"It felt like it should have been easy. All our friends were getting pregnant, why weren’t we?” Rachel and her husband, David had never anticipated that they would need medical intervention to have a baby.
They’d married in their mid-twenties and started trying for a baby right away. Their friends, in their north London Modern Orthodox community were all married, and all starting families. Rachel and David waited for two years before seeking help, feeling more and more isolated. “There’s definitely more pressure [in the Orthodox community],” Rachel says with feeling. “You just think you’ll get married and you’ll have a child and that should happen straight away.”
It’s 40 years since the first successful in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment, which resulted in the birth of the world’s first IVF baby, an achievement marked next week by National Fertility Awareness Week. That’s forty years of couples being helped to overcome their fertility problems. A quarter of a million IVF babies have been born in the UK. And yet many people going through this process still feel the need to keep quiet about it.
Abbie and Gideon* recently completed their first, unsuccessful, round of IVF. They say being childless in your 30s makes it difficult to navigate a Jewish social life. “Once you hit your 30s and you’re married you’re expected to fit into a box,” says Gideon, “so shuls don’t cater well for single people or childless couples of our age. People our age have kids, that’s where they fit into the fabric of the community. We don’t fit there.”
Abbie agrees. “There is no-one for me to sit with in shul; all the young women are in the children’s service”. The couple have gone from being regulars at the Shabbat service to only going to shul for the Yomtovim.
“It would be weird if the rabbi did a sermon on IVF or infertility, but shuls need to encourage [young adults] more; it feels like all the festivals are just geared to families,”says Gideon.
“There should be privacy — essentially you’re talking about people’s private lives — but there’s a difference between privacy and taboo.” He believes that there is more openness than in previous generations and this will continue. “Our parents’ feeling of ‘don’t tell too many people’ has filtered down to us quite a lot.”
Rachel agrees that it was difficult to share her problems with friends. “I felt too embarrassed,” she admits. “I tried to get in touch with Chana [the Jewish charity offering support to couples experiencing infertility] but I chickened out.”
Rae Adler, Chana’s community development officer, says the charity was set up in 1995 because the founders felt infertility “was a topic that in general, but maybe more so in the Jewish community, people were not talking about, partly due to the nature of how personal the issues are and partly because within the Jewish community family is so central that to feel that you’re not managing to do this was something that was really too painful to talk about.”
Rachel’s infertility was due to her polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) which can affect fertility. She works at a Jewish school, and faced a lot of questions about when she would get pregnant — innocent and well-intentioned questions, which she found upsetting and intrusive. After being told that they would have to wait two years for treatment on the NHS, she and David went to a Harley Street clinic. “We couldn’t wait. It was too upsetting.”
Private treatment was expensive, and the treatment was “traumatic”, says Rachel, made worse by the secrecy the couple maintained. They didn’t tell anyone that she was pregnant for six months, and even then felt uncomfortable about sharing that it was IVF. Even now, only close friends know, “But even they don’t know the extent of how bad it was.”
Abbie found support groups on the internet, but Gideon found nothing similar for men. After two years of trying for a baby, and one miscarriage the couple discovered that Gideon has a low sperm count.
He looked for male infertility support groups but “there is no male equivalent. I think I’m actually more open to talking about [the situation] than Abbie, ironically,” but he has been unable to find adequate support online.
For him — and, he believes, other men — infertility brings a burden of guilt. “As a man, you see a problem and you want to fix it. With IVF, it’s not happening to your body. I wanted to begin the process as quickly as possible but Abbie wasn’t ready. I felt helpless; it’s a massive emotional investment but not physically intrusive.”
Gideon and Abbie told a few friends about the IVF. “It stops flippant comments,” says Gideon. For months they’d lived with casual remarks such as “Oh you’re going on holiday, shouldn’t you be saving for a baby?”, or “how long have you been married now? Kids next!”
Susan Seenan, Chief Executive of Fertility Network UK agrees that many people find fertility problems hard to talk about. “Some people think that ‘stigma’ is too strong a word,” she says, “but there is definitely a huge taboo around talking about fertility issues.”
Starting on the baby-making journey isn’t something you advertise. Then, “when it doesn’t happen and you have to head down the route of fertility treatment you don’t want to then be opening up and telling people you’re having problems. And why would you when you wouldn’t tell people you were trying to conceive naturally?”
For many, the problems of infertility disappear once they have a baby. For Rachel however, there are still worries. “We have eight embryos in the freezer,” she says “It’s a struggle for both of us because we can’t have eight children but we consider these embryos to be lives.”
When you start IVF you sign a contract with the clinic stating what you want to do with any viable but unused embryos. You can hold onto them for future use, discard them or donate them for research. “We haven’t said what we want to do with them yet,” says Rachel, “because if we could I’d want to use as many eggs as we could afford.”
Rachel hopes she will feel able to be more open about IVF in the future. “I found it very difficult to talk to people who didn’t understand the feelings, emotions, everything I was going through. If I knew somebody was going through it I would definitely talk about my experience with them.”
Her son is now eighteen months old. “You appreciate it even more when he is screaming and doesn’t sleep. You just think this is all worth it in the end. He’s our miracle baby but people don’t know that.”
Gideon and Abbie are still waiting for their miracle.
*names have been changed