One Question Quiz

The Sunday EssayOctober 8, 2023

The Sunday Essay: We’re not born brave


Jenn had six rounds of IVF and three pregnancies in the space of four years. None resulted in a baby. 

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Images by little rain.

I first met Jenn at a family dinner the weekend my grandmother died. As the sun was setting over Taranaki maunga, my two young daughters were eating hotdogs with their cousins and the adults were lining up to get theirs. Not keen on elbowing my way into the queue, I headed to the lounge to get some space from the swirling emotions and chatter of aunties catching up.

As I poured myself a wine, a woman entered the room and her bright eyes and free-flowing laughter drew me in. She’d arrived with my cousin Matt, and I quickly realised this must be his new girlfriend. Dinner was soon forgotten as Jenn shared how they met “playing Tinder”, how after the first date she knew they would be together “for as long as both of us are alive”. A beautiful and hope-filled story, or so I thought at the time. 

Seven years later, almost to the day, I am sitting opposite Jenn once again but this time we talk on our screens – she from her family bach on Waiheke Island, me from my home in Dunedin. The sun is streaming in on both of us, while Matt’s outside in the garden; he’s supportive of our project but not that keen to talk. I gaze out through the massive sliders overlooking the harbour, preparing myself to ask the first question. The researcher in me wants to know everything.

Jenn instantly tells me she had three pregnancies from six rounds of IVF over the past four years: one pregnancy from the first clinic, two from the second, and none resulted in a baby. 

She grabs a tissue and pats her eyes. “A lot of our IVF journey is intertwined with Mum, and that is quite hard. It’s been two and a half years since she died, and there’s so much about all this that is actually about Mum.”

I never met Jenn’s mum Mary, but I start to think about how my own journey of motherhood was deeply entwined with my experiences of being mothered, so losing your mum during the quest to conceive is a grief I cannot imagine.

Jenn and Matt tried to conceive naturally for a good number of years, and then discovered a series of health issues meant conceiving without intervention was pretty much impossible.  “That’s a lot to take in,” Jenn says. “You’re just trying to get pregnant and all of a sudden there’s all these other health complications that need attending to.”

No one in her family or circle of friends had been through anything similar, and not having children isn’t what most adults do. For Jenn, babies, and conversations about babies, are everywhere. “The first thing my new hairdresser asked me about was my children … like of course I should have some.”

Our conversation turns to the IVF process and Jenn shifts in her chair. She describes in minute detail the exact process, her explanation peppered with terms and turns-of-phrase expressed in clinical tone; for Jenn and Matt, it seemed the process of “making” a baby had little room for the humanity of their lives, or their hearts.

Because they didn’t qualify for funding, each round cost approximately $20,000, and that was just the first of six. “Mum said, “Jenn, we’ll pay. It doesn’t matter what it costs,” because Mum had always wanted to be a grandma, that was her. . . her number one goal.” Jenn’s voice breaks. “Tell you what, she loved Matt.”

At this point, Jenn tells me, Mary was also in treatment following a long battle with cancer.  The first embryo they got was when Mary was in hospice.

“Mum died knowing that we potentially had a baby.”

For each round of IVF, they drove four five-hour return trips between New Plymouth and various clinics over a period of about eight to 10 days. In the beginning, they would listen to comedy podcasts, talk shit and laugh. They would also talk about their dreams of if and when, but these conversations became more sombre as the treatments went on.

Jenn’s first miscarriage was a painful experience, both physically and emotionally. She ended up in the hospital and fortunately Matt was there to support her. “We were able to keep the, what do you call it? The baby? The foetus?”

Medical staff call it “the products of conception.” She then tells me about her second miscarriage which resulted in a dilation and curettage, that is, removal of the products of conception. Given the experience with her first miscarriage, this took place in a private clinic under general anaesthetic.

As Jenn describes her experience, I am taken back to my own first pregnancy which ended in a missed miscarriage, a pregnancy my body just wouldn’t release. While I knew I would eventually miscarry, no one could tell me when, or what might happen if I didn’t. At 16 weeks, I became extremely sick, poisoned by the very thing I was so desperate to keep. I can vividly remember sitting in a corner of my local Emergency Department, waiting for surgery with other women just like me, overhearing everyone’s stories, the same nurse taking our vitals and our paperwork. If there was a question or a misunderstanding, it had to be overcome in a waiting room full of people.

I remember waking up relieved, sad, overwhelmed by the blood (there was so much blood). I had nothing to take home but my swollen, battered body and a bunch of sunflowers I had received from my husband. I don’t even know what happened to the … the baby?

