Yesterday I read, at one sitting, the short and lyrical memoir Avalanche, by Australian writer Julia Leigh. The book is about her ‘journey’ from a decision to have a child with her husband, to having assisted reproduction with her husband to having IVF alone to – nothing. I should say, of course, that this is only one women’s experience: few people would read a book about a cheerfully uncomplicated planned pregnancy and birth. Avalanche is a brave and curious book and it made me think about many things.
For one thing, IVF is expensive; the writer of the memoir spent thousands and thousands of Australian dollars. In the UK, access to IVF varies across NHS areas. I met a woman recently who told me that, in her county, she could not receive IVF on the National Health Service as her husband has a child from a previous relationship. They cannot afford private treatment. She is a nice, good woman; she feels bitter and betrayed, by an incident from her husband’s past, by ‘the system’. In other areas, testing is free but treatment is not; again, elsewhere, patients are limited to three cycles.
For another thing, IVF is uncomfortable, painful, distressing and, in rare cases, ( I knew of one personally) can be life-threatening. It is a ‘journey’ of pain, hope, disappointment, waiting. It is not really a ‘journey’ – it is a travail. You could not call Julia Leigh’s story an odyssey – for there is no happy return.
Reproduction is precarious: I knew one lady who conceived naturally after three unsuccessful IVF cycles, after she’d accepted a childless future. We all know of miscarriages, stillbirths – all the random outcomes. I worked with children with learning disabilities; some had been in their ‘home’ since they were babies. We all know children born of one night stands, alternative relationships. I knew a man who was wooed by a lesbian couple for his donation: the agreement was that he would have no paternal involvement. That changed: they urged him to be come involved with his child. He found himself, a slightly rackety peripatetic gay artist, with a daughter, now grown.
Reproduction retains an element of the magical. Despite the science, Leigh worries about coffee and the amount of it she does not does not drink, swimming, alkalising diets, wheatgrass, acupuncture. Superstition overtakes The Mother, as she calls herself. Her friend, successfully delivered of an IVF baby, sees her own doctor as ‘working at the forefront of miracle and wonder’.
Ms Leigh tries out a number of potential donors. She finally finds someone who will suit. She describes the negotiations, the bargaining, the paperwork, consents, innumerable decisions. Egg-thinning is discussed, as is embryo glue. It is gruelling: she is asked to make clinical decisions without expertise. She calls this a game in which she does not know the rules; ‘kindly Kafka’.
Ms Leigh considers and declines surrogacy, egg donation, adoption. She avoids times, such as school- run time, when she would see mothers and children. She loves her sister and her nieces, but it is a painful love. She talks of the ‘half-grief’ of every failed attempt – when it is impossible to grieve if there is still a ‘next time’ to provide hope. She is unable to give up until she gives up. She gives up.
It would be easy to excoriate the writer and easier still to trash her bolting husband. However, the book’s lucid account of that travail leads me neither to judgement nor sympathy but rather to a detached and sad compassion: a gifted, affluent, independent woman thought she could commission a baby. She found out that she is not free. None of us are.
An afterword: I came across one of the Great Minds of Twitter yesterday, a man who referred to an unborn and as-yet-unviable child as a parasite. What then, someone asked, would you call a child miscarried at three months? Exactly.