A baby at any cost?
The decision to stop fertility treatment
by Caroline Gallup
The fourth sperm test result proved conclusively that my partner, Bruce, had never produced sperm and would never be able to father children. This was our first devastating blow. The second was a thought that took me completely by surprise and one that I have not published until now. The reason for this is simple – once I reveal that we are grateful to have undergone treatment, but satisfactorily resolved about being childless and don’t intend to adopt, the reaction we receive can be both ignorant and insensitive. For most people, the fact that Bruce and I struggled long and hard to make the most difficult decision of our lives – to stop trying to conceive with donor sperm – seems to indicate to others that we somehow didn’t want a child as desperately as those who continue until they get pregnant, adopt and/or their relationship is destroyed. Being honest with yourself and admitting that the only baby you want is the one that would be genetically connected to both of you, is not a view sympathetically supported in our culture. Furthermore, wanting to halt the financial and emotional jeopardy that was emerging in our home, my health and our relationship is a positive decision and one which should, in my opinion, be explored and understood as part of a holistic approach by assisted reproduction centres.
My background provides some insight into my deeply held desire for a family in particular, whilst societal attitudes and biological imperatives require no deep analysis. My therapeutic counsellor put it very well, as I was wrestling with trying to cope with the realisation that I wanted to end the cycles of treatment: ‘You’re a forty-year-old woman and you want a child, I don’t think you need to analyse it any more than that’.
Due to my father’s late decision to train as a doctor, qualifying as General Practitioner and Obstetrician at thirty-eight years old, I am an only child. After seven years of study and fifteen years of marriage to my mother, she conceived quickly and gave birth to me, aged thirty-five. A healthy baby in their arms and circumspect, due to his newly acquired medical training, my father discouraged my mother from trying to conceive again, so her dream of having a large family did not materialise.
Although I never lacked in friends, I often felt the lack of a sibling – I wanted a brother or a sister, I didn’t mind which. My mum often talked about how she wished that she could have obliged, adding that my father always felt it too risky. It’s not surprising then, that from an early age I wanted to meet Mr Right, get married, have a large family and settle down happily ever after; providing the grandchildren that my parents assumed would naturally come our way. The only obstacle to this traditional pro-creational path was my chosen career, which was in direct conflict with creating a settled lifestyle and maintaining stable relationships.
Driven by a passion for the Theatre, I became a very successful Touring Stage Manager, Event Manager and Live Event Producer – leaving a string of failed relationships trailing behind me as I travelled around the country, moving towns every two weeks, and even when in London, working long, unsocial hours.
Happily this changed when, at the age of thirty-two, I met my Mr Right, most unexpectedly, at a production meeting. It was love at first sight – so for all those non-romantics out there, I am proof that it’s possible!
When I first hugged Bruce – then a Theatre Designer – I remember thinking “you’re going to be the father of my children.” At friends’ parties, he would disappear to play with the kids and was a real Pied Piper to young people who would always come up and talk to us in the street or in the park.
Six years into our relationship, we stretched ourselves financially to buy a house, so that we could start a family. We tried to conceive for nearly a year, but I didn’t get pregnant. As I had a history of erratic ovulation, we went to our GP for routine fertility tests. We eventually discovered, via some appallingly insensitive and ignorant treatment from the GP, followed by excellent specialist second opinion, that I was apparently fine, but that Bruce would never be able to father children. He is azoospermic. Nothing could be done, and our only chance of having a child genetically connected to one of us was to use donor sperm. I found this idea abhorrent. The thought that I have kept to myself for so long flew across my mind very soon after Bruce’s testicular aspiration procedure at the fertility clinic. It was connected to a sense of relief that the diagnosis was so conclusive. “Thank goodness there’s no doubt because I don’t think I want to do this”. I think, right from the start, somewhere deep in my psyche, I sensed that the only circumstance we would be happy with was a child of our own, genetically connected to both of us. The thought of allowing another man’s gamete to develop in my body made me feel somehow unfaithful to Bruce.
“I can’t do this”, I emphatically announced, on our return from the clinic as we discussed the possibility of donor insemination (DI). But, even as I declared my position, I was completely devastated by the thought of a future with no children together. When I looked up, red-faced, to check with Bruce that he was also happy to go no further, it was evident that if I loved him, I had to try.
