If you’re trying to conceive, chances are you started out quite relaxed about the whole thing, assuming it would happen pretty quickly, and without too much effort or thought. “I’m not taking contraception, so I’ll get pregnant” you think, logically. However good your intentions are to remain relaxed, if you’ve been trying for a few months, the impatience monkey inevitably comes to sit on your shoulder. “That’s weird, I’m still not pregnant”, you think, your calm demeanour slowly giving way to frustration. A few months later and it’s all you can think about, turning you into an obsessive, anxious wreck. We’re taught at school to be ultra careful and to ALWAYS use a condom, as if any unprotected sexual relations we have will knock us up before we can say “sex education”. However, in reality, it’s actually quite a different story.
Conception is not a chance occurrence; there is actually a precise set of conditions that have to be met in order to conceive, whatever your age and however long or ir/regular your cycle. Providing that your eggs and your partners sperm are viable, the most important factor in conceiving successfully is when you ovulate. According to the NHS, an egg lives in your body for about 12-24 hours after you ovulate and your partner’s sperm can live for up to five days inside your body, and these life spans combined give you your all-important “fertile window”. If you’re reading this thinking you have beaten the window and managed to conceive outside it, you’re most likely mistaken; what’s actually happened is that your window moved, due to you ovulating on a different day than you expected.
For women who have monthly cycles (i.e who ovulate once per month) this basically means that you have approximately six days per month —the five days before and the 24 hours after ovulation— where having unprotected sex can lead to conception. This applies whether you have regular periods or not, and whether you’re 20 or 40; every time you ovulate, you have about six days to get your partner’s sperm on a hot date with your egg. If you happen to ovulate more than once a month then you have another six days where it’s possible, but either way, your eggs always come with a time limit, and so do your partner’s sperm, so whether you have one window or more, timing is everything if you want to conceive sooner rather than later.
If you’re ‘going with the flow’ and having unprotected sex when you feel like it, and without tracking your ovulation, it might result in conception, and if it does: lucky you! This method is great if you and your partner are consistently having loads of sex throughout the month, at least every couple of days. But many of us just aren’t able to maintain this; work, travel, responsibilities and other children to look after can all mean that sex gets pushed down the list of priorities, and the crucial window gets missed month after month. Plus, some theories suggest that a lot of sex on a consistent basis can actually reduce your chances of conceiving, because the quality and/or quantity of your partner’s sperm is reduced if he ejaculates too often.
Once Rob and I had decided to try for our first baby, I wanted to make it happen yesterday! Call me impatient, but once the decision has been made, I just wanted it done, so I was keen to find something that would help us maximise our chances. After doing a bit of research, it seemed the consensus was that tracking your Core Temperature (CT) or Basal Body Temperature (BBT) was the most accurate way of knowing when you have ovulated. According to Ovusense, your Core Temperature is “the low, minimum temperature your body cools to during a period of rest or deep sleep, when your heart rate is slower. If you measure this temperature every day throughout your menstrual cycle, you’ll notice that it doesn’t remain constant: it varies from day to day. If you measure it for multiple cycles, you’ll see how a specific pattern of changes coincides with when you ovulate.”
Apparently before ovulation, a woman’s Core Temperature averages between 97°F (36.1°C) and 97.5°F (36.4°C). After ovulation, it rises to 97.6°F (36.4°C) to 98.6°F (37°C). It’s a tiny change, caused by rising levels in progesterone, but it’s enough for a sensitive fertility app to detect that ovulation has occurred, and after a few cycles of getting to know your monthly pattern, predict when your fertile window is likely to be.
For my first two pregnancies, I used Natural Cycles, which involved me taking my temperature first thing in the morning with an oral BBT thermometer supplied in their kit. It worked; with my first pregnancy I conceived within two cycles and with the second, in one. The first pregnancy ended with a miscarriage, but the second pregnancy resulted in our gorgeous son, Odhrán, now eighteen months old. There were lots of things I liked about Natural Cycles, but having to take my own temperature manually as soon as I woke up, and having to make sure that I had been asleep for a certain amount of time, and that I was taking it before getting out of bed, all made it a bit stressful and was disrupting my sleep, which ultimately made me decide to switch to a wearable that would take my core temperature automatically during the night, without me having to worry about it.
When we decided to try for a sibling for Odhrán, the option I went for to conceive again was Ovusense, a small, tampon-sized, silicone bullet with a long tail that you insert into the vagina like a tampon and leave overnight. This sperm-looking device calculates your Core Temperature every five minutes throughout the night, taking lots of temperatures and coming out with an overall measurement. In the morning you open the app in your phone, wash the the sensor you’ve been wearing and place it on your phone, and the app picks up the results and plots them on a temperature graph. I had a few teething problems with it at first, namely a faulty sensor that would take numerous attempts —and about half an hour— to download to my phone, but once I contacted Ovusense about it, they sent me a replacement straight away which worked fine and would download immediately.
I started monitoring my ovulation just after I stopped nursing Odhrán, when he was about 10 months old. I wanted to get an idea of how my body was recovering after a year and a half or so of anovulatory cycles while I was pregnant and breastfeeding (it’s normal not to ovulate while you are nursing a baby, especially if the baby is exclusively breast-fed). Rob and I, being 40 and 39 respectively, didn’t want to hang around too long before having another baby, so I monitored my cycles casually for around 6 months before we tried ‘properly’ (for us that meant having sex almost every day in the fertile window; starting from four days before ovulation, including the day of ovulation and the day after….but it’s different for every couple). On this 7th cycle of using Ovusense we conceived the baby with which I am now 18 weeks pregnant; Odhrán’s brother or sister.
My verdict? Using a device to detect my ovulation and ‘fertile window’ undoubtedly helped me conceive all three pregnancies in a much shorter time than if I hadn’t been using a tracker. What I liked about Ovusense over Natural Cycles was the fact that I could pop it in like a tampon at night, knowing it would take my temperatures for me. This freed me up from having to do it myself manually in the morning, and it greatly reduced the chance of human (i.e Freya) error.
