“When it worked, it was honestly one of the happiest days of my life, says Lauren Fennemore, 31, who’s in her third trimester of pregnancy after two failed rounds of IVF. “But quite instantly you feel the fear. Automatically, you realise there’s something you can lose. It’s two very different emotions all at once.”
Fennemore, from Walton-on-Thames, had been trying to conceive for four years before she saw a positive pregnancy test result. She continues to worry that something may go wrong – “that weight has still not completely lifted from me” – but hasn’t been offered any mental health support throughout her pregnancy.
“There was really good support available to me when I didn’t get pregnant,” says Fennemore, who was signposted towards therapy after her first failed round of IVF. “But when I did get pregnant, that was the end of my contact with the clinic.”
Her experience is common among women who become pregnant following fertility treatment. In a new survey of patients, a staggering 69% said they received no further support from their fertility clinic once pregnant.
The poll, which surveyed 456 fertility patients in the UK, also found that among those that did receive support, 83% said this was only in the first trimester, with typical support including an additional scan at around seven weeks or a counselling session that often entailed an additional fee.
The survey was conducted by Cat Strawbridge, a fertility blogger and host of the Finally Pregnant podcast, who experienced this lack of support herself.
Strawbridge spent seven years trying to conceive, with multiple rounds of IVF and pregnancy loss, before she fell pregnant with her daughter, Wren, who’s now 17 months old.
She was filled with anxiety throughout the pregnancy, and the support she’d received from her fertility clinic dried up once she’d had a positive test result.
“Being finally pregnant after my fourth round of IVF was amazing, and yet incredibly difficult,” she tells HuffPost UK. “I was extremely anxious and worried.”
Strawbridge and her husband had already spent £40,000 on fertility treatment, but then found themselves spending hundreds of pounds more on private scans, in an attempt to ease some of the worry.
“For those who have gone through fertility treatment, and potentially the trauma of loss, it is an excruciating time,” says Strawbridge. “What I really needed was emotional support, and to talk to people who understood what I was going through.”
The survey comes at the same time as Fertility Week, which aims to raise awareness of the fertility issues that one in six UK couples now face. The results, says Strawbridge, highlight how much more needs to be done to support patients at all stages of their fertility journey.
“At the start of fertility treatment, clinics are right by your side to guide you through the multiple appointments and procedures,” she explains. “Once you are pregnant, however, this quickly stops and for a majority of patients it feels like they’re suddenly cut adrift with no clue of where to turn.”
This was also the experience of Vanessa Haye, 33, from Leicester, who had a miscarriage following her first cycle of IVF. When she fell pregnant again from her second cycle, she was dissuaded from therapy.
At her six-week scan, she was asked if she’d like any further support from the clinic. Feeling anxious, Haye immediately said ‘yes’.
But she says she was then asked: “Are you sure? Because our clinic counsellor is very busy at the moment, so only say yes if you really need it.” Feeling guilty, she told the nurse not to worry about it.
Her next appointment was with her NHS midwife at eight weeks. “I remember her specifically saying: ‘I can see this was an IVF pregnancy, but we’re going to treat it as a normal pregnancy now,’” Haye recalls. “It just felt very dismissive. It was horrible, it wasn’t nice.”
There’s a toxic misconception that “being pregnant is the goal” for women, adds Haye, and that once this is “achieved”, past trauma is erased. The reality is much different. One study found that 50% of women who undergo fertility treatment experience PTSD.
“I didn’t see the 12-week point as the ‘out of the woods’ marker,” says Haye. “For me, it was like anything could happen at any point. From what you go through when it comes to IVF, you just don’t have that luxury of feeling free. I lived nine months of worry.”
Haye gave birth to her son Sebastian in 2018 and had a happy surprise when she fell pregnant naturally in 2019. Again, she says she was offered no additional support during this third pregnancy. Sadly, she later discovered this was an ectopic pregnancy.
Haye, Strawbridge and Fennemore each engaged with the infertility community on social media before conceiving, using the hashtag #TTC, which stands for “trying to conceive”. Couples surveyed revealed it’s common to feel isolated after falling pregnant, because many instinctively retreat from #TTC circles.
Fennemore sought comfort by using the hashtag throughout her IVF and says every post received a surge of kind words and support. But she withdrew from the community once falling pregnant, particularly during her first and second trimester.
“I wasn’t sharing in the way I had done previously during treatment, because I didn’t want to upset people,” she says. “You do lose a lot of the connection and support that’s there.”
It’s because of this dual isolation – both from the #TTC community and from fertility clinics – that a new system is needed, argues Strawbridge.
After her own experience, she founded The Hang Out to provide peer-to-peer
support for couples who are pregnant or parenting after infertility and loss. She is now calling on fertility clinics to extend the support they provide for patients.
“The trauma of pregnancy loss and fertility treatment is something many of us carry inside for a lifetime,” she says. “And it can have a huge impact on our mental wellbeing.”
Fennemore has been attending the pregnancy yoga sessions hosted by The Hang Out, which are specifically designed for women who’ve had difficult journeys to conception. Each session starts with a 15-minute chat, where women can share their concerns. Fennemore says she’s made connections that wouldn’t be possible is a normal NCT class.
“That mini community has been so amazing, it makes me feel warm just thinking about it,” she says. “I wouldn’t have gained that experience from another type of yoga class or any pregnancy-related group. I’ve really, really appreciated it.”
Useful websites and helplines:
Sands works to support anyone affected by the death of a baby.
Tommy’s fund research into miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth, and provide pregnancy health information to parents.
Saying Goodbye offers support for anyone who has suffered the loss of a baby during pregnancy, at birth or in infancy.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.