Amongst the tall trees of Infertility Wood, there is a house called Fertility Fest. I found it last Saturday. From the outside, the house looked inviting – I knew this would be a place of great heart – but still, I was nervous walking in alone.
I was greeted warmly as I stepped inside. “Come in, here’s what we’re doing today, make yourself at home, we understand.” These were the messages I picked up within minutes of arrival. How important the welcome is at events like these. I breathed out. I bought some tea.
As it turned out, there was nothing to fear. I arrived at Fertility Fest at 9.30am and stayed for thirteen hours. It was a sanctuary, the in-person equivalent of the love and support I have found online. The festival was designed to be inclusive. There were sessions covering assisted reproductive technologies (including donor conception), involuntary childlessness, adoption, surrogacy and the male experience. Artistic displays and performances weaved with scientific debate, which made for an energising day. Babies were welcome, because men and women who conceive after infertility still need people who understand.
In the opening session, The Director of Fertility Fest, Jessica Hepburn said, “there are two stories here today – it does work and it doesn’t work – I wanted to bring us all together.” For me, this is such a crucial part of ending the stigma around infertility. We’re all connected through the emotional experience of infertility. Everyone has a valuable story to tell. The idea that the only goal is a smiling baby, and that a smiling baby solves all heartache, is flawed and stigmatising. Neat bows may exist, but they aren’t the typical outcome.
The silence around infertility was addressed throughout the day. Kate Brian from Infertility Network UK asked, “why is infertility so difficult to talk about?” In response, Jessica Hepburn spoke about the unwritten societal rule of keeping quiet about trying to conceive. Generally, people announce pregnancies after the 12 week scan, due to the risk of complications or loss in the first trimester. There is also workplace secrecy around trying to conceive (especially for women who fear career implications), as well as British reserve about discussing sex. All these factors are multiplied when infertility is added to the mix – the silence becomes a wall that can be impossible to break down.
And yet infertility is the most universal and human of subjects. Infertility Network UK estimates over 3.5 million people in the UK are affected – that’s one in six couples. This figure does not include single women or same sex couples, so the true figure is probably higher. Playwright Gareth Farr’s view is that infertility affects people on every street. This belief, as well as his own experience with IVF, led to the creation of The Quiet House, produced by Gabby Vautier. Gareth writes about “normal people in extraordinary situations”. The Quiet House takes us inside the home and intimate desires of Jess and Dylan, a couple going through IVF. We witness their hope, despair, anger, sadness, excitement and courage. Ultimately, we see how the twists of infertility transform their relationship. I related viscerally to how Jess tries to cope with the unknowns of IVF. Jess talks to her future child, for example – something I have done, many times, as a declaration of readiness and love. When Jess implores her embryos to grow, I recalled vividly the hours and days following our egg and sperm collection – how we attempted to conjure sparks of life in our living room and whizz them towards the hospital lab. The Quiet House also depicts Dylan’s experience at work. He struggles to tell his boss the real reason he is unavailable for work commitments. This spoke so much of the emotional stutters in everyday conversations, which have the potential to relieve so much pressure, but often reinforce the silence. The scenes with Jess and neighbour Kim, who has a young baby, were also brilliantly performed – there is a clear connection between the two women, despite the dramatic conflict. I loved this play so much I’m going again – highly recommended.
In a session called The Infertility Experience chaired by Natalie Silverman of The Fertility Podcast, I appreciated the dose of reality about adoption from Anya Sizer. There are as many myths about the presumed ease of adoption as there are about conception. Anya explained that adoption does not solve the pain of infertility, answering eloquently the “just adopt” advice that is so often volunteered as a simple solution for infertility. Anya explained that after unsuccessful IVF, there is a mandatory grieving period of 6 to 12 months for people who wish to adopt. She also highlighted that the general public perception of adoption is a) of a baby and b) a relatively uncomplicated process – when in fact, the average age of an adopted child is four and the process can be very demanding.
In The Third Parent: Donation and Surrogacy, Sarah Esdaile and Kazuko Hohki presented their experience of donor conception, in their forties and fifties. In my IVF process, I have sometimes felt that my choices are narrowing. Until I experienced infertility, I loved getting older. I have resisted so many limiting messages in society towards women – around beauty, for example, and the ability to compete professionally. Since turning 39, however, there have been moments when I have struggled with messages about age-related fertility decline. The speakers’ experiences were refreshing and relaxing. On her pregnancy, Kazuko commented, “it was not an embarrassing panic but a healthy desire.”
In the same session, Fiona Duffelen spoke about becoming a mother through surrogacy. She talked about replacing fear of the unknown with curiosity. She said the three bones you need to survive infertility are a wish bone, a back bone and a funny bone. Fiona’s story will be covered on an ITV documentary later this year – one to watch, for sure.
In the plenary session, The Future of Fertility, the panel and audience debated the merits and pitfalls of egg freezing. There is a 1000% year on year increase in egg freezing. Amanda Gore of The Liminal Space presented her public engagement project, Timeless, which creatively packaged egg freezing as a beauty brand, then set up shop in Old Street tube station. Their aim was to raise awareness about fertility and stimulate public discussion around egg freezing. I enjoyed hearing from Professor Susan Bewley in this session. Susan’s view is that social egg freezing is tantamount to saying, “I’m planning to be infertile”. Susan said that younger women are given toxic messages about getting pregnant (“it will ruin your life” etc), when there is no evidence this is the case. I received exactly those messages as a young woman, raised and educated to believe that pregnancy before a certain age would be a failure, a life half lived. If I do have children, I know not to pass these messages on.
A big thank you to the organisers of Fertility Fest 2016 and everyone who contributed to a brilliant day. You can listen here to Natalie Silverman’s Fertility Podcast from the festival. Roll on Fertility Fest 2017!