Jenn understands. “We never knew what to do with it – it’s still in the freezer. We scattered Mum’s ashes out here (on Waiheke Island) and I think that’s the right place for the baby.”

Jenn moves from the kitchen to the lounge to carry on our conversation. “There’s Mum,” she says, and points to a large cheerful photograph of Mary in the background. Talk about a chip off the old block.

Jenn had three miscarriages in total, and in her recall I can hear she’s struggling to split them up; she’s not getting all the facts exactly right and it’s bothering her. I suggest it’s because of grief and trauma.“Mum was dying of lung cancer. The main focus when we were going through IVF was Mum being really sick. It was a lot! It has changed who I am.”

Every time the phone rang, it was bad news. She didn’t want to talk to the unknown numbers anymore. What kept her going was the fact Mary had to attend appointments she didn’t want to go to either. Tears stream down her face. “I thought, if Mum can do it, so can I,” she said. “I can go to these things, I can answer the phone, I just have to.”

At the end of the fifth round, Jenn and Matt were deciding if they should have one last go. “If you’ve got it in you, you should try,” her dad suggested. They were still hopeful, but there was a numbness creeping in. They decided to give it one last shot.

Jenn was pregnant for 10 weeks before she learned she would probably lose this last baby. “After my scan, I remember sitting in the car crying, thinking, Here we go. I went back to work, and I was sitting in my office, and suddenly I felt my head go back and my eyes kind of rolled into my head. I caught myself before I fell off my chair, and thought it must be something to do with this pregnancy. Then I went in for the next scan and they couldn’t find a heartbeat, and I knew exactly when the baby had died – it was that moment. I can feel the whole thing now, I even remember the direction my eyes were looking. I knew something weird had happened, but I didn’t know what it was until after that scan.”

It got to the point that Jenn and Matt had given it everything – emotionally, physically – and they just couldn’t do it anymore. There are no regrets as far as how hard they tried. She estimates their fertility journey cost around $150,000.

“It’s hard to explain, I don’t feel like (the babies) were meant to be. After the sixth round of IVF, we bought a house and did our wills for the first time and it was horrible. When you don’t have children, where does your stuff go? Who looks after you when you get old?”

Jenn is a teacher and a doggie mum, and she fills the maternal role at work every single day. As for fatherhood, I have seen Matt parent his stepson from a previous relationship – they still have a strong connection, which Jenn supports fully – and because of this she feels she hasn’t let him down completely. Jenn and Matt were also part of the Big Brother, Big Sister programme in Taranaki and were matched with a young man who they mentored for five years.

But still, there are feelings that come up when your body isn’t doing what it’s ‘supposed’ to do. Jenn avoids pregnant people and babies. She has a good friend at work who once lost a baby at 20 weeks, and they look out for each other. She’ll send Jenn a text like, “don’t go to the staffroom, there’s a baby in there.”

She tells me about a colleague who had to decide whether they would have another baby. Or how another colleague, who was having trouble with her daughter, told Jenn, “you’re so lucky you don’t have kids”.

“It hurts so much because I wanted it so bad. I think, why do they get that and I don’t? It’s made me a lot stronger than I ever was,” she says. “You’re not born brave, you practice it and you get good at it, and I’m really fucking good at it.”

A month later I call Jenn and ask her how she’s feeling since we last spoke. She tells me it’s like in the movies at the end of a battle scene – stark landscape, birds circling, through the rising smoke you can hear the crackling of scorched earth. She then reminds me her sister and girlfriend are currently undergoing IVF treatment, that they phoned the other day with some “exciting news”. Before they’d even begun to speak, Jenn had tears streaming down her face. Ironically, it wasn’t baby news – the two women wanted to share they had eloped. 

“I was really happy for them, of course I was, but I just couldn’t control my emotions,” she said. 

I tell Jenn I’m holding a vision for her that one day she will be able to talk about all this and it won’t be so emotionally charged; that maybe one day, she might be in a room with a pregnant woman or a new baby and be OK. Jenn’s strong, but it’s tough. She wants to be there for her sister. Her grief is billowing just below the surface. 

From my deck on the Otago peninsula, I watch the slow-moving clouds spill over the northern hills, snaking their way down the North East Valley and into the city. Stubborn fingers of sunlight shine on through the damp air; fires are lit, people return home. I wipe my eyes and turn my face towards the fading light.

There is hope in this story, it’s just a version of happily-ever-after that looks a little different to most. The reluctant acceptance that there is nothing else they could have done weighs heavy here, but there is also laughter, bravery, and a love that will endure for as long as they are both alive.

Keep going!