Eleni Kyriacou talks to three couples about how IVF and fertility treatment can turn lives upside down
Carole Waters, who has now adopted
Carole, 43, lives in Hampshire with her husband Andy, 43. They have had one IVF cycle and one frozen embryo transfer (FET). They have a daughter, Bea, five.
I was 29 when we first started trying to conceive and we waited five years before having IVF. I was against it for a long time – I didn't like the thought of all those drugs. I was determined to get pregnant naturally and all the tests had shown that we were both highly fertile, so there was no clinical reason why we shouldn't be able to conceive naturally.
Eventually we got sucked into it. I was told that I had the egg reserves of a woman in her 20s, so we were very hopeful. In our area there was no NHS funding, so we paid for it. A woman in the next town had three IVF cycles, all paid for. I hated injecting myself and the mood swings that came with it. I remember the moment I saw the blood and realised it had failed. I screamed and at that point I couldn't have got any lower. It took me six months to deal with it. I became paranoid and felt depressed. For those six months, Andy and I became very insular, almost attached at the hip. We felt only we could understand each other, so we hardly socialised. And, frankly, I was getting fed up of all the platitudes, people saying: "It'll happen, just relax."
IVF made me feel such a failure. Friends were having their third baby and we were still trying for our first. A year later, we had FET – using the frozen embryos left over from the IVF cycle. But that failed too. I had a gut feeling that I would never get pregnant, so we decided to stop. The doctors kept saying there was nothing wrong with us, so we couldn't see what IVF could do for us that we couldn't do ourselves. We had already spent £4,000 and continuing would have felt like throwing money away.
So we agreed that we wouldn't have children. It was heartbreaking, though deep down I don't think I really believed that. Eventually we started socialising again and we'd walk into parties, heads held high, and pretend everything was OK and that we were quite happy the way we were.
We had briefly talked about adoption but dismissed it, as we had read that you couldn't adopt a baby if you were over 35. We wanted a baby, not a toddler; it was a basic need in me and we wanted to be as much of an influence in the child's life as possible. About a year later, by chance, I bumped into a colleague in the car park at work. She was adopting two siblings. She told me that there weren't the age limits on adopters we had assumed. I had also heard that the process was harrowing, but she said, "It's nowhere near as bad as IVF." That resonated.
Andy and I agreed that, though we were happy now, we'd be full of regret when we were older. In 10 years, we might be holidaying in the Maldives but what would it mean without a family? And what about when we were older? We regularly socialise with our parents and my Mum and I are very close. We wanted that for us in the future. We decided to explore adoption and it took two years, from that first phone call to having Bea come to live with us. She was nine months old.
I had to give up on the idea of having my own genetic child and there was a certain amount of mourning involved. The notion left my head but it was still in my heart. I can pinpoint the day when the idea finally left me for good. It was the day we were approved for adoption. Before that, I was still thinking, maybe I will still get pregnant, as everyone says it will happen when you least expect it. Since then I haven't cared about getting pregnant and now I wouldn't want a birth child, because Bea might feel left out. I don't want that complication for her. If someone said I could go back 10 years and get pregnant, I categorically wouldn't do it.
I feel so proud of our daughter and what we've done. Anyone can have a baby, but not everyone can adopt. There's no doubt in our minds that we weren't meant to have a biological child, because she was already there waiting for us. It's one of the best things we ever did. I know women on their seventh and eight IVF cycles. It's heartbreaking. I wish they would consider adoption as another way to achieve a family, rather than as a second best.
For more information on adoption, visit www.baaf.org.uk
Natalie Smith, who has had five cycles
Natalie, 27, lives in Kent with her husband, Nigel, 47. They are in the middle of their fifth IVF cycle and have had two miscarriages.
I've been trying to get pregnant since I was 18. In the past five years we've had, on average, one course a year, and have spent about £16,000. The third cycle worked, but we still didn't get our baby. It died at about 10 weeks. The fourth cycle failed, but then I got pregnant naturally. A week later, I started bleeding again. It's called a "chemical pregnancy" – something that was started but didn't get far. There are only so many hits you can take emotionally before getting knocked down completely. This experience has made me a bit harder, a bit more immune to the disappointment. You have to put up a barrier to protect yourself.
For a while, I couldn't look at a pregnant woman. I think pregnancy is a wonderful thing and pregnant women look lovely, but it pulls at my heartstrings when I see one because I want that so much.
I've always wanted a family, from the age of about five. I'm one of six children and Nigel is one of seven. We had plans and thought it would be easy, but now one child would be great. That would be enough. I definitely wouldn't have more IVF for a second child.
