The pain of empty arms
HER arms are empty and they ache with a pain that she struggles to put into words. He can do no more than put his arms around her, trying to ease her burden. But for the outside world, they put on their bravest faces. They offer congratulations for other people’s pregnancy announcements, they smile at babies’ christenings, they live in the moments that exist between hope and failure.
They live with words that haunt them from month to month: Barren. Childless. Infertile. And often, they do so silently. Because this is not something you tend to talk about openly. Or so it once was. Slowly, infertility is turning from taboo into a subject that is open for discussion. People are publicly talking and writing and expressing the loss and pain of infertility as a way to support others in similar situations.
Take, for example, Australian television presenter Jessica Rowe, whose long struggle to conceive through IVF, has formed part of her book Is This My Beautiful
Life?, which was published by Allen & Unwin in August.
She wrote about how, at the age of 35, her body was letting her down. “I was shocked at how hard it was to become pregnant ... I had imagined having a baby would happen quickly, easily and with little fuss. It was natural after all, wasn’t it?”
Rowe talks openly about being diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome.
“Everyone around us was pregnant or had young children,” she wrote.
“Jealousy and resentment sat heavily in my stomach each time a couple told us their good news ... Forget both of us being left on the shelf: now I was going to be the only one without a baby. The anger bubbled away inside of me.”
When a couple starts trying to make a baby together it is a time of immense excitement and apprehension. But when that trying turns into months – sometimes years – of no baby that excitement turns into fear and sadness and longing.
Technically, infertility is defined as the inability to conceive a pregnancy after 12 months of unprotected sex. And according to IVF Australia, it affects one in six Australian couples of reproductive age.
In 40 per cent of couples the cause of infertility is found to be the female reproductive system, 40 per cent are attributed to a sperm factor and a third have a combination of both male and female factors. But the numbers can’t explain away the tears and the heartache of what infertility actually feels like.
Emily Harris Adams is a 28-year-old American poet and author.
Adams was 21 when she married her husband Trent and seven years ago, they beamed on their wedding day, dreaming of their future; a future that – unreservedly – involved children.
“Trent had always wanted a honeymoon baby but I wanted to wait a year,” she says over the phone from her home in Utah. “We waited a year and were on birth control and neither of us thought we would have any troubles. But about seven months into trying, I thought something must be wrong.
“Turns out both my husband and I are infertile. My husband has a low sperm count and I have a cocktail of polycystic ovary syndrome, hypothyroidism and endometriosis.
“It took a while for the doctors to let us know that if we wanted to ever have biological children, we would have to do in vitro. Being told we might never have children, the floor completely dropped out from underneath us. I remember sitting in that doctor’s room thinking … the world outside of it is ending. It was devastating.”
And so, to deal with her loss, she started writing. Both poetry and essays came flooding from her and they have been compiled into a book – For Those With Empty Arms: A Compassionate Voice For Those Experiencing Infertility – that hit Australian bookstores in September.
As soon as the diagnosis of infertility came, Adams hit rock-bottom, but it wasn’t what she expected.
“Rock-bottom isn’t a place where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth,” she says. “It’s a place of nothing. Nothing happens. I can’t write much about it because it would be about ... how time moves a lot like air currents if you sit still for long enough, and about how strange it is to come to yourself and realise that the only thing that has changed is that there’s more to do and less time to do it.
“One of the things that really helped my husband and I were having goals that didn’t
include becoming parents. I started writing again. My husband got back into working out. Having those goals, took us outside of despair,” she says.
SOUTH Australian public relations consultant David Rawlings was in his late 20s when he and his wife realised they couldn’t conceive. It was the mid1990s, and the first time they entered an IVF clinic, they were handed a manila folder full of information – all of it procedural and medical and 98 per cent aimed at the woman.
But all of that information couldn’t help explain what it felt like to be going through the experience. So, Rawlings, too, wrote a book – Swimming Upstream: The Struggle
To Conceive – first published in 2006 and which he co-authored with SA fertility counsellor Karen Looi. It was groundbreaking because it featured the male experience, which is often the overlooked and unexplored side of infertility.
“Speaking as a guy – and a lot of guys I spoke to for the book said to me – it’s hard watching your wife cry at a christening, and it’s hard watching friends and family do what you can’t,” he says.
“Speaking on behalf of the guys I’ve spoken to and interviewed for the book, it’s difficult to try and support your partner when she’s experiencing a lot of grief. You jump through all of these medical hoops, but it seems like nobody else has to.
“One guy I interviewed that said his wife had given up going to work on the days when there was an announcement of a baby because she just couldn’t do it.”
Rawlings’ personal experience was that he and his wife had unexplained fertility – after the gamut of tests, no explanation for their childlessness could be found.
“We’re one of the magical 10 per cent,” he says of their unexplained infertility. “It meant that we got to dodge the blame game that some couples go through.”
Blame is a difficult situation in infertility, because, simply, someone usually is responsible. But responsible is probably the wrong word; no one does this on purpose.
Adams explains in her book that she and her husband were determined not to blame one another for their infertility.
“We reassured each other even if we had known the extent of the troubles we would face together, we would still decide to be married,” she says. “We are infertile. Not just one of us. We decided long ago we share everything: money, furniture, books, cars. We are a unit; everything we own is shared ... The blame is ours; we own it like every other possession.”
