'If I don't have a baby, who am I?'
The wait is not over for Lyn Sharkey but she wants to help others on the same journey
Lyn Sharkey: the author of The Baby Wait had to learn the difference between being ‘ready’ to start a family and being ‘able’ to. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Lyn Sharkey was out painting the front door of the brand new five-bedroom house her husband had built outside Cavan town when a neighbour stopped and asked who would be living there.
He seemed surprised to hear it would just be the two of them and that they had no children.
“Give us a chance,” Lyn thought. “We’re only just married.”
She never envisaged that, nearly 10 years later, it would still be just the two of them.
“I was ready to have a honeymoon baby,” she says, having known her husband Dessie as a friend since they were both at school. They started a relationship in their 20s and broke up a couple of times before getting married when she was 34.
But it has been a painful lesson learning the difference between being “ready” and being “able” to start a family.
If Lyn knew then what she knows now, she would have done some things differently.
Convinced other couples could benefit from knowing at the outset of their journey some of the things she discovered along the way, Lyn has shared them in a book, The Baby Wait , to be published later this week.
Once they have read the first section about preparing for pregnancy, she suggests they put the book aside for a while.
Doctors advise couples under 35 trying to get pregnant to wait a year before seeking medical help but, if over 35, not to wait longer than six months.
What makes The Baby Wait stand out from other self-help books written from personal experience is there is no happy ending. Lyn has no baby, yet at least, to show for years of emotional and physical turmoil.
“It was important for me to write it before I reached the end of my journey because, either way, at the end I will have a different perspective,” she says.
She wants to it to be relevant and supportive for people while they are going through such a process.
She dismisses the idea it is “brave” to put herself out there on such a sensitive, personal issue, particularly while it is still unresolved.
“It hasn’t really felt like that because I wasn’t afraid to do it.”
However, she wasn’t to know when she finished writing the book a year ago, that its publication would come at a vulnerable time. Less than two months ago, she and Dessie suffered, for the second time, what she describes as “the profound and utter misery that is a silent scan”.
In the book, she recalls their first experience of it, back in 2007: “Silence from the ultrasound machine, silence from the doctor and silence from the midwife. I can remember vividly not hearing the heartbeat and being panic-stricken and searching the faces around me for hope.
“Those faces could hardly look back at me because they were dreading confirming the unbearable news. The saddest three weeks of my life followed.”
This time around, believing she is now the healthiest she has ever been, Lyn went in for a scan 10 weeks into her pregnancy.
“Every time you think ‘we have been through so much, this has to be it’,” she says. “It was quite shocking, especially as it was a ‘missed miscarriage’.”
Unlike other miscarriages at four or five weeks, the problem only became apparent at the scan.
“You just think it couldn’t happen again. And then they start searching and searching . . . It was awful. Even people who are in fertility care don’t know what to say to you. They’re silenced.”
Sitting in the lounge of a Dublin hotel, Lyn is composed as she recounts the experience, but a slight drop in pace and tone of her voice is indicative of the emotional load. “The loss was as hard as ever. But I have dealt with a lot of the emotions around the subject so I felt a lot stronger about it this time.”
Helping others to cope with the many emotional aspects to fertility issues was one of her main motivations for the book.
While not much can be done about the “core issue” of yearning for a baby, she believes there are other associated stresses that could be eased with more talk and understanding about what is still a taboo subject.
She also wanted people who may have problems conceiving to know enough to make sure they leave “no stone unturned” in trying to get a diagnosis. They can only do that if they recognise what stones to pick up.
One of the hardest things for Lyn to deal with is the time she feels was wasted. As various medical tests came back clear and she kept being told she was “fine”, it took some years before she started looking at other options that might help with what in her case is “sub fertility”.
She was particularly devastated when, three years after having treatment for symptomless endometriosis (where the lining of the womb grows outside), she was never warned it could quickly return, nor that dietary changes could help to minimise that. When she had a second laparoscopy, it turned out her endometriosis was quite severe and had damaged one of her tubes.
Acknowledging she is not a qualified expert in any of this, she is passing on what she learned to help other people save time.
“If you can get your proper diagnosis within a year or two you can move in some direction, otherwise you are in limbo.”
Need to inform ourselves
Professionals don’t know it all and tend to specialise in one thing, she points out. “So I think we definitely need to inform ourselves” – not to self-diagnose, she stresses, but to open your mind to other avenues and ask more of medical teams.
“The reality is that no matter how nice your doctor or therapist is, and no matter how much they want to help you get your baby, no one cares as much as you and your partner, so you need to be the managers of this situation, employing the expertise and know-how of others, but making your own decisions and being in charge yourselves,” she writes.
During her own learning curve, she started charting her menstrual cycles and was so taken with a Serbian-made saliva ovulation tester, that she and her sister, Nikki, set up a company, Maybe Baby, to distribute it in the UK and Ireland.
And it was her experiences with that which prompted the book.
“Once you are selling a fertility product people tend to open up to you,” she says. Listening to their stories, she realised it wasn’t a case of her being over-sensitive to other people’s lack of awareness but that general perceptions and attitudes to the issue needed to be changed.
After a number of miscarriages, and through trial and error with fertility drugs, radical nutritional changes after the identification of extensive food allergies, and alternative therapies, Lyn is positive her problem is an auto-immune disorder.
Before last Christmas she and Dessie considered attending the Alan E. Beer Center for Reproductive Immunology & Genetics in Chicago, after reading the late Dr Beer’s book Is Your Body Baby-Friendly? They had inquired if any specialist nearer home was following his methods but found the drugs used are not licensed here.
Then she got pregnant again. Now, aged 43 and still dealing with the emotional fall-out from losing that baby, she is not sure what they might do next.
When will they know they are at the end of the road? “I think by the end of this year we will have decided one way or another. I don’t think you can set a strict timeline on it. You both know when you’re ready to stop.”
She believes it helps that she and Dessie have a really solid relationship and that they can even joke now about the fertility issue. “But I wouldn’t want anybody else to joke about it, to be honest.”
By her own account, her husband is quite a private person who declined to contribute to the book, so how does he feel about her going public on this aspect of their lives? Has he read the book?
His worst moments
“Parts of it,” she replies. “He says: ‘I don’t need to read it, I was there’! I know he is okay with everything now. I do think that if he were to talk about his worst moments, he would be afraid it would hurt me because it’s my issue.”
Having got to the stage where she thought she was going to be a mother, Lyn says she is having to change the way she looks at herself. “It goes to the core of who you are as a woman: if I don’t have a baby, who am I?”
But she’s not afraid to face the end of this particular chapter in life, no matter what the outcome. “There are a lot of things that excite me in the world and that I want to do,” she adds. And, as for all those empty bedrooms, the couple’s many friends who come to stay in their home wouldn’t hear of them downsizing.
The Baby Wait by Lyn Sharkey will be published by Orpen Press on Friday (April 26th)