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(For women like Carole, the trauma of infertility simply doesn’t go away over time. Image supplied: Carole O’Neill)

Carole O’Neill, a 73-year-old lecturer and former school principal, tells me she nearly didn’t go through with sharing her story.

But if she doesn’t speak out about it, she worries that the people in her life will never understand her pain. They won’t get why she’s held onto a deep, intangible loss for 40 years.

“I did have a good life,” she explains.

“But I know that I am doing this now to show how long-lasting the emotions are and how hard it is to forget the pain.”

She’s certainly not alone in dealing with the grief of infertility. Shocked by the idea of “shared experiences”, clinical psychologist Narelle Dickinson says, “everyone sits with this shame”.

In Australia alone, plenty of women are dealing with the very real heartache of arriving at a destination they weren’t prepared to accept — a place where their bodies tell them they’ll never have a baby.

Carole has carried this invisible pain for decades

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(Carole O’Neill is now in her 70s, and enjoys spending time at her home in the bush. Image supplied: Carole O’Neill)

She told me just how long and difficult her journey was.

Firstly, as a married woman in the late ’60s and early ’70s, came the constant comments, ‘You are too impatient! Just relax, and a baby will come’. Then, years of painful treatments, pills, injections, as well as the “deep feelings of regret, unhappiness, unworthiness and failure”.

But Carole says the most “stupid, painful” decision was to apply for adoption with her husband, Peter. She received a letter in the mail, telling her she wasn’t suitable to adopt, and to this day has never been able to find out why.

“I can understand my body not producing a child, because like a broken arm, there’s something wrong,” she explained.

“But I cannot understand someone looking at me and seeing the love I have and the desire I have for children; but saying no. I couldn’t tell people that.”

There was a deep sense of shame, but she was able to get through this period with the support of her husband, Peter, and her love of teaching. Finally, when Carole was nearly 40, her husband told her she needed to stop putting her body through IVF. After thirteen years of treatments, Carole threw her energy into her work and her two dogs.

And now?

Carole is keenly aware that she’ll never have grandkids to fuss over, that her friends are too busy with their own families to carve out time to catch up with her.

“It still brings many emotions to the surface, as all of my friends are absorbed in grandchildren,” she said.

She remains thankful for the love she has shared with her husband, and the sense of freedom she enjoys.

“Despite what you read; I have had a wonderful life. But I do wish people would understand about regrets and pain of childlessness that can last for years and years,” she said.

For Maribel, IVF was more difficult than going through cancer

At 40 years of age, Maribel Marquez is relatively young. It’s not unusual for women at this time of their life to go through IVF.

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Maribel cannot avoid the painful truth — she’ll probably never have her own child (Image source – ABC: Gemma Breen)

But what sets Maribel apart from others is the fact she had to deal with a breast cancer diagnosis and then jump straight into fertility treatment if there was to be any chance of falling pregnant.

“I was so emotional. I was already worried I was going to die. It was terrible,” she explained.

“Everything was just super quick, I made two very big decisions in 24 hours.”

For Maribel, both experiences were harrowing.

After a year of IVF, four miscarriages and considerable physical and emotional pain, she knew she couldn’t go through with it anymore. For her, trying to make that baby was “more difficult than going through the cancer”.

“When you have cancer, you deal with that. You don’t think about it, you’re already in this mess,” she explained.

“With IVF and the consequences of cancer, it’s all in limbo.”

Maribel grew up in Colombia, but she says seeing people get shot on the streets during the country’s long-running drug war in no way compares to being told you can’t be a mother, to “having that choice taken away from you”.

Working with refugee families in outer suburban Brisbane, she often finds it difficult not to switch the pain off as she deals with other people’s kids.

With her family and friends, it’s another story altogether.

“I don’t go to the extent to explain my feelings. It’s easier not to go on about it,” she said.

“There are days that I feel more sad than others. And I say to my friends: ‘I’m not going to kids’ parties. No baby showers’. So they don’t invite me.”

I asked Maribel what has kept her going. How does she move forward, knowing the one thing she always wanted, she can’t have?

“To be honest, my two dogs,” she laughed.

“You have all this extra love – caring, nurturing love. The closest thing I can have to that is a puppy.”

IVF has strengthened her relationship with her husband, Chris, and she’s thankful to have him. And in a small way, it helps for her to think about how hard it is to raise kids – the time and money involved.

“But I also think, that’s not completely real, to protect myself like that,” she added.

Dr Dickinson, who’s also a fertility counsellor, agrees. She says some coping strategies can mask an underlying distress. I’s not always helpful to constantly distract yourself from the truth of your pain.

“There’s no harm in talking to someone,” she advises.

For Kit, the trauma of infertility led her on a different path

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Together We Wait, founded by Kit LeClaire, aims to empower and support women who have experienced IVF. (Image supplied)

Kit LeClaire, who is based in Sydney, felt isolated when she went through IVF a few years ago.

When embryos wouldn’t transfer, when her body wasn’t able to do what she thought it should be doing, she “questioned everything”.

“I had convinced myself not falling pregnant was a result of something I had done wrong. I blamed myself. I blamed my body. All the resentment and anger was so toxic,” she explained.

While the difficulties of IVF weren’t the reason for their marriage break-up, it was more of a catalyst, she says. They handled the situation very differently.

Looking back now, Kit describes the baby-making process as a “trauma”.

So much so, that it inspired her to form a support network, called Together We Wait, for those women going through IVF who aren’t feeling supported and heard in the industry.

“What’s missing in the IVF process is the mental and emotional care for women,” she explained.

“You get so caught up in the trajectory and process [of IVF], that you lose sight of your own wellbeing.”

Right now, Kit knows she’s relatively young. Being 34 and single, she’s aware that door hasn’t “completely shut” for her. But she wants to be able to feel complete without needing a baby.

“I can tell you, at this stage of my life I don’t know what the future holds for me,” she said.

“But if I’m content with my life now, would my child change that for me?”

By Gemma Breen – 31 January 2020