E is one half of a rock solid couple that have been together for 16 years. I should add that this is most of their adult lives! Since a young age she has ALWAYS known that she wanted to have a family, however E and her partner D found out that this wasn't going to be as straightforward as they had hoped. E chatted to The Alternative about how her and D have found the 'process' of creating their family.
Let’s go back to when you were younger, when did you first realise that you wanted kids?
I don’t think there was a certain point when I realised I wanted children, it was always just something I knew I’d do one day. My sister is four years younger than me and even as children ourselves we’d talk about who would have boys and who would have girls, how many we’d have (always about 12) and what their names would be. At one point I was going to have a girl called Harmony because I loved The Queen’s Nose, and twin boys called Brandon and Bailey. We didn’t really play at having babies though, we weren’t much into dolls or toy prams or role play in that sense, it was more just a given that we would be parents one day. Our family is really close; my sister and I spent a lot of time with our grandparents growing up and have a really strong relationship with them and I think I've always imagined my own children having that same bond with my parents. I loved the idea of running a home too and remember laying in bed, aged about 12 or 13, writing lists of food to take on a picnic and activities to do in the run up to Christmas. It was always more than having a baby for me, it’s the notion of family I knew I wanted.
So when you met your partner, D, was having a family a goal for the both of you?
I vividly remember asking D when we’d just got together, “You do want children one day, don't you?” and seeing utter terror on his 16 year old face as he wondered what the right answer was. He replied “urm…yeah…yes, definitely.” That was 16 years ago and although at that point he definitely just said “yes" so he could keep going out with me, over the years he’s caught up and it’s been an aim for us both. We knew we wanted to do things in the traditional sense, go to uni, get a job, buy a house and get married before we had a family, but by the time we got married after 12 years together we we’re absolutely ready for it and both spoke about family in our wedding vows to each other.
When did you realise that the route to creating your family together wasn't going to be particularly straightforward?
We got married in August 2015 and planned to start trying for a baby the January after. We sold our first, very tiny house, bought a family home with three bedrooms and a garden and started trying in January 2016. Because we’d known this was the plan for such a long time and because my Mum fell pregnant with me and my sister really quickly, I assumed it wouldn't take long. The first few months were exciting, but the excitement didn’t last that long. I struggled mentally quite early on and we fairly quickly got frustrated that friends and family were falling pregnant, and it wasn't happening for us. Sex became a chore, I was doing ovulation tests and our lives became a cycle of fertile days, waiting for my period, then feeling useless for the first part of my cycle until I was fertile again. After a year I went to have some blood tests and when everything came back fine we were told to carry on trying, that we were young and it takes an average of 18 months for fertile women to fall pregnant. After around 18 months, D went to get tested too and it was at this point we realised it wasn't going to be straightforward in the slightest. D has something called azoospermia, caused by an operation he had as a child. It means his body doesn't make sperm - which is obviously a fairly important factor in having a baby! For some men, there is a chance they may have sperm that can be retrieved surgically, so after several weeks of waiting for appointments and realising that none of this would be funded on the NHS, D was put on three months of medication to increase his chances, and he was booked in for surgery in June 2018. The surgeon discovered that not only did he have no sperm at all, the operation he had as a child meant he had probably never made any. So, we’re currently moving forward with our treatment using donor sperm that has come all the way from America which is just such a bizarre thing to think about.
Did you have to prepare yourself mentally before you started the IVF 'journey'?
Because our “journey” (for want of a better word) has been really complicated we've had a long while between each stage which has given us quite a lot of time to process what’s happening. There have been moments that have surprised me though; the day before D had his operation I had a huge panic at work that he wouldn’t have sperm and that I didn’t want to use a donor. I’d been fairly calm up until that point but I was trying to cash up the till, crying at the thought that our children might not look like him, that everything would be different to the way we imagined, that he might die under general anaesthetic, that we’d never find a donor we were happy to use. On the day of the operation, once he had been in surgery for over two hours I realised that if they were still looking, the chances were they hadn’t found any sperm. At that point I just wanted him back, awake, sperm or no sperm! That was a really important moment for me, and in a sense I think that mentality has helped get us through it all, having each other has always been the most important thing.
Has your resolve been tested during the process?
It’s been just about the most winding road possible for us. When we realised we needed to use a sperm donor, I decided I would like to donate some of my eggs, to complete the circle in a sense and also to make it easier to explain to our children one day when the inevitable “where do babies come from” question arises. We paid £1000 for me to have nine blood tests to make sure I was ok to share my eggs. While it seems a lot of money, people who share eggs get a free round of IVF so that was a second benefit of donating. We had an appointment in August 2018 with a counsellor to make sure we fully understood the process of donating and began signing consent forms, expecting our treatment to start in six to eight weeks. However, two months after having the tests, I got a phone call from the doctor to tell me I wouldn’t be able to donate eggs, that she had referred me to a genetic councillor at Addenbrooks because I have a chromosome abnormality which can increase the chances of miscarriage or risk me having a child who was, in her words “not compatible with life” - and we’d also lost the £1000 we paid for the tests. At that point I thought my resolve had broken completely; two and a half years after deciding to have a baby we had no sperm, potentially useless eggs and had spent £5000 to get there.