The trouble I found with taking my own temperature, was that you have to have been asleep for a certain amount of consecutive hours before taking it, so getting up in the night to attend to a crying baby, or to go for a nighttime wee, might throw it off if you then wake shortly afterwards to actually start your day. You also need to make sure that taking your temperature is the first thing you do on waking, even before sitting up or getting out of bed. Even before I had any children to look after, I kept forgetting this, and repeatedly missed my opportunity to take my temperature, so once I had Odhrán and was trying for baby number two, it became impossible. What I liked about Ovusense is that I didn’t have to worry about that.
Trying for a baby can be a stressful time, so whichever method of cycle tracking you choose, or if you decide not to use one at all, I wish you the best of luck with your baby-making journey! Stay positive, and look after yourself and your relationship. Let me know what you think in the comments, or hit me up on Instagram at @the_amateur_mama
Freya is one half of The Amateur Parents, along with her partner, Rob. Visit them on Instagram at @the_amateur_mama and @the_amateurdad
If you think you might be pregnant, it can be excruciating waiting until the first day of your missed period to test and find out. But just how early can you test? I am currently 17 weeks pregnant, and while I was waiting to see if I’d conceived, I experimented with different tests to try and find out as quickly as possible. Because of the expense, and the plastic, I didn’t want to start testing too early and waste a branded shop-bought plastic stick, so instead, I purchased some simple One Step pregnancy test strips from Amazon for only £3.29 for 20, so that I could test daily without worrying about the expense, or the plastic waste!
These little cardboard strips can be dipped in urine and will detect hCG if you’re pregnant, displaying two maroon/pink lines for a positive result. They are the same ones that your GP will use if you visit them for a pregnancy test (I can vouch for this as I have seen them do it!). They’re pretty easy to use if you read the instructions carefully.
I had been monitoring my ovulation with Ovusense and knew that I had ovulated on day 12 of my cycle. All the advice online seemed to agree that with sensitive tests, you can test from about 10 days after ovulation (10DPO or ’10 days post ovulation’). On day 23 of my cycle, 11 days after I’d ovulated, and 5 days before my expected period, I used one of the One Step hCG strips, and found that if I looked really, really carefully in the right light, I could see what I thought was a line; an almost completely invisible line, that is. Was it my imagination? I couldn’t be sure either way, because of the possible confusion with an ‘evaporation line’ (more on that below!), so I tested again the next day, and for a few days after that. Here were my results:
-Cycle Day 23 (11DPO): Practically invisible test line, almost entirely undetectable to the naked eye.
-Cycle Day 24 (12DPO): Almost the same as Day 23, but a ghostly-faint, colourless, almost invisible test line which can be detected when photographed and turned into a negative (see here for how to do this!) is present.
-Cycle Day 25 (13DPO): Very little change, but the test line today is every so slightly more visible than Day 24, especially its top left hand corner.
-Cycle Day 26 (14DPO): The test line is now visible, especially at its top left, where the ink meets the edge of the strip. The left hand side of the line is defined and straight, but it’s still hard to make out any pink colour.
-Cycle Day 27 (15DPO): The left hand side of the test line is now obvious and its right hand side is more defined.
-Cycle Day 28 (16DOP): The test line is now unmistakable, especially on the left border, where some colour is visible. The positive result is confirmed with a First Response test.
So what is an evaporation line and why should you beware?! An evaporation line is a really faint line that can show up where the test line would be if you leave it sitting around for too long after you’ve weed on it. It’s NOT a positive result, but equally, it isn’t a confirmation that you’re not pregnant. You should discard the test, re-test on subsequent days and make sure you read the result in the time specified.
I used one of my First Response tests the previous month, a day or so before my period was due. When I didn’t see a test line appear at first, I put the stick aside, still (mistakenly) convinced that I might be pregnant. The next day I looked at it again (yep, obsessed!) and saw what I thought was an extremely faint positive result line showing up, which made me wonder if it was in fact positive after all. When I called First Response to ask them, they told me that you should never read a test after the time limit specified in the instructions, and that what I was seeing was most likely an evaporation line, which is where the urine evaporates off the test line and leaves a faint, colourless mark. Sure enough, my period arrived the next day on that occasion!
You can avoid the confusion by reading the test within the time window specified in the instructions, and also, by taking a photo of your test, and using an app to turn it into a negative. This method is quite useful also if your test line is really, really faint, as mine were on the first days I was testing. Read how to do this here.
So there you have it, my verdict on testing early! If you’re (impatient!) like me and you want to avoid the expense and planet-destruction of using loads of plastic branded pregnancy tests when you’re testing every day, then I highly recommend the One Step pregnancy test strips. Then, if you really want confirmation from a well-known brand, you could get one test stick just to make sure. I chose the First Response test.
The pregnancy test. It’s a big deal, right? It tells you whether you’re bringing a brand new human into the world or…not. Whether you’ve been trying for a while, or your missed period has come as a surprise, taking the test and knowing for sure is a pretty big moment for any woman, and indeed, any man. But is taking the test a moment that should be shared by both the mother and father-to-be, or is it more fun, more romantic even, to surprise your partner with the happy news once you already know? Rob and I have been through three pregnancies together and we handled the testing part differently each time. Here we each give our perspective on taking the test, and talk to other couples about their experiences too.
FREYA: We’d been trying for a couple of months and I had just got back from a holiday to Ibiza when I noticed my period was late. It didn’t occur to me to wait to take the test with Rob; I just remember being at work and looking at the calendar, thinking “surely not?”. I went to Boots after work and bought myself a pregnancy test, and because I couldn’t wait, I took the test in a hotel toilet. It was positive! I spent the next few hours in an excited daze; entirely clueless as to what lay in store, but happy and giddy at the thought of having a baby. I had a huge suitcase with me, and having heard somewhere that pregnant women shouldn’t lift heavy things (which, incidentally, is a belief I don’t subscribe to anymore) I didn’t want to carry it home in my newly-pregnant state, so I texted Rob and asked if he could come to help me. He jumped on the tube, and it was in the middle of the concourse at Paddington station that I told him I was pregnant.
