Countless women across the globe understand the in‑vitro fertilisation (IVF) cycle first‑hand. It’s a month‑long medical grind of daily injections, regimented blood tests, hormone screenings and endless ultrasounds. All in the hope of being deemed ready for the surgery required to retrieve as many medically‑induced eggs as possible. A painful set of days then follows, the likes of which is comparable to approximately double the pain of your worst period ever.
This painfully slow stretch of time is nothing short of a physical and emotional storm. Bloating, exhaustion, headaches. Mood swings. A whirlpool of excitement, optimism, anxiety and grief. Your body is fully devoted to its desire to bear, birth and mother a child. A child of your own.
I was a fertility clinic veteran, having surfed the ebbs and swells of intrauterine insemination (IUI) and IVF on and off for the last five years. The half‑hour drive from my home in Pyrmont to the North Shore full‑service arm of my city IVF clinic was an autopilot haze of drive‑time radio and a distracted mind. On 23 March 2013, I pulled into the clinic carpark and stole a routine glance across the highway to the Royal North Shore Hospital, where I dreamed of one day being admitted to the maternity ward. The sigh that escaped my lips involuntarily emerged from a strange emotional stew of hope, doubt and exhaustion as I began tracing the familiar path to the clinic’s front door.
Eye contact with the reception staff was brief, as always. They’d seen it all before many times, having no doubt learned from experience that it’s best not to get too friendly with the hormonal women they’re administering to through their system.
Pleasantly efficient and emotionally neutral, the woman behind the counter retrieved my file and processed yet another payment. I dare say she knew I’d gladly gift her the full remains of my now‑depleted bank balance if it would guarantee a successful treatment.
IVF is an expensive business. Each cycle costs upwards of AUD$9,000, with the Australian government’s Medicare program covering just under half that. If you choose genetic testing on the embryos, you can expect to pay even more out of your own pocket. Considering several studies have shown that less than 25% of fresh IVF cycles in Australia result in a live birth, we’re talking potentially big bucks for a gamble with unfavourable odds.
After a speedy processing, I was directed to the waiting room, where there were already a handful of scattered, hopeful women and supportive partners. Because IVF is an intensely private matter, I’d noticed that people always created as much space as they could between each other. That day was no different. I grabbed a magazine from a nearby table, took my seat and flipped through the glossy pages, trying to distract myself from my ‘nerves’. Barely registering anything I read, my thoughts and feelings charged like a wounded bull.
I managed to find a sliver of comfort in the familiarity of the large, beige waiting room, focusing on the taunting Kids’ Corner for the lucky mothers trying for a second (or even third) child. Kids’ Corner served as a beacon of hope for me – hope that one day, I too could have a child playing there. I imagined myself pausing to glance over at my boisterous munchkin with a firm mumma‑gaze, softly urging my little one, ‘Use your inside voice, bub.’
I knew that a fairly decent collection of my eggs had been successfully harvested this cycle, fertilised with donor sperm and then incubated in petri dishes for the last five days. It seemed that every time I closed my eyes, I saw those cells dividing … dividing … dividing again … transforming into healthy blastocysts … into beautiful embryos … and maybe, just maybe, into a baby.
I became suddenly and acutely aware of my solo status. Having always had my mum or my youngest sister, Amanda (or ‘Mands’, as our family calls her), with me on previous transfer days, I’d never felt ‘alone’ in this before. My impressive portfolio of IVF experience and the repetitive nature of transfer days had left me feeling more than equipped to manage this morning’s appointment on my own, so I felt surprised by the aching loneliness that had taken hold of me.
At least I felt a sense of solidarity with the women around me. I knew all of us in the waiting room shared the same wish: to be called in for a transfer.
As always, patients were called in what seemed like a hierarchy of sorts, dwindling down to a final name. If you are the last woman standing – or, rather, sitting – the chances are high that your embryos didn’t survive or the preimplantation genetic screening (PGS) tests came back with abnormal results, meaning there would be no transfer on that day.
The atmosphere shifts to high alert when the first woman is called in for a transfer. The ‘edge of your seat’ cliché becomes a reality. Fingers and toes are crossed. Phone calls end. Screens go black. Handbags are clutched. Rosary beads and colourful crystals alike are rubbed. It’s as if time has been suspended.
I didn’t want to be the last woman left in the waiting room on transfer day. I knew it would be almost a sure sign that no viable embryos were produced for me this round. On this particular morning, I wished that I had some kind of material totem or reliably physical way to off‑load my swelling anxiety. I was so tightly wound that I kept forgetting to breathe.
