Written by Hazel Stilwell


How to make a test-tube baby without going bonkers

Around two per cent of babies born in the UK are courtesy of IVF, but it’s still a fairly hush-hush subject. Hazel Stilwell spills the juice on the glamour of IVF. SPOILER: There’s no glamour.

eggs with googly eyesIVF is still a bit taboo. You might hear about it from very close friends, or whisperings down the pub about so-and-so who had it. But if you’re going through it, it’s not exactly the first thing you want to bring up at a party: “Did you know I’m about to shove an injection in my stomach as part of a procedure that’s costing me six grand? Thank GOLLY I can’t get pregnant just through SEX! It’s BEYOND glamorous.” But these days, around one in 50 babies in this country are IVF babies, so it’s more common that a lot of people realise.

Two years ago, I found out that I was going to have to embrace the test-tube baby making. At the ripe old age of 34, I was told I had the same number of eggs as a 45-year-old woman (I didn’t even know you could have a low egg count – it’s not that common). Add to that my husband having slow swimmers and we were going to need to give it a go. It was a bit of a shock.

Unless you’re on the NHS it can be six grand a pop (although if you’re lucky you might get some frozen embryos for the next round). With a six-month wait for NHS treatment, we decided to go private – with so few eggs left, I wasn’t going to waste six months’ worth GODDAMMIT. Luckily, a friend recommended someone marvellous.

“Those days at work when you’re looking all smart and being authoritative in meetings? You will still need to pop to the loo at lunch to hoist up your skirt and don a pair of disposable gloves.”

Your first task is to grow as many eggs as you can. We women normally produce one a month. IVF wants nine or 10. This means taking hormones. Injections need to be taken within a certain window of time, with the needles stored in a fridge until then. There have been more times than I care to remember when needs must means I’ve hidden down a dark alley, hoping no one is watching, trying to quickly ‘shoot up’ into my stomach.

I’ve done injections in public toilets, cabs, and small empty offices, hoping no bosses will come in. It can also be a challenge when you’re on holiday, if you realise you’ve just packed a bikini, only to remember your stomach is covered in bruises and people are going to look at your husband suspiciously.

Once your eggs have grown nicely, they’re removed through an operation. Something I never knew was that this is a proper procedure. Under general and EVERYTHING. You even have to wear one of those hats that patients have in surgery, and the funny white slippers. It’s very odd going through this when there’s nothing really wrong with you. The harvested eggs are then fused with your partner’s sperm (hence the test-tube bit. Although it’s more of a dish), and one or two are popped back inside you. Will the embryos take? This, my dear friends, is known as the Two Week Wait (2WW).

fried eggIf you’re in any doubt about how mad this makes you – and I’ve been through it a few times now – just Google “2WW”. There are women who three weeks ago were perfectly sensible individuals, now desperate to know if what they’re feeling is a pregnancy or the hormones you take to fool your body into thinking you’re definitely pregnant. You promise you won’t ask anyone in chatrooms or on forums, then spend the next five hours writing: “Feeling sick: is this hormones or pregnancy? SOMEBODY TELL ME THE COCKING ANSWER.”

During the 2WW, the pills are taken a special way. Yep. Up the jacksie. Orally would be too easy. No no. You need to prove you want this baby goddammit. So it’s up the bum three times a day. Those days at work when you’re looking all smart and being authoritative in meetings? You will still need to pop to the loo at lunch to hoist up your skirt and don a pair of disposable gloves.

The only way to feel sane through all of this is to talk to people who have gone through it themselves, and make friends with as many lesbians as you can. Lesbians are amazing. If they’re in their 30s, it’s likely they will either have been through this treatment themselves, or will have about six mates who have. For them, having eggs whipped out for mixing with sperm, injecting hormones or wondering if it’s worked or not are as normal as having a cup of tea. As one friend told me: “I’ve been to egg retrieval with six friends now. Not sure I know what I think about people getting pregnant through regular sex – seems rather abnormal.”

Non-lesbians are often highly irritating in an IVF situation. If they’re anything like my bunch, who are normally a sensitive lot, they’ll only say things that make you want to hit them over the head with a pan.

“There have been more times than I care to remember when needs must means I’ve hidden down a dark alley, hoping no one is watching, trying to quickly ‘shoot up’ into my stomach. ”

Early on, I think I heard the line, “Have you thought of adoption?” approximately 10 times. Now I’m a big believer in adoption, I think it’s an amazing thing to do. But for someone about to embark on IVF, it’s not necessarily a comforting thing to hear – have these people no faith at all in modern science? Also, of course adoption’s a consideration. It’s the fertility equivalent of asking a single friend if they’ve considered internet dating. “OH REALLY?! I HADN’T HEARD OF THIS TAPPY TAPPY LOVE MAGIC.”

What’s more, about half of the people I told had a version of the same old wives’ tale. It goes like this: “My friend’s cousin tried IVF five times and it didn’t work. Then just when they gave up, BOOM! they got pregnant naturally.” Or “My friend’s aunt did IVF and had no luck, then they adopted and BOOM! they just got pregnant naturally.” Or “My friend tried it a bunch of times. Then she simply looked at a picture of a human penis and BOOM!…” Etc.

These all translate as: “You don’t really need medical treatment. You’re trying too hard. Just RELAX!” This is about THE most annoying thing someone can say to you when you’ve just found out your fertility is low and you’re a teensy weensy bit STRESSED.

It’s also quite bizarre that people really believe a bit of zen-like relaxation can cure a medical condition. You wouldn’t go up to someone who’s just broken their arm and say, “My friend didn’t bother with a cast, they just RELAXED and it mended.” I could spend two years living with a Buddha, but the odds on my husband’s sperm suddenly gaining the swimming power of Rebecca Adlington are as low as, well, my egg count.

Also, IVF is a stressful business, but studies have shown this doesn’t stop it working. In fact, in many cases, it can improve the odds. So all these well-meaning people can put a sock in it.

If you know someone who’s about to embark on IVF, buy them a bunch of disposable gloves, introduce them to all the lesbians you know, and don’t, under any circumstances, tell them to RELAX.

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Written by Hazel Stilwell

Hazel Stilwell is expecting. And it hasn't been easy.