Maybehood - not knowing if I'll ever become a mother

Annabel is a writer and Bristolian living in South East London with her husband. They've been trying to start a family for 8 years having sadly lost their first baby, conceived through NHS IVF, at 12 weeks. 6 subsequent cycles, 5 miscarriages and 4 years later, Annabel finds herself in what she describes as 'maybehood' – not knowing if she will ever become a mother.

My name is Annabel, and my husband and I are parents to babies that simply aren’t here.  

Like many of you, we have suffered loss, we understand longing and - despite or because of everything - we continue to hope. The last 8 years have taught us the full gamut of infertility, miscarriage and baby loss, and how deep this torrent runs. We've tried naturally, undergone 6 rounds of NHS and private IVF, and been treated and cared for by the most incredible professionals.    

We invested everything we had – our strength, resilience, time, money, ourselves. We put on hold careers, holidays and at times our entire life direction to pursue our dream. We did all of this because of a very special person: our first child, nicknamed Pumbaa, who we lost just after 12 weeks.  

Our unexplained infertility 

After 3 and a half years of trying, a laparoscopy and hysteroscopy, we finally took our unexplained infertility and my rank fear to Guy’s Hospital Assisted Conception Unit. They recommended that, at 35 and 36, we crack on with full IVF.

The drugs were nasty, my hormones were hell - but the care we received and the relationships we formed, with the dedicated staff there and at our private clinic, remain an essential part of our story.

Among the best moments of our life was doing the pregnancy test unexpectedly at Guys, coming out with 2 lines on the NHS issued stick and giving a hugely overexcited nod to our consultant as she walked past us in the waiting area. We came outside that day in February and looked up at the Shard in wonder and disbelief. It felt like we had served our time in infertile servitude as friends and friends of friends popped out progeny like champagne corks. Our baby was finally coming! My husband was going to be a father. At that point it seemed the worst was over.

Looking to the future

I was so happy being pregnant. I ate like the cookie monster, slept like the cat, and came off cyclogest pessaries at 10 weeks. We saw Pumbaa’s little ET heartbeat at just under 7 weeks, and again at 9 and a half weeks. I was booked into St Thomas’ Hospital, Guy’s partner, for our 12 week scan. We were sad to leave the staff at Guys but beyond excited to see our baby again. The mist of that hideous first round had started to clear, my fear over miscarriage had abated as the weeks went past, and we were looking forward gratefully to the future. 

I saw a new consultant who knew our consultant at Guys and asked me to be part of a research study – given what the NHS had done for us, I gladly agreed. A nurse took my bloods and saw from my notes I had come from the Assisted Conception Unit. She said, and I remember this so clearly: “all our ladies are special to us, but ladies from Guys are very special.”

Losing our baby

Less than an hour later we were in a room, waiting on our own, as successful parents to be turned left, like some perverse flight, and we turned right into quiet rooms over the Thames, where another girl sat crying on a hospital bed and I was asked, very gently, how I wanted to manage our missed (silent) miscarriage.

We didn’t know it then, but losing our baby was when the real battle of the womb began. It is the most natural thing in the world to want to become a mother, to become parents, and to have this thwarted creates a personal challenge like no other. I entered a four year period defined by grief, longing, loss, horrendous physical anxiety, my confidence shattered in so many ways yet a total determination to bring home Pumbaa’s brother or sister.

We had to throw everything we had at it

We had 6 good quality embryos left at Guy’s. Two years on, another hysteroscopy carried out at St Thomas’ and assisted by our amazing Guy’s consultant, 1 round that stopped before embryo transfer and 2 further embryo transfers later (the last transfer was non-identical twins) we had used up all our embryos. The shock at reaching this point was horrific. We were in completely unchartered territory and decided we needed to throw everything we had at it.

I took a sabbatical from work and we moved to a private clinic where our new consultant had worked in our NHS hospital, knew our previous team, and was cautiously confident I would get pregnant again. We had ICSI and pregenetic screening of our embryos; I had a GCSF womb wash, intralipids, natural killer cell womb biopsy and blood tests, and once again rode the rollercoaster at Altered States Towers.

The drug regime post embryo transfer, which this time included my husband administering Clexane and progesterone intermuscular injections, as well as regular progesterone sub-cutaneous injections, together with pills and pessaries every 3-4 hours, was brutal. The only thought that kept me going day by day was that by odds, effort, life savings and hope alone, surely this just HAD to work – right?

Approaching 40

I returned to work just before I turned 39, knowing I - and we - had given everything to IVF and could not do any more. After 6 months our consultant suggested supporting my natural cycle: using egg stimulation injections every other day, scanning me, triggering ovulation and telling us when to have sex. Once again, nothing.

I always believed that by the time I turned 40, this hideous situation would be ‘over’.

That gritted resolve, and instinct that I would get pregnant again (hope or delusion, probably both) was one of a myriad of techniques that helped keep me going from having a baby and due date to this. I had sought and continued to gain professional support from my brilliant counsellor, acupuncturist and GP. I finally realised I would have to acknowledge the full weight of everything we had been through, somehow come to terms with grief, anxiety and ‘not knowing’, and try to heal.

Not knowing if you will ever become parents to a living child

There are lots of delicate euphemisms in this members’ only club. Some are beautifully put; a star in the sky, a rainbow baby. There is nothing that describes not knowing if you will ever become parents to a live child. It is life changing: a chronic state of varying grief and suffering, a lot of it in mental and emotional silence as other people’s lives move forward.

The existential nature of infertility and baby loss that in theory you knew about, knew of people who suffered but never thought it would happen to you? When it does, it’s an absolute showstopper. It’s disbelief mixed with shock, fear, trauma and gradual, sometimes excruciatingly painful, sad acceptance, and back again. It’s soldiering on, sometimes for years in the face of an alternative reality, wondering ‘how can I make this / my life work?’ It’s where other people’s babies come but yours doesn’t. It took the lead up to turning 40 and the sudden death of a best friend to make me realise I had to dig my way out of where I was and seize life again. Living in the time of a global pandemic has ironically cemented this.

Seek support and be open and vulnerable 

Seek all the support – medical, emotional, physical. Be open and vulnerable with your friends – you’ll know who’s in your squad by now. Get to that gym and yoga studio. Yes, running helps. Go on long walks. Get that pet. Go on that holiday. Make those life changes. One day, no matter how you feel now, you will be extraordinarily proud of everything you did to make this work. You will admire yourself and your partner for going through everything physically, mentally and emotionally to try to have your child.

Conception is the greatest act of creativity; nothing makes a woman feel more like a victim than repeated failure in not being able to have the child she craves.  One day you won’t feel like a victim. You will realise you are a wiser, older version of yourself, a courageous woman pieced back together with resilience, bravery and gratitude. She has known hell yet still has hope in her heart. Your story is not over.

You will know, however painful this is, that you will survive.

You can find Annabel on Instagram and over on her blog

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