Nobody expects to be in for the long haul when they start trying for a baby. It is supposed to be a time of great hope and anticipation, when you start planning your new lives together. It is true that having a baby changes your life, but not having one changes it so much more. Sadly, this is something one in six couples will find out.
Before I became that statistic, I never thought too much about it. Although infertility was a fear, it was not something that bore heavily on me – at least, only to the extent that I didn't want to put off having children for too long, just in case.
I didn't know anyone who was infertile, so I could only guess at how hard it might be. My guess only extended to the long-term pain a couple might feel about not having a child in their lives.
Many people assume there is a once-off diagnosis a couple has to deal with, and they then return to their lives and reshape their future without their much-wanted child. If only it was that easy.
It is very difficult to explain the cumulative effect of month after month, and year after year, of hope and disappointment. After a while, everything hurts – other people's bumps and babies, anniversaries of failed treatments and lost babies, and every new birthday, Christmas and Mothers' Day you face with empty arms. It can be a lonely process.
When Helen Browne was going through IVF, she had nobody to talk to. "After my second unsuccessful treatment, I remember looking at the phone and I was dying to talk to somebody about my grief, and there was nobody. I said to myself, I have to set something up – nobody should ever go through this."
In 1996, Helen set up the National Infertility Support and Information Group (www.nisig.com) with two other people. NISIG runs support groups around the country and has a full-time helpline.
"The mobile is there all the time – I always swore that when somebody needs to ring, they can ring. If they're in a crisis, they don't have to wait until the next morning."
I would love a doctor to help... but there's nobody
Lisa and Gary McMahon, from Mullingar, started trying for a baby in 2007. With frequent, heavy periods, Lisa (30) knew she might have problems. She had been to doctors when she was younger, but, despite the fact that she was tired, anaemic and sick, she was told they would deal with it when she wanted to have children. "Heavy, excessive periods are not treated as a health problem", says Lisa, "it's just a women's problem."
When Lisa was 25, she approached her GP about problems trying to conceive. "Because I was so young, they weren't that concerned about anything," she says. "That's what I found the most upsetting – just because I'm young, it doesn't mean I'm not hurt."
Lisa and Gary were eventually referred to a fertility clinic and tests showed that Lisa did not have the hormone levels needed to mature and release an egg. However, the couple could not afford to pay for regular consultations and scans and the problem was never treated successfully. "I would love a doctor to help me with a diet, with vitamins, anything that would help," says Lisa, "but there is nobody."
I nearly fell off the chair when I heard IVF was our only option
Karen and Pat Cassidy, from Templeogue, tried for a baby for a year before they sought help. Initial tests showed no problems but after six months of fertility drug Clomid and still no pregnancy, they were referred to a fertility clinic.
After further tests, their doctor delivered the news that IVF was their only option. "We nearly fell off the chair," says Karen (38). "That was the last thing we were expecting him to say."
The first step was to attend a pre-IVF meeting at their clinic. "What struck me was the numbers of people there – I was shocked," says Karen. "In a weird sense it reassured me that I wasn't an oddball." Karen and Pat's first IVF cycle did result in pregnancy, but sadly ended in miscarriage. A second cycle was successful and, four years after they had started trying, their daughter Aimee was born.
The couple's first attempt to provide a sibling for Aimee was unsuccessful and, as they set about preparing for another cycle of IVF, they got a big surprise – Karen was pregnant naturally with their second daughter, Sienna. She is currently pregnant, again naturally, and expecting a boy in July.
Prior to IVF, the couple hadn't told friends and family about their infertility. "People had thought we were too wrapped up with work to be bothered with children, which was quite annoying." When they told people, they were very supportive. "I felt it was important to be open because you don't know who else is having the same issues," says Karen.
Infertility is very lonely, I feel my life is on hold
When Lorraine and John Mooney, from Balbriggan, started trying to conceive, Lorraine (32) knew very quickly that there was something wrong. "I wasn't ovulating, I wasn't menstruating, there was just nothing happening."
Lorraine had suffered from endometriosis for years and regularly experienced extreme pain. "I went to four different GPs and none of them knew what to do – they just wrote prescriptions for painkillers."
Lorraine ended up in A&E with the pain four times. "Each time a gynaecologist would scan me, see endometriosis and give me a prescription for the pain. They did nothing to get rid of it."
Lorraine and John went to a private hospital to do IUI. "It was an absolute disaster," says Lorraine. "I bled out a few days and nobody explained what was going on."
Without the money for more treatment, Lorraine approached the infertility support chairty, Pomegranate, for help. The couple is now doing IVF at the Sims clinic in Dublin.
"It's been a totally different experience. My doctor did a precise, clear medical history so he knew what he was doing with me. He put me on Metformin and I've had no pain since.
"Infertility is very, very lonely", says Lorraine. "I feel like my life has been on hold."
This Friday is National Infertility Day. You might not hear people shouting about it but spare a thought for the thousands of Irish couples who are silently grieving.
Fiona McPhillips is the author of Trying To Conceive: The Irish Couple's Guide, published by Liberties Press