much going out of my mind. I’m convinced now that if I’d been a bit more proactive and a bit less bothered about trying to do it the ‘cool’ way, it would have happened much sooner. The next two times – by then much more au fait with my cycle, fertility-apped to the hilt, taking my temperature and using ovulation sticks – we conceived within two cycles.

  1. It gets lonely (and boring) fast

Understandably, few people announce that they’re ‘trying’. No one wants to draw unnecessary attention to their sex life after all (Hey there! We’re trying for a baby – we have slightly perfunctory sex ALL the time!) and, for women declaring your intention to procreate is sadly not the best career move – but that’s a whole other post.

Because of this enforced code of silence, it gets bloody lonely. It starts to cut you off from people. It makes you boring and, yes, a bit neurotic. And then, as the months go by, sad.

You can’t really explain why you don’t want to do shots at a hen do, or why you’re reluctant to commit to group holidays six months from now, or New Year’s Eve plans, or an offer to go skating, horse-riding, to a theme park for someone’s 30th

Even just a drink after work can present a problem. After all, if you’re home late you’ll both be too shattered to have sex for the nth time that week. And that’s before you even get into whether you should drink in the latter half of your cycle – when you could in fact be pregnant, but when it’s still too early to test. The NHS, somewhat unrealistically, recommends total abstinence while trying to conceive. Advice that makes for a lot of anxiety and guilt, in my experience.

And if it doesn’t happen straight away, it’s hard not to start looking for new things to try to boost your chances. Less long-distance running; more yoga. Less booze; more oily fish. Acupuncture. Early nights.  A slow chip-chip-chipping away of your sense of self and life as you prefer to live it.

It’s all very well saying ‘just relax’. But, if you’re being responsible, you can’t just decide to try for a baby and then carry on without making any concessions to it at all, because, as a bare minimum, you should be taking folic acid, and probably vitamin D, too. This is what the NHS and pretty much every other health authority in the developed world recommends. So that’s at least one daily reminder. Oh and did I mention that they say you shouldn’t be drinking?

  1. There’s more to it than just sperm meets egg

Here’s one bit of medical factology that would have helped my anxiety levels. And that’s that creating a baby is not as simple as just getting sperm and egg in the right place at the right time.

Human reproduction is, in the words of lots of fertility researchers, incredibly inefficient. I’d always assumed that if a sperm managed to inveigle its way into an egg, that was it – boom, pregnant.

In fact, it’s thought that a lot of pregnancies are lost before they get a chance to implant in a woman’s womb. In other words, the sperm has managed to find the egg – it’s fertilised OK – but the body rejects the nascent embryo because it detects that all is not well. A lot can go wrong marrying up the chromosomes from two people, is the way one expert described it to me, and so the body has a quality control mechanism for that. The embryo never implants, and a woman’s period arrives as usual, with her none the wiser.

(I’m particularly interested in this, as it’s one school of thought about apparently unexplainable recurrent miscarriage – there’s a theory that the usual ‘chatter’ between the embryo and the womb lining that establishes whether a pregnancy is viable or not doesn’t take place early enough, and so women keep taking in embryos that never stood a chance, but their bodies only realise this at a later stage in the pregnancy, ending in a miscarriage.)

Anyway, if I’d known this about my own biology, I would have had a soothing explanation for all those months when I was sure we’d done everything right, yet a pregnancy test remained stubbornly paper-white. It might have quietened that little voice nagging at you that you must be doing something wrong, and to just try a little bit harder next month.

So there you have it. It’s nearly two years since Dan and I first decided to ‘try’. If I’d known then what I know now – not necessarily that we’d have three miscarriages –  but what ‘trying’ would really be like; the mental and emotional effort it would take, I think I might have coped a bit better.

What did you wish you’d known before you started trying? Or have you got any tips for dealing with the pressure? Feel free to share in the comments…

19 Comments

  1. As one of those women who’s uterus is a a backalley whore (“Sure, only 2 chromsomes? I’ll give it a try!”), I’ve got a fair bit of hindsight bias. I was told I’d have a fair bit of trouble conceiving from a history of anorexia and hypothyroidism.

    Us getting pregnant straight off birth control was dubbed “incredibly lucky” by everyone, doctors included, around us. 40 weeks later I had a healthy baby and that was that.

    But those warnings tarnished my pregnancy. I was a mess at every step, knowing what could go wrong. I had an OBGYN terrify me when we measured behind (no even suggesting we could have ovulated later than the standard CD 14), then my endocrinologist said he’d raise my dose and “see if you’re still pregnant at our next appoinment.”

    So when my daughter was born and everything was fine, I finally thought, “Ha! I CAN do this! Finally something my body does right.”