We haven't set a limit on how many times we'll do this. We just see how we feel – emotionally, physically and financially – at the end of the cycle. I've always got enough eggs, and they're good embryos, so I think as long as that's happening, why not carry on? Maybe we'll try again if this fails, but then I think six attempts might be enough. For my sanity's sake, I would have to draw the line.
We had our first cycle on the NHS, but have paid for the rest. We haven't had a holiday abroad since 2004; we'd like a new car, a new kitchen. But we can't. I don't feel we're missing out. I would give up all my holidays if it meant I could have a child. That's how we both feel. But we try not to make our relationship just about having children.
If we don't have kids I know we'll be OK, but the prospect frightens me. The idea of not having the joy a child brings – it hurts that I might not get that. I've recently started training to be a nurse. I needed something to fill the void of not having a baby, and also something to give me a life outside of all this. That feeling of "what if we never have children?" is always in the air. But we always tell each other that we'll be OK.
IVF has made me feel very negative about my body. I'm frustrated with it because it fails me again and again. It also worries me that I'm pumping myself full of drugs. I don't know what the long-term implications may be.
What keeps me going is my relationship with Nigel. It's easy to let the passion go because it's all about getting pregnant. That's why it's nice to have a break between the cycles. We can get back to being a normal couple again.
I've had a rough ride but he has too. Men have to watch their partners go through it all and there's that stupid stigma attached – the idea you can't get your wife pregnant. He's had a few "jokes" at work, people saying: "Oh, I'll come round and get her pregnant for you." They haven't got a clue what this is like for us. By the end of the summer we'll know if our fifth cycle has worked.
• Natalie has now heard that this round has been unsuccessful "We've talked about another cycle but our hearts are not in it. We may consider adoption but not until I finish studying in 2014. Until then, we'll try naturally. We're finally starting to realise that what we want is a family, not a pregnancy but it's not until you step back that you see that.'
Candida Hilton , who has given up on IVF
Candida, 41, lives in north London with her husband Damien, 39. They have had two rounds of IVF and a miscarriage. They accept that they may not have children.
Damien and I were married in 2008. He has three sons from a previous relationship, and had already had a vasectomy. We wanted a child together but because of my age and the fact that reversals are painful and sometimes unsuccessful, we were advised that IVF would be a better option for us.
We had the treatment at clinics in London and Cyprus. We happened to be on holiday there at the time, the consultant came highly recommended and it was half the price. The vasectomy was voluntary so we didn't stand a chance with NHS funding. During the first cycle, I only had one embryo that could be put back. Although the doctor told me my chances were minimal, he added, "But you only need one," so of course I was still hopeful.
When it failed, I knew I had to try again, to give myself a better chance. It's like rolling a dice, but you don't think like that during the process. You're full of hormones and are not rational. I was all over the place. I was even crying at John Lewis ads on TV.
After the second cycle failed, I woke one night lying in puddles of blood. I'd had a blood test a few days before that said I wasn't pregnant, but in A&E I was told it was probably a miscarriage. I'm still not sure.
We agreed we would have a two-month break and then reconsider, but I knew I didn't want any more IVF. Damien completely understood and felt that as I'd gone through all this in an attempt to conceive, he would do what he could. He had his vasectomy reversed. It was successful, so if it happens for us and I get pregnant, it happens. If I found out I was pregnant, I'd be overjoyed. But I'm not crying over the fact that I'm not.
I won't let it jeopardise our relationship. If we don't have a child that will be the only thing we don't have. I've met some women on this journey that I just don't want to become. Men, too. The IVF regime is so obsessive: you have to do the same thing every time, every day. It makes you obsessive in your behaviour, too. One man told me that he felt he had lost the woman he had married.
The idea of life without children does sadden me, but it's not like I don't have kids in the house. Damien's sons visit every other weekend and I couldn't love them more if they were my own.
Being healthy and living without a child isn't so bad. There are many worse things in life. The IVF industry sells hope, with no guarantees. There's nothing else quite like it in the medical world. They're selling a dream and people will pay so much for it. It feels cruel and emotionally destructive. I was told: "Woo-hoo! You have the uterus of a 28-year-old, you have multi-cell embryos and they're already multiplying!" I thought, great, this will work. I would rather someone had said: "Well, it looks pretty good but don't get your hopes up, OK?"
Article: 17th September 2011 www.guardian.co.uk
Read more about alternatives to IVF at www.prideangel.com