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Infertility

Realising there is a problem with fertility

When young men and women are in their teens and early twenties they are usually keen (and often encouraged by parents, teachers and peer groups) to make sure they do not get pregnant. Those who had been very careful to use contraception told us that when they stopped they often expected to conceive pretty quickly.

 

Like most women of her generation, Christine had spent so many years being fearful of getting pregnant, she expected to get pregnant immediately after she stopped taking contraception.

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Age at interview: 35
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 31
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So I guess like most ladies of our age, for most of my teenage life my biggest fear was getting pregnant, so obviously, you know, contraception was really important. So when, I got married in 1998 and immediately stopped contraception and expected the inevitable to happen, as I expect lots of people do. And it didn’t. 

Reaching or approaching the age of 30, getting married and settling in a home often prompted the decision to have a family. Many assumed that starting a family would be an easy next step in life, the ‘natural’ thing to do. Some, such as Oliver, were initially worried about trying as they were fearful about whether they were ready for life to change, as it inevitably would with children. 

 

Catherine had always wanted children, but was busy with her career for many years. As she turned...

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Age at interview: 45
Sex: Female
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I started having, trying to have a child when I was 30. And I knew, I’d always known that I wanted children, but until then I’d been kind of, you know, busy doing all those kind of career things and feeling settled. And I really felt when I was 30 that I was actually ready to have a family and that was what I wanted to do. And a lot of my friends had started having children. And when it didn’t happen within just a few months I actually started to get slightly worried. I think even then I was quite aware of my age. Although 30 is relatively young, I knew that, you know, my fertility would soon start diminishing. And also I knew that there were long waiting lists for treatment and for tests and for all those kind of things. So I actually went to see the GP probably after only about five months. And I was really lucky because my GP was actually incredibly sympathetic, and I know a lot of people get told to go away and keep trying. But he said, “Oh, no, I’ll do some tests straight away. We might as well rule out any problems immediately.” Which he did. And then he referred me to a clinic fairly quickly as well. 

 

Catherine knew that her fertility was likely to start declining after the age of thirty.

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Age at interview: 45
Sex: Female
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Probably exactly the same as most people’s. I think we kind of, you know, we’re very obsessed with the fact that, we all know about how to prevent pregnancy, we know that really well. And I think we kind of assume that the moment we stop preventing it we’re going to get pregnant. And I think that’s a general assumption on most women’s behalf actually. And I was aware that my fertility declined as I got older. I think the things I wasn’t aware of, you know, I used to smoke when I was younger and I had no idea that that had any effect on my fertility at all. So those kind of lifestyle choices, I think we’re not necessarily aware of quite what a big impact they can have. I think the really difficult thing for me was the whole thing about stress, and whether stress affects your fertility. Because some people say, “Yes, it does. It’s proven that it does” and other people say, “No, that’s nonsense.” And, and I used to get really worried about it. And the thing is the more worried you get about it, the more you are stressed about it. And I used to think, “Was it my job? Was it my lifestyle? Was it…?” Especially with un-, unexplained infertility, you do start to think that the choices you’ve made in your life have somehow made it worse

The people we talked to said that it took anything from a few weeks to several years for them to realise that there might be a problem with their fertility. Many couples gave it at least a year before they went to their GP; often they waited this long because they expected that the GP would not take their concerns seriously if they had only been trying for a few months. (See ‘Going to the GP’).

 

Newly married Clare assumed, like most people, she would get pregnant very quickly. After nine or...

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Age at interview: 35
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 31
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We started trying for a family in April/March 2003, and like most people we assumed it would happen very quickly. We first suspected there might be a problem after about nine or ten months. I’d been using ovulation kits to test whether I was ovulating, and for the first few months it came up that I was ovulating fine and then suddenly it stopped. And that’s when we first began to realise that perhaps things weren’t as normal as they should be. We carried on trying, but I did go to my GP. And the first time I went to my GP I was met with quite a lot of resistance. He didn’t take it very seriously. So went away, sort of thought about it, tried again for another couple of months. Went back to see a different GP at the same surgery, a female GP, and she was a lot more sympathetic. And that’s when I got referred to the fertility clinic at the hospital.

 

Martin and his wife started trying for a baby soon after getting married. As the year progressed...

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Age at interview: 41
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 35
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Anyway we got married and then pretty well soon after that started trying. We put it off at certain points when we initially started because we didn’t want a baby at Christmas and, you thought, that’s it you just go and make a baby and it happens. And after about a year realised it wasn’t to be, that wasn’t obviously how it was going to work for us, and more as we went through that year, the more anxious I think, we both became. But I certainly started to think, well is it me and started to get a little bit anxious about that. 
 
So eventually it go to a point where we sort of acknowledged that there was an issue and, I don’t know how many times [wife] lay with her legs up the wall, and all the things that we tried, avoiding hot baths, and hot water and caffeine and everything that we could have done to try and help ourselves had failed. It was time to say well let’s go further afield and get some medical advice. 
 
So we did. I went off to the doctors.
 

While some women said that they had talked to their pregnant friends and relations about how long it had taken them to conceive, others said that this was a very difficult topic to raise. But whether they discussed it openly or not, it was hard not to make comparisons and to get concerned if they felt they were being overtaken by their peers.

 

Maggie assumed that she could get pregnant quickly. It was not easy to ask contemporaries about...

