ITV News Presenter Andrea Byrne has opened up about the 'infertility taboo' and 'isolation' she felt while trying for a baby
Our daughter, Jemima, is about to turn one. It’s a milestone for any family. But for me and Lee, it means so much more than it will ever be possible to put into words.
Most of our marriage has been spent navigating the emotional and physical challenges of trying to have a baby. And failing.
"Most of our marriage has been spent navigating the emotional and physical challenges of trying to have a baby"
We were told by several doctors, on numerous occasions, that due to complications with a defective womb lining, it was unlikely I would ever be able to carry a pregnancy.
So, to have Jemima’s beautiful smile light up our days is nothing short of incredible.
And proof that fertility science still has so much to learn because, in the end, she defied the odds and was conceived naturally.
"With each cycle came another stinging loss or disappointment"
As we went through repeated treatments, operations and investigations month after month, and year after year, we only felt able to disclose it to a trusted and small circle of family, friends and colleagues. The physical strain of endless pills, injections and procedures is one thing. The mental and emotional anguish within your relationship, is quite another.
With each cycle, came another stinging loss or disappointment to cope with and it became harder to raise our hopes, to follow our dream. The last thing we needed was the added pressure of everyone politely asking at the office water cooler how it was all going.
As anyone living with infertility will understand, the emotions were raw and it was easier, instead, to shut down and try to stop it defining us.
During those years, hard as it was, it was important that I still went to work, read the news, filmed documentaries and tried to maintain a different version of me, away from our private heartbreak.
Lee would say the same about playing rugby.
"Everything is put on hold"
As I write this, Jemima is napping in her nursery. Her little coat is hanging in the hallway. I’m looking at a photograph of the three of us on the mantelpiece. Our dream, realised.
Yet we still both find what we went through to get here, really difficult to talk about.
Why? Because infertility is awkward.
It’s often about death and grief - two more big taboos; it’s about mental health - which society is only just starting to talk about; it’s about sex and intimacy - which we’ve never been good at talking about; and it involves a complicated science which is individual to each and every couple - which nobody wants to talk about because it’s, well, complicated.
So it’s not surprising that we’d all rather talk about almost anything else.
When it is discussed in the press, infertility headlines are often about the number of cycles couples endure or the amount of money they’ve spent.
This is relevant, of course, because it does touch every part of life and the longer it goes on, the more it affects finances, relationships, careers and mental and physical well being. Everything is put on hold as a consequence of repeated treatments.
However, it’s important to remember that every couple who experiences any kind of infertility has a unique journey, which is much more complex and personal to them than these basic numbers. Polycystic ovaries is infertility. Low sperm count is infertility. Miscarriage is infertility. Cancer could be infertility. It comes in so many different guises and affects men and women alike.
"Couples going through this will feel isolated, intensely frustrated, deeply sad and probably exhausted"
My message to everyone is this. Yes, infertility is awkward. Yes, it is complicated. There are still many parts of our journey that remain very private to us. But, trust me, couples going through this will feel isolated, intensely frustrated, deeply sad and probably exhausted and they will be unspeakably grateful for every bit of support they are shown.
When they are ready to, they will want to talk. They will want people to understand their specific medical experience, however complicated it is. They will want people to know how much it hurts emotionally; that it makes them feel a failure as a man or a woman; that they feel a sense of guilt for not being able to give their partner a child. They will want to tell you that they can’t see an end to the process, but don’t feel able to give up, because the next time might be their time, and their "miracle".
So, if you think someone might be going through a fertility struggle, simply ask them if they are OK. And if they do decide they can open up to you, keep the conversation going. That might mean over months and sometimes over years.
Keep asking how they are.
Thank you to everyone who reached out to us and for the unwavering support behind the scenes from ITV, which was invaluable on so many levels. Since our experience, I try to reach out to as many people as I can, who I think might be affected by fertility issues and I try to keep the lines of communication open, on their terms. I also pioneered the introduction of Mental Health First Aiders in our newsrooms, which I hope might give people another avenue to talk about their fertility problems through the workplace.
In the Byrne household, there’ll be balloons, cake and presents a plenty to mark Jemima’s first year in this world.
A celebration of life and love.
We will always wonder how she managed to get here.
And we’ll always remember everyone who is trying to find their own way to parenthood.