But the day after that phone call, my Grandad died suddenly. I'd never lost anyone close to me before, and for the first few days I didn't know what to do with myself at all. We were trying to sort out an appointment at Addenbrooks and because my chromosome abnormality is genetic, also dealing with the knowledge that my sister might also be in the same position as me. I wanted to make the order of services for the funeral and was determined not to have too much time off work. I went back after two days off but at times it felt like there just wasn’t enough room in my head for everything. D knew how grief would look for me well before I did and he was, as he always is, incredible, making endless cups of tea, giving me risotto to stir and telling me I’d never feel quite the same again, but that's absolutely ok.
My mantra has become “hold tight”, and when I feel like I might be losing the plot, it’s really helpful to remember. A few weeks later at my Grandad’s funeral, D carried his coffin with my family and I spoke at the service. I don't think I’ve ever been so proud of us.
You have your own blog - has this helped as having an outlet to share your feelings?
When I started blogging it was a very different thing. I used to share tutorials and recipes and write weekly round ups, and had just started working with some independent brands and events in exchange for content about them. I’ve always enjoyed writing and could definitely be described as an over-sharer, so when we began to realise the extent of the treatment we would need, it was as a fairly natural thing for me to write about what was happening. I think being able to write about everything has been one of the most helpful things for me. For various reasons I’ve now stopped sharing what I’m writing in real time, but I find getting the words out of my head helps me to organise my thoughts and stop the spiral of “this is never going to happen” thoughts. It’s also meant I’ve met so many people online, mostly via instagram who have been through, or are going through similar things to us and it’s so helpful to have a whole group of people inside my phone to turn to when no one else understands.
What have you learnt about yourself, D and others since starting IVF?
I’ve learned that we are stronger than I ever thought we would need to be. If someone had told us in 2016 when we started trying for a baby that this is what the next three and a half years would hold I’d never have expected us to handle it, but when the only options are to be strong and deal with it or give up, there’s no question. I’ve also learned that you can never know what you really think about a situation, or a decision you might have to make until the options are laid out in front of you. For instance, we always said we would never use just one donor, and that if either of us couldn’t have biological children we would adopt. We’ve stopped trying to guess how we’ll feel about things because as soon as soon as that option was presented to us our opinions changed completely.
D is incredible. Since learning in October 2017 that we need IVF and that he more than likely didn't have any sperm, he’s told me that it doesn’t matter how our children arrive in our lives. A few days before the operation which confirmed he has no sperm, he told me that even if our children can’t have his DNA, they’ll have everything else his has to give them, and in the last year he's completely changed his life to make that possible. Everything from his job to his mental health is different now and although the last three years have been horrible, he's in a much better place to be the Dad he wants to be.
As far as other people go, I’ve learned that nobody else knows how this feels and thats ok. I’m glad nobody close to me knows how this feels because I wouldn't want anyone else to feel like we have done at times. That does mean it’s a pretty lonely place to be, and I'm so grateful for the people I’ve met online who can relate to how it feels. I think until you've been desperate for a family, and the making of that is taken completely out of your control you could never understand how physically painful it is. Pregnancy announcements take my breath away, people moaning about their children makes me furious and I'm beginning to realise that I'm grieving for the way we wanted this to be. It makes you feel like the worst person when someone announces their pregnancy, particularly someone close to you and your first emotion isn't joy for them but anger and jealousy that it’s still not you. The most ridiculous things make me cry, like the time a grown man got a carton of Ribena out of his pocket on a train and everything about having a child that’s missing from our lives seemed to crash down around me. I’ve sent irrational emails to Youtube explaining why them showing me endless Clearblue adverts isn’t ok, and I’ve had to unfollow people online and delete instagram around mothers day because its a constant reminder of what we don’t have. People don’t always understand, but again, I wouldn’t want them to have to.
How do you relax? What helps you when things get tough?
We’re really lucky to live near the sea and if ever we’re feeling stressed or anxious or like it’s all a bit much, going to the beach and spending some time looking out to the sea really helps. I don’t know if its because it feels like home, because it puts into perspective how vast the world around us is, or because it’s what I’ve always done so its become a self fulfilling prophecy, but it never fails to calm me down. Failing a trip to the sea, we’re both happiest at home and an evening on the sofa with a hot chocolate and an old episode of the Naked Chef can solve most things.
So what's next on the merry-go-round of life?
At the moment we’re obviously very focused on having a baby, but I’m beginning to think again about who I am aside from being a parent. A lot of the decisions I’ve made in the last three years have been around becoming a Mum but I’ve lost sight of who I am along side that. Right now, I'm not exactly sure but D and I would love to work together, for ourselves one day. I’m also really missing working in a job which means something; I love what I do but it’s not rewarding in the same way as previous jobs have been so I think I’d like to move back into working directly with people again.
It feels like there is so much more opportunity and discovery to come for you both. Can The Alternative revisit your story in 6 or 12 months?
Absolutely! I’m excited to see where we’ll be in a year from now!