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Age at interview: 36
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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We’d actually been married for a while before we decided to start trying to have children together. I just, it was actually on the eve of my 29th birthday. I think there was something about the, the r-, the big 30 looming that made me think maybe we, you know, we’d always wanted kids and I, I think that gave me a little bit of a, a time pressure really. And I thought, “Well, you know, not getting any younger. We do still want children, and maybe this is the time to start trying.” I think like a lot of people we never imagined there would be any issues at all. I imagined that we would make our minds up, I would stop using contraception and I would get pregnant. And that’s how I thought it would be. I was very wrong. But that’s how I thought it would be when we initially started. 
 
We’d been trying for about a year, and friends through, throughout that year had started to get pregnant. And I think then a shadow of doubt started to creep in for both of us, for both myself and my husband. We started to wonder, you know, “Should something have happened for us?” We’d been fairly relaxed about the whole thing when we started trying. We kind of imagined it would happen fairly quickly, but we were fairly laid back about it. So I think after, when a year had been and gone and I’d turned 30, we really did start to wonder, “Surely something should have happened in a year?” Initially we did a lot of, we didn’t really speak to friends and family, we did some research on the Internet just to see how long it should take getting pregnant. We, we had no idea really. I think our, our feeling had been, certainly among our own friends and family, that people didn’t really have those kind of conversations. People would announce that they were pregnant and people wouldn’t say, “How long were you trying?” you know. There, there wasn’t that openness about, you know, this issue. So that was something we decided we would have to do and just take a look at, you know, how things were for other people. So we did a bit of research on the Internet, and we also saw that you had to have been trying for two years before you could approach your GP. 
 
 

Michelle heard her sister-in-law only took 3 months to conceive, and she described how anxious...

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Age at interview: 29
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 28
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And how quickly did you realise that there might be a problem?
 
I don’t think you realise there’s a problem until you actually have to go to the doctors and ask them. Because my sister-in-law had not long fallen pregnant with her first one. And she was like, ‘Well it only took us three months.’ I was like, ‘Oh that’s good, just the last three months’. I was like after 3 months [hammering] well I’m not pregnant. You know so I waited until six months and then I gradually started to get more impatient. Every month you wait to see what happens and it’s. I mean I only had to be two hours late and I was down the chemist for a pregnancy test. You know [laugh]. I think we were the official sponsor at one stage [laugh]. But we left it for 12 months before we went to the doctors.
 

The realisation that there was a fertility problem often emerged slowly over months or years. The inability to conceive sometimes came as a real shock to people and challenged expectations that they had held since childhood about marriage and parenthood. 

 

George described how their concerns slowly built over about 6 years. Initially he was easy-going...

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Age at interview: 54
Sex: Male
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It was about six years ago. We first met, we just thought well if it happens it happens and then after about four years when nothing was happening then we sort of took it quite seriously and [wife] started to seek help and from there that is where it started really. I think it was the last four years it has been more intensive. I think about it every day more or less now.
 
Why has it built up do you think?
 
It is not happening. She is not getting pregnant so I think that’s it becomes something that you seem to take for granted, or for a man, for me, I didn’t even think about it but in the last four years we think about it more and more and it is not happening, we think why is it not happening and you know, you know it is not happening and you see some of the other couples that have babies and that and you think it’s not so much missing out. It like a longing to have you know, it is very strange. 
 
 

Gradually, over a year of trying, Naomi and her husband realised that they had fertility problems.

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Age at interview: 35
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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It wasn’t so much a shock, it was gradual. It happened, you know, every month my period would turn up. I would be, two days before it was due I would be feeling the dragging pains in my stomach and it was like, okay it hasn’t happened this month, and then there would be the two days of thinking, well they do say that pregnancy symptoms are very similar to period pains, so maybe it has happened. And then the period would arrive and I’d be in tears, and [husband] would be upset, and it would be, right back to it next month. And it kind of takes a bit of the romance out of it to be honest. So it wasn’t that it was a real surprise.
 
I think when we finally found out, we had been trying for over a year by then so it wasn’t a shock. I think in some ways it was a relief to find out that there was something. I mean it must be so, so hard, for people that fall into the unexplained category. Where you know, we have got friends who are she’s fine, and he’s fine, and there was absolutely no reason, why they can’t have children, but yet they have to have IVF to conceive both of their children.
 

While for some having problems conceiving came as a complete shock, for others, pre-existing conditions had forewarned them they might have difficulty conceiving. Some had had miscarriages in earlier life, which caused them concern. Others had conditions such as polycystic ovarian syndrome or endometriosis that could affect their fertility. Although Carol had not been told that her fertility could be compromised by her polycystic ovaries, she said that she had a ‘niggling doubt’ more or less straight away when she did not get pregnant. Janine was treated for skin cancer in her late 20s, prompting her to re-evaluate what she was doing with her life. As soon as she was well she decided that she wanted children.

 
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Sarah had painful periods and was diagnosed with endometriosis, so she was not surprised when...

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Age at interview: 36
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 33
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I suppose it really starts when we lived in New Zealand in about 1997 or 1998 and I started have much more period pain then I had had before and I went to the library because I was thinking of getting a job writing for a pharmaceutical journal and I went to look at this journal and I just looked, look things up and decided that I’d got endometriosis. So I’d have been about 28 then and I was sure that was what I’d got because it fitted exactly. But I didn’t really kind of do anything about it. Because I didn’t really want to, you know, it weren’t, I just didn’t want to do anything about it, so I just, you know, carried on. 
 
And then when we started trying for a baby, we tried for, you know, a little while and again really I were not really that surprised it were not happening because I was sure that I had endometriosis but I still waited about another year trying before I then went to see somebody.
 

Some knew that their partners were infertile before they got married. Others were on their second marriage and had had a vasectomy or sterilisation before getting re-married, and so needed to seek treatment to have a baby with their new partners.

​Last reviewed July 2017.
Last updated July 2017.

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