ROB: I was relaxing at home one Friday evening, looking forward to seeing Freya as she had returned from her holiday in Ibiza that day. Suddenly, I got a text from her about helping her with some luggage, and I must admit I did think it a bit strange, given that Freya is normally a very hardy character, and had been happily lugging a house-sized suitcase around London for the past few months, travelling around on all her housesitting placements. I put my shoes on and rushed over to Paddington. When I arrived, she was stood in the middle of the concourse with her suitcase, commuters streaming past. I had no idea what she as talking about when she said she had something to tell me, and asked me cryptic questions about why she might need help with her heavy bag. Eventually it clicked, and she confirmed the news by producing the positive test stick. I didn’t mind at all that I hadn’t been there for the test; I was over the moon at the surprise, and the fact that she told me in such an iconic train station made the whole thing an unforgettable experience.
FREYA: Sadly that first pregnancy ended in miscarriage at 6 weeks, but I got pregnant again just weeks later. Thirty days after I’d had the miscarriage, with my period still not having arrived, I said to Rob “shall I take a test?’. My biggest concern was wasting money on a pregnancy test that might turn out to be negative, just because I hadn’t had the patience to wait a few more days for my period. But because I’d been complaining of bad smells, and a glass of water had made me wretch, Rob told me to go for it, so I got a test off Amazon and took it straight away. This time, there was no dramatic reveal; I peed on the stick while Rob waited downstairs, and we both stood in the kitchen waiting for the lines. Sure enough, it was positive. I remember quite matter-of-factly saying “I’m pregnant”. Rob was pretty incredulous, as he couldn’t believe it had happened so quickly, but there it was, the positive result for us both to see. Because of everything we’d been through, it was a more reserved reaction than the first time, but to make up for it, I surprised Rob with a baby Liverpool kit when we came out of our first ultrasound scan at the hospital, along with a daddy-to-be card.
ROB: I remember us discussing with Freya the fact that the miscarriage was so recent, and umming and arring about doing a test so soon. But she was complaining about stinky smells that didn’t exist, so when she suggested taking a test I was all for it. I tried not to get my hopes up, but at the same time I had never doubted that we’d be able to have a baby, despite the first time ending in miscarriage. I was in disbelief when the two lines showed up though, as I couldn’t believe that it had happened so quickly. Both times we’d tried we’d got pregnant almost immediately. Bizarrely, the way we took the test and how I felt when I heard that it was positive was less memorable the second time around than the first, even though thankfully, this time all went well and we had our beautiful son Odhrán 9 months later. I’ve always remembered the Paddington moment as if that was when I heard that Odhrán was on the way, so somehow the two memories have become intertwined.
FREYA: My third (and current) pregnancy had a bit of a strange lead-up. Because I was breastfeeding Odhrán, my periods didn’t return until I started to wean him onto bottles when he was about ten months old. Rob was keen to have another baby, as was I, and given our ages (I was 39 and Rob was 40) we knew we couldn’t hang around too long. I started monitoring my basal body temperature again when my period returned, but I didn’t tell Rob, as I didn’t want to put pressure on the relationship by ‘trying’ for another baby, as it had made things quite mechanical and chore-like the last time around. After a few months obsessing over LH strips and hCG tests, my patience ran out and I suggested that we actually try properly, as I was concerned that if we carried ‘winging it’, it might be another year before I conceived.
So we timed sex for the fertile window, and that very cycle I got pregnant. I had been testing with cheap hCG strips from about day 23 of my cycle, and had seen a gradually darkening positive line on the strips with each passing day, so I had an idea that I might be pregnant. I still didn’t really believe it until, on day 28, I used a branded test and got the confirmation that indeed I was! I wanted to make an occasion of the reveal this time, especially as it meant that Odhrán was going to have a brother or sister, so I bought him a ‘Big Brother’ T Shirt, and made a little story book about him getting a trouble-making playmate next year. When Rob got home from work, and I told him that I’d come up with a business idea to make personalised story books for families, and that I wanted him to read the ‘prototype’, while I filmed his reaction for my ‘market research’. As he sat down to read it, he clocked straight away what I was up to, as by this point he knew me too well! But he humoured me and read through the whole book, and seemed delighted at the end when his suspicions were confirmed and he read that Odhrán was to have a younger sibling come April 2021!
ROB: I had been wondering if Freya was pregnant for the couple of days before she actually told me. I had been a little apprehensive leading up to that day, as although I suspected that our ‘trying’ had probably worked, there had been a bit of stress in the weeks leading up to that. After we had Odhran, I’d made it clear I wanted another child, but I hadn’t wanted to go on about trying for a second baby for numerous reasons, not least because I didn’t want to pressurise Freya to get pregnant again so soon. When out of the blue she told me that she’d been monitoring her ovulation for the last few months and that she was worried that nothing had happened yet, I was a bit surprised that she’d was ready to start trying again. As soon as I got home from work one Saturday, she brought Odhrán over to me and handed me a booklet, which she told me was a ‘business idea’ she wanted to test out on me. I knew straight away that something was fishy! But I quickly resumed my ‘innoncence’ and played along. Odhrán was sat next to me, enthralled with the little book (he loves reading!). We got to the page where he was to have a younger brother or sister, and I just smiled, looked up and said “I knew it!”. I was really happy, but I can read Freya like a book now (excuse the pun!).
