I’m a doctor, but going through the IVF process left me feeling uneasy

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I walk into the bathroom to see the white plastic thing on the bench. The pregnancy test is negative.

My heart sinks for several reasons:

• I’m disappointed.

• I thought we had two more days until this let-down.

• I know how Suse is likely to react.

• Tonight we are having dinner with my family, which includes my two pregnant sisters-in-law.

Right on form, Suse’s period arrives within hours.

“Does Will do that thing with his words, too?” I look at my sisters-in-law, my brothers, all of them caught up in their story.

Upsy Daisy!” someone says, before they laugh in unison. My younger brother picks up an In the Night Garden book, showing me their reference.

I look across at Suse, and she bravely holds a smile. I see her taking in a deep breath, before looking intently into her cup of tea. To one side is my younger brother, his wife, her heavily pregnant belly, and their child. To the other, my older brother, his wife, her equally pregnant belly, and their child. 

We don’t begrudge them. Not one bit. Really, I am so happy for them, for their happiness, for the families they have created. 

“Ni ni ni ni ni ni!” I look across at my younger brother, the one who went to Cambridge, now reduced to speaking in Ponti-pinglish. I look around at the entire table, at everyone except my parents and Suse, and this previously witty, educated, politically aware generation of mine is now subject to the same collective brain damage that infects all sleep-deprived parents: the unending inability to talk about anything but their own children.

Shit, who am I kidding? Yes, I begrudge them, even when I try not to. There’s a schism now, a point of difference. They’ve already got one each, and they’ve both got another on the way in the next two months.

For all of my parents’ carefully plotted equality, forever ensuring that each of their three sons received similar chances, nothing can balance nature’s bludgeoning inequality: that we don’t have kids, and they do. In Suse’s case, all of her older siblings have kids – eight  in all. On both sides of the ledger, we are now the kids without the kids. It’s no wonder religion thrived as long as it did. Even in the modern world, with scientific reasoning for every medical outcome, without the hand of a higher force how else do you explain the rough justice of nature’s cards dealt?

More than three million babies have been born using IVF. There are now more than 200,000 live births a year using IVF technology. That’s a lot of people whose misery and disappointment at not being able to have kids have miraculously been converted into the joy and sleep deprivation of being able to. And that is a truly wonderful thing. A modern medical wonder. For other people. 

It’s a totally different thing when it’s me. It’s confronting. It’s hugely disappointing. Our whole idea of being parents, the whole concept of what was going to happen, has been thrown in the bin. We can’t conceive naturally. We’re not able to do this as a couple. A whole band of scientists has to come along and join the party.

And that’s the sticking point. I’ve got trust issues. Big ones. I’m the sort of guy who sees a newborn baby and looks for the dad’s features. It’s like an automatic response. Even when I know the child is the product of a faithful relationship. Even when I have no reason to doubt. I still do it. I can’t help it. So if that is my innate response – to question and wonder and doubt – then how the hell am I meant to react to this? How am I meant to manage when I know it’s some lab monkey, with no vested interest in the outcome? 

Sure, he or she will probably do their best to get it right, but it won’t be done with the same due diligence that I expect my wife to have in not accidentally having sex with another man. That would be a betrayal of trust. But the guy in the lab? 

He was just getting close to knock-off. 

It’s like the whole Monday car thing: back in the days when production lines were less automated, you sure didn’t want a Monday car. The guys’ minds were still on holiday, they weren’t back from the weekend properly, and the car just wasn’t put together right. Well, I don’t want a Monday baby. I want my baby. My sperm. My wife’s eggs. That’s what I want.

No one has the same vested interest in getting it right as I do. No one other than Suse. So how do I translate my vested interest here? It’s not like following the nurse into the nursery while she changes a nappy. I can’t exactly follow my sperm sample into the lab and supervise the test tubes, can I?

This whole process, this pregnancy thing, has taught me a lot about humility. Nothing in my life has ever been quite as confronting – as directly challenging of my sense of worth – as this ride my sweet wife and I are on. 

