14 April, 2018

Fertility Week: Highlighting infertility and loss on mainstream media

Some weeks ago, I mentioned here that a nightly news/magazine-style programme on one of our major TV channels was going to present a Fertility Week. I recorded each night, and have now finally got around to watching them, to report back.

They introduced the series one Friday evening. I did however immediately email them, asking that they ensure they include examples where people didn’t walk away from infertility with children.

Monday evening was information night. “Fertility, the “F” word, a big effing deal.” The statistics were useful. One in four couples face fertility issues, which is more than the population of the South Island. For someone who grew up in the South Island (ie, me!), that comparison is huge. They explained the issues of unexplained, male and female infertility, and when you should seek help for under 35s and over 35s.

They interviewed a couple with a low sperm count and low AMH. They were young, but had been dismissed by doctors, and they urged people to get tested. They noted too, that they hadn’t told many people in their lives – until now! And they talked about the invasive questions, and that people don’t take the hint that they don’t want to give answers. “People don’t quit when asking about babies,” they said, ruefully. Josh, the host who had suffered infertility, agreed. I wondered if anyone watching this would really understand what they were saying, would realise how painful these questions can be, and would change their actions.

One of the co-hosts talked about his own story. Josh noted that his first baby is due soon, but that really it is his fourth, but no-one accepts or recognises that. He talked about how difficult it is to open up, and that he noted that when others on staff announced pregnancies, he decided would ask if they had faced difficulties. Almost all of them had, but none had spoken of it. He emphasised, “it was a relief to know we weren’t alone.” And on reflection, he thinks it would have helped if he could have talked about it as they were going through infertility and loss.

Tuesday evening they turned to science. They talked about government funding, the requirements, and the cost for private patients (or those 40 and over who don’t qualify). They interviewed three couples who together had years of trying for children. But they didn’t include anyone who was not successful with IVF. So even though they noted that, percentage-wise, you’re more likely not to get pregnant than to get pregnant (under 35 about 45% success rate, over 42, a 10% rate), there was no discussion of donor eggs or sperm that might boost those rates. The visual of the happy interviewees with their babies/children would be the lasting image many people would take from this segment, giving a dishonest impression of the possible and probably outcomes. Let my eye-rolling commence.

On Wednesday, they talked to the guys, which I was pleased to see. They emphasised issues around male infertility. Of course, one man they interviewed couldn’t resist going on about his “miracle.” Sure, after two ectopics and seven miscarriages, he was understandably ecstatic. But he didn’t seem to register that others might not be so successful. He stressed the “need to address” the problems, “especially something like this that can be remedied.” Queue further eye-rolling from me.

However, I had some hope. Because each night, the group of three hosts is joined by a guest, and this night their guest was JJ, a well known radio host and Dancing with the Stars contestant who has spoken up in women’s magazines about her and her husband’s infertility. I knew she didn’t have the “miracle baby” outcome to her infertility. And after the man who waffled on not to give up, she spoke up.

JJ talked about her eight years of infertility, the multiple unsuccessful IUIs and IVF cycles, and the fact they never got their baby. She was in tears, but spoke through them, determined to explain why some people do have to stop trying. She talked too about the emotional impact on her husband. It was important, I wanted to cheer for her, but I believe I was crying too. You can watch her piece here.

Thursday night they turned to adoption. “When all options are exhausted, some turn to adoption.” But thankfully, they almost immediately pointed out that adoption is “almost impossible” in New Zealand. Adoptions by non-relatives have plummeted by 98% over the last thirty years. This is one reason why I get annoyed at the “just adopt” brigade, and why I get annoyed at the people who say that we chose to resolve childfree. When I say that sometimes there are no options, you need to believe me! They noted that adoptions in New Zealand are almost always open, perhaps unusually. And they pointed out that adoption can be complicated, and that there are almost always issues of abandonment and trust involved.

They didn’t really cover international adoption, or the cost of that, and the difficulty of doing this from New Zealand, but I guess they had limited time. 
I did appreciate the clip of a woman commenting that, because she couldn’t adopt (domestically or internationally) due to health issues, she struggled at times. She explained that yes, she might be happy for others, but at the same time she felt sadness and grief for herself. Mother’s Day, which is only a few weeks away here in NZ, is particularly hard. Apart from JJ, this was the only childless outcome openly discussed the entire week.

The final programme of their Fertility Week talked about the stress of loss and infertility on relationships. They quoted women who had told their husbands that they would understand if he left them for a woman who could give them children. They talked about friendship losses as well, about whilst you might be happy for your friends, sometimes it was too hard to be with them and their families. Or finding that friends weren’t always patient or understanding.

Of course, in interviewing people about this, they didn’t edit the clip where another woman with a baby on her lap stressed to keep trying, to keep going. The insensitivity frustrated me – I'm not sure if she wanted to give hope, or was just so thrilled with her victory she wanted to shout it from the rooftops. She certainly didn't recognise the damage that this pressure to never give up could do to people at the end of their limits. A knowledgeable producer might have been able to counter this, but it was all done too quickly, with little time to elaborate.

