In the nick of time

"Pregnancy can be such an arbitrary thing; often there's no rhyme or reason to it."
"Pregnancy can be such an arbitrary thing; often there's no rhyme or reason to it." 

Over 35 and pregnant? Congratulations - you've beaten the biological clock. But as Jacinta Tynan discovers, friends yet to conceive may not be so thrilled to hear your happy news...

I had no idea I was pregnant when I turned up to the GP five months ago to discuss my fertility. I wanted to know the optimum time to conceive naturally, but was swiftly told that wasn't really a rational option - not at my age. She advised me to get to an in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) specialist quick sticks, just to cover my bases.

"Couldn't we just try to let nature take its course?" I asked. My partner and I had only been open to the possibility for a few weeks and wouldn't have minded seeing if it would do the trick.

"I wouldn't wait too much longer," she cautioned, motioning to my date of birth on her computer screen. "You are in the danger zone."

The danger zone. At 39. I knew the stats. How could I not? That a woman's fertility declines rapidly after 35, getting worse each year, before taking a massive plummet at 40. I just didn't realise it was dangerous.

Try not to focus on having a baby as the only thing in your life. Have other things to look forward to, and focus on areas that give you fulfilment.

I took great delight in going back to the doctor a fortnight later, waving the magic wand with two pretty pink stripes: licence to call off the IVF visits, fertility tests and sperm counts and be referred instead to an obstetrician. Phew! That's where you'd rather be heading: to the ones who deliver babies, not the ones who make them.

"You are very, very lucky," the GP smiled, shaking her head and writing a prescription for my already-set-in morning sickness.

We are very lucky. To conceive without fuss on the wrong side of 35 is not the usual tale. But it brought with it a new problem: how to break the news. I had no doubt there would be a zealous cheer squad - all those people who had secretly feared I'd missed the boat. I was charmed enough to find a bloke at my age, they reasoned, let alone have a baby. But I was mindful that with several friends struggling to get pregnant, enduring numerous, seemingly fruitless cycles of IVF, or simply trying to meet a man to conceive with, it's not what everyone wants to hear.

To get such an easy run, especially when I'd entered the game late, hardly seemed fair. Conception is like a waiting list. There is a perception that you must "do your time" and if someone beats you to it, it's as if they've jumped the queue - getting the job for which you were so much more qualified.

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At 29, I would have shouted my pregnancy from the rooftops, but at 39 I was mindful how I couched the missive. I made a few tame phone calls and sent a group email that I watered down in its effusiveness. Just before hitting the Send button, I changed the subject heading from "Some happy news" to "Some news" and spelled the whole deal out quite matter-of-factly.

One friend I rang squealed with delight before hastily adding, "Oh, dear. What will I tell Claire?" Claire is a friend of hers who'd been attempting to get pregnant for years. "She's going to be devastated," she speculated.

"What, by my pregnancy?"

"It's just that she won't get why it's not happening for her."

I had been on the other side for a good decade at least, standing by while friends married and procreated in their droves. I can honestly say I never coveted their lives, knowing their paths had no bearing on what lay ahead for me. That's not to say I didn't steer clear of baby showers or toddlers' birthday parties, and drift from my mother friends - not because I resented them, but because I didn't want to immerse myself in talk of breastfeeding and crying patterns when it was so far off my agenda.

But the stakes are higher as our eggs move towards their use-by date. Time is running out, with the band of allies in the "still trying" stage gradually diminishing, leaving those who are left to ponder if they are to be one of the inevitable few who miss out. Meanwhile, the breeders join their own ever-expanding and exclusive clique of The Chosen Ones. I certainly feel more popular since becoming a mother-to-be. Women - mothers - who were previously indifferent to me are now fervent in their advice and camaraderie. Perhaps they didn't quite know what to do with me before. Before I became one of them.

There is not an ounce of smugness on my behalf as I head down gestation road, well aware that I'm extremely lucky. I have no idea why I slipped through the net. My mother was clearly fertile - I am one of six - and my three sisters all conceived with ease, so I never entertained the idea that it wouldn't happen for me. But genetics are no guarantee in the fertility stakes. Falling pregnant after 35 carries with it equal parts elation - glorious fortune has shined upon you - and guilt. Conception guilt. What right do you have for this rarest of blessings to be bestowed upon you while others suffer? The last thing I want is for my delight to trigger someone else's despair.

"I felt a lot of resentment towards my pregnant friends," says 39-year-old graphic designer Myriam Minchin, who endured nine miscarriages over eight years. "I would be completely devastated every time another one got pregnant.