WHAT ABOUT OTHER COUPLES? We talked to some of our friends to find out whether it’s best to ‘share or surprise’:
NIKKI: “After two traumatic miscarriages, Tom and I decided to have a weekend away in Amsterdam to let our hair down and take the pressure off trying for a baby. On our first night, we went out for a really fun evening of cocktails and food, and then the next morning I remember my boobs really hurting. I said “Tom, I’m pregnant, I just know it”. So we went to a chemist together in Amsterdam and took the test in our hotel room: it was positive. Despite the miscarriages, for some reason I just knew this time was going to be different. We were both really excited, and what had been planned as a ‘dirty weekend’ turned out to be a completely different experience; a loving, happy, joyful and romantic trip, celebrating the excitement of our future family together. The second baby was much more low-key. I was packing to go away on a retreat, and as I wondered if I should bring some tampons, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t had a period for a while. I took a test straight away while Tom was still at work, and it was positive. Tom came home, and before he’d even got in the front door, and while he was still soaked from the rain, I blurted out “I’m pregnant”. Although the baby was wanted and planned for, the speed at which I conceived was so unexpected that the timing felt like a bit of an inconvenience, as I was meant to be going away the next day, so our reaction was a little subdued. We were just as happy as the first time deep down, but the ‘reveal’ was much less glamorous the second time around!” @nikkiarmytagefoy
DOMINIC & TIM: “We decided to try conceiving the ‘turkey baster’ way, motivated by the savings we would make compared to IVF! Our single friend, Sarah* had never had IVF in mind, and was originally going to order some frozen sperm online. Because we also wanted a baby, the three of us made the joint decision to do it together using a Calpol syringe and a small Tupperware tub! Via our homemade method we had a 1% chance of success, but IVF wouldn’t have been much better, at 2%. Sarah was in her mid-forties and we were all dubious about it working, but nevertheless, we calculated the most fertile time to try and gave it a go. We were hopeful, but didn’t really think that we would succeed — certainly not as quickly as we did! After only our second attempt, Sarah sent me a photo of her positive result, via WhatsApp! We were all shocked, but very pleased, and we are now co-parents of a bouncing baby boy. @dominickelly
KATIE: “With our first, we’d been trying for eight months when, irritated and somewhat deflated, we decided to give up trying and just “go with it”. My best friend called to tell me she was pregnant with her second, which only compounded my frustration. I happened to mention that I was really hungover from the Saturday night, and she replied with “…but it’s Wednesday!”. I told her how I’d had to stop and puke on the way to work that morning. She shouted her reply: “take a test FFS!”. So I did…and I was one week pregnant! I rang my husband Karl, who was shocked and delighted, arriving home shortly afterwards with flowers, chocolates and a bottle of white wine in the middle of the day, which needless to say he drank on his own, trying to comprehend the news. We were stunned to say the least, and couldn’t really believe it until we saw the scan weeks later.”
DAVID*: “My wife Orlagh* and I are partners, lovers and friends. We go through everything together, and nothing about having a baby was private to either of us. I remember, on each of the three occasions we’ve had a baby, her saying “I think I’m pregnant” —before she’d even taken a test. She would buy the pregnancy tests and we’d make an occasion out of the big reveal. For our youngest daughter, we were about to go on a planned holiday to Ibiza when my wife mentioned her period was late, so we saved the test, took it with us in our luggage, and waited until we were on the white isle to actually take it. It made it even more special to be away on holiday in our favourite place to find out the good news.”
BEATRICE*: ” I left a letter for my husband on the bed, beside a bag of trash which, even at two weeks pregnant was already setting me off as he was awful at taking it out, despite it being one of his jobs! He always came in from work and went straight to get changed, so he walked in and saw the note, which was basically along the lines of “hey Daddy, if all goes well, I will be meeting you in 9 months time. Until then, please take the trash out as it’s making mummy and me feel very queasy! Love, your baby. p.s starting now, get this bag outta here!” My positive pregnancy test was under the bag. I laughed when I saw his face; such confusion as he read the note, then the quizzical look at the end, and then when he picked up the bag and saw the test, he was over the moon! He dropped the bag, grabbed the test and did a weird happy dance over to me shouting “this is amazing!” So yeah, he loved the surprise!”
MICHAEL*: “My daughter Chloe* came after the unfortunate miscarriage of our first baby. When my wife and I suspected she might be pregnant, I went to the shops and spent a fortune on a bundle of tests, just to be 100% sure. We both sat around impatiently, waiting for the blue lines together, and we were delighted when it showed up as positive. Baby number two, though planned, happened sooner than expected. My wife took that test alone, and our reaction this time was more reserved, solely due to the fact that we found out in the midst of the pandemic, which had dampened our spirits somewhat. Overall I would say that taking the test together was amazing; the nerves and excitement were something I will never forget.”
PETER*: “Our experience was probably quite different to most, as both of our children were conceived through IVF. So the result wasn’t really a surprise as such, but there was a lot of anticipation about whether the process had worked or not. We had to test on a very specific day that was planned ahead by the doctors, so it was more a part of the overall medical process than a private thing between us as a couple. We were over the moon both times though, and have two amazing children now.”
JULIA: “Kim was there both times we took a pregnancy test. He was, in fact, the one who suggested we try testing, even though we knew it was super early. He wasn’t actually in the loo while I was peeing on the stick, but he was waiting outside anxiously. Then we waited for the result together. It was great that we did it that way, as I think Kim always really wanted to be there for the initial reveal.”
NICOLA: “With us, both times, I had picked up a cheap test while out and had done it on my own, and surprised my husband Jorden with it afterwards. We’d then do a more expensive, clearer test together because the cheaper ones weren’t overly easy to read, and we got to have the ‘confirmation’ result together. ” @nikkij_uk
JORDEN (NICOLA’S HUSBAND): “I liked the way we did it. Especially the second time as we’d been trying for a long time. I think it helped that Nicola had used the cheap, less reliable test first, and then I was there for the confirmation, which made it real”. @berryjorden
LOTTIE: “The first time I was pregnant we took the test together, and I waited for my husband Thom to tell me whether it was positive or negative. It was really exciting! I’m glad we did it that way as it was a great experience being the one to be told the news. The second time, we were a bit more laid back, and I just casually suggested taking a test as my period was late. I went off on my own, and came back in disbelief, telling Thom “what the ………! I think I’m pregnant!” We couldn’t believe it and I ended up going out and buying no less than five further tests, and testing again and again over the following two days, just to make sure. We needn’t have, because my bump is very much alive and kicking, and we have a daughter on the way in 2021!” @lottielot13
DIANA*: ” I did the test on my own and then called my husband to surprise him. I didn’t know where he was at the time, but once he’d taken the news on board, he said “babe, I’m going to have to go, I’m at work, standing on a roof!”. He was surrounded by workmates, but somehow managed to climb down safely —and keep the good news to himself!”.
