The Vagenda

In Pursuit of Babies

Starting from when I was a teenager, and up until I couldn’t actually do it, I thought it was really easy to get pregnant. My sex ed classes were well taught and thorough, but their goal was to educate us on the importance of protection – and boy, did they ever. The way they went on about making sure that you could fit a condom on the end of a banana with your eyes closed, you’d think that sperm had the potency of hydrochloric acid and the determination of Voldemort on an angry day to knock you up good and proper.

Popular culture and, gradually, real life reinforced this impression of swimmers getting along with your lady-parts, well, swimmingly. Almost everyone I know got knocked up on the first month of trying – and Rachel on Friends got pregnant despite using a condom – so I figured it would be pretty simple. Take the keeper out of the net, give the star forward a clear shot, and let the goal celebrations commence.

Well, that was nineteen months ago. Since then, my husband and I have been diagnosed with dual-factor infertility – a bunch of small to medium problems with both of us together that make it very unlikely for us to conceive naturally.

Infertility is an important topic for feminists, and not just because it forces women to ask fun questions like, ‘If I can’t have a baby, how does that change my image of myself as a woman?’ and, ‘Who knew that sex could feel like such a chore?’ (Yes, if I’m honest, ‘I’m ovulating, so despite the fact that we’re both exhausted and University Challenge is on, we are having sex now if it kills us’ is probably not the sexiest line I’ve ever uttered to someone I wanted to do the horizontal tango with.)

It affects women’s relationships with their bodies. It affects debates about reproductive rights and the nature of family life.  It affects social ideas of motherhood – a friend told me recently that her local butcher finishes any story about his grandchildren by suffixing it with, ‘but they were IVF.’ Said sub-standard-in-their-grandfather’s-eyes children are FOURTEEN FREAKING YEARS OLD. The nature of their conception is still apparently a sticking point, even though they’re probably already ogling their schoolfriends and getting stuck in to sex education themselves.

Sadly, my experience with infertility has also shown that dismissiveness towards women’s health issues is still alive and well in the doctor’s office. Since our referral to a fertility clinic, where people actually know my uterus from my elbow and give a shit about what happens in it, we’ve been treated with knowledge and respect. But let me give you the low-down on what can happen inside the NHS when your oven just won’t warm up the bun.

Infertile women, already in pain, go to our GPs. We talk about our vaginas and our periods; we open up about the most painful, intimate details of our bodies, sex lives, and emotions. We expose ourselves, from the emotional (details about our relationships, our babylust, our feelings of inadequacy) to the extremely physical (legs akimbo on an examination table, stirrups, trans-vaginal ultrasounds, the lot.) And all too often, we get a condescending response, socially and medically. The GPs we encountered would act sceptical about self-reports on my own body, and brushed off what I knew from months of obsessive reading about fertility issues. The delays in my treatment – and the diagnosis that I once had to actually correct – meant that it took months longer to get to the specialist clinic we needed. At one point, I was referred for the same blood tests on five separate occasions which only needed to be completed twice (and the second time would just be for confirmation.) Meanwhile, the scans that I was being sent for featured waiting rooms that were shared with heavily pregnant women having their check-up scans, all glowy and gravid and demonstrably not me. And that’s without even mentioning the humiliation of being told, when hubby and I were crying in our GP’s office, that I was ‘getting too emotional about this.’ Was hubby? Take a guess. Needless to say, it was never explained exactly what the appropriate level of emotion is for finding out that you may never have children.

A lot of what I experienced boiled down to the pain of being patronised: the message was, again and again, that I didn’t know my own body, and that I was shrill and hysterical for wanting to find out, and be in charge of, what was happening to it. And it’s not all that rare, considering that a recent survey by the National Infertility Awareness Campaign found that 50% of women have said their GP was either not knowledgeable about or unsympathetic towards their infertility. 50% is a big deal.

Infertility UK is responding to this survey by sending information leaflets to every GP’s practice in the UK. It’s a good start. But it’s only a start. And when half of all infertile women leave their GP’s office having received substandard care, there’s a problem here that goes deeper than a cold metal speculum – not just with my uterus, but with the entire medical attitude towards women’s health. 

15 thoughts on “In Pursuit of Babies

  1. Whether you want kids or you don’t, doctors really cannot bring themselves to trust women to know their own minds & bodies. Despite being deliberately infertile since I was 24 (when I got the snip) I have had doctors desperate to preserve what’s left of my fertility at any cost. I recently was referred to gynae to treat my endometriosis and really wanted an ablation; the heavily pregnant, Catholic gynae I saw was extremely reluctant to refer me for an ablation, being insistent I had plenty of time left to start IVF (I’m nearly 36!) and that she didn’t want to remove my fertility for good. I restate that this is 11 years AFTER I was sterilised!

