How can you lose what you’ve never had?
About one in seven British couples are thought to experience problems with fertility in a typical year; and, in 2011 alone, more then 48000 British women underwent fertility treatment. The sheer scale of the issue is not generally acknowledged.
Inevitably, it is the success stories of IVF which attract media interest. But these are by no means completely representative. IVF can be a painful process and both the emotional and financial costs can be very high. The strain on a couple’s relationship can be tangible. And, whether she’s in a couple or not, the woman who undertakes IVF may find herself experiencing isolation, grief and depression. If one round of treatment fails, it may feel as if the easiest thing to do is simply to move on to the next round rather than face an overwhelming and disabling disappointment. With every round the stakes are higher.
So when does she stop? And what does she do when she does stop? This is a decision so momentous and potentially explosive that it can completely destroy a couple’s relationship if they cannot reach agreement on it; yet it is no easier a decision for a woman to make on her own.
Alternative routes to motherhood do exist of course, either in the form of adoption or via the implantation of a donor egg (although some will feel that this compromises their identity as a biological mother to a degree which they are not willing to accept). There can be a sense at this point that time is running out and that to take one option is to effectively close down another. Every rejected option may bring with it a further sense of loss.
The hardest decision of all is to wholly abandon the prospect of motherhood, and to begin to imagine a future without children of one’s own. At this point there will have been a tremendous investment of emotional energy and effort into a future in which happiness was utterly dependent on conceiving a child. To write that future off can feel as brutal and unimaginable a choice as abandoning the prospect of happiness itself.
How does it feel to face this new future, to struggle to accept it, and to restore any sense of meaning in life? Pain and a deep sense of loss are the inevitable human reactions. Whether a woman is experiencing this on her own, or in a couple, she will need to go through a grieving process before she can begin to adjust to the new reality.
However, new difficulties can make themselves felt at this stage. The loss that the grieving woman feels as such a raw and wounding pain may not even be understood or acknowledged as a loss by some of the people around her. The child that was taken from her only ever existed in her imagination and in the capacity for a mother’s love that she felt instinctively in her heart. How can you lose what you never really had?
Whether a woman arrives at this situation through abandoning IVF, or through a miscarriage, or through some other experience of childlessness, she may find that her friends and family just don’t know how to behave around her. It’s as if there was a taboo around the subject that deprives them of ready-made social responses. Even those that can recognise the significance of this strange and unfamiliar kind of loss, and can understand the emotional turmoil that results from it, may feel too uncomfortable to refer to it or to discuss it. Others may attempt to minimise the loss with unhelpful platitudes: ‘ Just relax…your turn will come…’.
It’s not hard to understand how a woman or a couple in these circumstances can feel isolated or unsupported. But social support is exactly what is required in this case. What is needed is affirmation that this loss is real. What is needed is for grief to be validated. Without that validation and acknowledgement people may begin to doubt whether they are entitled to grieve at all. And, sometimes, there can be nothing more important than the space to grieve. No matter how painful the feelings of grief may be, there can be no way out of grief without the opportunity to experience those feelings. Looking emotional pain in the face can be the first step in diminishing the power that it has over one’s life.
These are some of the reasons that women are increasingly prepared to consider the potential that individual counselling or group work can offer for the safe expression of deep and painful emotions, and for exploring feelings of grief and unacknowledged loss.
It may work for you or it may not. But remember: a future without children doesn’t have to mean a life without a future.