Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley

This is a book about swimming, about how Alexandra Heminsley overcame her fear of water and learnt not only to swim, but to enjoy swimming outdoors in choppy seas, cold rivers and dark tarns. Heminsley’s earlier book, Running Like a Girl, is about running when you don’t think you’re a runner and Leap In is the swimming version. It’s her honesty, the detail and her beautiful writing which make this such an engaging book; I could completely envisage the sweaty attempts to squeeze her body into a wetsuit, the feelings of panic in deep water, the anxiety about her bare feet when she does her first river swim.

Leap In is about pushing yourself, about facing up to difficulties – and we learn more than half-way through the book that Heminsley is going through fertility problems and IVF as she continues her swimming journey.  At that point, her battles to overcome her fears have an undercurrent of a more fundamental challenge.

Heminsley doesn’t tell us much about her fertility problems or the experiences of tests and treatment, but what she does say is rich with meaning for anyone who has been there. “When I think about never having a child, a sort of breathlessness, almost a vertigo, comes over me,” she writes, explaining in just one sentence the overwhelming hollow bleakness of infertility. She has a positive pregnancy test after her second IVF cycle, but miscarries – something she deals with in two poignant paragraphs in which she describes the sense of crushing grief and how this transforms her relationship with her body which she feels has betrayed her and which she now rejects.

I really love this book – it manages to be funny, sad, inspiring and thought-provoking. The last chapter of the first part ends with Heminsley pondering what lessons swimming has taught her and where her future lies. She says she doesn’t know if she will ever have a child, or even the strength to try IVF again, but her attitude to life is that we must Leap In, living life as a participant rather than a spectator, that we must not give into our fear of the unknown and must be courageous when we need to adapt or amend our plans and discover our inner strength and resilience. These are certainly thoughts to ponder for anyone who is in the midst of fertility problems.

Leap In is published by Hutchinson.

 

 

Thanks to Steve McCabe

We should all thank Steve McCabe, the Member of Parliament for Birmingham Selly Oak for raising the issue of NHS funding for fertility treatment in a Backbench Business Debate at Westminster supported by Tom Brake, the MP for Carshalton and Wallington, and Ed Vaizey, the MP for Didcot and Wantage. He’d been contacted by a number of constituents about the problems of the postcode lottery for fertility treatment, and called on the Health Secretary to investigate the cost disparities and the variations of IVF provision across England to find out why NICE guidance isn’t being followed universally.

The Health Minister Nicola Blackwood said that she would be writing to NHS England to ask that it communicates clearly with CCGs the expectation that NICE fertility guidelines should be followed by all.

It is a difficult time for the NHS which we know faces financial challenges, but stopping funding IVF would make little difference to the monetary woes – and indeed may actually end up costing far more if you factor in the long-term distress and depression caused by not being able to access treatment and the risk of patients having multiple embryo transfers overseas and returning with multiple pregnancies which can lead to health risks for both mother and baby.

The debate at Westminster was not well-attended, despite a big campaign by the charity Fertility Network and the campaign group Fertility Fairness. If you haven’t written to your MP about the problems of the postcode lottery yet, it is not too late. You can find details of how to find your MP and what to write on the Fertility Network website and if you are interested in watching the Westminster debate, you can find it here 

Could you be an inspiration?

You may have come across Lesley Pyne, who offers support to women who are childless. Lesley writes a blog and publishes stories of women who have not been able to have children but who now lead a fulfilling life. She is hoping to publish a book based on the stories in 2017, and so is looking for more women who have inspiring stories to tell. Many of them use their real names, but you can choose to remain anonymous and Lesley is happy to link to blogs and websites.

I know people – especially women – sometimes find it hard to see themselves as “inspiring”, but if you have a story to tell about living without children and learning to come to terms with this, then why not get in touch with Lesley? She can send you a list of the questions she would like to ask, and will need submissions by the end of February. You can get in touch with her if you would like to know more at info@lesleypyne.co.uk

Finding clinic success rates

New research suggests that if you want to find out about outcomes from fertility treatment at a particular clinic, the best place to go is not the clinic’s own website. Researchers from Manchester University discovered that fertility clinics use a variety of different ways to present their data which makes it very difficult for anyone trying to compare one clinic with another.  They found that clinic websites often use league tables which they construct themselves using their own parameters to compare clinics in their area and that these are “invariably constructed so that the comparison was favourable to the reporting clinic.”

If you do want to look at outcomes, it is worth bearing in mind that most clinics have broadly similar success rates and that relatively small percentage differences can be pretty meaningless and may have more to do with the patients being treated at any given time than anything else. The HFEA publishes outcomes broken down by age and this is by far the best place to go for information if you want to look at treatment outcomes as the figures are collected and collated the same way for all clinics across the UK

You can find the full report from Manchester University which was published in the British Medical Journal here.

