People do not talk in fertility clinics
They do not even make eye contact. It was a counsellor who pointed this out to me. She worked with people being treated for cancer as well as those undergoing fertility treatment. The atmosphere in a cancer ward is very different from that in a fertility clinic, she explained. People with cancer talk to each other; they swap stories and tips; they keep each other's spirits up. In fertility clinics, no one speaks. As I sat in the counsellor’s office, I could barely make eye contact with her. I was utterly defeated.
I do remember someone once catching my eye in a fertility clinic. It was a man, and I was furious with him. He and his partner were there with a baby. It was clear that they were undertaking another cycle of IVF to try and have a second child. Maybe they couldn’t get a babysitter, my rational, adult internal voice suggested. But my inner child was raging. How could they be so insensitive? How could they have brought a baby into a fertility clinic? He caught my eye and he tried to smile. I think he was trying to encourage me – “look, it works!” I didn’t want his encouragement: I wanted him and his partner and his baby to disappear.
By a strange coincidence, a few months after the unsuccessful end of my fertility treatment, I was able to observe the atmosphere in a cancer clinic for myself. I had to have surgery to remove a benign breast lump, which meant a few trips to the breast clinic. I was one of the lucky ones, but I was in a waiting room with women having treatment for breast cancer. I was in my late thirties, but looked younger. As they called my name and I got up, the older woman sitting next to me patted my arm and said, “all the best – you’ll be fine.” I was really touched.
I never had any desire to talk to anyone else in the waiting room of a fertility clinic, and I carefully avoided eye contact. I was so very unhappy, and so very angry at the world and at everyone around me. If I spoke to the woman sitting next to me, I might find that she was younger than me, more fertile, with better odds, and that would only make me feel worse. No two people going through fertility treatment are alike, and I found the comparisons very painful. Others had more eggs, more embryos, even a child, and were coming back to increase the size of their family. Others complained of the side effects of the follicle stimulating hormones: I did not experience these side effects, for the simple reason that, even on the highest dose, I did not respond to the drugs. Some people had achieved a pregnancy but suffered the agony of miscarriage. I felt that they had suffered more, their hopes realised only to be cruelly dashed – what did I have to complain about? And yet, my grief remained. Those women’s bodies could achieve a pregnancy, I told myself, whereas mine was then, and remains, barren. I did not want to swap stories. Sharing the pain sometimes increases it.
Extract from chapter one of A Pastoral Theology of Childlessness. Pre-order here. Register for the Zoom book launch here.