Charlotte Fielding talks to a mum whose partner left when she was pregnant after a six-year struggle to conceive. It’s a story of daring to hope, of struggle and resilience, and of how we can make it through the most unexpected and gut-wrenching events.
The door is propped open and Anna* is breastfeeding her four-month-old son Seth when I arrive at her apartment. Anna looks like any other tired suburban mother – bob haircut, glasses, comfortable clothes – though her journey to motherhood was far from ordinary. The apartment is warm, sunny, and feels spacious, although it is small. We sit on mismatched, comfortable couches, and she gestures to some small stains on an armchair, explaining that her daughter Hazel had been refusing to take pamol during her recent bout of sickness, and it splashed on the chair.
In her lounge there are items of kid-equipment everywhere: a buggy, an electric rocker, a change table, and a highchair. Anna is peaceful, at last, in her role as a mother, but says “I never wanted kids until my 29th birthday. That day out of nowhere, it just hit like a biological thing. There was no thinking necessary, it just had to happen. And it was a shock, because I’d never wanted kids at all.”
Anna speaks softly and articulately. She doesn’t clutter her sentences with umms and ahhs, just as she doesn’t clutter her home with unnecessary things. Up until that point she’d been quite vocal about not wanting children. “I was nervous coming out to Mum about wanting kids,” she says, laughing. “It was more significant than actually coming out.” At the time of her revelation, Anna had been with her partner Sarah for about two years. As a gay woman Anna knew fertility treatment was her only option for having children, so after some discussion, they got on the waiting list for a sperm donor at Fertility Associates.
It turned out to be an even longer, more painful wait than she could imagine, with unexpected, heartbreaking consequences. “There were just a lot of surprising things,” she says. “It was devastating right from the start.”
The process started with intrauterine insemination (IUI) which involves placing sperm inside a woman’s uterus to facilitate fertilisation. Anna didn’t ovulate for the first cycle, which hadn’t happened before. For the next cycle she took medication to make sure she did ovulate, which had the opposite effect, releasing too many eggs. “They check how many follicles you have to see how many eggs you’re probably going to release, and if there’s too many they won’t do the treatment because they don’t want you to end up with multiples. And that’s what happened.” They were advised not to go ahead with the IUI that cycle.
They ended up doing seven rounds of IUI, with not even a hint of pregnancy.
Anna became increasingly desperate.
“It just becomes your complete meaning, it was my complete focus. Nothing else mattered. I think I would have been harder and harder to live with over the years.” She worried about the financial cost, about running out of the donor sperm, and about getting older. Sarah was supportive, but unexcited by the prospect of parenthood, and a distance began to grow between them.
The next step was in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). Anna and Sarah put the $14,000 on their mortgage, because Anna didn’t want to wait for public funding. The toll fertility treatment can take on a woman’s body became clear when a freak accident during egg collection led to Anna collapsing due to internal bleeding after the procedure.
She was taken to hospital and panicked, worried that she might wake up from surgery with a hysterectomy.
“I wanted a baby so bad that there was no life if there was no baby. It turned out that the blood supply to one of the follicles had been pierced when they took the eggs out. That’s what caused the hemorrhaging. So nothing was wrong with my organs, they just needed to fix up that blood supply to that follicle.” She was the only person, at that time, who had experienced that in New Zealand.
They did get some embryos out of that egg collection, however, and Anna waited on the daily updates from the clinic about how many embryos survived each day.
“Your phone becomes this terrifying thing,” Anna says. “When it rings and somebody else is holding your future in their message, that’s horrible.”
The three surviving embryos were planted in successive months, to no avail.
Another egg collection followed, another transfer, and Anna and Sarah went to Surfers Paradise to distract from the two week wait. Anna recollects depriving herself of small pleasures like coffee, to try and be as healthy as possible, and then the ensuing paranoia when she did partake, magnified by her difficulty to get pregnant.
“I had to run a few steps to get to the train, and thought ‘I’m killing the baby.’”
During the course of her infertility struggles Anna had connected online with others in similar situations, and heard about a procedure called an endometrial scratch, which involves ‘scratching’ the lining of the uterus, which may trigger a ‘repair reaction’ in the uterine lining. The theory is that this new lining may be more receptive to an embryo implanting. With a diagnosis of “unexplained infertility,” Anna was feeling frustrated and looking for any solutions. “It was pretty painful,” she says of the endo scratch. “And then the following month we transferred Hazel. She was the last one.”