MARGOT*: Many moons go (12 to be exact) I’d been with my partner for a few years and had no success in the baby-making department. Fast forward to a trip to Amsterdam, where I had figured “when in Rome” with regards to sampling the local delicacies. But before I had tried any cookies or cakes, it occurred to me that I hadn’t had my period in a while, and I thought I’d better check, rather than be a ‘stoner mum’ before I’d even got off the starting blocks! Bang, I peed on a stick and we jumped for joy. No ‘cake’ for me in the Dam! I called my auntie first, and she started crying. I thought she was upset because I was unmarried, but no, she was crying with happiness as she’d dreamt only the night before that I was having a baby! I gave birth to my son Oliver*, and we tried for the next eight years to give him a sibling to no avail, in and out of fertility clinics, with more ‘camera crews’ inside me than the BBC! The heartache of not conceiving month after month was too much, so I decided not to try any more, and our marriage ended. Years later I met the most amazing man (my current partner). I happened to call my auntie to see how she was one day, and out of the blue she said “you’re pregnant”. “Not unless you know something I don’t”, I replied. It got me thinking though, and that night I bought a test without my partner knowing, peed on the stick and gazed at it in amazement: it was positive! For a few moments I was a deer in headlights and thought “I can’t tell anyone”, as it was such a shock. But when I went back downstairs, I saw my partner sitting there looking so gorgeous, and thought “there’s no way I can’t tell him”. He was absolutely overjoyed. I’m still in disbelief and can’t believe I’ve been this lucky”.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy
Freya and Rob are The Amateur Parents.Follow Freya on Instagram @the_amateur_mama and Rob @theama
The first trimester can be quite a hellish time, dominated by nausea, vomiting and tiredness, but what about those lesser talked about symptoms that hit you out of the blue and come as a surprise? Well, here’s a guide to the symptoms I have been experiencing over the past three months, plus a few chucked in from my previous pregnancy. You may recognise some or all of them, and you probably have a few of your own to add to the list, but remember, even if you have no symptoms at all, this isn’t necessarily anything to worry about! Plenty of women don’t notice any changes at all when they’re pregnant and still have perfectly healthy babies, so don’t fret. If in doubt, contact your doctor or midwife team.
Symptoms at THREE WEEKS:
At three weeks, it’s extremely early, and I didn’t really have any ‘symptoms’ as such. However, because I have the patience of a two year old in a sweet shop, I had started testing on day 23 of my cycle, which was still 5 days before my period was due. This was my ‘symptom’ at 3 weeks pregnant:
An almost totally imperceptible line on an hCG strip:
At 11 days post ovulation, I used a cheap hCG strip, and found that if I looked really, really carefully and in the right light, I could see what I thought was a really, really faint line. So faint, that it was almost entirely invisible, and makes for a pretty terrible reference photo for a blog, as on a computer screen you can hardly see it at all! I couldn’t be sure that it was a positive result because of the possible confusion with ‘evaporation lines’, but as it turned out, it was in fact a very early detection of low levels of hCG in my urine, which, in this case did mean that I was pregnant.
Symptoms at FOUR WEEKS:
Four weeks is around the time when many women who have been actively trying to conceive discover that they’re pregnant, as it’s about when your period would normally be arriving, and your hCG levels are high enough to be picked up on a pregnancy test. So, an absent period is the (pretty obvious) first symptom of pregnancy a this stage! But if you’re anything like me (impatient), you might be searching for clues as to whether you’re pregnant even before your period is due. These are the other symptoms I had started to notice at around 4 weeks, but you might spot them even earlier:
∙Mild nausea that comes and goes.
∙Slight car sickness.
∙Slight tiredness, with less ‘strength’ and less energy than normal.
∙A craving (bordering on obsession) for sparkling drinks containing grapefruit or rhubarb.
∙A strange one: my finger nails seem stronger and the tips whiter than normal. My imagination?
∙A sudden sensitivity to smells that previously went undetected was actually the first sign for me when I was pregnant with my first child, Odhrán. This time around it took a few more weeks to fully take hold.
Symptoms at FIVE WEEKS:
At five weeks, many women still haven’t taken a test, as your period is still only about one week late at this stage. Therefore, you may not notice any symptoms if you’e not looking out for them. In my case, this is when my symptoms starting ramping up, and the list was added to by the day.
∙My nausea is becoming more consistent now.
∙The tiredness is more noticeable, especially in the afternoon and early evening. Lots of early nights!
∙I’m getting slightly breathless when exercising compared to normal.
∙The obsession with sour or bitter sparkling drinks is growing ever stronger.
∙A craving for grapefruit begins (‘m eating at least 1 large pink grapefruit a day, cut up into chunks and eaten with a spoon).
∙My first aversion begins, to chocolate! Normally I’m addicted to it, so this has been surprising to say the least…
Symptoms at SIX WEEKS:
At 6 weeks, you still may not be feeling too bad, and will possibly still feel like you have the same energy levels as before. Be careful though, pushing yourself too hard at this stage can bite you on the bum, as you find yourself more exhausted after physical exertion than you would normally be.
∙Nausea has gone up a gear and has become even more consistent.
∙Motion sickness is increasing, even to the point where swinging gently on a swing induces the feeling of needing to vomit.
∙Physical exercise and exertion induces more tiredness and exhaustion than normal.
∙Food seems to taste more delicious and satisfying, or more disgusting and repulsive. The middle ground seems to have faded away.
