As a 31-year-old woman who hopes to have children one day, one thing’s certain: receiving unsolicited advice about childbirth on the regular. ‘Get an epidural’, ‘Don’t have any drugs’, ‘Get all the drugs’, ‘Breast is best’, ‘Don’t wait too long to have kids’—you get my drift. But what many people might not understand—including prying relatives at family gatherings or nosey neighbours—is that a person’s fertility journey is unique and conceiving naturally or assisted conception might not be as straightforward for everyone.
Planning or even thinking about having children in the not-so-distant future can be equally an exciting and daunting time with a multitude of things to take into consideration. And despite how far we’ve come in abolishing taboos and addressing fertility sensitivities, there’s so much to uncover when you kick-start your fertility journey.
While I’m more on the clucky end of the fertility spectrum as opposed to the “I’ve already bought a crib” end, fertility, pregnancy and childbirth are never too far from my thoughts. And while unprompted advice comes thick and fast, honest and open stories of women who’ve navigated their own assisted conception is sometimes a little harder to come by.
So to shed a little light on assisted conception and fertility, we’ve partnered with Genea Oxford to share three different stories from three brave and honest women on what they wish they knew before they embarked on their fertility journey, to offer either comfort, guidance, inspiration or affirmation that you’re not alone on your fertility journey and that there are solutions out there.
Susannah George, 38
Founder and CEO of Urban List
My wife and I had been married for a year when we began the journey to start our family. It was a bit of a rocky start—I wasn’t prepared for how emotionally challenging it was to select a donor, and with the first clinic we chose, we had an extremely limited pool. I remember trying to make a joke with the doctor that “I would try on more than four pairs of jeans before making a choice, let alone real-life genes”. It didn’t land particularly well. We changed clinics.
The next phase of our experience was comparative sunshine. We chose a donor and began the medical side of the process. The relationship with our doctor meant everything. She was both pragmatic and personable—never sugar coating things, though somehow, always bubbling with just as much excitement about the journey as we were.
I have polycystic ovaries and with no regular periods, I expected it to be a pretty long road. I remember my wife and family gently preparing me for the worst. I have a bit of a history of perfectionism and they expected me to be very hard on myself if it didn’t work out.
I didn’t find the physical side particularly dramatic—I surprised myself by how much of a non-event the injections were for me. A little bruising but no real discomfort. I know everyone’s experience there is different, though.
The thing I found the hardest was planning my schedule. With seven Urban List offices, I travel a lot for work and frequently have meetings interstate. When my body didn’t respond to the medication like clockwork (I assume, pretty much no one does), I was pretty thrown. At first, I anticipated things would fall exactly to the 12-day schedule, but when progress was slower and my scan dates would move as a result, it threw me mentally. I couldn’t commit to interstate meetings in advance, and I couldn’t tell the team why. I felt flakey, a bit all over the shop, and not in control of my diary. Which in retrospect, was a very good primer. I certainly don’t have anywhere near that level of control with our two children now!
I went from having 12 follicles that were barely responding, to having 22 eggs harvested and being borderline hyperstim (ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome). Again, my clockwork plans didn’t eventuate. I’d expected to move straight through to the embryo transfer five days later but was advised to freeze the fertilised embryos and book in for the transfer in a month. Turns out, none of my frantic googling about the success rates for frozen vs fresh embryos was necessary. It works just fine both ways.
We were extraordinarily lucky to have had nine strong lil’ embryos from our IVF cycle, and even luckier to have had two beautiful children—Xavier and Beatrix—who were the result of the first embryo transferred both times.
If you’re in the process, or even considering it, the only words of advice I have are to be kind to yourself. You’re stronger than you know. And you’ve got this.
Louise McFadden, 36
Media Executive AND PHOTOGRAPHER
When women are younger and dreaming about the possibility of having a family one day, walking into a fertility clinic alone aged 35 and single doesn’t exactly form the building blocks of that picture.
I always wanted a lot of kids; I think I wanted four kids at one point! And while I’ve never felt the need to ‘tick a box’ to feel fulfilled, not having kids was never an option. But it wasn’t until I finally spoke to a specialist about my painful periods and I found out that I have endometriosis—combined with that age-old ticking clock—I decided I wanted to explore what my fertility options were. I knew I would never settle for a relationship that wasn’t right purely for the sake of having children, so where did that leave me? Simply crossing my fingers and hoping it all just fell into place felt like an increasingly foolish option.