I was not only terribly jealous but I just could not be happy for them." Minchin says she lost numerous friendships over her hard feelings, as she avoided spending time with women with babies. "I would say the right things to them, like how cute the baby was and how happy I was for them, but inside I was rotting. I was full of hurt and rage."

She concedes her friends couldn't win: they were too embarrassed to tell her they were pregnant but not wanting to hide it from her, either. "Once, when yet another friend announced she was pregnant, I congratulated her and pretended to be extremely happy but I was so, so sad. I felt my blood boiling. I could feel time slipping away and was in despair."

When, at 39, her 10th pregnancy finally resulted in the birth of a healthy baby girl, she was extra-cautious about relaying the news to others. "I felt terrible for friends who were struggling. When one friend found out she couldn't conceive,

I burst into tears and said, 'I know how you feel.' And I really do."

Another woman, a 41-year-old journalist, admits that after a miscarriage and starting IVF, she was shattered when friends got pregnant so effortlessly. "I couldn't even look at pregnant women," she says. "When a friend who'd also miscarried told me she was pregnant again, I burst into tears. Even though deep down I was pleased for her, it was very difficult not to think, 'Why her? Why not me?'"

"It is normal to feel a bit resentful when you see people not much different from yourself getting what it is you so much want," says fertility counselor Rhea Stein, who counsels women going through IVF. "Pregnancy can be such an arbitrary thing; often there's no rhyme or reason to it. Obviously, in some cases there are medical reasons but sometimes we just don't know why it's not happening, and that can be very difficult for these women."

So sensitive is the issue that most women Sunday Life spoke to would only do so on the condition of anonymity. The pregnant ones don't want to gloat. And those on the receiving end of good tidings don't want to seem mean-spirited.

Such as one woman who, at 42 and desperate for a baby, has endured five rounds of IVF using donor sperm. While still hopeful it will happen for her, the pharmaceutical sales representative admits it's tough hearing of other people's pregnancies. "I've had my moments, especially around the time of a negative cycle when I've had a few tears, but then I pick myself up and get on with it. You have to differentiate between them and you."

One of the most confronting challenges for women having trouble conceiving is the inference that it is somehow their fault. That by leaving it so late they have tempted fate and deserve to be childless, and possibly barren, as fair punishment for such a reckless choice. There is often scant sympathy for the fertility crusade beyond 35, replaced instead with a kind of "What did you expect?" nonchalance. It can make other people's easy roads that much harder to bear.

An advertising executive who dedicated seven years, from age 36 to 43, trying to get pregnant admits it was impossible not to compare herself to others. "On my first IVF attempt I found out that my pregnancy result was negative, and about 10 minutes later my sister-in-law (who already had kids) rang to say she was pregnant. I felt like I'd been punched and had the rug pulled out from under me. I was devastated. I tried not to let her know how I felt and be happy for her ... but I know it was a hard phone call for her to make, too."

She went on to have six more unsuccessful IVF attempts, and blamed herself for the torrid journey. "My overriding feeling was that it was my fault [that it wasn't happening]. If only I could meditate, be less stressed, drink less coffee, eat organic food, be spiritually less envious of others and let go of the desire, then it would happen. If you're used to making things happen, then it's a huge learning curve. For me, that was the hardest thing - dealing with something that was out of my control."

Refusing to give up - even after her doctors advised her she should - at 43 she decided to take action, conceiving twins through a surrogate mother in the US. It was, she says, worth every cent and all the angst.

Another woman, a 39-year-old corporate lawyer, recalls being told at 34 that she had little chance of conceiving (because her eggs were too poor in quality, something doctors said had nothing to do with her age) and then finding herself surrounded by pregnant women. "I was tempted to avoid them, but a Chinese acupuncturist advised me to surround myself with what I wanted. So I decided to embrace all things to do with children, including pregnant friends, and I managed the pain of not conceiving by accepting it was all just random. I couldn't do anything about it, so there was no point in missing out on friends' joy."

Now that she has a baby daughter, she says she's extra-conscious of how to behave around women who are trying. "I don't want to presume how they feel, so I try to treat them in the same way as before while being sensitive to their feelings. I encourage them to continue to pursue their dream on the basis that if it could happen for me, it can happen for them."

But the reality is, it won't happen for everyone. For that reason it is vital, says Rhea Stein, not to make motherhood your sole priority. "Try not to focus on having a baby as the only thing in your life. Have other things to look forward to, and focus on areas that give you fulfilment. It is possible to be happy without that longed-for child. Of course it's difficult to get to that place but it is possible."

As my partner, and a soon-to-be father, reasons, the way to contentment is to "keep your eyes in your own boat". That way, you have less chance of falling out. Something that remains true whether you have a baby or not.
 
This story first appeared in Sunday Life magazine, in the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age.

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