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.
‘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…
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.
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?
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…