What happens when your dreams of parenthood lie in tatters? Letting go of that perfect image of marriage or coupledom, becoming a parent and living happily ever after is not an easy thing to do. When you’re facing a lifetime living childfree against your wishes, you need guidance and support to accept and develop new dreams and a new life.
Helen Browne knows this path only too well. As chairwoman and one of three founding members of the National Infertility Support and Information Group (NISIG), she’s all too aware of how isolating and lonely the experience of infertility can be. And she also knows what it’s like to let go of that perfect dream, move on and accept a childfree future.
“Never mind the financial pressures, the emotional pressures and the relationship pressures, there comes a time when you just have to go through a grieving process and allow yourself to grieve for the life that you are not now going to have.”
Despite all the advances in fertility treatments, many couples remain unable to have any children of their own. There are few reliable figures, but it is thought about one in six Irish couples is childless involuntarily. Many suffer depression, and several consider suicide. One in three such couples break up, blaming childlessness as the cause.
In a country that venerates motherhood and children, it can be extremely difficult to be part of this super-select club, and one of which you did not initially choose to be a member. Many infertility sufferers feel there’s a subtle undercurrent that runs through our society with a lot of Irish people thinking a childfree life is second best, cold and empty.
One woman I spoke to, who wished to remain anonymous, told me: “It seems to me that you can only be flourishing if you are breeding in this country. Complete strangers have questioned my childlessness with no knowledge of my background. A couple of people have asked me ‘Who will be there for you when you’re old?’, like I was somehow deliberately endangering my old age insurance policy. There were years of rage and anger before I finally accepted my childfree life.”
A childfree life (a far preferable term than childless), either by choice or circumstance, does not come easy to many people. Most couples spend years and thousands of euro in infertility treatments before they have to accept that this particular dream will not be realised.
Infertility counsellor Liz Quish describes it as “disenfranchised grief”. “Often there’s a sense of denial and then anger and frustration about why this has to happen to you. You’re stuck and feel no one understands this grief you’re going through. It’s a bereavement process that you go through and it’s essential to do that if you want to move on.”
No emotional support
Quish also speaks from experience. After getting married, she and her husband tried to get pregnant for a year and a half before seeking fertility treatment. She found there was no emotional support during the process, which initially involved several IVF cycles and then a trip to Spain for egg donation.
“It’s such an emotional rollercoaster and when you’re in the process, it’s all about the procedures. When I was going through it, there was no support outside the clinic for when it didn’t work.” Her first IVF cycle was abandoned half-way through because of a poor response and a subsequent attempt was also unsuccessful. She tried the egg donor route twice and says: “It’s a very individual experience for every couple but, at that point, I knew I had to turn my energies to other areas of my life”.
The experience of infertility is not easily expressed as a single thing, no few words encapsulate the way it interferes with almost every aspect of lives and relationships: home, marriage, sex, food, future, friends, family, parents, in-laws. A person can’t just say one word, as they can with illness or bereavement, and have the scale of it understood.
Browne had a similar moment of accepting that her future was not as she imagined it. She and her husband, Ger, had tried seven attempts at IVF in 10 years. One time, they sold Helen’s fiesta to pay the fees to the fertility clinic. “It consumed my life for 10 years,” she says. “I had endometriosis and I remember going in for the operation the first time and the doctor saying I would be pregnant in no time once I was fixed up.” One of her fallopian tubes was wrapped around her bowel and the other was stuck to her womb. When the expected pregnancy didn’t happen, she went back to find all her adhesions had come back and her tubes were completely blocked.
“It is the worst experience in many ways once you are stuck in the infertility cycle. Lovemaking becomes a chore and you feel the pressures starting to affect you as a couple. And then you’re surrounded by people getting pregnant and meanwhile you are stuck in this secret world of pain. It’s so tough and many people initially battle this period alone which is terribly sad.”
Dealing with the pain
She became an actress, she says, and put on this front for her life to help her deal with the pain.
