Can you give us an overview of your fertility journey?
Hannah: I’ll try to summarise a bit, as it felt like so much happened! Over the course of four years we had:
- Two years trying the old-fashioned way;
- Appointment with a fertility clinic diagnosed male-factor infertility;
- Three full rounds of IVF with ICSI;
- Five embryos transferred;
- Two embryos didn’t take;
- Two miscarriages;
- Lucky embryo number five (our day six, double-thawed embryo) gave us our beautiful daughter Jasmine - who is now a year old.
What were the toughest parts of your journey?
Joe: The miscarriages were really difficult, especially for Hannah having to deal with both the emotional and physical pain. That said, for me these were events that I could attempt to manage whereas the long slog of going through the process was the toughest for me. I guess I was ashamed because it was male factor and thought I was to blame, it felt like a very lonely place especially when friends around us were all having babies. Being surrounded by all of the various triggers didn’t help with feelings of jealousy, envy, anger etc..and I became quite introverted and did not like myself over this period of time.
Hannah: I really struggled after our second miscarriage. A NIPT test at 11 weeks confirmed our baby had Down Syndrome, and we spent five days facing a heart-breaking decision of whether to continue with the pregnancy or not. I truly believe that whatever decision someone in that situation makes, it is the right decision, but when you’re faced with it yourself, you feel like any decision is wrong.
In the end, we found out at the 12-week scan that our baby had stopped growing at eight weeks, and we had had a missed miscarriage. The relief I felt that we didn’t have to make a decision was overwhelming, but the guilt that followed was incredibly hard to deal with.
How did you deal with that grief, and move onto the next phase of your journey?
Joe: My main concern going through the grief of the miscarriages was to look after Hannah which I think helped me cope and stopped me delving too much into how I felt about losing our babies. Feeling quite helpless in the matter I did turn my attention to something I could control and so began cross training at the gym regularly which again gave me focus and I felt that anything to help the swimmers would be a good thing. The counselling offered at our clinic was also useful for me and sharing the journey with someone outside of our family/friendship group eased the process and taught me to be kinder to myself. Unfortunately the counselling sessions would book up quickly and as this process doesn’t work to schedules, we set up a rolling appointment just to check in to make sure we had the help when we needed it.
Hannah: We went on a bucket-list trip to Alaska! It felt great to do something that made us feel ‘us’ again, and to make some positive memories. I also really took some time to look after myself emotionally; I went down to four days at work, started mindfulness and meditation (though I never really got into it), did a gratitude journal, stopped feeling guilty for not attending friend’s baby showers. I also got my first (and so far only) tattoo to represent our journey which was a very cathartic experience.
The biggest thing that helped me though was connecting with others going through infertility. I attended a few Fertility NZ events in Wellington and started a fertility Instagram account so I could meet with people all over the world. Realising I wasn’t alone, and that all my emotions were completely normal made me feel so much less isolated and gave me a lot of strength to face our next round.
How did your employers handle this? Did it have any impact on your work or career?
Joe: My work was fantastic and offered so much support and never questioned any of the many appointments I needed to take. Other members of staff had also been through the same thing so it was nice to share the journey with folk that “get it”.
Hannah: I missed out on a lot of international travel due to treatment which feels like a missed opportunity for my career. But, overall I feel really lucky as my boss and colleagues were incredibly supportive; in fact I think my colleague found out we were pregnant once before Joe did as I got the call at work.
Through your own experience, what have you learnt about how infertility is viewed in New Zealand?
Joe: It is a very hard topic to relate to unless you are going through it or have experienced it. For males, it seems a very difficult area to cover and there is a certain stigma attached that makes it hard for fellas to open up. It is always refreshing to hear a bloke's perspective and can be very insightful for the partners too. Occasionally there are flurries of exposure in the media but no real consistent message and I would like to see more education in schools about this. It could be that some young people assume they will be ok and put off having children until later on in life only to find out they can’t or will struggle to do so.
And Hannah - you are now a facilitator in Wellington for Fertility NZ, what made you decide to do that?
I started to feel so much better about our journey when I started to talk to others going through it, either in person or online. I also had an amazing colleague/friend who was my ‘person’ after our second miscarriage because she understood that grief I was facing, she text me every day for months and was absolutely invaluable in helping me come to terms with everything. Now we are lucky enough to have Jasmine, I want to help others, and maybe be that person for someone else.
Not everyone wants to, or is ready to talk (and that is absolutely fine, you do what’s best for you!), but if you are keen then you’d be amazed how many people say how much lighter they feel when they have had a good chat to someone who understands how they feel. Fertility NZ has so many great resources, and run some fabulous support groups; I would love to see you there.
Do you have any advice for others navigating fertility challenges?
Joe: Be kind to yourself and accept that you will experience many of the “tyrants” like jealousy, envy, anger, desire, pleasure and pain over the course of the journey. Keep talking to your partner, you are both each other's port in the storm and will go through things at different times and so be patient.
Hannah: Find and talk to people that ‘get it’. Be gentle to yourself and your partner, be self-full (not selfish!). If you want to tell people about what you’re going through, consider what you need from them. Do you want them to ask you every 5 minutes, or do you want them to wait until you give them an update? I think it is hard for others to know how to help or how to act, and that can be upsetting, so sometimes laying out what you need from them can be helpful for everyone.