There is an old cliché that says love only happens when you stop searching for it. I never expected this to be true of fertility, too. It was in early 2021 that I began experiencing strange and unexplainable breast pain. My GP had reassured me it wasn’t something sinister, but I also didn’t connect it to the possibility of being pregnant. It had been a tough year, and one precious yet ultimately unsuccessful cycle of IVF meant that my husband and I had been working to come to terms with a child-free future – for the sake of our hearts and our sanity.
Because I’d been through so many emotions during our struggle to conceive, I was strangely floored when I took a pregnancy test – “just in case,” I told myself – and the result was positive. Any joy I felt was complex and tentative and accompanied by the mantra I’d repeated to myself for months: “Maybe I was never supposed to have a baby.” Guilt, anxiety and second-guessing myself came hot on its heels.
But while I felt entirely alone in my reaction, I now realise that these feelings of ambivalence are perhaps not quite so uncommon for people in similar situations. Rightly or wrongly, the idea of having – or not having – children is one that still consumes conversations around women in their twenties and thirties. (And forties....) The mental gymnastics required to integrate two very different views of how your life might look are bound to feel dizzying. Perhaps we don’t talk about it enough because we don’t want to seem ungrateful. But acknowledging these feelings might also make them easier to deal with.
Jenny Simpson is 38 and works for a trade union and was told that she was probably heading into early menopause at 35. When the pandemic hit shortly afterwards, she thought it had scuppered even the outside chance of pregnancy that fertility treatments might have offered. “As far as I was concerned, that was it,” she tells me. She’d spent 18 months focusing on her attempts to have a child, so the arrival of lockdown proved an unexpected tonic – until Jenny discovered that, against the odds, she was pregnant after all. “I practically stuck the test up my partner’s nose for him to see,” she remembers. “I didn’t believe it so I rang the GP who thought I was nuts but humoured me and booked me in for a blood test. And of course, it came back positive.”
But while she was happy to be expecting, Jenny also recalls experiencing heightened anxiety alongside it – a feeling that this turn of events was somehow too good to be true. “I was shell-shocked,” she says. “We told our parents, but we didn’t tell the wider world until after 20 weeks – I was convinced I was going to be told [the pregnancy] wasn’t real. I was petrified to buy anything for the baby and a lot of the time I was just waiting for this miracle to be taken away from me.”
Hope and acceptance are sometimes in conflict when you have fertility issues. It’s difficult to accept the idea that you won’t ever have children, but it does provide a degree of certainty and control – whereas a surprise pregnancy asks you to climb back onto the rollercoaster of possibility. While this can feel particularly acute with a first child, it’s not something that goes away with subsequent pregnancies, either. Julie Ashworth, from Merseyside, is the founder of Mummy’s Magic – a company selling natural nappy spray. She experienced multiple miscarriages before having her first daughter. When the pattern seemed to be repeating itself as she tried for her second – culminating in an ectopic pregnancy and damaged fallopian tubes – she was told her male partner had a better chance of successfully carrying another pregnancy to term than she did.
“I gave up, grieved and made peace,” she remembers. “[I] was happy and felt lucky I had my daughter, Lauren. I told myself she was a miracle and some people are just meant to only have one child.”
Heavy and conflicting emotions can come up when an unexpected good thing happens. I call this ‘relief grief’
Dipti Tait, grief psychotherapist
But by the time Julie learnt she was, after all, pregnant again – and over five months along – she found her fears made it very difficult to enjoy the experience. “I was too terrified to get excited as I felt I could not go through the loss again,” she says. “I couldn’t face telling everyone I had lost again.” Like Jenny, Julie held off buying things in advance of her child’s birth, and avoided thinking about being a parent again until her little one had actually arrived. That she was so far along before she learnt of her pregnancy proved an asset, too – she says she was at least unable to overthink or panic so early.
Grief psychotherapist and author of Planet Grief Dipti Tait says that it’s common for happy surprises to provoke a degree of anxiety. “Heavy and conflicting emotions can come up when an unexpected good thing happens,” she tells me. “I call this ‘relief grief’ – a cocktail of emotional overwhelm sometimes involving guilt, anxiety, confusion and even a sense of disbelief.”
Perhaps this is why I struggled to celebrate at all in the early stages of my pregnancy. As Dipti points out, I’d already been through a grieving process for the idea of having my own biological child, and I had begun to identify as someone who couldn’t have children. “When confronted with an unexpected pregnancy, the rollercoaster of transitioning from despair to joy can be confusing,” she continues. “[Because] it involves shifting one’s mindset and expectations. There might be a sense of ‘survivor’s guilt’ – feeling like you’ve moved beyond the shared struggle while others have not. But it’s important to approach these feelings with self-compassion, seek support when needed, and understand that experiencing ‘relief grief’ is a natural part of the human emotional comparative experience.”
This is obviously good advice – and most of us do seem to find our way through moments like these when they hit. But I’ve often found myself wondering whether I’d have found my pregnancy easier if I hadn’t already given up hope. There’s no easy answer to this question.
For 38-year-old social media manager Tina Nandha, her pregnancy only happened when she’d stopped expecting it to happen. For her, having too much hope was actually the problem. “The time [in which] I had minimal thought about trying to conceive … ended up being the moment I fell pregnant,” she says. “When people say, ‘don’t think about it’, they really do mean it.”
My beautiful, unexpected, magical little boy is – without irony or hesitation – the best thing to ever happen to me. But by the time he came along, there was definitely some emotional whiplash in preparing to be a mum. Is there some merit then, in seeing fertility as less binary? And in trying to walk a path that doesn’t involve focusing all of our thoughts and attention on conceiving a much-wanted child, or giving up hope completely? I still think this middle ground could be a gentler place to be – if we can only find our way to it.