Before I go on holiday I really want to give some more publicity to Kate Brian’s lovely new book Precious Babies: Pregnancy, Birth and Parenting after Infertility. It’s not actually available until 6th October but I’m going to be away then. This is a topic that has been close to my heart since I first wrote about it in a book called Education and Support for Parenting: A Guide for Health Professionals back in 2002. I had suspected for some time that parenting following experience of significant infertility – and particularly many unsuccessful assisted conception cycles – was different to raising a child who has been conceived easily and without help. At that time I interviewed several women from the organisation ACEbabes (now part of Infertility Network UK) and they confirmed that pregnancy by IVF was often nine months of misery rather than the joy they had assumed it would be and that the preciousness of their babies and small children often made them over-protective and anxious. Why would this be when the baby was so wanted and sought after? As Kate explains so well in her book, women who have not been able to conceive easily and then need considerable help to do so, have often lost complete confidence in their bodies to perform properly. Some will refer to themselves as ‘not properly pregnant’ or fraudulent in some way, as if it wasn’t really their own baby that they were carrying (even if they had not used donated gametes). ‘Owning’ the pregnancy and then the baby can be enormously difficult, sometimes leading to a very fraught birth, followed by even more anxious and chaotic first weeks with a small baby than is experienced by all new parents, as reality sets in and expectations settle down. One new mum, known to me through a friend, had terrible trouble breastfeeding. She had conceived her son following many, many rounds of IVF and at her lowest point was convinced that she couldn’t feed her baby because she had ‘tricked nature’ into becoming pregnant and this was her punishment. With much support and help she was able to breastfeed in the end. Of course not all parents by assisted conception will have these feelings but experience over the years has shown that the more unsuccessful cycles and experiences of ‘failure’ a woman goes through, the more stressful pregnancy, birth and parenting may be. By contrast, Walter and I conceived first time with donor sperm, following no drugs, no monitoring and an insemination in my lunch hour. We were spectacularly laid back about the whole thing. Today’s tyranny of choice, close monitoring and pressure to remain upbeat, hopeful and on the hamster wheel of treatment cycles, seems to promote continued stress and anxiety.
Kate’s book is knowledgeable in a completely unpatronising way, full of information, warmth, humour and littered with real life stories of men and women who have struggled to conceive and then, to their surprise, found parenting tinged with the stresses of life before achieving their dream. There are chapters on all the stages from the long awaited ‘positive’ result through to thoughts on trying again, having an only child, expecting more than one (so common with IVF), the teenage years and beyond and on donor families. This latter section has guidance that will be not unfamiliar to DCN members and supporters, but best of all for me contains two real life stories, one egg and one sperm donation. In each case there are issues that one or other partner of the couple concerned had thought were resolved prior to going ahead with donor help, but were causing ripples of discomfort afterwards, despite parents loving very deeply the children they had. I was particularly struck by the sperm donation story because I think this situation occurs rather frequently. The man agrees to go ahead with sperm donation because his logical and pragmatic side tells him that this is the only way that it is possible to have a family. It is always possible that his partner is putting pressure on him to agree to this as well and he doesn’t want to upset and disappoint her so he agrees and signs all the papers. Because he has done this his partner often believes, or manages to convince herself anyway, that he has resolved any issues he might have had. But of course he hasn’t and emotionally remains miles behind and in need of support and sometimes therapeutic help. As I said in previous posts, see Love and Grief yesterday and The Healing Power of Grief on 2nd September, even if grief is recognised and the process started – and with many of these men I don’t think even this has happened – the feelings can come back at any point. Time is then needed for gentle exploration, eventual integration and acceptance that there will be many future moments when sadness may creep in…but that’s OK if the work has been done. It’s often not, if the work is avoided.
Can’t recommend this book highly enough. Well done Kate.