 

How old is too old to be a parent?

Do you think there should be a cut-off age after which people shouldn’t have children? Or is it fine at any age at which it is remotely feasible? And is it right that we ponder this subject so much when it comes to women having children later in life, and yet barely raise an eyebrow when Mick Jagger has a baby at the ripe old age of 73?

The subject has been back in the news again after Dame Julia Peyton-Jones, former director of the Serpentine Galleries, became a mother at 64. It isn’t clear how she had her daughter, although we can be sure she didn’t use her eggs and that she may well have paid for a surrogate to carry the baby too.  I know we all feel and act younger than our grandparents may have done at the same age, but she will be 80 by the time her daughter is 16 – and I can’t help wondering what it would be like for a 16 year old to have an 80 year old mother? Or what it would be like to be responsible for a teenager when you were 80?

Of course, the other problem with news stories like this is that they muddy the waters when it comes to NHS funding for fertility treatment, as many people seem to assume that it is the NHS which is footing the bill for older women to try to have babies. In fact, in most areas there is limited funding for women up to the age of 39, and often nothing at all beyond that. At most women of 40-42 will get one cycle, but if you are older, there is no likelihood of funded treatment.

Writing workshops

Writing can be a therapeutic response to fertility problems, and fertility counsellor Deborah Sloan is facilitating a new creative writing workshop group in Brighton for men and women who are thinking about their future without much-wanted children.

Using a combination of peer support and creative exercises, each two hour workshop will help you to explore and express the things you may find difficult to share in other areas of your life. The aim of the workshops is to allow you to connect, to support and feel supported and potentially to discover new ways of thinking and being.

You do not need to have any previous experience in writing or creative techniques, and the emphasis is on the process rather than the ‘end product’. The workshops take place in Brighton on Saturday mornings and you can find more details on Deborah’s website.

 

E-cigarettes and your fertility

They are often thought to be the safer version of smoking – but new research has found that the flavourings used in e-cigarettes may contain toxic chemicals which can damage men’s sperm.

A team from University College London found that two of the most popular flavours put into e-cigarettes were particularly damaging to sperm – bubblegum and cinnamon were both found to affect male fertility.  You can read more details about their research, which was presented at the Fertility 2017 Conference earlier this month, here 

Life without children for men

Researcher Megumi Fieldsend who has carried out previous work looking at childlessness is working on a new project  “Life without children – lived experience of a man who wanted to be a dad”. She would like to talk to childless men who are in heterosexual relationships with no adopted children, step-children or children of a partner from a previous marriage/relationship and she would like to carry out interviews as soon as possible. There are some other criteria which Megumi can discuss with anyone who might be interested, If you, or anyone you know, falls into this category and might be willing to talk to Megumi for her research project you can contact her at megfieldsend@gmail.com

National Portrait Gallery Exhibition

If you are in London, you may be interested in an exhibition of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery – the Taylor Wessing photographic Portrait Prize 2016.

Two of the photos were taken by Katie Barlow, a documentary film-maker who is currently working on a fantastic documentary about not having children which features author and Director of Fertility Fest, Jessica Hepburn, who many of you will be familiar with and Gateway Women’s Jody Day. Katie has spent the last year documenting the refugee crisis, and you can see two of her photos in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition. You can read what Katie wrote about this here  – and the exhibition is definitely worth a visit!

Leap In

If you haven’t already seen this fabulous article from The Guardian by Alexandra Heminsley, it is worth a read.

You may have come across Alexandra Heminsley before as she wrote a previous book, Running Like a Girl,, about her experiences of running (which I found really inspiring as someone who is not remotely sporty but who has discovered an unexpected love of running – albeit very slowly…).

This article is about her new book Leap In, which deals with swimming and fertility treatment. We learn that she has been through two rounds of treatment, one of which resulted in a positive pregnancy test followed by a miscarriage. There is always a feeling of connection when you read about someone going through fertility treatment – we all understand something that others never really can – and I found her article incredibly moving. She talks about her changing feelings as she goes through the unsuccessful treatment and miscarriage, about how she feels betrayed by her body and rejects it. Describing all this through a focus on swimming somehow makes it an even more powerful read. When she talks about the “sort of breathlessness, almost a vertigo” that comes over her when she thinks about never having a child, she captures in just a few words the vast hollow emptiness and fear which are so familiar to many of us.

I’ll be posting a book review soon, but in the meantime, do read the article.