A guide to understanding your IVF journey (Part 1)
Recently, I saw a patient who’s going through IVF. She was in floods of tears because she felt her partner just couldn’t understand the physical, emotional and psychological turmoil she was going through.
As a result, she felt under intense pressure and was completely overwhelmed.
She knew deep down, I think, that this wasn’t insensitivity on the part of her husband. It wasn’t that he didn’t care or didn’t want to be involved. He just didn’t understand and so wasn’t able to provide my patient with the support she needed.
She’s not alone in feeling this way, I know. I’ve heard very similar stories from other women going through IVF, patients and non-patients alike.
A lot of my work is dedicated to women who are on their birth journey, and a great many of them are undergoing IVF or other assisted reproductive treatment, or are involved in surrogacy arrangements.
Most of them struggle to some extent to process the emotional and physical challenges that infertility brings.
This, then, is the first part of a two-part series of blogs that aims to explain the impact of infertility, IVF or assisted reproduction, and surrogacy.
In this first part, I’ll look at the issue from the point of view of the mother. Part two will look at the issues from the perspective of the birth partner.
When nature fails
Here’s a simple fact: women are designed to conceive and give birth. Since the dawn of time, the purpose of all species has been to reproduce and to propagate in such quantities that it thrives through the sheer strength of its number.
Over time, and with the species established at the top of the fauna food chain, we humans have had the luxury of being able to socially domesticate ourselves.
But at a base genetic level, we’re all here to make babies.
So, when Mother Nature doesn’t align herself with that genetic imperative, it’s psychologically devastating for a woman.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I hear patients ask why they can’t do something that seems so easy and natural for other women. I’ve also lost count of the number of times I’ve heard women at their wit’s end tell me that getting pregnant is ‘their job’.
What they mean, of course, is not that it’s their job but that motherhood is their purpose. We hear about the ticking biological clock, that ‘you’re not getting any younger’ (a reference to the finite time in which women are usually biologically fertile).
How many thousands of young women, I wonder, are asked by family elders, ‘So when are you going to settle down and start a family?’
All of this reinforces the expectation that all women will, at some time, give birth to a child. And with that comes a huge weight of responsibility and pressure to conform to the beat of a genetic drum.
Some infertility issues are down to a pre-existing medical condition and the root cause of others, of course, lie with the father (low sperm count is a common problem). But when the cause can’t be identified, it’s hardly surprising that many women who find themselves unable to conceive consider themselves to be failures, even though nothing could be further from the truth.
For those women and couples who yearn for children, in vitro fertilisation, or IVF, is one of a number of assisted reproductive options available. All of them take their toll financially, physically, emotionally and psychologically.
The impact of IVF on your mental and physical health
Yet no assisted reproductive process guarantees success. Some women who have been through it talk about the ‘dark side’ of IVF – an exhausting reality of a constantly-running money tap, of hospital gowns and biohazard containers of spent syringes and needles, of images of embryos that will never become babies, of frustration and tears and battered hearts.
And then one day, for many of those women, the process works and the blessing they longed for arrives.
But in between, even in the most successful IVF journeys, anxiety, fear, desperation, a sense of helplessness, and inadequacy are constant companions.
It is difficult for other women who don’t want to have a child, or those who discovered that conceiving and giving birth were as easy as breathing, to fully understand the enormous emotional and physical toll a woman puts herself through when she decides to have IVF treatment.
For a husband or male partner, understanding that impact is nigh on impossible – and even when you do have some basic grasp of the biological and psychological enormity of this perceived ‘failure’, knowing how to support your partner is a new challenge.
Here’s the truth: IVF is traumatic. It can be wonderful and rewarding and life-changing, but it’s always traumatic – and what women need to understand above anything else is that it’s healthy and right to express that trauma.
The sudden emotional responses – tears, anger and frustration – are normal. It’s not you being unreasonable or failing to be an emotional superhero. You are processing a form of grief – for your so-called ‘normal’ biological functionality – so you have to allow yourself to grieve.
It is also normal to experience a sense of fear – that the treatment will be unsuccessful. However, many couples make the mistake of ignoring that fear rather than talking to each other about it.
That ‘silent’ hell can become a wedge in the relationship because it is easy to mistake silence for indifference. Talking together about how you feel is essential because it fosters greater understanding.
Acupuncture can also help women to deal with the physical and emotional effects of IVF. You can read my last blog on that subject here.
Finally, there is a lot of third party support available to women going through IVF. After all, infertility isn’t exactly uncommon – in the 30 years that the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority has been recording IVF data, there have been around 1.3 million IVF cycles, and more than 260,000 donor insemination cycles, resulting in around 390,000 babies born, so it’s an issue that has seen the creation of a lot of outside support.
You are certainly not alone.
If you’d like to find out more about how acupuncture can help you during IVF treatment, please get in touch for a friendly, informal and confidential chat