∙The urgent need to eat often and at regular intervals is developing.
∙Not strictly an ‘aversion’, but I have gone off coffee. Even the smell doesn’t appeal any more.
∙A metallic taste is developing in my mouth. Not pleasant.
Symptoms at SEVEN WEEKS:
Ok, so here’s when things really got interesting. Even if I hadn’t already taken a pregnancy test, my symptoms by 7 weeks were unmistakable; I felt terrible.
∙Extreme exhaustion is setting in; I’m feeling the need to lie down constantly, nap during the day and be in bed by 7pm.
∙Strong and unrelenting nausea has firmly taken hold, as if suffering from permanent ‘sea sickness’ —on dry land.
∙A sudden aversion to chicken has begun; can’t eat it, can’t smell it, can’t even think about it. Apologies to my father-in-law who cooked us a big chicken dinner and watched as I ate NONE of it…
∙My aversion to chocolate is confirmed; I tested this out by sampling some of my mother-in-law’s secret stash. Nope. Revolting.
∙My super-human sense of smell is now firmly in place; everything stinks, including my partner, Rob!
∙Talking of smells, my farts have got smellier! This is down to hormones changing the way your bowel works. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
∙Thrush! Yep, I’ve had it with both pregnancies. Severe itching ‘down below’ both on internally and externally. Get me the Canesten!
Symptoms at EIGHT WEEKS:
∙Nausea is constant, intense and has no break now. Why it’s called ‘Morning Sickness’ when it lasts all day and night, I’ll never know.
∙Exhaustion is now extreme, meaning daily 2 hour naps plus 12 hour night sleeps.
∙Dizziness, shakiness and weakness has started to kick in, especially first thing in the morning, as if caused by low blood sugar or low blood pressure.
∙Constant eating and snacking needed to stave off feelings of sea-sickness and dizziness.
∙Night time eating has become necessary, as nausea and light-headedness wake me up at night.
∙My hands are swelling up a bit now, and the veins on the backs of them stick out more than normal. Pretty.
∙Hormone-related bowel changes means I now have diarrhea. Thankfully not the ‘desperate-run-to-the-loo’ kind, just looser than normal. TMI?
∙I’ve also been feeling flutterings, pulling and tightening in the lower abdomen, which is most likely the womb expanding and growing to accommodate it’s new happy camper.
Symptoms at NINE WEEKS:
If your first trimester is anything like mine, by nine weeks you’ll be praying that the second trimester arrives early! For me, at 9 weeks I was just over half way through this challenging first stage. To cheer ourselves up we got an early reassurance scan and saw our little gummy bear moving on screen. You’re over the hump! You can do it! Symptoms this week were:
∙Sickness and nausea is as strong as ever.
∙I would now descried the exhaustion as ‘debilitating’. I spend the whole time lying down and getting dizzy when I stand up.
∙The familiar aversion to being touched on the legs that I experienced in my first pregnancy shows up again. Get off, Rob!
∙The frequent need to urinate means I need to wee all the time, including throughout the night, which is more than a little annoying.
∙An insatiable thirst has me downing pints of water and waking at night to drink even more. Ice cubes in the water is particularly refreshing.
∙Bogeys: Here’s a weird one! Extra snottiness and dried up bogeys occupying my nostrils are now unmistakable. Gross, but true!
∙Lower back pain has blighted my week this week, most likely caused by picking up my son (which normally wouldn’t have been a problem).
∙Last but not least, and caused by the muscles of the stomach relaxing due to my pregnancy hormones, I am finding myself needing to burp a lot more. Attractive, this 1st trimester, isn’t it?
Symptoms at TEN WEEKS:
∙Nausea, exhaustion and weakness continue as strong as ever.
∙Insomnia has ramped up, caused not only by the need to urinate, eat and drink but also by nightmares!
∙Nightmares and vivid dreams have become a nightly occurrence and will wake me up at 2am or 3am for several hours.
∙Food obsessions continue to pop up out of nowhere, causing me to panic-buy tonnes of the same thing (which I wouldn’t recommend; I stocked up on Thai green curry sauces in week 10 but by the end of week 11 I hated the stuff).
∙I’m guzzling whole milk by the gallon (in porridge, cereal and tea).
∙As well as food aversions, I’ve also developed pregnancy-related human-aversions. or more specifically man-aversions. Ok, Rob-aversions. Rob’s feet gross me out now; if his toes so much as touch my leg I freak out. I was also surprised to notice that certain sounds he makes (particularly low, rumbling noises that he puts on to play with Odhrán) make my skin crawl and drive me insane (imagine The Incredible Hulk in the fight scene where he’s floored by the sonic cannons; that’s me).
Symptoms at ELEVEN WEEKS:
∙My drink obsession is now iced water with mint leaves, lemon and lime juice.
∙My food obsession is pear, kiwi and lime fruit salad with a mango puree and mint leaves, as well as carrots and cucumbers dipped in hummus.
∙The chicken aversion has become ever stronger, to the point that even the thought of live chickens walking around in their pen make me feel sick. Sorry chickens, no offence.
∙I realise that I also have an aversion to eggs now too.
Symptoms at TWELVE WEEKS:
∙Just when I thought it was already at its peak, the nausea and “sea-sickness’ has become even strong this week.
∙Exhaustion levels are now immense; I hardly get up from the couch or the bed.
∙Burgers have been added to the aversion list. YUCK.
∙Baked potatoes and corn on the cob have beome the new obsessions, as well as salmon (smoked, poached or baked) and cream cheese. YUM.
∙Desserts have started to taste “too sweet” (how?!) and chocolate still doesn’t appeal.
∙Crusty nipples. Anyone? I noticed this in my last pregnancy too, though it seems to have started earlier this time. It was only when I gave birth that I realised that the creamy coloured specs on my nipples were bits of dried colostrum (the thick, golden yellow-coloured first milk that your breasts produce to feed your baby in the initial few days) which, unbeknown to me, was already being made by my mammary glands in preparation for the baby’s arrival.
