Labour MP opens up about her personal struggles with fertility

by Alex Davies-Jones Labour MP for Pontypridd

I think it’s fair to say that Coronavirus truly has undeniably changed life as we once knew it. The strain that combatting a global health pandemic has placed on so many of our industries is hitting the headlines on an almost daily basis

We’ve seen retailers such as Debenhams, John Lewis and Laura Ashley struggle like never before.

People’s livelihoods have been destroyed by the lack of trade, and it’s heart-breaking to imagine the number of local businesses in my constituency in South Wales that will never re-open or even begin to financially recover.

We are living in an age of restriction – at the time of writing, our very movements are being limited all in an effort to contain a global pandemic that should have been on our radar much sooner.

A huge range of emotions

Personally social isolation has caused me to feel just about every emotion on the spectrum over the last few weeks.

I’ve felt angry and frustrated at not being able to live my life or do the bits of my job that I love the most – meeting people in and around the constituency. I’ve felt loneliness, and while I love my husband and little boy Sullivan, I’m missing my stepsons, friends and wider family like mad. At times I’ve felt really unmotivated, which for anyone who knows me, may be surprised by as I am usually a classic type ‘A’ personality through and through.

Most of all though, it’s made me reflect on the wonderful things that surround me every day that ordinarily I might be too busy to miss.

We’ve all seen the headlines (some more accurate than others) about the positive impacts that social isolation is having on climate change, and we mustn’t forget once things return ‘back to normal’ that it is possible to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.

I am struggling to find positives

I’m sure others would at this point be able to highlight some other ‘positives’ to be taken from this stranger-than-strange period, but I’m personally struggling.

With a one year old sat on my lap as I write, I can’t help but hone my thoughts in how much of an impact Coronavirus is having on children everywhere.

With schools across the country closed and hundreds of thousands missing out on what were some of the best years of my life, I can’t help but thank my lucky stars that my Sulley is still too young to notice. As long as ‘Hey Duggee’ continues to play uninterrupted on my television, he’s a happy boy.

While our economy, and the often-bleak future predictions of what so many of our industries will look like post-Coronavirus are justifiably receiving the majority of media coverage, it’s the stories that revolve around people that have resonated with me the most.

My own personal struggles with fertility

Since the election in December I have been determined to do politics differently, and an important part of that was about being honest and open about my own personal struggles with fertility.

It’s a scary thing to do, to open yourself up to judgement from the keyboard warriors who will stop at almost nothing in their insults (Twitter, I’m looking at you – but Facebook you’re a close second!).

My experience of IVF

It’s even scarier to speak about a process that in just three simple letters opens a huge conversation and a barrage of difficult and emotional questions: IVF. I’ve been fairly open about my experiences of IVF and know that in the grand scheme of things I was definitely one of the ‘lucky’ ones.

I’ve always known that I would struggle with conceiving without medical assistance, yet nothing can ever prepare you for the difficult conversations that surround all things ‘fertility’.

The postcode lottery

Sadly, IVF treatment through our beloved NHS is still generally a postcode lottery with a number of restrictions, and so many people are often forced to borrow money to fund treatment privately.

I think most people would be shocked by the hidden costs that are associated with IVF treatment – it truly is a ‘long term’ investment, especially if you are planning ahead for the future too.

Indeed, recent research from The Fertility Network and Middlesex University suggests that the average cost of private IVF treatment is between £5,000-8000 per cycle.

Saving up for IVF

It took me years to save up before I commenced on my IVF journey, and I know the same can be said for many others who choose the same route. Yet Coronavirus has obviously ground all non-urgent procedures to a halt and has ruined the IVF dreams and ambitions of so many people along the way.

It’s difficult to truly convey to people just how much of an emotional investment IVF is. It takes over your every waking moment and thought, and if you’re like me, will leave you with many sleepless nights too.

There’s the pressure, the constant barrage of questions from family/friends/the milkman. It felt like everybody knew about my difficulties in conceiving, and what’s more, everybody wanted an update and to be the first to know as soon as there was any news!

The shame associated with IVF

There’s real shame too. I certainly went through phases of feeling like I’d let myself and my family down.

I felt ashamed that my body was unable produce the child that I so desperately wanted without medical assistance, and it sounds awful to admit but there were times where I really questioned my own womanhood.

The COVID 19 pandemic has brought a new wave of shame to the debate too, and on a global level doctors are being asked to prioritise all efforts on tackling the virus.

Clearly this is an extremely valid course of action, but it doesn’t detract from the devastating impact that cancellations have had on thousands of people who have put their life (and often their finances) on the line to begin IVF treatment.

My journey began in 2018

I first began IVF in 2018 and can’t explain how many times over the last few months I have reminded myself just how lucky I am to have had my ‘happy ending’ before Coronavirus was ever on the cards.

After just one round of IVF, and against all the odds, my only surviving embryo, my one in a million arrived… and was quickly whisked off to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where he spent two weeks fighting for his life.

When I recall the story, people are often quick to say “how awful” or “that must have been so difficult for you”. Without sounding entirely ungrateful, those sentiments just don’t quite cut the mustard of the utter heartbreak and sheer ups and downs that IVF often entails. It doesn’t end at birth either.

Limitations

Coronavirus has highlighted so many issues with current policies surrounding IVF and egg freezing, one of which I am reminded of each year when I receive the £1500 bill that ensures my eggs remain viable and frozen for another year.

Yet what people may not know is that everything in IVF has its limits. There are the age restrictions for those seeking treatment on the NHS and there’s the financial limitations if you unable to fund private treatment. Even if you can jump through all of the hoops, eggs in the UK are only kept frozen for 10 years.  I know that everyone’s experiences are unique, and there are plenty of non-IVF related reasons that explain why people choose to have their eggs frozen.

From the person who, aged 21, froze her eggs because of a cancer scare, to a woman in her late 20’s like me wanting to freeze her eggs in case a sibling is on the cards, 10 years seems to be such an arbitrary, and limited time frame.

We’re seeing many parents have children much later in life, and I’ve read so many gut-wrenching stories from people across the country who are seeing their eggs ‘expire’ without being able to access them to begin fertility treatment.

Returning to normal

It’s clear that when life does return back to ‘normal’, our mental health services are also going to suffer as a consequence of Coronavirus – I know that so many of my own friends and family are truly struggling with the limitations of social isolation.

Add the emotional stress and strain over IVF to the ‘we’re living in an unprecedented global health pandemic’ to the mix, and we’ve got a recipe for disaster.

I know that IVF and fertility issues may not seem relevant for everyone, but from experience, I can truly say that it was one of the most emotionally turbulent times of my life and put a huge strain on my relationships with pretty much everyone in my life.

While it’s great to see that IVF clinics will soon be able to apply to re-open, for many people this will be too little, too late. So to anyone who has seen their IVF journey impacted by Coronavirus, please know I am thinking of you and I have huge hope that things will get better.

I sincerely hope that life after Coronavirus is one where we can reflect on issues such as IVF and how we can make the treatment more flexible and sustainable.

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