"I don't think there is any way of knowing in advance how parenthood is going to turn out. If you knew what you had to face ahead, nobody would ever have a child," meteorologist Joanna Donnelly says laughing.
Joanna is a mother of three children, Nicci (17), Tobias (12) and Casper (10), but the journey to motherhood was not straightforward. Her first child was conceived without any difficulties, but secondary infertility meant having a second child was a long and painful struggle.
“I had seven miscarriages,” Joanna explains. “It was very hard. I didn’t handle it well at all. I was absolutely furious all the time. I was living from two-week wait to two-week wait.
“I had my daughter so everybody tells you, ‘you have to be happy, because you have your daughter’, but as anybody that’s been through it will tell you, that’s not how it works. And when you’re suffering from miscarriage or infertility all that you can see is the pain that you’re suffering every time your period comes. I was furious. I was angry, I was frustrated, I was sad – all the time.”
Each pregnancy Joanna lived in hope that, this time, things would turn out differently. “Every time there’s a hope, dread and hope, fear and hope. There’s certainly hope, you think that this is the one. You have the name and the date you think they’re going to be due and whether you’re going to be pregnant in the summer or the winter, how old you’ll be when that baby is born.”
Joanna was also very aware of the pressure that infertility and miscarriage can place on a relationship. “Infertility is a big pressure on couples,” she says. “The poor guys often get left behind because the bleed is happening to the woman. But the pain is there for the man too. And the stress and frustration for the husband in not being able to do anything to help.
“I’m a very pragmatic person, very scientific, so I knew that without a good relationship I couldn’t have a baby anyway. I’ve always been aware that relationships don’t come for free, you have to work at it. I kept an open dialogue about it and we were always careful to mind ourselves and mind each other and mind our relationship.”
As the months passed, Joanna decided not to delay in seeking medical advice. “I went to the doctor fairly quickly. I went along to the gynaecologist within five or six months. He was very good, he started me on Clomid right away. I did get pregnant and lost the baby and he was positive about that. But then it happened again. He said, okay, we’ll try intrauterine insemination (IUI).
“I got pregnant on one of the IUIs and lost the baby.”
Several failed intrauterine insemination attempts later, Joanna and her husband, Harm, decided to try in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Although she was never given a definitive reason for her multiple miscarriages, Joanna says that it was discovered she was “slightly polycystic” during IVF treatment.
I was just expecting to lose it all the time,' Joanna says of her naturally occurring pregnancy which involved no drug support
IVF worked first time for the couple. “I knew I was pregnant straight away,” Joanna says. “I was very optimistic that it was going to work. They had me on drugs to maintain the pregnancy so I was very confident. And then, of course, I started bleeding at eight weeks and I nearly lost my mind. I lost Tobias’ little twin at that stage.”
In spite of Joanna and Harm’s ordeal to finally have their second child, Tobias, Joanna says she was not deterred from trying for a third child. “I wanted three children. I’d planned to have IVF again, I had the money put aside for IVF. I was all prepared and then I was pregnant.
“I was just expecting to lose it all the time,” Joanna says of her naturally occurring pregnancy which involved no drug support. “The gynaecologist said sometimes pregnancy breaks you and sometimes pregnancy fixes you.”
Help other couples
Less than two years after the birth of her second child, Joanna’s third child, Casper, was born. But her experience of infertility had left its mark and Joanna was determined to help other couples going through the same thing.
“Myself and a friend of mine, Fiona McPhillips, set it [Pomegranate] up together. When we had Casper, and I kept expecting to lose him all the time, I said to Harm at one point, ‘if I don’t lose him I want to help somebody. The money was there to have IVF, and if we don’t need it I want to use that money to help somebody who doesn’t have it to pay for their IVF’.
“It frustrated me no end, that after all the pain we went through, and we were able to fix it with money, that people out there are going through all that same pain and they don’t have any money to fix it, and there’s no help. And I couldn’t bear to live with that. Fiona was going through the exact same thing and she also had her baby naturally and she said, well I’m going to do it with you.”
The pair set up the charity, Pomegranate, which helps families to pay for fertility treatment.
Joanna’s children are aware of their mother’s experiences. “They absolutely know about it. Fertility is important to know about, so they know about it. Sex and love is an important thing to know about and, so they know about it. And we don’t talk about it in hushed tones.
We don't talk about any aspect of our sex life, fertility, infertility
“There’s nothing to hide about IVF. It’s a medical treatment for a medical problem. There’s no reason in the world not to have that open conversation.”
She doesn’t understand why a taboo remains around the subject of infertility. “We don’t talk about any aspect of our sex life, fertility, infertility. We don’t talk about anything. We don’t talk about menopause. We don’t talk about our menstrual cycle and there’s no reason not to. It’s just weird not to.”
Joanna also disagrees with the idea of not sharing pregnancy news until 12 weeks have passed. “It’s outdated and antiquated. It’s only so that you can spare everybody having to console you when you’re devastated that you lost a baby, so you have your grief in private where nobody’s going to have to worry about it or talk about it. I don’t believe in that at all.”
Being a mother to young children wasn’t a shock to the system for Joanna. “I’ve been around babies all my life,” she says. But being a mother to older children proved a different prospect. “That was different to what I expected. Because there is no normal for that. It’s so scary all the time because the outcome is so important and it can go wrong so easily. And the thing is you’re not so much the influence once they get to teens. Our role is to keep them alive and show them how to do things, but by the time they get to be teenagers, it’s their peers who are influencers and we have to take a back seat. It’s a constant state of terror really with teenagers.”
Yet, in spite of enduring the pain of infertility and finding certain aspects of parenthood “incredibly hard and scary”, Joanna loves the everyday moments of motherhood.
“Everything is high. Every time they do something to make you laugh. Every meal you have together. Every time they let you hold their hand. Every time they give you a hug. It’s all high.”
Parenting in my Shoes
Part 1: Vicky Phelan
Part 2: Lynn Ruane
Part 3: Keith Walsh
Part 4: Victoria Smurfit
Part 5: Billy Holland
Part 6: Joanna Donnelly
Part 7: Eileen Flynn
Part 8: Matt Cooper
Part 9: Hazel Chu
Part 10: Ciara Kelly
Part 11: Dil Wickremasinghe