During the week they had been running a hashtag to get people to share their stories. The name of the hashtag was simple, catchy, but misdirected. #mybabystory implies that there is a baby, when for many people going through infertility, and needing the support of others, there is never a baby. Even searching #mybabystory does nothing but bring up photographs of babies, potentially very triggering for people looking for support, going through infertility now, or trying to come to terms with their No Kidding lives after infertility. I felt that this was a big fail, and I wonder who they actually consulted for advice when putting the week together.

They finished the week with the stories people wrote in to tell, and each of the hosts had read these out in a pre-recorded segment. It was emotional, and you can see the final segment here. They couldn’t bloody resist, though, could they? It became dangerously close to a “just adopt” segment, and they only included one quote from someone who never became a parent.

Still, there was one sentence which I listened to with a very different perspective. “I have unconditional love for a baby I didn’t birth,” wrote one parent. I assumed that this comment was about adoption. But I read it, and related to it, in another way. It could just as easily have been me talking about my unconditional love for babies never born. I think all of us here can relate to that.

My conclusion is that this was a very successful week, and they deserve the praise the programme received. Personally, each of the hosts dealt with the issues with tact and sensitivity, and it was a welcome airing of issues too often kept hidden in the shadows. 

But they could easily have done much better, simply by changing some words, editing some clips and scripts, and being a bit more balanced. Ultimately, their discomfort with the hardest part of infertility – the fear that the outcome won’t be what is most sought after  – led to the fact that they pretty much ignored that outcome. And they certainly didn't point out that a No Kidding life isn't full of pain and regret and sadness and envy, but can be full of friendship and joy and adventure and fulfilment. Clearly, they should have called me for advice!

Still, brava to The Project NZ for their Fertility Week.

Some other links:
Jesse Mulligan, the host of The Project, wrote this article summing up the week.
A clip about invasive questions from a guest who doesn’t have children.


  1. Aaah, interesting... I am glad that they spent a whole week on this topic, and did interview many different people with different outcomes, but holy hell -- #mybabystory? They couldn't have made it #myinfertilitystory? That sounds like pure hell. And this: "She certainly didn't recognise the damage that this pressure to never give up could do to people at the end of their limits." Yeah, I think I could live my whole life without seeing someone go on and on about how they got their miracle and YOU CAN TOO, bouncing said miracle on knee. Grrr. I will watch that JJ segment, probably later tonight after I have to be in public because I am a bit of a fragile flower and will probably be a bit gooey and puddly. Thanks for the great review of this series and your thoughts -- I hope they take them into account when they do a Fertility Week in the future (hint hint, I hope they do it again, and better!).

  2. Really interesting post- thanks for taking the time to write a summary. On the one hand, I think it's great that they actually spent an entire week on this topic and discussed so many issues. But I agree with you that the "resolving infertility without children" aspect really wasn't given its proper due.

    I think the reality is that society in general is just starting to get comfortable talking openly about infertility and talking openly about people who experience infertility and DON'T end up with a baby seems too scary. It's especially interesting that this was a NZ program, because "don't give up, here's my miracle baby" seems like such a stereotypical Hollywood storyline. It's interesting that this narrative arc holds so much power. Hopefully the next time something like this happens (and I hope there will be a next time) there will be more awareness about covering ALL the possible outcomes, as well as recognizing the dangers of the "never give up mentality" (which I always feel personally rather guilty about since I have one of those "I quit treatments and got pregnant" babies, even though she is the result of a science experiment and not a miracle. I do have days where I feel like my end result is a bit of a betrayal to infertility advocacy and awareness.).

  3. Great post. One of the things that has always frustrated me about many assumptions out there (including many infertiles) is that adoption is only "after all other avenues are exhausted" - basically, the assumption that one would never possibly be interested in adoption unless they could not have a biological child, which is asinine. You've got to be interested in adoption no matter what - whether it be an evolution towards it or interested in it from the start. As an infertile who went through 6 failed rounds of donor egg IVF (the 4th leading to pregnancy loss at 9 weeks), we were simultaneously in the process of international adoption from Ethiopia, waiting 2 years for a child, and finding out, literally one day before our 6th DEIVF failed, that Ethiopia had decided to close their doors to all international adoptions. So we lost out seven times (or ten, considering we had transferred a total of 9 embryos via DEIVF) and $60,000+ was lost to the abyss as well. We are now 10 months into the wait for domestic adoption and hope that things will change, but as I approach the one year mark this week for ending my DEIVF journey, I know that our decision to pursue adoption has never been a backup plan, and am happy for that, because there's enough at stake in adoption as it is (which the many who know it's not for them acknowledge, and I appreciate so much). We've never considered adoption as a cure for our infertility because of that, however we do know that ultimately we wanted to parent first, no matter how the child came to us, which I think everyone who wants kids should consider this (why do they want kids beyond someone who looks like them...kind of like marriage, it's not all about the romance). And don't get me started about the bullshit difficulties in NZ & Australia for adoption and DEIVF (I'm an American married to an Australian relieved that we've had the options here in the US for both, even if it's sucked thus far, as my heart goes out to those in other countries who don't even get to choose those options).

    PS - The fabulous Aisha Tyler is my infertility hero <3
    PSS - Love your blog.

  4. Clearly they should have called you!! lol #mybabystory, ugh. :( It does sound like they covered an awful lot within the limited time available, though, which is VERY nice to see/hear about!