'An invisible scar': what it's really like to experience secondary infertility

Photo: Chloe Christos, her husband and their two boys. Supplied
Photo: Chloe Christos, her husband and their two boys. Supplied 

Secondary infertility (the inability to fall pregnant after already having a baby) is a complicated, personal and incredibly raw journey that is rarely spoken about  - despite being the walk of many women.

Sydney mum Chloe Christos shares how she dealt with the unique loneliness that comes with longing for a second babe. 

When my husband and I first started to try for a baby we felt confident it was the right time for us. For no particular reason, I'd always felt highly fertile so it wasn't a surprise when we conceived after only a few months of trying. 

Brooklyn arrived in June of 2015 and our love for him was instant and fierce. Of course, any parent will attest to the joy a new baby brings, fewer will admit to the depths of those first few postpartum weeks. 

The lack of sleep shook me. Days and nights rolled into one. So much so, I vividly remember standing in the shower one morning contemplating whether I could climb out the window and escape to my old life of sleep. How's that for wishful, sleep-deprived thinking!

Looking back, it was thoughts like these that strangled me with guilt when we tried to conceive our second child. We'd naturally assumed that things would happen just as easily as they did the first time round. So when Brooklyn was one, we started to try again. 

Every cycle, even in the very first months, I was shocked when my period arrived. At first, we blamed timing but then month after month nothing happened. With our frustrations growing, we decided to speak with our GP. 

I was told to relax and that it's harder to conceive your second child. I tried, I really did! But as anyone with children knows, those tiny humans just keep growing right before your eyes. For me, this was a daily reminder of time ticking away — a bigger age gap, my own fertility declining, my husband and I growing older… the list went on.

As the months continued to roll by, I started to question if I'd get the chance to experience those early days of motherhood again. I also felt immense guilt for taking them for granted. I didn't realise how lucky I'd been to have them at all or how desperately I'd want them again. 

I hate admitting this — but it was made worse by our incredibly strong support network. Several of my friends had babies at the same time as us, which was wonderful in those early days. But as they moved on to second and third children, their happiness only cemented our disappointment.

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Likewise, the children in my wonderful mother's group, through which Brooklyn has made lifelong friends, also began to be big brothers and sisters. The guilt from our inability to have a second amplified as I watched his love for babies grow.

I couldn't shake the sense that a child was missing from our family.

Beginning treatment 

Eventually we were referred to a fertility specialist. Even then, I didn't actually believe we were going to a fertility clinic to pursue the idea of intervention. In fact, I remember almost scoffing at the very mention of exploring IVF at our first appointment. 

Despite all the unknowns, I remained resolute that we would fall pregnant naturally. I already had a child. Surely, I couldn't have fertility issues? How could this be? I'd had quite a traumatic cesarean delivery with Brooklyn — had something gone wrong? Was I damaged? 

After three cycles of ovulation tracking with no luck, any complacency we felt about falling pregnant was replaced with a sense of grief as we began to come to terms that maybe another baby wasn't going to happen for us.

It was here that I learnt infertility comes in all shapes and sizes and it is a heartbreaking walk for anyone who encounters it.

We were so aware of how lucky we were to have our wonderful boy but comments like "well at least you have one" still hurt. While more fortunate than many, our longing to complete our family and give Brooklyn a sibling was real.   

I underwent all the usual testing (scans, blood tests, male factor investigation, invasive tubal patency tests) to determine a reason why we hadn't fallen in almost two years of trying. Our next step was a laparoscopy but we were exhausted. Knowing whatever was to come would be invasive, we decided to go ahead with IVF instead of waiting to find out what, specifically, was 'wrong'.

We were wonderfully supported by the clinic nurses and our specialist at every step. We also fell pregnant after our first cycle. We got lucky.

We'd braced ourselves for the complications so many couples face when trying to conceive through IVF. We knew that the chances of falling straight away were rare. We were so fortunate that this was not our experience.

There is, though, something of an invisible scar left behind from my secondary infertility experience. It's a unique sense of loneliness and fear which I think comes from not knowing where to turn. 

You feel ungrateful amongst most infertility support networks where many women are struggling to conceive for the first time. You watch support pages and fertility conversations in silence trying to find where exactly you fit in. You don't want to offend those who are not as fortunate as you. 

There is also a desperate frustration in wanting something so much and knowing instinctively that those you love most want it just as much, yet for the foreseeable future you cannot give it to them.

How to navigate secondary infertility 

In the depths, I questioned myself. It was here I realised to mother and wife like I wanted, I had to focus on the positives in my life.

If you find yourself in similar shoes, my tips for navigating it are:

Share your journey with someone – My husband was (and still is!) my guiding light. Ours was very much a shared journey and this made the experience much more manageable. 

Find an unrelated distraction – During the depths of trying to fall pregnant, we found immense joy in our son. We also partnered in a way that we hadn't before. We focused on turning our learnings from Brooklyn into a parenting passion project — a necessary distraction and way to pay forward the support and love we'd so generously received. 

Together we wanted to create something tangible others could use in their hour of need, so Santi The Sloth was born. Designed to help parents navigate the world of baby sleep, Santi is a sleep companion that combines my husband's obsession for safe but intuitive tech, and my "mum" view on what kids (and parents) really want in a soothing but fun comfort toy. The idea came after a few very rough months of sleepless nights with Brooklyn and was good for our relationship as well — that is, having something other than baby two to focus on. 

Find your community — I really tried to utilise the support groups that are available through social media and parenting sites. There are lots of people going through the same difficulties and it's important to find them (even if it takes a little digging). 

Make sure you trust your team – Having total confidence in your clinic is vital too. You have enough to worry about without wondering if they are doing their best by you.

My story is as 'happily ever after' as any story of infertility can end and I am thankful for that every day.

Through each sleepless night and every exhausting or challenging day, I try my hardest to remember what we went through and recognise how blessed I am to be the mother of two gorgeous boys.

I guess that gratitude is the legacy of that difficult time in my life. Our second son Asher was born in April 2019 and he is every bit the miracle our family wished for.