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'Secondary infertility is complex, I'm a mum grieving that I'm not pregnant'

Writer Nell Frizzell, 39, lives in Oxford with her husband and six-year-old son. In this powerful memoir, she explores the reality of not being able to conceive a sibling for her first child.

Nell Frizzell has been trying to conceive her second child for over a year. (Al Kinley)
Nell Frizzell has been trying to conceive her second child for over a year. (Al Kinley)

Last time I got my period, I was hit by a familiar stab of disappointment – a feeling of being hollowed out. So I decided to do what I always do – go out dancing. I would surround myself with other people, feel the music pulsing through my body, even as tears began to run down my face.

I have been trying to get pregnant for over a year. Thirteen months. Thirteen times I have looked down at a tissue smeared with blood and felt stripped bare by sadness. I am 39, my hair is turning grey and I have no idea how many eggs my body has left. But here is where this story gets complicated at least for me... I am already a mother.

I already have a six-year-old son. I have been pregnant and given birth and breastfed and held my son’s soft body against my own in the dark. Not only that; but I have conceived spontaneously.

Nearly seven years ago, my son was created from nothing more complicated or more magical than sex. In the years since, I have suffered no known illness or injury that might have rendered me infertile. And so, I hang in limbo. I am in a nameless state. I am neither infertile nor pregnant, I am neither child-free nor child-bearing.

Trying to conceive

According to the NHS, infertility is when a couple cannot get pregnant despite having regular unprotected sex (meaning every two or three days). By this definition I, or my partner, or the two of us together are infertile. And yet the term 'infertile' has a finality about it that does not seem to apply to us.

I hang in limbo. I am in a nameless state. I am neither infertile nor pregnant, I am neither child-free nor child-bearing.

It sounds like something solid, immutable; you are infertile, you will not get spontaneously pregnant and so it is up to you to decide what happens next. But that’s not how it feels from where I’m standing. When you have already got a child, and haven’t been trying for long enough to get tested, and know that around one in seven couples have difficulty conceiving, a year of trying doesn’t feel like a conclusion, merely a stage in the process.

Every month when her period comes Nell Frizzell is hit by a fresh wave of sadness and disappointment. (Al Kinley)
Every month when her period comes Nell Frizzell is hit by a fresh wave of sadness and disappointment. (Al Kinley)

A difficult position

I understand that I am less fertile than I was last time I tried to get pregnant because that’s the reality of life. Every day that passes, I am becoming less fertile in exactly the same way that an untended fire will eventually cool. And yet, I know that my womb still thickens each month, ready to receive a fertilised egg. I know that I still experience the cyclical rise and fall in oestrogen and progesterone that made my first child possible. I know that every time I have sex in the five day run-up to ovulation it could, perhaps, become something.

Someone once asked me if I was ‘one and done’ – that comment stung like a wasp.

Secondary infertility is a complicated place to sit. I am trying to have a baby and already know what it is to have a baby. I am a woman who can pass as child-free much of the time and yet who spends an hour each day walking her child to and from primary school. I am a mother who meets each period with a feeling of grief.

As a result, I do not necessarily feel comfortable complaining to people who have never been able to have a spontaneous pregnancy, or produce a genetically-related child. I do not believe in a hierarchy of pain but I recognise that the shape of theirs is different. They may well look at my life with envy, which would make my dissatisfaction and disappointment at not falling pregnant again seem untenable.

In just the same way someone once asking me if I was 'one and done' stung like a wasp, I know that me complaining about not being able to get pregnant while carrying my son’s book bag has the capacity to hurt.

Nell Frizzell says she's conscious that women who've been unable to conceive may look at her with envy. (Al Kinley)
Nell Frizzell says she's conscious that women who've been unable to conceive may look at her with envy. (Al Kinley)

Support from friends

Of course, I have friends in similar states to me, friends who have been trying to get pregnant after their first child and who are not, so far, pregnant again. They’ve been wonderful, thoughtful and galvanising. They have kept an eye on the date, checked in with me at pivotal moments and yes, come dancing.

I also have friends without children who have offered sympathy, kindness and reassurance. I have friends with two or more children who have given me both emotional and practical support when I’ve opened up about the roaring fear inside me that I may have left it too late. Because that’s the thing, I did leave it a while.

My partner, as the only child of a single mum, was very resistant to the idea of having more children.

My partner, as the only child of a single mum, was very resistant to the idea of having more children. As he puts it, why would I want a baby when I’ve already had a baby? He worries that we cannot afford to have another child. He doesn’t want to move to a bigger house, with a second bedroom, when we can only just about afford our mortgage now. He is concerned that our child’s own life will be compromised by the existence of a sibling; less attention, fewer holidays, less money and less freedom.

I haven’t just spent the last 13 months trying to get pregnant; I have spent the last six years trying to convince my partner that getting pregnant again would even be a good idea. Which means that, even if we were to have another baby, the age gap between those two children would be sizeable.

Nell Frizzell says she feels lucky she may become a grandmother one day. (Al Kinley)
Nell Frizzell says she feels lucky she may become a grandmother one day. (Al Kinley)

Monthly cycle of hope and disappointment

In many ways, I think large age gaps are good – there were eight years between me and my older sister, and we never fought, never stole each other’s clothes and never competed at school. There were none of the hallmarks of traditional sibling rivalry. But it is also possible that I might raise two people who feel like only children within one family – less close, less crossover, less in common.

Every month I am caught in a maddening cycle of good behaviour, followed by disappointment, then a self-destructive urge to let off steam.

Every month I am caught in a maddening cycle of good behaviour, followed by disappointment, then a self-destructive urge to let off steam. For a week before ovulation and the following weeks until my period, I eat well, don’t drink, don’t smoke, try to sleep and have regular sex.

Then my period inevitably comes and so for a furious week I go out, I dance and drink wine. I run for miles and miles, swim in cold rivers and feel full of a thick, dark melancholy. Until the week before ovulation comes round again and I go back to my careful life of good food, good habits, fragile hope. On and on, for a year.

Looking to the future

Rationally, of course, I know that plenty of people get pregnant, accidentally, while sinking pints and dancing on tables and playing rugby. I also know that you can live like a nun for years and it will make no difference to your womb. But this is the pattern I am caught in and this is the way I now live.

One day, I know, this state of uncertainty will end. I will step off the cycle. My periods will stop, my eggs will run out and I will be menopausal.

One day, I know, this state of uncertainty will end. I will step off the cycle. My periods will stop, my eggs will run out and I will be menopausal. The hope will disappear and with it, perhaps, the disappointment.

I still have a few carrier bags in the loft, filled with the three or four babygrows, blankets and bibs I couldn’t bear to give away after my son outgrew them. One day, I may pass them on to another person, as they prepare to give birth for the first, second or even third time. One day I might even pass these belongings on to my son, so he can wrap his own children in the soft cotton clothes and knitted green shawls that held his tiny body all those years ago. I may not be pregnant but I may one day become a grandmother. In that, I know I am lucky, even when I feel sad.


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