We tried for a baby before turning to IVF for three years. In that time we had nothing for 18 months and then two missed miscarriages and an ectopic.
To say we were pretty desperate by the time we made the decision to go for IVF would be an understatement, and we had four cycles in 2014 that culminated with the transfer of Baby Bee on December 29th that year.
It would probably come as no surprise to know that I was unbearably anxious throughout my pregnancy, and so we scheduled a C-section for his due date so I could avoid any additional labour anxieties.
As it happened, the dramas were few and far between. His due date came, I was unzipped and – at last! – there he was. My beautiful, bouncing, baby boy.
Music swells. Curtain falls.
Except it wasn’t.
They handed me my baby and all those years of expectation, of wanting, of keening, of pure gritted teeth determination were over. Because the child that I had imagined for so long was finally here: the baby come true.
I looked at him. And I looked at him. And I looked at him.
And I felt nothing.
I left it for a little bit. Looked again.
He was just … a baby.
Things ticked along with no big dramas – we did baby groups together, took nice smiley photos together, watched a lot of CSI: New York together; but it was like I had a gaping hole inside where everyone else seemed to have an overflowing well of love. I couldn’t feel it. I knew I should. I knew that I was a terrible mother for not feeling knuckle-gnawing love for my baby. Because how could I not? I had been obsessed with having a baby and with each loss I had become more and more dedicated (sociopathic) in making that happen.
There had been periods of time when I hadn’t been able to work because Having A Baby had utterly consumed me. ‘We don’t just want a baby,’ I remember saying when I was trying to convince my husband to look at adoption. ‘We want to be a family.’ And I believed that.
But when we finally became that family of three, all I wanted to do was go home, have a cup of tea and watch Pirates of the Caribbean (I have no idea why I was jonesing for that film, but I was).
What the hell was wrong with me? My little boy lay in the bed next to me for those first few hours of his life, and I just wanted to be on my own.
With hindsight, what I needed was a moment to catch my breath. I had careened for five years through failure after failure in a permanent state of high anxiety and hyper-vigilance – four years of trying, four losses (I had a chemical pregnancy with the third round of IVF), four rounds of IVF, 40 weeks of terror.
Of course those numbers added up to me being totally not ready to be a loving mum. How couldn’t they?
I now believe I was suffering from a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If I’d been through a five year long traumatic event where my emotions had been under siege every single day, most people would concede that I needed time to recover. But when your infertility journey ends, there’s absolutely no time for that because motherhood kicks in. Immediately. No handbook. No training. No time to learn other than on the job.
And the result, for me, was that after all those years of planning, it turned out that I just wasn’t ready. I was exhausted, emotionally spent and all I wanted to do was retreat: yes, the baby was here but I was still dealing with the agony of every negative pregnancy test, every empty sac on a scan, every patronising ‘I’m sorry’.
I had never believed that the baby would ever arrive safely, right up until the moment they passed him to me. I had never been able to give up the belief that I was never going to be a mother.
And I’m not alone in thinking this a possibility. While the traditional symptoms of PTSD as usually described don’t necessarily fit what I was experiencing, in researching this post, I came across a study of 142 women who had experienced infertility in 2012 suggests that close to 50 percent of participants met the official criteria for PTSD, meaning they could be diagnosed with the condition.
Another paper, published in 1997 by a New York collective of hospitals, supports this position:
‘We have observed the development of PTSD in women who have experienced a variety of reproductive problems, including infertility, miscarriage, complicated pregnancy or delivery, and multiple births’.
It goes on to say:
‘Symptoms may manifest as extreme distress under seemingly innocuous circumstances, such as seeing a pregnant woman, menstruating, or visiting the doctor’s office …’
The physical pain I’d experience from an out-of-the-blue pregnancy announcement was so awful, I became phobic of being in any environment where I might hear or see one. When I was pregnant, I would experience panic attacks before and during scans and would go into freefall at the sight of the midwife’s doppler.
‘Avoidance [one of the symptoms of ‘traditional’ PTSD]’, says the paper, ‘may result in failure to bond, or a delay in bonding, with a newborn’.
That risk. The risk of not bonding? That’s present with all pregnancies, but the odds are clearly stacked against you if you’ve been through trauma. And yet, not a single fertility clinic that I could find in the UK offers post-birth support: they consider their job done when you get to your 12-week scan. The assumption is that your pregnancy, birth and motherhood is now the same as anyone else’s. But how can it be? The emotional savaging an infertile couple can endure simply getting to that point just isn’t the same as starting a pregnancy through natural conception.
When you’re in the IVF bubble, you can be as supported as you need: clinics offer counselling services, there are forums and websites and friends who have been through it. You may feel isolated from those not going through IVF, but in the digital world and at your clinic, if you want a sympathetic ear, there are thousands of them out there who want to hear you.
When you become a mother after IVF, the expectation – not just your own, but that of every single person around you – is that you’re going to be even more over the moon because of what you went through to become a mother. How can you disappoint your audience by saying that you’re not? How can you be so bloody ungrateful to say, you know what, this is not what I expected?
None of the health professionals I met with after my son was born saw his origin story as particularly interesting, psychologically speaking. In fact, if I mentioned it, it was treated like an anecdote.
None thought it was relevant to my motherhood.
I eventually sought help when my son was six months old because I was tired of feeling numb towards my baby and shit towards myself. I knew that he deserved more (even though I had managed to convince myself at that point that he didn’t like me very much anyway).
I spoke with my GP who directed me to the NHS iTalk website where I could self-refer. As a new mum I was seen really quickly for CBT, a process I found somewhat helpful but which was interrupted when I found myself inexplicably pregnant with a surprise second baby at 41.
Once I was beyond the first 16 weeks, my second pregnancy was far less traumatic and when my little girl was born, I felt such a distressing, primal need to protect my son that I realised that I could feel. Just like normal mothers.
It was as though she opened the door, and now I tell my children I love them all the time – and I really, really mean it.
I never expected to fall apart after I had my IVF baby. But I did. And those studies show me I’m not alone: for too many women, motherhood collides with the culmination of a hugely traumatic experience, one they are not given the space or time to recover from.
We need to start talking about this, giving voice to these women whose distress is going unacknowledged by not just themselves, but everyone around them.
I want other mothers who might be struggling in those first few months following the birth of their IVF baby to know that it’s okay to not feel that every day is a miracle. You’re normal if you don’t take to motherhood straight away, just as you’re normal if you do.
But if you feel like you’re struggling and are ashamed to say anything because you’re supposed to be so happy? Throw caution to the wind and talk to someone. Having a baby after IVF has its own complexities and, honey, you are not alone.
Lucy Barker is the baby sleep specialist at Zoe Clews & Associates. To book a session with Lucy, please click here. If you have been, or continue to be, affected by the issues Lucy discusses in this blog and would like to talk to someone in confidence, please contact us
‘Examining PTSD as a Complication of Infertility’ – New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, New York City; Manhattan Psychiatric Center, New York City; New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, Cornell University Medical College; Advanced Fertility Services, New York City DISCLOSURES Medscape General Medicine. 1997;1(2)
2012 study by Allyson Bradow, director of psychological services at Home of the Innocents, a nonprofit organization that helps families in need in Louisville, Kentucky, USA.