I cringed a little, when I saw that TVNZ
was going to run a documentary series
following eight couples going through infertility over a period of two years.
It was, inevitably, titled Inconceivable
, and “follows the highs and lows of
ordinary Kiwis trying to conceive.”
I recorded it, but due to my misgivings, waited a few weeks
before watching. The other night it felt right, and I ended up watching the
first four episodes, finally falling into bed around 1 am.
Other than at the beginning, there is no commentary. The voice-over is purely informative – eg ,couple D are going in for their 2nd egg
collection today, etc. This is the (edited, obviously) story of the couples
in their own words, and the words of their medical professionals.
The introduction of just a few sentences notes that nearly 1
in 4 couples will face difficulties when trying to conceive. It mentions that
this is a journey that now often ends in failure, and has no guarantee of
success. It notes that with each couple, their constant companion is hope.
The eight couples are a mix of ages, gender preferences,
ethnic groups and diagnoses, although they are all couples. Seven are trying
for their first child together (though some have children with previous
partners), whilst the eighth are trying to conceive their third, having had
successful IVF cycles for the first two. There is male factor infertility,
unexplained infertility, genetic conditions causing repeated miscarriage, and a
same-sex couple. There are a variety of treatments – IUI, IVF, ICSI, and donor
The medical experts – both doctors, nurses, and lab
technicians – on the programme explain very clearly and simply the medical
issues, the processes that the couples go through, and the chances for success.
One doctor notes the myriad things that need to go right before they can get a
take-home baby. We get to see them going through all the procedures – their
first injections, egg collection, sperm extraction for ICSI, egg transfer, IUI,
work done in the lab, blood tests, laparoscopies, HSGs, ultrasounds, and
dildocam. They show the embryo photos that each couple receives.
There is no doubt of the emotional stress each couple goes
through. There are no holds barred. A couple is shown being told that their
pregnancy had failed at 8 weeks, we see the stress of the 2ww or of having a
cycle cancelled, we wait with them to receive the phone calls
from the clinic, and we see them receiving the news that they are pregnant or
not. One husband describes egg collection as “brutal.” Another couple says, “'The
further you get into it the more you have to lose.” A woman looks at her
husband after a failed cycle, and says, “I’m sorry.” After yet another negative, they say in frustration, “there's
no control. It doesn't matter what you do.” One woman says, "I'm not
sure how you're not supposed to be stressed!" Anotherwoman says, “you feel
broken" and another couple talks about losing sight of their relationship by
focusing on treatment. Two of the woman talk about the real problems of stress
eating. One woman said that she’d been married for 18 years, but had never
bought anything for a baby, because the prospect that it would never be used
was too heartbreaking. One or two of the couples take breaks in the process,
trying to reduce their stress levels.
They show a counsellor talking to the couple who have
miscarried, and one of the most experienced and well-known specialists in the
country talks to another couple about the different emotional experiences of
men and women.
The financial costs are not emphasised, but not ignored
either. The requirements for public funding are talked about when relevant. We
hear that one couple has had to save for six years after their first IVF cycle
to have another chance, a chance which the doctor then gives them as about 40%.
We see another woman desperately losing weight to qualify for public funding,
and another talks about using up all their savings. The lesbian couple had to
find a private donor because it was financially more affordable than working
through a clinic (and besides, there were no donors available through the
clinic), until they could qualify for public funding.
There is humour. One guy laughs that in his first
examination with the doctor, knowing that he had a zero sperm count, the doctor
said to him, “I’m going to cop a feel.” Another couple giggled about the fact
that the mother-in-law asked when her son-in-law was going in to make his
“donation.” “Every man’s dream,” he said wryly. Another woman laughs (sort of)
about clomiphene (clomid), explaining to the camera that it is “the drug that
turns you into a monster.” The lesbian woman said that, having announced to
friends that yet another IUI had failed, someone said to her, “never mind, it
will happen when you least expect it to.” The couples laugh, showing how brave
they are when you can see that tears are so very close too.
Public pressure and insensitivity is also discussed. The
comment the lesbian woman received was particularly ridiculous, but they all
feel under pressure. They get annoying comments and suggestions from siblings
and parents. The Tongan man said he was mocked, and that his brothers have all
offered their “help” to get his wife pregnant. He shrugged, saying they’re
trying to be helpful, but you can see how those comments have hurt. Another
woman was told that she and her husband needed God in their lives. One of the
women notes that Facebook is “baby central,” and pregnancy announcements by
friends, after trying for only after 2 months, are hard to take.
The couples talk about their conviction that they want to be
parents. One couple says, "we feel it's meant to happen, we're meant to be
parents," but then note that “a child would be the icing on the cake, not
the be all and end all.”
The whole approach taken in the series is calm, honest,
sensitive. My nervousness at the outset was that the documentary would be filled
with myths, that it would try and hide the emotional, physical and financial
stresses. Whilst it is very understated in manner, all these issues are
addressed. One couple did get pregnant a month or so after finishing their
clomiphene cycles, but the words “miracle” or “just relax” weren’t uttered.
In the end, after two years following these couples, there were
conceptions through IVF, miscarriages and births, one using donor egg, and the
others using their own eggs. Some couples are left facing life without children
or accepting that their family is now complete, at least one or two pledge to
continue, and there is a surprise adoption within a family (unsurprisingly, for
NZers at least, it is in the Pacifica family). The balance achieved in such a
small sample is remarkable.
As someone who has experienced this, and spent the last 15 years in a community of loss, and infertility, I found this deeply moving and, best of all, accurate. I’m hopeful that it will inform many people – young women
and couples who may face infertility in the next few years, friends and family
of those going through infertility, and the wider public – that infertility is
common, it is stressful and expensive, and that there are no magic answers.