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IVF and the Dignity Olympics

From emergency enemas to the horrors of the “Spunk Cupboard”, comedy writer Christine Robertson shares the numerous embarrassments that have accompanied her experience of IVF.

box of eggs decorated with facesGetting on board the IVF train comes with the knowledge that your pursuit of a miracle baby will involve trading in a fair amount of your dignity. Keeping a sense of humour during treatment that’s intrusive, costly and where nothing is guaranteed helped my husband and I get through four rounds of IVF and its various indignities. At times, it felt more like I was competing at the Dignity Olympics than trying to fall pregnant. What follows are some of the ‘events’ we took part in at said Olympics – for which I’m pretty sure I won gold.

The Spunk Cupboard

Having a pressure wank in a small, starkly lit room when the faint sounds of a receptionist and nurse discussing last night’s Strictly can be heard through the walls would be a challenge for most men (and maybe just a regular Tuesday for the rest). On one of numerous visits to a clinic’s spunk cupboard, my husband was distracted by a rogue copy of GQ among the available grot-mags and got sucked into a feature on designer watches before remembering my eggs were in the next room, tapping their watches.

Fertility FM

The waiting room of a fertility clinic is an emotionally delicate place. Unlike a doctor’s surgery where ‘guess the ailment’ can be a fun way to pass the time, in a fertility clinic, you know exactly why you’re all there. But there’s an unspoken comfort in knowing you’re not alone. You might even share a well-meaning glance, nod or smile with each other. But when Just The Two Of Us by Bill Withers comes piping in over the local radio, followed by Soft Cell’s Tainted Love, songs that would usually have you swaying in your seat become the most inappropriate songs you could force a room full of infertile strangers to have to sit through.

“You nod, almost dismissively, as the nurse clarifies that women don’t piss out of their uterus.”

Taking a Compliment

You’re on your back, legs in stirrups, vajayjay on displayjay, ready for an egg collection. Hospital staff are being incredibly sensitive and professional as they talk you through what’s about to happen. The anaesthetist gives you a shot of the good stuff, and just as you’re losing consciousness, a nurse compliments you on your earrings. Eh? Wha? Caught off-guard, it takes all your remaining energy to mutter “Oh, thankszzzz…” as you drift off with your legs splayed.

Bladder Control

If you’re lucky enough to make it to embryo transfer stage, you’re asked to arrive with a full bladder (*doctor voice* it allows them to see the uterus more clearly during the procedure). The anxiety of an embryo transfer is bad enough, but when you’re anxious and busting for a piss, the wait is pretty excruciating. The nurse reassures you that you can go to the loo straight after the procedure. “But won’t the embryo just get pissed back out?!” you worry, exposing a basic ignorance of your own body. You nod, almost dismissively, as the nurse clarifies that women don’t piss out of their uterus. Sure, I knew that.

Two-Week Wait Dementia

There is an agonising two-week wait after an embryo transfer before you can take a pregnancy test. Despite being advised to take it easy, you are a bundle of nerves, cursing technology for not having progressed enough to facilitate a live stream from your uterus to your phone. Inevitably, you Google the fuck out of your situation to get some answers. What would the embryo be doing right now? What are the symptoms of implantation? My left nostril’s really hot, is that a symptom? Then come the fertility forums, luring you in from a set of search results. Within seconds you’re boobs deep in discussion threads on what colour of jumper to wear when facing North at 11:31am and blinking five times to assist embryo implantation. You stock up on Brazil nuts and pineapples to eat at timed intervals, “because the forum said”. Then, just as you’re brushing your hair blindfolded for the fifth time that day, your loved ones stage an intervention and rightfully take the internet away from you.

“It’s a special feeling, gazing tearfully at your husband as he seeks medical advice on how to help you have a shit.”

Insult to Injury

For anyone trying to conceive, getting your period is always a kick in the pants. It’s like going to the bathroom and finding “Try Again” written in blood in your underwear. Getting your period after a failed IVF attempt is next-level undignified. For two weeks you’ve been on meds designed to make your womb lining extra fluffy to help the embryo implant, so by the time it starts to fall away, it falls hard and heavy. Like, jam tank at the doughnut factory heavy. Seriously, I nearly sent out for scones. During one particular IVF cycle, I got my period a few days before the scheduled pregnancy test. The clinic still wanted me to take the test as planned, just in case, which re-instated the faintest sliver of hope that I might still get a positive result. It was a short-lived sliver that evaporated the second I watched a pink stream of pee hit the tip of a pregnancy test stick. But during the three-minute wait for a result, the sliver of hope returned. Was I about to defy science?! No, no I was not. And with that, I flung the negative result stick into the pedal bin like, “Well, duh.”

The Almost Emergency Enema

It was the second week post-embryo transfer and a crippling constipation had crept up on me like a bowel ninja. Only the mildest laxatives were permitted by the clinic, which had all the effect of pushing a broken down car with a bunch of grapes. I was advised to a) walk about, and b) eat something to help move things along. I had the energy for neither, so the best I could do was shuffle around the flat like a constipated zombie, sipping soup from a bowl and quietly weeping. I looked ridiculous. Every 15 minutes, I’d have contractions and bolt to the bathroom in anticipation, with no result.

After a 72-hour sleepless cycle of ‘shuffle, contract and push’ I had reached the ‘JUST GET IT OUT OF ME’ stage of this cruel, parallel labour. It’s a special feeling, gazing tearfully at your husband as he seeks medical advice on how to help you have a shit. No sooner had he booked a patient transport ambulance to wheel me off for an enema, than I was in the bathroom finally giving birth. I guess my bowels wanted to prove they still had it in them (pun unfortunate). “Are you OK, sweetie?” my husband asked through the bathroom door. “Congratulations, it’s triplets…” I whispered, exhaustipated. I had recently finished Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, and – slumped over the can, in this calm after the shitstorm – I remembered her mum’s writerly advice that “Everything is copy.” And lo.

Epilogue

It’s not all blood, piss and shit. There were some lovely moments during IVF treatment too. Marvelling at a photo of the embryo we were about to have transferred and thinking, “Holy fuck, that’s me and you in a petri dish.” The brilliant young nurse who finished her mostly professional briefing on suppositories with “…so if you could take those rectumally, that’d be wicked.” The quiet, heartfelt camaraderie in the waiting area as you wish others luck while you wait for or recover from an embryo transfer, knowing how much this means to you all. It’s what makes the myriad indignities worth it.

@xtine_robbo

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Written by Christine Robertson

Christine is an award-winning comedy writer who thinks Winona Ryder picked the wrong guy in Reality Bites.