On the plus side, we got to see bub again at our 12 week scan.
Symptoms at THIRTEEN WEEKS:
∙I have become accustomed to existing in an almost-permanently horizontal position, while having only the slightest will to live. The only reason I get up at all is to look after my toddler or take him to the (very local) park, but where I can, I am sitting, or preferably lying, down.
∙Where previously, eating regularly was at least giving me some momentary relief, food is no longer helping my nausea now.
∙Carrots and cucumber are my favourite thing this week, food-wise. So cold and refreshing, ahhhhh.
∙Mint, and ginger and lemon tea is my latest drink obsession, and gives (very temporary) relief.
Symptoms at FOURTEEN WEEKS:
∙The nausea has ramped up to a new level, and evenings are the worst. I’ve never vomited, but this week I came very, very close, gagging and retching at the sight of some food on TV, and even innocent old toothpaste is causing some issues.
∙My new food aversion is tomato-based pasta sauce, which ordinarily I love, but which now I HATE.
∙Night eating (bread with margarine) is imperative (I take a slice to bed with me wrapped in cling film), as is a pint of water during the night.
∙Hot chillies and jalepenos continue to be a food obsession.
∙I have started trying some anti-nausea acupressure wrist bands. I’m not sure if it’s a placebo but they seemed to work on day one…
∙Despite the horrendous nausea, by the end of this week I have noticed one area of improvement: I had my first nap-free day this week! Progress? Let’s see…
Symptoms at FIFTEEN WEEKS:
O.M.G! Are things on the up? It does seem improving this week. By Tuesday I saw glimpses of my old self, meeting a friend at the park and feeling a renewed vigour to walk and do things.
∙No need for daytime naps this week, which means I can finally start working on some projects I’ve been meaning to get on with while my toddler naps on his own.
∙Evenings are still difficult, with the activity of the day catching up on me and causing strong nausea and exhaustion by 5pm each night.
∙Nightmares seem to be reducing too, although…
∙I still need to wee a lot at night!
∙Thrush continues to be an issue.
Symptoms at SIXTEEN WEEKS:
A mixed week this week. I was looking forward to week 16, as in my head it was the magic week when, in my pregnancy with Odhran, the woeful first trimester symptoms came to an end and I stopped feeling sick and exhausted. So I was (mistakenly) expecting that this week I would suddenly feel completely normal and bounce back to life. In reality, things seem to have gone backwards somewhat this week ,and some of the progress made last week appears to have retroceded.
∙Energy levels are up and down; some days I feel almost ‘normal’ and others I need to join my toddler for a daytime nap.
∙The nausea has been quite bad, and my gag reflex has stepped up a gear. I gagged on toothpaste one evening and was a tiny bit sick into the basin!
∙My huge disgust reflex and aversion to the tomato-based pasta sauces that emerged 2 weeks ago has gone up a level; I tried to make a pasta bake and couldn’t even look at it, let alone smell or taste any of it. Rob had to eat it all. He wasn’t complaining.
∙I seem to be eating nothing but bread and cereal (with whole milk).
∙The vivid dreams continue but not quite as bad as previous weeks.
∙My insomnia is fairly bad; I’m spending 2 or 3 hours awake per night.
Symptoms at SEVENTEEN WEEKS:
I don’t want to speak too soon, but the first trimester appears to have finally been left in the past now, as my energy levels, nausea and general outlook on life seems have vastly improved. Last week must have been the transition. While certainly not my ‘normal self’, I’ve come on leaps and bounds from the invalid I was a few weeks ago, and I’m looking forward to a productive second trimester! I hope you are too.
∙Coffee, which I haven’t touched since I discovered I was pregnant, has suddenly reclaimed its appeal. I am now enjoying one (weak) cup a day.
∙The nausea, although still present, has reduced greatly.
∙My taste buds are still off kilter, with things that I used to like (chicken, tomato-based pasta sauce, eggs, burgers etc) now pretty revolting.
∙Acid reflux is now kicking in; this was an unwelcome accompaniment to my last pregnancy too. Gaviscon is my new best friend.
∙Back and hip pain is causing me a bit of discomfort, and my normally comfortable mattress is now way too hard! I have got myself a HUGE pregnancy pillow and a memory foam mattress topper, which help immensely, as I am also trying to train myself to sleep on my side, ahead of the third trimester (when it’s recommended you don’t sleep on your back in order to maintain good oxygen supply to the baby).
∙No more naps! I’ve got way more energy again during the day.
So there you have it, that brings us up to date and into the second trimester! Let me know in the comments below if you’ve had similar symptoms or whether you’ve experienced others that I haven’t mentioned, I’d love to hear!
Freya is one half of The Amateur Parents, along with her partner Rob. Follow Freya on Instagram @the_amateur_mama for more parenting articles and photos.
During the thirty minutes I spent knocked out on the operating table, I would have my legs spread open and hooked up in stirrups, my ovaries drained of their contents and my eggs sucked out via a long, thin needle inserted into my vagina and through the wall of my womb. My surgeon, Mr Shah, would skilfully navigate his needle through the labyrinth of my insides and suck out my eggs one by one, shooting them along a tube across the room, through a hole in the wall not dissimilar to a 1980’s dining room serving hatch, into a glob of cryoprotectant freezing solution to be plunged deep into a tank of liquid nitrogen. None the wiser, I slept a dreamless sleep, oblivious of the events unfolding between my legs.
Nine eggs and forty-five minutes later I was waking up in the recovery room, a cup of tea and some rich tea biscuits next to me on a table. A nurse gently let me know that as soon as I’d had them, it was time to be on my merry way. It was surprisingly anti-climatic; the end of a journey that had taken an immense amount of thought and preparation, not to mention an immense amount of money. In a drug-induced daze, I ignored the polite nurse and let my heavy, morphine-clouded head clonk back onto the pillow as my eyes drifted back shut. Some time after, I woke up properly, sat bolt upright and scoffed the biscuits before bouncing out of the clinic and into bustling Marylebone. As I skipped towards the tube, I was surprised to note how pain-free, on top of the world and seemingly invincible I felt, not realising that I was still flying high from the anaesthetic. I was so full of beans I felt like I could take on the world.