So, I decided to explore egg freezing. Away I went with my newfound determination, nerves and anxiety. The goal is to have a decent number of mature follicles (meaning: follicles that have grown big enough to develop into eggs). The bigger number of follicles growing, and growing to the right size, the better chance of a good number of eggs being retrieved. My AMH (anti-mullerian hormone) levels indicated I should have roughly 10. It was a real kick in the guts to be told at these ultrasounds that I had three, maybe four growing at the rate needed for extraction. After my extraction surgery, I was told they managed to get only two, and that I would have to wait to hear if they had survived the freezing process. Some women have many eggs and still struggle to fall pregnant because their eggs aren’t viable, while others have extremely low numbers but their few eggs are very healthy. I've learned that quantity does not necessarily relate to quality.
When there seem to be so many roadblocks to making it through, to only get a few healthy frozen eggs can leave you feeling down pretty quick. But at the end of the day, my lucky little two survived and thrived in freezing and are awaiting their next move when the day comes. All it takes is one good egg. Both of those eggs could be supremely healthy and result in two beautiful children one day.
Freezing your eggs gives you a chance to almost freeze time when it comes to the age and health of your eggs. According to my endo specialist, a healthy woman in her late 30s and early 40s can very easily carry a healthy baby as long as her eggs are viable.
Freezing your eggs is no guarantee. It’s merely a safeguard, a way to bank for the future and increase your chances of conceiving. I could very well conceive naturally and might never need to use my frozen eggs. For me, this choice was about taking control of what feels like the uncontrollable. I wanted to take as many proactive steps as I could so that if it never happened, at least I wouldn’t regret not utilising this option.
If I had known a few of the key facts I know now, I would have chosen to freeze my eggs much earlier. I would have visited a women’s health specialist or a gynaecologist for a basic check-up and I wouldn’t have ignored my painful periods for over 10 years. The fact is, most women don’t start to worry about their fertility until their options start becoming slim. I wish I knew this was an accessible option, an option a lot of people take up a lot earlier. I was personally able to pay for my fertility procedure via a payment plan—who would have thought?!
To me, knowledge is power and there’s no need to panic but act accordingly. I didn’t know where this path would take me or even if I would need to rely on this safeguard. But it was amazing how this feeling morphed into a feeling of strength and empowerment. That didn’t happen overnight. That happened over time, as I got more comfortable and confident with my injections and particularly post-egg extraction. I felt incredibly proud of myself for taking this step alone.
Janie Smith, 36
My fertility story is probably a bit different from most. I'm both a successful egg donor and the mother of an extremely cute IVF baby.
My husband and I were always ambivalent about having kids but we decided to start trying early on because I have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)—I found this out at 19 and I had a feeling things might not happen easily. I was right. Nothing happened at all. We tried rounds of clomiphene, which did nothing except give me crazy hormone rage, a round of IUI (inter-uterine insemination), and seeing a naturopath, which was probably good for my vitamin levels but ultimately ineffective for my fertility. This was spread out over a few years and we weren't too bothered when things didn't work because we were happy setting up our careers, doing a lot of travel and just enjoying being married.
A chance dinner conversation with friends put the idea of egg donation in my mind and it was reinforced when a colleague revealed that she was about to try her third round of IVF, using donor eggs for the first time. She was so excited and grateful for the opportunity, which was ultimately successful. I realised that I would love to be able to help someone in that way and despite my own infertility, my eggs were in great shape. Against all odds, the process worked and they now have a gorgeous toddler. They're awesome people and we've become friends, so I'm lucky enough to see their child's progress.
After donating, I had a year off from all fertility-related things to enjoy life without any awkward medical procedures. My husband and I decided that since we were both getting older, we'd give IVF a shot and if it worked, great, and if it didn't, that was fine too. To our very great surprise, our first embryo transfer worked and we're now parents and loving it.
Our specialist is an absolute wizard, he did the whole egg donation process for me and my recipients and my IVF cycle. My advice to anyone thinking of going down this path would be to find a specialist you feel really comfortable with because it can be both a physically and emotionally challenging process. The two weeks between the embryo transfer and the pregnancy test will likely feel like the longest two weeks of your life.
Need some time out? Unwind at one of New Zealand's best retreats.
Image credit: Supplied