Perth couple, Kylie and Glenn Doust have also played the emotional roulette that is IVF after two failed vasectomy reversal operations and then discovering Kylie’s infertility. But, the IVF they underwent over a decade ago was expensive, exhausting and isolating and they decided to get off the roulette wheel.
“We did nine transfers … but the drug treatments that are involved, the disruption to your own hormone balance, the physical side-effects; you become very tired, very bloated, very irritable, the procedure itself of egg retrieval is very painful and I took a while to recover from that,” Kylie Doust, today a 48-year-old pharmacist, says.
“And it’s really just a roller-coaster of emotion because you hope and then you’re disappointed.
“It becomes a roller-coaster and it’s not only expensive, but it’s isolating because all your friends are falling pregnant and you’re not; it seems you’re an island of barrenness in a sea of fertility.
“We came to the decision almost simultaneously that we’d had enough.” Doust has also written a book – From
Here To Maternity, published in 2013 – which is a personal account of her IVF, infertility and ultimately the adoption of her two boys from South Korea, Harry and Jack, now aged 13 and 9.
“We have adopted two beautiful boys, but even now, there are some things that happen and the grief comes back,” she says. “There’s nothing like an accidental pregnancy to ram home the fact that they can and you can’t.
“It might be the thought of my sons having children, or the sight of a pregnant woman on the street and the thought that I never got that; I never got to experience that. And it’s loss, it will always be a huge loss. But an important thing to remember is whether or not you become a parent after infertility, (a baby) doesn’t heal all the wounds. The grief will always be there, but it’s how you manage the grief and move forward.”
Rawlings – who since writing his book, has become chairman of Access Australia; an organisation that offers infertility information, support and referrals to its 40,000-odd members – is now a father of three, all of whom were conceived with IVF. “But IVF is not a guaranteed solution, it is not a baby supermarket and you rock up with a trolley … it’s a process,” he says.
And in that process, he acknowledges, there comes a sense of helplessness, not being in control.
“The helplessness is deep rooted and it’s in your face every day …. just when you had a failed cycle of IVF, is when the sisterin-law announced she’s pregnant with number four and they weren’t even trying,” he says. “The word injustice comes up. You’re not drinking, you’re eating well, you’re sleeping well, you’re not smoking, but then someone else gets pregnant and you don’t.”
Sometimes that helplessness can lead to superstition. Rawlings recalls while interviewing three couples for the book, one of them said off-the-cuff they were going to wear orange underwear from then on. “And guess what? They got pregnant. And what do you think the other two couples did? And as they said: ‘We feel ridiculous’. But I said to them: ‘Where’s the proof (orange underwear) didn’t work?’”
BUT despite the available medical intervention, not all infertile couples will end up with a baby to fill their empty arms. And the reality of remaining childless means different things to different couples. Some will separate, others will stick together, but it always means living life in a way you didn’t expect.
In Empty Arms doesn’t end with Adams’ happy news – that her bubbly, IVFconceived twins Marie and Guyer will be celebrating their first birthdays in a couple of months. Instead, the book ends without kids, but with hope; hope that she can face difficulty, and despite it all, live her life.
But the question remains for some couples: how do you make it through infertility with your relationship and sanity intact?
“Part of that is making sure you’re informed and you’re in control of your treatment,” Doust says. “You can become a bit overwhelmed by the medical profession and let the doctor dictate treatment, but it’s really important with infertility with every step of the process, you make sure you are educated and informed and you can be active in your own treatment.
“The other thing is counselling. It’s provided free of charge through the clinics. So when my best friend fell pregnant, I could go to (my counsellor) and cry and rage and not feel I was being selfish.”
Doust’s advice to others going through a similar situation is this: “Remember that you’re more than what you’re going through. Believe in yourselves beyond the process. Allow yourself time to heal after every disappointment and every setback.
“Give yourself the space and the time and the kindness to bounce back and to stop and smell the roses. Make sure, every day you make time for yourself. Remember to laugh, remember that life itself is a gift and if you possibly can, to rise above the sadness and frustration, even for just a moment each day and be grateful.
“Also, to hope. No matter what life holds and no matter what the end result might be, to try to maintain that little kernel of hope that if you turn the corner you might be surprised at what you find.”
For Adams, hope has also been an important part of her journey.
“Living with hope bears a remarkable resemblance to just living,” she says. “Before, I struggled to defeat this problem within me, this evil that loomed over every action I took, tainted every blessing I received, and made everything I owned, felt, and knew seem insufficient.
“(But) I believe that there is a point where sadness causes physical damage. It creates a sickness as destructive as any fever. Day to day life became exhausting.”
Doust says: “I believe strongly infertility is a loss that is equally as deep and longlasting as the death of a loved one or cancer or all those things that you can find a multitude of books on in bookstores, but there is very little about infertility. And you can’t heal if you don’t share. Your loss needs to be acknowledged.”
So from here, hopefully more words will come …
1 Jessica Rowe with husband Peter Overton and children Allegra and Giselle
2 US author Emily Harris Adams and husband Trent with their twins Guyer and Marie 3 SA author David Rawlings 4 Kylie and Glenn Doust with sons Jack and Harry