She tears up at this point. “It felt like it was getting to the end,” she says, when she can speak again.
A few weeks after the pregnancy was confirmed, Anna proposed to Sarah. She’d been planning an “extravagant” engagement for six months, which involved a helicopter ride, expensive rings, professional photographers, and a 10 course degustation. “It was the happiest day of my life,” Anna says. “Pregnant, engaged. Amazing future ahead.”
Then a few weeks later, Sarah left.
“I don’t want to be in this relationship and I don’t want to be a parent,” Sarah told Anna.
“It’s just gone four years now,” Anna says, “and that moment still feels like three seconds ago. So shocking. My entire future changed from that moment on.”
A hellish breakup followed: betrayal, immense financial stresses, selling their newly renovated home at a loss, and Anna worrying all the time that she might lose the one thing she had left – her baby. “It was really stressful, and this was over the course of the pregnancy that I’d spent the last six years trying to create. I was robbed of that experience.”
Sarah didn’t want to be involved with the baby, but did agree to pay child support, recognising that her actions had changed the course of Anna and Hazel’s lives.
After the birth, Anna’s rebound relationship also ended, and she found herself alone again with a baby who hardly slept. She reached out to other parents via Facebook, which is when I first met her and heard her story. “It was quite a turning point of creating, starting a new life, starting to make friends. Friends had never been something that I valued much. So that was good.”
“I went back to work, devastatingly tired, all the time,” Anna says. “I moved close to work because I knew I was too tired to even drive, so we had to be somewhere I could walk to daycare and then walk to work. I’d drop Hazel off and then cross the road to Wholly Bagels, get a coffee, and sit there thinking ‘this coffee will get me enough energy to cross the road again and get to work.’ My job is easy, I just had to get to my chair. I’d get in the door and think ‘I can’t even walk up one flight of stairs’ and I’d get hassled by people for using the lift ‘cause I looked like a healthy person. Leaning against the wall of the lift. Just had to get to my chair. And this was my life for a year. Just so tired.”
She also attended a Mothers’ Network group, talking to the other mothers about the possibility of trying for another baby. After another relationship ended in heartbreak, she thought, “I’ll never have a relationship again. I’m 39, I’ve got the donor for two more years, I don’t have time to wait for a relationship to be established.’ And at that point I didn’t care anymore. And then everything became quite focused about trying for another one. It was empowering.”
She carefully planned the timing around financial matters like paying off debt and waiting for Hazel to be eligible for the 20 hours ECE subsidy.
Hazel was involved in going to appointments at the fertility clinic, creating their own narrative around family. “I really wanted it to be that we were making our family,” Anna says. “Because it’s done in an artificial way, I guess I could tell the story like that. We do just go to a place with doctors that help and we pay some money and that’s how we can make our family bigger.”
Anna couldn’t afford IVF and was skeptical that an IUI would work, having failed so many times before, but the first time round, she became pregnant. By this point Anna had become involved with Melissa, but despite a strong attraction they were off and on again for many months, trying to figure out where they stood in relation to each other, to the children, and dealing with Anna’s severe anxiety and insomnia.
And then Seth was born and Anna started sleeping.
Previously she struggled to sleep if there was another adult in the house, which made relationships difficult. Despite life being demanding, with two young children, her anxiety disappeared. “He’s brought so much healing,” Anna says, looking down at her calm, smiling baby. “To heal the insomnia and anxiety, it’s just an incredible thing.”
In looking for an explanation for the seemingly-magical fix, Anna’s mum put it simply: “You’ve got what you want. You’ve got your babies. You’ve got potential for a long term marriage-type relationship, a family.”
A few days after our interview, Anna and Melissa put in an offer on a beautiful family home with sea views, which was accepted, and they’ll move in together in the new year, a family at last.
“Over the first year here, in this apartment, surviving what I survived was empowering. It was utter darkness of being so exhausted and so alone and knowing that there was nobody. I’d got to feeling suicidal from exhaustion. Not because I didn’t want to live, I was just so exhausted. Just surviving that, being conscious about trying to be grateful, starting to develop some of my own interests. That was kind of cool, starting to create myself again,” Anna says.
“It was just like my brain and body had finished the journey.”
*All names have been changed to protect privacy.
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