And then there were seven

At one time, somewhere in Melbourne there were seven frozen embryos with my name on them. Since the births of my daughters, Greta and Rori, I hadn’t given the embryos much thought. Every six months I would get a bill for their continued upkeep, and I would think of them then.

But then came the day I received a letter that unexpectedly plunged me into a grief so deep that I immediately put the letter away, unable to even look at it.

Even though, stamped all over it, were the words ‘Important: action required’.

In Victoria, frozen embryos could only be kept for five years, after which time they start to deteriorate – and my seven were about to reach the end of the road.

It’s a pretty strange concept, freezing newly formed embryos. My daughter, Greta, was born 15 months after she was conceived. My second daughter, Rori, was born 36 months after conception!

Originally the embryos that were to become my girls were among 11 embryos, but three failed attempts saw the number begin to dwindle.

I spent several years in my late 30s on the IVF program. The first year was all about finding out what was wrong, why my partner and I couldn’t conceive. There were theories, tests, poor results. Then there were more attempts and more failures.

Finally, after two years of pressure, sadness and disappointment, my partner and I split, presenting me with yet another hurdle to overcome. Thankfully, we live in a time when husbands and partners aren’t actually required to make babies, and I was able to access the donor sperm program.

I often tell people that IVF is just a numbers game, and the number you want is always big. Sperm count, viable eggs, days you have sex, IVF cycles – your chances of success increase the higher any number.

There is no point at which this is truer than when embryos are created. It’s a week of phone calls and numbers.

First, there’s the stimulating of eggs. A woman needs to inject herself in the tummy every day for a couple of weeks with full-on drugs designed to pop out as many eggs as possible at the one time. (Think of how emotional you feel just ovulating one egg per month and you get an idea of the emotional nightmare it is – for everyone!)

Then it’s off to hospital to have the eggs ‘harvested’. The aim of this is, of course, to get as many eggs in one shot as possible. No woman wants to go through this more than once.

When you’re in recovery you get told how many eggs were collected. I got 22, a fantastically big number and probably the first really excellent news I had received during IVF. Most women get between three and five.

The next day you get a phone call from your IVF nurse and another number.

Immediately after the eggs are harvested they are put together with the sperm, and nature does its thing. The call the next day is to tell you how many eggs were fertilized.

I had 15. Another huge number.

Five days later and it’s another call from the IVF nurse and another number. This time, it’s the number that survived to day five. The doctors wait five days before freezing the embryos to make sure that only the very strongest are stored.

Eleven had survived. Again, an outstanding result. That means I had 11 very good shots at having my baby.

“If you don’t get pregnant from one of these embryos I will run naked through the Bourke Street Mall singing!” my IVF specialist told me.

A couple of days later one embryo was transferred and ten frozen. The first one didn’t take, and the second attempt ended with a miscarriage after seven weeks. On the third attempt I became pregnant with my daughter Greta.

Now there were eight embryos on ice. I always wanted to have two children, so the plan was always to try again. It was comforting to know that I would have eight attempts.

When Greta was one year old another embryo was defrosted and transferred, and happily, I became pregnant with my second daughter, Rori, on the first attempt.

My family was complete. Two perfect daughters.

And seven embryos in storage, leaving one big question. What to do with them?

Women who have finished creating their families and find themselves with leftover embryos have three options: have them destroyed, donate them to another woman or couple, or donate them to science.

Right away I knew that I would not be donating them to another woman. I really, really wish I were strong enough to, especially given that I have only become a mother thanks to donor generosity, but I just knew it – if there was another Greta or Rori out there I would need them to be with me.

I wish I didn’t feel like that, but there is no room for lofty grand gestures when you are dealing with donation. Anything less than absolute honesty can have devastating results.

So, I was left with the options of destroying them or donating them to science.

Intellectually, it seemed such a waste to destroy seven perfectly good embryos, so scientific research seemed the way to go. And the thought that in the future, parents would benefit from the research to which my embryos contributed, partly appeased my conscience from not donating them.

Yet the thought of doing anything with them made me feel sick with grief.

For so long I had been fixated with numbers, and had really only seen the embryos as being numbers. But along the way it changed, and the embryos became something more.

At first I thought perhaps I had began thinking of the embryos as little Greta and Roris, making the notion of destroying them horrendous.

But that wasn’t it. I really don’t believe that human life as we know it begins at conception. I didn’t mourn the loss of the seven embryos that didn’t make it from conception to day five. I didn’t mourn the embryo that didn’t take after my first transfer, and I didn’t mourn the embryo I miscarried at seven weeks. I only felt bitter disappointment, hurt, despair and self-loathing. You know, the normal IVF emotions.

Slowly, it occurred to me that it wasn’t grief that I was experiencing, it was fear.

During the two years I was on IVF it seemed that at every turn I was told that it would be close to impossible to have children. Every physical obstacle seemed to be thrown down in front of me. Then when I broke up with my partner, yet another problem emerged. I was left with little option but to have a child with a man I had never met.

Then one day I had embryos – and not just a handful, I had 22. More than most women on IVF achieve! More than I would ever need! Even if I had failed cycle after failed cycle, the numbers were on my side.

And IVF is a numbers game.

My anguish at disposing of the seven embryos was the fear of saying goodbye to the safety net. Once those embryos were destroyed, my number would once again be zero. The sensation of vulnerability was exactly as it had been all those years ago.

But the truth was, I didn’t need that safety net anymore. The threat is gone. I have children. My dream came true – twice. The nightmare of infertility is over for me.

And besides, my number wont be zero. It will be two: Greta and Rori.

Words: Margaret Ambrose

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