Six years ago, 32-year-old Melissah Bell found herself in a relationship that was dissolving, yet her desire to have a child was stronger than ever. She decided to try IUI (intrauterine Insemination) using donor sperm, with the view of potentially entering into parenthood alone.
“People were all saying how brave and courageous I was,” she explains during Women’s Agenda’s panel on fertility and pregnancy loss last week. “I was choosing single parenthood, which is hard, we all know, especially if you haven’t got support.”
However, Bell didn’t see single parenthood as a disadvantage. “I felt it was empowering to go it alone,” she says. “I was established with my career and financially I was okay.”
She found a suitable doctor to assist her through the fertility procedure, and thankfully, on her first attempt, she fell pregnant resulting in the birth of her son Elliott.
“We’re told this narrative when we’re young girls — to get the house, get married, then have children,” Bell says. When she realised that wouldn’t be her story, she courageously wrote a new one.
Fertility challenges affect one in six families of reproductive age in Australia. Yet one of the biggest struggles for those going through it, is society’s reluctance to talk freely about the issue.
For Benita Bensch this was certainly the case. The author of The Art of Trying, a book that provides guidance around the challenges of infertility, said the impetus behind her penning her account came from feeling that she “didn’t want other women to feel as isolated” as she had been.
Diagnosed with endometriosis in her mid-twenties, Bensch completed three cycles of IUI, but unlike Bell the attempts were unsuccessful, and she and her husband moved on to try IVF. They were successful on the first round but faced difficulties including miscarriage on their next attempts to naturally conceive. They returned to IVF which later led to the birth of twin sons.
Bensch understands acutely how mentally and emotionally draining this experience can be and encourages more women and families going through fertility challenges to talk openly about them.
“We go to gatherings with other women, but we don’t talk about this stuff,” she says. “We don’t know what to say, and people don’t want to say the wrong thing. But there’s no right thing to say. I think we just need to be giving more guidance for how people can sit and listen. Just listening is so important.”
Samantha Payne agrees, saying that when she experienced a pregnancy loss for the first time, she was left feeling isolated and alone.
“I didn’t have the words to articulate how difficult it was. I started to get angry, and I began to think, this is not okay,” she says.
Like Bensch, Payne used her struggle as strength; launching a supportive space for women going through pregnancy loss, as well as creating relevant content and resources to assist women and their partners through the healing process. Pink Elephants Support Network is a place where women and their partners are encouraged to share their stories and reach a community of others going through similar traumas.
“Their stories are met with empathy and support,” Payne says, condemning the shame and guilt that women still routinely feel as a result of being fed fertility “fairy tales” as young girls.
“We’re told at 16 to go on the pill, go to uni, work at a job, then at 35, have children. That fairy tale does not exist,” she says.
“That isn’t the case for many women. We have to be better at giving women safe spaces. We know that their stories can be met with empathy and understanding… then we can remove the shame.”
Payne is in the process of creating a ‘Preconception Group’ — a space where women can gather to talk about wanting to try to fall pregnant again, despite knowing the potential grief of what that may mean. The idea came to Payne when she tragically lost another pregnancy in 2020.
“For every day in the past nine months, I have been grieving. I will be forever changed. But we need to say to all women that these feelings, whatever they may be, they’re all okay. All your feelings are okay.”
Bell agrees, saying that when she experienced a pregnancy loss after the birth of Elliott, she wasn’t prepared for the grief, and found that many people didn’t understand or empathise with what she was feeling.
“People minimised my loss. But the truth is, a loss is a loss. It doesn’t matter where in the journey you are. It was a physical and emotional carving out– I don’t think it’s something you can fully recover from.”
However, Payne, Bell and Bensch all agree that acknowledgement of grief can go a long way, especially when cemented in policy.
Just recently, New Zealand legislated historic ‘bereavement leave’ for couples to access three days paid leave when they’ve lost a child. “It’s enshrined in legislation which is profound”, says Bell.
Payne agrees, saying that New Zealand’s stance helps to tackle the taboo surrounding pregnancy loss.
“There was a huge groundswell of support for this bill in NZ, and now we want to see that here in Australia,” she says. “I’m hopeful that we’ll see a bill tabled here.”
Something else of critical concern, and in need of policy focus says Payne, is greater funding into women’s mental health and analysis of the impact fertility challenges place on thousands each year.
“There is a trend of poor mental health outcomes for these women,” she says. “This is not just grief. A sixth of women who have lost or had trouble conceiving have clinical levels of depression after 9 months of their loss.”
“That is the piece of the narrative that the government miss. It’s not something we just move on from.”
Payne urges politicians and policy makers to work alongside charities like her own to ensure women are met with a clear pathway of support. “This is a woman’s health event,” she says. It’s time it received the attention it deserves.
If you’ve been struggling to get pregnant or you’ve experienced miscarriage, we can help get to the bottom of your baby-making puzzle. Booking a Bulk-Billed fertility Assessment* with Genea’s Fertility GP is a great first step. And it’s not a fast track to IVF. We offer a range of fertility treatments, not just IVF. In fact, only 50% of patients who see a Genea Fertility Specialist need IVF to make their baby.
*Applicable for Medicare eligible patients. No-out-of-pocket Fertility Assessment is for an initial consultation with our Fertility GP at the Genea Sydney City clinic (Kent Street). Additional costs may be incurred for fertility investigations. (Partner Content)