    Eventually I turned up on the day of my laparoscopy to find she’d put me down for a Mirena insertion – NOT an ablation. I complained to the registrar, and eventually got what I came for. But women should not have to jump through so many hoops to get what they want.

    Women KNOW if they want to have kids or if they don’t, and they KNOW their bodies. Doctor doesn’t always know best!

  2. Sorry this is completely unrelated to the original post (it’s actually the complete opposite – sorry if it sounds insensitive in light of the issue raised here)
    Laura, I’m really interested in finding out how easy/hard it was to get sterilized at 24? I’m 34 and would like to go that way, but I’m worried they’ll try to dissuade me. i’d be grateful if you could email me, my username is my gmail address x

  3. Very interesting – all the comments so far are different from the original article but making the same point, that too many GPs still don’t believe that women know what’s going on with their own bodies!

  4. Apologies for the continued off-topic-ness…

    I asked to be sterilised aged 27. My GP referred me to a gynaecologist, but warned me that I’d be “up against it,” which is to say no-one would be keen to sterilise a childless 27-year-old. SHe was right; the gynae I saw pretty much fobbed me off and after seeing him I felt too disheartened to take it any further.

    Now 30, still childless, I’m trying again. My appointment with the gynaecologist is on the 31st. Anyone got any advice?

  5. Bit off topic, but in a similar vein I remember going to the doctor’s to be put on the Pill at 15 because my periods were so debilitatingly painful- to the extent where I could barely walk without crying. The doctor gave me a lecture about using condoms. When I mentioned that it wasn’t for contraceptive purposes, he responded by rolling his eyes, tuttting, and exclaiming “But you don’t need it for that, EVERYONE has painful periods!” Any lady who has suffered from dysmenorrhea can appreciate where I’m coming from with this…

  6. I don’t know if this could cheer you up, but my parents couldn’t have children either; my father’s sperm was deemed of such poor quality that even IVF wasn’t an option. Still, they now have three (healthy) children, against all odds.

  7. Lest you think this is purely a NHS issue, it’s not. I live in Kansas, USA. My husband and I had a variety of fertility issues, much like you. Our GP was an idiot. When the sperm count came back low, he refused to refer us to a gynecologist, because he’d found the problem. Hah! I was able to get pregnant twice. The first time I had a miscarriage and needed a D&C. He did it in his office, and a) whistled while he did it and b) told me after he was done, while I was crying on the table, that I wouldn’t have wanted it anyway because it wasn’t a baby.
    We changed doctors after that.
    I did get to have one baby (now age 25) when I was 38, after years of all sorts of trying everything, none of which worked, and enduring massive amounts of insensitivity. I wish you the best. It is hard.

  8. Frenchie & lba: I wish I had some concrete advice! It was over 11 years ago for me (nearly 12) and my memory is hazy! But my tips would be:

    1) Be persistent. Leave a paper trail of times you’ve requested it at your GP/gynae etc
    2) It helped me that I have endometriosis, was on the pill from 14 and it made me horribly depressed.
    3) I had a very sympathetic GP. It helps. But not everyone has one!

    I also found this article really useful: – it helped me put into words some of the things I needed the docs to understand.

    As I said, though – I’m nearly 36 now and if I was trying ot get sterilised I would struggle. Even though I’m practically “expired”!

  9. Yep, I got that too. Aged 30, with diagnosed endometriosis: “Oh you just don’t like having periods, silly girl”. From a 70-year-old gynaecologist who had never menstruated IN HIS LIFE.

  10. Thanks for this! I have actually just been to see a doctor because I was thinking I might have endometriosis (apparently not, thankfully).
    But I’ve been on various contraception methods which haven’t really agreed with me, so that might help too.

    The article was great, I’m personally quite upfront with people about being selfish and not wanting the responsibility, but it was good to see some other arguments too!

    I’m going to try and see another (female this time) doctor, and request it, we’ll see what happens…

  11. I was really lucky when I was younger, I had a (older male) GP who not only listened when I went to see him about taking the pill to help with severe menstual cramps, but also told me the following:
    “There’s no reason to stop taking the pill for a week each month if you don’t want to. The only reason you are told to is that the pill was invented by a man, and men think woman like having periods once a month.”

    Now, I’m not sure exactly how accurate that was, but it stuck with me! My GP was amazing, but it sounds like he was the minority, rather than the norm. Good luck to everyone struggling to get medical professionals to listen to them, don’t give up.