Setting up the NISIG in 1996 gave her an outlet for some of her energies because there was no one talking about the stress and pain and she wanted to be able to help others. "There was no Dr Google in those days and we gave out a lot of information as well as support."
She found a counsellor for herself because she felt depressed and she wanted to move on. “I was bawling when I saw him the first time. I said I wanted anti-depressants because I couldn’t deal with everything that was going on. He suggested that she would need grief counselling. “I remember it so well. He told me: ‘You are not depressed. You are grieving, grieving deeply for babies that could have been.’ And it was then that the penny dropped for me. I was grieving – grieving the loss of motherhood, of parenthood, the loss of my place in society. I could feel my body lifting in the counselling session because no one had ever mentioned grief to me before.”
Infertility is a deeply private experience, something most of those wrangling with it never discuss. Fertility, on the other hand, is not. “Do you think you’ll ever have a baby?” “You two should hurry up and have kids.” “Best thing I ever did.” “I know what you career women are like.” All these comments have been unthinkingly said to women who are going through the private pain of infertility.
Nobody forgets to have children. It’s usually either a positive choice or there’s a raw and painful battle dragging on behind the scenes.
Prepare a script
Liz Quish suggests women and couples develop a script which stops them going on the back foot when these conversations inevitably come up. “It’s individual to each couple but it’s a really good coping mechanism to have. So many people are walking around in fear of the questions, so if you are prepared, you get some of your power back.”
Some couples simply say they don't want to talk about it while others have developed a bit of a background which explains their story. It takes the pressure off and allows a recovery process to begin."
Mike Ryan* describes it as an overwhelming sense of loss. After 10 years of IVF cycles, he and his wife, Jenny, had to accept that their dreams of a family were not to be. "The pain is so hard to describe. It's just not talked about either so we felt it was just us going through this terrible nightmare.
We had given up travelling, remortgaged the house a few times and put our lives on hold really, in the hope that a baby would arrive.” When it didn’t happen, both Mike and Jenny attended counselling, separately and together. “It nearly ended our relationship. The pressures and emotions are so overwhelming. You need to come to terms with the grief first and then once that has eased you can take a look at where you want to go.”
Replacing the old dreams with new ones has been painful but they are “well down the road to recovery now”, Mike says.
“We are now building a new life for ourselves. We are stronger and we’re looking at what this new life might be like.”
The only difficulty they have now is the unthinking and, at times, cruel comments that their family, friends and acquaintances still make. “I remember a few years back we went on holiday for the first time in five years and it was a big holiday to the Caribbean. It was our treat to ourselves for the years we lost. One of our friends kept making comments about how it was well for us.
gallivanting around the world when he had to say home with the babies. It was so hard to walk away and not tell him that I would have given anything to be in his shoes”.
*Name changed for privacy reasons.
You can find out more information about the National Infertility Support and Information Group at nisig.ie and contact Liz Quish at lizquish.ie
Think before you speak: What not to ask couples about having children
No one knows the secret pain that a lot of people struggling with infertility carry with them daily.
So whether you're aware of someone's efforts to conceive or not, it's time Irish people faced the fact that they are incredibly tactless around couples with no children.
Mike remembers the time someone said to him: "'We always wanted to have a family' – it really stopped me in my tracks, it was like suggesting because I didn't have children, Jenny and I were not a proper family. A lot of the pain in the early days came from comments and the expectations people have."
I asked some couples about the hurtful things people have said and came up with this list. Please avoid the following statements to childfree couples:
- When are you going to have children?
- Stop worrying. You'll get pregnant if you stop trying so hard and relax.
- You should adopt. Do you know how many children there are who need good homes?
- But you're so young. You have plenty of time to get pregnant.
- It could be worse. It could be cancer.
- Maybe you're not meant to be parents.
- Still no babies yet?
- You can have my children if you want.
- It's such a shame; you'd be an amazing parent.
- It will happen naturally if you let it.