The combination of excellent mandatory counselling, Bruce’s encouragement and a great deal of soul-searching, I overcame my resistance to DI. I had already left my demanding job, started my own limited company delivering event production services. This enabled me to set up an office at home, for more flexibility and control over my work load. We began the process of endless appointments, scans, drugs and consultations as we tried to conceive with the sperm from anonymous donors. I will always be grateful for their altruism and compassion, whoever they are. They gave us the chance to try all that we could, and we’re certain this is what helped us to get closure.
I was privately puzzled as to why I had fallen so deeply in love with a man who couldn’t father children, especially as we both wanted them so much. This fact tested my faith and our previous assumptions that if you want something enough, and do all the right things, it will come to you. This is a belief that is encouraged by our Western culture and it takes time to accept that the odds are stacked against a successful outcome, especially since very little is heard about the seventy-six percent of couples who do not conceive even with the help of today’s advanced artificial reproductive technology. Although adoption was considered at various stages of the treatment and afterwards, this was never an automatic follow-on. It wasn’t, and still isn’t, an option that felt right for us.
Because of the strain that the treatment put upon my body, our relationship and finances (I was too old at thirty-eight to get any help on the NHS), we took the decision to stop treatment after three years, in 2004. This was a good decision that we’ve never regretted, even though it takes time to recover financially and I’ve never been able to regain the level of career that I worked so hard to create. My production company was one of the casualties of the treatment: I closed down the burgeoning business in the face of financial challenges associated with initiating a new venture, combined with the impossible task of coping with continually failing fertility treatment and increasing medical intervention.
During the treatment I began to explore what support there was for couples going through the regime and read every book I could get my hands on. But they all made me so angry – all of them said that the only way to be happy was to get a baby, at any cost and almost by any means: adoption, surrogacy, fostering, IVF and more IVF, but none of them had a male perspective or had any information on the impact that fertility treatment can have on daily life.
During my treatment, I felt isolated and oft-times a little insane. My feelings were so intense and unfamiliar that I felt unable to speak about the most ‘shameful’ ones to anyone but I kept a diary. Before treatment it was a scant and intermittent journal, filled with dates, times vague hopes and dreams – nothing special. But it soon became my unquestioning confidante. I accumulated a wealth of material and research confided and written initially into notebooks, but also screamed into a Dictaphone, as the emotions flowed more quickly than I could write. I recorded nine ninety-minute tapes onto which I vented my frustrations with the process. From these sometimes desperate notes, I decided to write a book, drawing no conclusion, making no judgements, on which decision is right or wrong for other couples or singles going through this. I also determined to show that you can be happy, whatever the outcome of your particular circumstances. Bruce supported my decision to tell our story, contributing his own experiences to it as well as carrying the financial burden of paying the mortgage alone.
Making Babies the Hard Way – living with infertility and treatment was published in April 19th 2007 and marked the birth of a different “baby” for both my husband and me. Most significantly, not just for the message of the book, but for me personally, I recently received a four-star review in the British Medical Journal, an accolade that would have made my father, who passed away over thirteen years ago, very proud. Despite the then relatively recent loss of her husband engendering a deep need for family and a sense of future security, my mother’s reaction to our barren state was unconditional. She remains completely supportive of all our efforts to conceive, also our decision to stop treatment. Given her own deep desire for grandchildren, I could never have predicted this, and we are immensely thankful for her compassion and understanding. Bruce’s parents and extended family have also accepted our choices. This has been another factor contributing to healing our hurt and aiding our strong recovery. Being open about our struggles was definitely worth the courage it took to break the news in the early days.
We have found other ways to fulfil our need to nurture: Our first step from being a couple to becoming a family was to adopt our dog Barney from Battersea Dogs Home. He was my saviour in many ways during the darker days of failed cycles. He would provide much needed cuddles for Bruce or me, if we were hurting too much to hug each other, and he forced me out of bed and into the park for a walk on the days when I was so depressed I would have otherwise stayed under the duvet. After making the decision to cease treatment and remain childless, I was left with a deeply painful need to nurture and maternal hormones still whizzing around my body. It won’t be an option for everyone, and they are not surrogate children, but don’t underestimate the value and joy in acquiring a different kind of addition to the family. After months of sensible and motive-questioning consideration, we trouped back down to the dogs’ home, adopting an eight-week-old puppy from Battersea – Guz. So we have a family – albeit a furry one, and I haven’t given birth to a human baby, but I hope that ‘giving birth’ to my book and using our experiences of this very modern dilemma, will help others to become happy as well.