    Joke was on me when 4 months later I’d accidentally fall pregnant, marvel at my fertility, then lose that one at 8 weeks. Then I lost the next one, and the next one, and the next…

    I feel a lot of regret that I didn’t enjoy my one successful pregnancy out of so much fear for the worst when things were fine, only to have every one of those fears end up happening later in some sort of twisted self fulfilling prophecy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this! I wish I had listened to my gut (er, uterus?) and gotten off my birth control sooner. I’m familiar with the TTC mantra of “everyone’s different” and that some women get pregnant right away, but it took me five anxiety-ridden months for my body to adjust to REAL hormones. That’s five months of tracking and planning and sobbing over wine that could’ve been avoided by ditching out on the pills early. At least, that’s my theory, but heading into month 8 now so, who knows!

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  3. Thanks for reading… It’s amazing, isn’t it? How little we’re told about simple things like how long it can take for the body to adjust after coming off the pill. Sending lots of luck your way. Jennie x

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  4. I know you wrote this like two months ago, but I really appreciated it. My husband and I decided we would not “try” but just see what happens. It has been about 4 months and nothing.. People keep asking when are you guys going to have kids? It is finally getting to the point where I feel offended that people are asking. I don’t feel like explaining the situation to every one, it is none of their business.

    Yes, I definitely thought it would be way easier to get pregnant without trying because you hear of all these other people doing it. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Argh! Why do people think it’s OK to ask that question?! As for not knowing how long it can take….it feels like such a betrayal doesn’t it? Like, why hasn’t it happened right away, because that’s the impression we’re given as to the way it works. Fingers crossed next month is your month! Xx

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  6. Approaching month 12 and so wish i had read this sooner. I think the moment most frustrating to me was when i had my IUD our after ten years (standard I know but still— it was a part of me for 10 whole years!) and my (former) GYN just ripped it out, twirled it around, and threw it in the trash. “WELP! Hopefully we see you in a couple months!” And shoved me out the door. She didn’t tell me about the fertile window. Or tracking my BBT or CM. Or all the things that could go wrong. Or anything for that matter. Instead she placed an arbitrary timeframe on me and shoved me out the door. After 4 months, when I couldn’t shake the feeling that, while it was still very early, this was not going to be an easy process, I followed my gut and changed OBGYNs and found an angel who, despite my relatively “young” age of 32, listened to my concerns and started me on the earliest phase of testing (ultrasound, HSG, sperm analysis) because I asked. And I’m a paying customer with health insurance. Now, we are at the anotorious “12 month mark” that ushers you officially into the “infertility club” and I’m just entering the world of fertility treatments. Early bloodwork shows I have a high level of a certain hormone that could in fact be the culprit. If that’s the case, why isn’t it standard to doa blood work up for ANY woman who actively starts TTC? While I hope this ends up being the issue, I’ll be pretty taken aback that i spent a year of my life riding this roller coaster when a simple blood test a year ago could have solved it all.

    Sorry for the long winded rant. I just stumbled upon your Insta and blog and I feel a giddy sense of connection and finally not being alone. I am indeed the only one in my close circle of friends who is not a mom or expecting. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Erin, thanks for reading! I’m so sorry you’ve had such a disappointing time. I do think it’s really unhelpful how little information women are given about their cycles and how these things work. I was also really dispirited when it took more than a few months the first time round. And assumed it must ‘mean’ something. I’m sure you’re well clued up by now, but I found It Starts With An Egg a helpful book. Really hope you get some answers soon. Also, I know they give these – arbitrary cut offs, but 12 months doesn’t necessarily mean ‘infertile’, especially if you’ve come off contraception relatively recently. Keep hoping! Jennie xxx

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  7. I know I might be finding this post late, but it helps me know that others are in this boat. I like, Erin, had my IUD out and it was the worst experience of my life. I had a paper full of questions ready to ask the doctor and she wanted nothing to do with me because I have anxiety and she “wasn’t comfortable” monitoring me. Instead, the took my IUD out and told me to use protection until I went off my medicine (mind you, I had been to 3 other doctors before going to get my IUD out and they assured me I was fine). I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t understand that you couldn’t just have sex and then bam! take a pregnancy test.

    We are three months in and I almost kinda feel like I’m living a double life, one life at work where I act like I’m a regular 29 year old that drinks and does fun things and the other life, where I’m at home, constantly tracking my ovulation on my phone app and counting down the days until I can take a test.

    Thanks so much for posting this. I’m going to bookmark it on my computer for when I’m feeling down, I can read it again.

    <3.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Amanda – I know exactly what you mean about a double life. It does feel like that, particularly as it’s not really the done thing to come right out and say ‘we’re trying for a baby’. I’m glad you found this post helpful. There’s something really powerful about knowing other people feel the same, I think. Wishing you lots of luck. And keep living as well as ‘trying’! Jennie xxx

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