The great conception question

It’s been just over a week since I wrote about our attempts, and failures to conceive.

The original decision to do so was not an easy one.

I was anxious about telling people about the embarrassing moments, and ashamed to have to admit to the sadness, failures, and jealousy. I feared that there would be no response, and I would regret having ever opened my mouth, leaving us to carry on alone, but exposed.

The responses were overwhelming. People with no personal knowledge of infertility sent their best wishes, and people with experience of it shared their very intimate stories.

My wife and I spent the evening reading the messages, and each one we went through justified our decision.

We felt validated, and reassured. We felt unburdened, and supported.

The boost they gave us brought it home how much we really did need that support, and just how isolated we had started to feel. The tangible relief in the words of some of the messages illustrated just how much everyone in this situation needs some help, and how much they long for someone to tell them they have that backing.

Men identified with the absurdity and the paternal desire, women were grateful for a peek into their partner’s frame of mind, and everyone recognised the need to be more open, frank, and honest.

They show us that infertility doesn’t discriminate. Your nearest infertile is most probably not some demented woman, trawling the maternity ward looking for a newborn to put in her handbag, it’s your neighbour, your work colleague, or your friend.

The messages we received reconfirmed to us just how common this is. It’s easy to use a statistic like ‘one in six couples need help conceiving’, but only when you see a list of messages from people with real names, and real stories of failures and successes can you get a feel for how widespread these problems are.

The number of those affected, and the amount of open discussion are extraordinarily out of proportion.

The responses made me see how much people on the periphery of the problem want to help. Often family and friends get privately berated for not saying the right thing, not saying enough, or saying too much. In reality, they won’t have any answers, they just want to show that they are behind you, and are there if you need them.

How can we expect them to have the perfect sound bite reaction to something we keep so close to our chests?

For those who are part of this hushed infertile underworld, a silent community, the reward for speaking out could be so much more tangible than just emotional support. If more people felt comfortable enough to be able to take their whispered discussions away from their kitchen tables and into the public domain, people in positions of influence would eventually have to listen.

One in six couples equates to a lot of people, or more importantly a lot of health insurance customers. Irish couples certainly deserve at least the option to be covered for the full range of fertility treatments if they are willing to pay the premiums.

Of course, there is always the dream that such treatment be made available through the public health service. The idea that there are couples, who are so committed to raising a family that they would put themselves through these procedures, and yet are being completely denied because they don’t have the finances, is a very sad one.

The tax relief for these expenses has already been cut. If we don’t make ourselves known, we will never be served.

I’m glad that what I said last week gave a handful of people the feeling that they don’t need to be isolated, and are supported enough to add their stories here. I hope that in turn, each one of those will help another handful of people to do the same.

I know just how vulnerable you feel at the very moment you begin to tell someone your story. The feelings of anxiety, fear of exposure, and even shame have stopped me on many an occasion, but the positive reaction in the last week has made all that disappear.

Infertility is one of the last taboo subjects of Irish society. I want these responses to be a small part of something bigger that helps to change that.

I want them to hold value for others like they have for my wife and me.

I believe they will.

‘The great conception question’ was originally published by the Irish Times on 20th March, 2009. Subscription required for articles more than 1 year old.