I’ve had things come and go that have made me wonder about who I am but, generally, I’ve been able to go to sleep at the end of the day knowing I have what it takes. But this cascade of events that began with the act of Suse getting pregnant, through losing that pregnancy, to learning that we might not be able to get pregnant again, has taken us all the way down to the bottom of the valley. 

In that valley, Suse and I have had to stare deeply within, to look at ourselves, at each other, and face a simple question with very humble hearts. And the answer to that question is: “Yes, we will fight, we will do whatever it takes to have kids.”

Yes, we will medicalise it. Yes, we will surrender our bodies to science, so that we can be given a chance of having children. Yes, we will surrender our innocence and, along with it, the assumption that having children easily, seamlessly, is our right.

That last idea has long since evaporated. A stern teacher has checked our maths assignment and shown us that the figures don’t add up. We are going to have to repeat the course over and resit the exam. So we do what we are told. With humility, we do what we are told. 

We stand there in the lift, as it rises to the top floor. I look at Suse, no higher than her shoulder. I don’t want to make eye contact; this isn’t a moment of solidarity, it’s a stolen glance. I realise how furtive I’ve become, how furtive our relationship has become, a symbol for everything. It’s like it’s all built on shifting sands, and to stare at it in the face risks dissolving it to nothing.

But standing here, there is one thing I do note, and it is undeniable. It is the space between us. There are studies looking at elevator behaviour, at how close we are comfortable being with complete strangers. Our personal space sits around us like an ellipse; we are not very happy when people get too close from in front or behind, but we will happily stand next to someone we have never met.

Except for us, now. We’re not even standing as close as strangers. There’s something between even us.

I look again, and this time she catches me. Her eyes say something, but I can’t quite read it. The lift dings, and it opens, and she is out before me, leaving me there standing.

I catch her in the next few steps, and together we stand as I knock. For a moment, I feel her cool hand squeeze mine. The door opens, and as we walk into the room, I hold my breath.

Suse hasn’t seen either of my brothers’ new babies yet. I know how emotionally challenging it has been for her to have both of her sisters-in-law pop out a child within a fortnight of each other, around the same time she would have – had things worked out differently.

“Hello!” my mum says, welcoming us into the hotel room, filled with grandparents, parents, a sister and now an uncle and an aunt. My mum takes Suse in a hug, and my dad does, too. Both wordlessly loving towards her, knowing how hard this must be.

“Come on over and have a look,” says one of my sisters-in-law excitedly, directing the comment straight at Suse. I pause for the reaction. 

I’d love to,” Suse says.

“Nice digs,” I say to my brother.

I look across at Mum. She has a broad smile on her face, her head cocked, as she looks across at her youngest grandchild. I follow her eyes, to check out what my new nephew is doing that is so cute.

Then I see it. There is Suse, holding James. She has him in the crook of her arm, one finger in his mouth, while she strokes his soft hair. Born to it.

She looks up at me, and smiles.

Soon after, we sit in a Chinatown restaurant around the corner chewing away on lemon chicken. Suse looks up, licking her fingers.

“You did okay in there, hon?” I ask.

“It wasn’t too close to the bone?”

“Nup,” she says simply. “Something happened in there with James. I had a little moment with him. I spoke to him, and he spoke back.” 

I look at Suse knowing that this is something that my rational mind is never going to get, but that it doesn’t alter the fact that it’s true. 

“He told me that there was a little girl waiting, waiting to come down.”

She takes another bite of her food. “And so I told him that I was ready.”

She stares up at me. 

“I think it’s over, Mark. I’m over it. The wound is healing.” She nods, confirming the fact to herself. 

“Something profound happened in there. I’m ready to start to move on.”

I look at my wife, not quite understanding. Never fully comprehending this marvellously complex, beautiful, exquisitely frustrating, lovable soul that I’ve found to match my own bizarre, eccentric, inexplicable one.

I guess that’s what we call marriage.

Edited extract from A Time for Grace by Dr Mark Nethercote.

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