When IVF treatment doesn't deliver: How one woman came to terms with not getting her longed-for baby

Not everybody gets the ending they hope for in their fertility journey, and the importance of sharing these stories, as well as the success stories, cannot be underestimated.

Fertility treatment has enabled many Kiwi couples to conceive a child they might not otherwise have been able to. But the reality is fewer than one in five fertility treatments result in what's termed a "live birth"; many more couples are left with empty arms. Here, in the midst of Fertility Week 2019, Louise* shares her tale of hope and heartbreak after IVF treatment failed to give her and her partner the baby they had longed for.
Like many people, my story of infertility is long and complicated. It takes many twists and turns before it arrives at the end, an end which does not include 'my miracle baby'.
Apart from a patch of intense yearning when I was about 27, I didn't really think about children. In fact, I spent a good portion of my most fertile years doing everything I could to avoid pregnancy. I wasn't always successful. I have had more than one abortion.
As I write that, I fear your judgement. I can hear a voice saying, "Well, you had your chance."
Someone has actually said that to me by the way. And maybe they are right... if you think being a pregnant teenager with substance abuse issues is a chance. Anyway, I don't need your judgement. I have done a pretty good job at beating myself up over all of that.
I didn't get another 'chance' until many years later when I met my Phil. Here was a man that I could see myself having children with. Phil is 12 years older than me and has 3 (adult) children from a previous marriage... and a vasectomy. We knew from the outset that we wouldn't be able to conceive without IVF.
Two years into our relationship, we had a consultation with a fertility clinic and jumped on the waiting list with confirmation that we were eligible for two cycles of publicly funded treatment.
I take an anti-depressant. I have done for a number of years and I function extremely well doing so.
Unfortunately, the anti-depressant I am prescribed is associated with congenital heart defects when taken during the first trimester. It can also cause neonatal withdrawal.
Determined to give my child the very best start, I consulted with my GP and we decided that I should come off my medication and start on another which was a lot safer.
By the time I got the call from the clinic that Cycle #1 could start, I was well into the process of withdrawal and it was hell. Each day I slipped further and further into a depression of a kind I had never experienced. This was possibly made worse by the hormone injections I was taking.
Long story short, I didn't respond to the treatment and the cycle was cancelled. I was devastated. I began to think that "someone like me" shouldn't have children. I was clearly unfit. I would pass on my awful genes to an innocent child. I spent weeks googling "should depressed people have children?"
With the help of some good people in my life I eventually decided that my experiences with depression and anxiety could actually be a strength; something of benefit to raising children. I got back on the horse.
I won't bore you with the ins and outs of treatment. In summary, for those of you who haven't had the experience, IVF is a series of injections, blood tests, scans, and invasive procedures, followed by a torturous "two-week wait" to find out if the whole thing has been successful.
I have to confess that I did the very thing that the nurses at the clinic tell you not to do... I took a home pregnancy test towards the end of that two weeks. I was pregnant! Fortunately, the blood test confirmed it and I was over the moon. Phil and I lay in bed at night throwing around ideas for names. Helena was a front runner if it was a girl.
We never found out the sex. At the first scan we found out that I had a "blighted ovum"... there was a sac but it was empty.
My body was playing a cruel trick on me. It was still producing pregnancy hormone but I was not actually pregnant. I can not tell you how much I wanted that sac removed. It felt like something was holding my body hostage. I eventually had to have a D&C (a surgical procedure to scrape the uterus lining). The anaesthesia was a welcome escape.
I still had one embryo on ice so as soon as it was possible we went ahead and got that transferred. Two weeks later I tested and as they say on the online forums that I had now become waaaayyyy too familiar with, it was a BFN – a big fat negative.
It was about this stage into our attempt to conceive that people started to provide some well-meaning but not very welcome advice. Because of the blighted ovum and because the last embryo didn't stick, it was assumed by some that I must have had an "issue".
"Why don't you use a surrogate" it was suggested. If I possessed the energy, I would have explained that there was nothing wrong with my womb.
We had a bit of a break before staring Cycle #2. Re-set and took a holiday. During that time, friends got pregnant... so easily it seemed, and often in less than ideal circumstances. I went to the baby showers and oohed and aahhed at all the appropriate moments but inwardly I felt jealous and judgemental. It should have been me.
I started my second cycle with renewed hope. I felt positive and more confident knowing what to expect. I only managed to produce a handful of good eggs and only two went on to fertilise and develop as they should.
The first transfer resulted in another BFN. I was down to my last embryo of my last funded cycle. I did everything I could to improve my chances of success – eliminated coffee, reduced strenuous exercise, had regular acupuncture, used progesterone pessaries... and it paid off. I was pregnant!
The joy was relatively short-lived. Regular blood tests revealed that my HCG levels were not increasing appropriately. After a few days of this, the nurse said to me down the phone: "This doesn't look like a viable pregnancy." Once again, I felt angry at my body for not cooperating.
My acupuncturist posited that my womb was too cold. More reason to hate myself – defective, cold womb! I desperately wanted my period to come so I could move on. It wasn't until several weeks later that, whilst at work one day, I felt an intense cramp. I went to the bathroom and discovered the "products of conception" which in a state of weird detachment, I put in a Tupperware container and delivered to Lab Tests.
The results subsequently showed that the temperature of my chilly uterus was not the problem. The embryo was missing a chromosome; monosomy is the medical term.
We were at the end of the road it seemed. It was a very challenging time and our relationship was sorely tested. Phil was also grieving the passing of his father and his daughter was getting married. I didn't feel supported in the way I needed but realised that Phil was simply not capable of it.
We met with our doctor at the clinic to talk about our options. Another cycle, this time with some extra protocols, a few tweaks to the process, and $16,000. I asked what the chances were of this resulting in a live birth. Not quite 50 per cent. We went away to think about it and eventually arrived at a decision... no more treatment.
I wish I could say that from that point on, it has been straightforward... but that wouldn't be true.
I have had many second thoughts. I seriously contemplated leaving my relationship so I could go and conceive naturally. Family and friends have wanted to find solutions for me: "Why don't you use a donor"; "have you thought about adopting?".
I have felt judged for not pursuing those avenues; how dare I complain when I haven't tried absolutely everything. Maybe they are right. I have read the online forums, lurked around the message boards, and I realise that many women try a lot, lot, lot more than what I did. I occasionally use that to berate myself but that is happening less now. I have come to realise that this is a deeply personal thing. Where I draw the line is my business. Where you draw the line is yours. No-one could make that decision for me, and I am the one who has to live with it.
Phil's daughter has recently become a mother and that has been very painful at times. In other moments I cherish spending time with my step-grandson. I may not be a biological mother but that doesn't mean that I am "child-less" and nor do I want to be "child-free, although I am starting to realise some of the silver linings... the freedom that comes with not having children; the freedom to spend my time exactly as I wish; the financial benefit; the smaller footprint on the planet and so on.
The biggest challenge for me is finding meaning. Children provide a pretty solid reason for being and in the absence of that, I find myself questioning my purpose, wondering how I can make a contribution to the world. I am yet to figure that out.
*Not her real name