Name after name … name after name. Not my name … not my name. My thoughts drifted to the phone call I’d had with my mum and dad earlier that morning. They’d been with me nearly every step of this endless fertility quest. It initially took them a while to get their Baby Boomer heads around the concept of IVF, but they’d been fully supportive, despite some generational culture shock. I understood their early hesitation. My parents met when my father was eighteen years old and my mother sixteen. They married just four years later and had no problems creating a family of three girls, one after the other in quick succession.
The call to my folks that morning had been filled with the same hope we always shared, but it was palpably waning in true optimism. I realised then that hope and optimism were very different feelings.
Name after name … name after name. Not my name … not my name.
My eyes focused out of my haze. I was the only woman left in the room. The reality of this sank with a heavy thud into my belly. I felt ill. All the effort and compromise I’d put my body through over the last four weeks hit home in one fell swoop. I was not going to be a mother. Again.
Just as my first fat tears began to form, my IVF specialist, Dr Park, entered the waiting room. He was a no‑nonsense straight shooter with a slender build, dark hair and glasses perched at the end of his nose.
I’d subconsciously sat in the furthest possible seat, making his approach a slow‑motion endurance test. His face was solemn. I tried to brace myself despite my very scaffolding starting to break apart. I knew exactly what he was going to say. I gulped audibly, the room so empty I could have sworn that the sound bounced off the walls and echoed around me.
Dr Park’s glum expression and the slightly awkward soft placement of his hand on my shoulder only validated my fears. Doctors aren’t affectionate unless the news is bad.
‘I’m so sorry, Natalie.’
I tried to hold myself together. Not yet, Nat. Don’t fall apart yet. I repeated these thoughts as Dr Park explained what I already knew.
‘The results have come in and show that all your embryos were abnormal. I’m afraid there is nothing for us to transfer this time, Natalie. We are now at the end of the road with your eggs. I think you need to consider egg donation.’
Dr Park gently retracted his hand from my shoulder as he started explaining the situation in sympathetic but clinical terms. But I understood what he was really saying.
He was telling me that I could not have my own biological child.
My eyes drifted to the clinic window, surveying the stretch of highway next to the clinic with a focused curiosity. Traffic was moving forward, tides of vehicles surging toward their destinations, while I stood still, frozen in time.
I somehow managed my way through a tear‑suppressed ‘thank you’ to the doctor, mumbling something about getting back in touch when I felt up to it and turned towards the exit with my shoulders slumped and head down.
I returned to my car, a new ruby‑red SUV baby‑mover that was an impulse buy at the beginning of the year. So much for the attempt to make a ‘change’ in my life. I’d been in Field of Dreams mode – if you buy the car, the baby will come. Despite the short drive back home, the weight of my emotions made the journey feel like an eternity.
Arriving at my apartment, I pulled slowly into the garage. I turned the ignition off on what now felt like a ridiculous car. You bought a car for a family you don’t have. You idiot. In my dazed state, I had to lift my sunglasses and squint to make sense of the path to my home. The short walk from the garage to the my front door felt like wading through sludge as I dragged my unwilling body along. I wanted to give up. I wanted to stop moving, stop thinking, stop feeling. I just wanted to stop.
Finally inside, my shoes clicked against the wooden floors as I walked across the lounge room. The echo of each shoe magnified my aloneness. Agonising stasis –nothing had changed. Nothing would change. After all the effort, time and money I had expended, I’d crashed against a final roadblock. I had nothing left. I dropped my bag on the nearby coffee table and flopped face down on the sofa.
Aching … shaking … despair.
I sobbed until I had no more tears. I turned my head to blearily stare at the coffee table next to me. It was an upmarket, bamboo, modern‑style piece, more like a sculpture than a piece of furniture. The unusual shape resembled the continuous track on an army tank, but with a hollow centre. It was a favourite playing space for my five nieces and nephews, who liked to climb inside it or fling themselves off the curved ends.
The once endearing piece seemed to be taunting me. I was never going to have a child of my own playing on this table. I was forty‑five, single and childless. I was on my own. How had this happened?
A succession of images flashed through my mind: years of university studies; an international executive career; a passport full of travel stamps; years of debilitating back problems and several catastrophic relationships. I had a moment of clarity – it wasn’t one specific thing that had gotten me to this point but a culmination of life choices.
I tried in vain to resist a round of self‑loathing recrimination, reminding myself that it wouldn’t solve my problem and that rehashing the past was futile.
It was no use.
Natalie Lovett is the author of the highly acclaimed book 'Lexie's Village - A New Kind of Family' and is actively championing ART and embryo donation rights and awareness. She has appeared in numerous TV shows (The Project, Australian Story, Today Tonight and The Morning Show), to tell her own deeply moving story of one woman’s extraordinary journey to motherhood and her idea that expands everything we believe about families.
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