Thirty-eight and single
Needless to say, I didn’t take on the world that day, or the day after. I came down from my anaesthesia-induced high approximately two hours and thirty-five minutes after reaching home, and holed myself up in bed to spend the afternoon working on my laptop, a dull ache slowly spreading across my tummy to remind me that that I had just had abdominal surgery to suck out nine eggs, and that one of those now-frozen ovum might one day be my child. I was three months short of my 38th birthday and single, and the realisation that maybe I wouldn’t meet someone in time to have a baby had suddenly, and quite recently hit. I’d heard of egg freezing before; I’d seen the little advertising plaques they have on the tube, but I had never considered it relevant. I hadn’t thought it would ever be something I’d need to do and had assumed that at some point I’d grow up and meet someone, and we’d decide to have a family. But now, after years of putting it off, FORTY was suddenly fast-approaching and I realised that despite years of never really caring either way, I did now want children after all. But had my time almost run out, and if so, should I invest a whopping five and a half thousand pounds on trying to pause it?
My twenties: footloose and fancy free
I can’t remember the exact moment I decided to go for egg freezing and that’s probably because it wasn’t one exact moment. Like lots of big decisions, this one had taken a long time to germinate, somewhere in a cosy womb-like space in the back of my mind. Bit by bit the accumulation of birthdays and failed relationships, and the realisation through years of counselling, therapy and life coaching that I had deep-rooted desires of which I’d been long-denying myself, all gradually combined in one big tail wind, pushing me towards a big fat crossroads in my life. Throughout my twenties and early thirties I had insisted that I didn’t want children. I pitied women who gave up their lives to look after kids and was incredulous of anyone who’d want a snotty little leech running their life. In relationships, my baby-aversion and fear of commitment had not yet become an issue because let’s face it, what twenty-something bloke wants to hear his girlfriend saying “Shall we have a baby”. It was a dating advantage to be footloose, fancy free and unshackled by the maternal instinct that I felt blighted many of my peers.
A difficult childhood I didn’t want to repeat
The first time the idea of babies had really came up in any seriousness was in a relationship I was in when I was thirty-two. Despite this guy’s devotion, I became more and more ambivalent, repeating the familiar self-sabotaging patterns that had become my go-to crutch when faced with emotions I couldn’t handle. I rejected any possibility of marriage or children, convincing him as well as myself that neither would be on my radar, ever. Because he loved me, he reluctantly went along with what I ‘wanted’, and it was only during a huge fight at the end of our relationship, in which I hurled undeserved abuse at him, that I realised I did want those things, only I couldn’t fathom any way of being able to have them. My own childhood had been unsettling to say the least and I no longer had any real contact with my mother (and still don’t to this day), so the thought of opening up a can of worms by starting my own family was too painful even to contemplate. Instead of bringing fulfilment, relationships had only triggered fear, confusion and panic. I wanted to run back to the safety of not being needed, and not needing anyone else.
Facing my fears
After that break-up it dawned on me that I had emotional baggage yet undealt with since childhood, so I began a course of life coaching (with the super-duper women’s coach Nikki Armytage). It turned out to be the first of many steps in breaking down my emotional barriers, steps that subsequently included both counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Gradually I was able to make sense of my fear of relationships and negative thought patterns, and find strength in vulnerability, and gradually I allowed my angry defences to lower a little in order to see more clearly the things that I was missing out on. To my shock, I found that I was actually quite good with children, and I found myself wanting to spend more time around them. I started volunteering with my friend’s charity in Kenya, travelling to Mombassa to run holiday programmes for the fifteen orphaned and abandoned children she supports there. Closer to home, I volunteered my time to organise a marketing campaign for a another friend’s charity supporting women and child survivors of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and on a personal level, I was made godmother to my baby nephew, born in 2015.
When egg freezing first seemed like a real option
It was a period of great change, but at almost thirty-eight, was it too little, too late? In amongst all of that growth, another relationship had started and ended, and I was now enjoying a long list of Tinder dates crammed into lunch hours or brunch hours or after-work, pre-gym squeeze-you-in hours. Whether it was choosing the ‘wrong’ type or plain bad luck, I languished in a string of relationships that wouldn’t budge beyond the three month mark. I didn’t want to plump for just ‘anyone’, but equally the time pressure to find the ‘right’ one to settle down with was ruining all the fun as the clock ticked ever louder. So when a friend of a friend went to Harley Street to get her eggs frozen, a light switched on. It was no longer just an advertising plaque on the tube. It wasn’t something that other women, unknown to me, spent their designer handbag money on. Egg freezing had all of a sudden been catapulted into the forefront of my mind as something most definitely relevant; an actual possibility that I was literally considering. I was finally ready to admit it: I loved kids, I was great with kids and I wanted my own kids. But now that I was able to say that, was my biological clock going to let me down?
Getting a ‘fertility test’ in Harley Street
I decided to book a meeting with Mr Amit Shah of Fertility Plus, still not thinking that I’d really go through with it. Somewhere in a secret, anti-feminist corner of my brain, there was a version of me secretly dreaming of being rescued by a knight in shining armour, riding in wanting a serious relationship and saving me from having to go through with such a big emotional and financial commitment. What I was yet to see, was that this commitment was going to be my way of saving myself. Mr Shah offered me a fertility test as a first step, and as it only cost a fraction of the full egg retrieval procedure, it seemed sensible —if nothing other than to get an idea of the state of play ‘down there’. It would be a measure of my ‘ovarian reserve’; which is a test of female fertility potential, or to put it more bluntly ‘how long you have left to have a baby’. I coughed up £350 and took the plunge.
Antral follicles and AMH levels
Mr Shah explained that the test would be a two-step process. The first step was a vaginal ultrasound (cue medical dildo complete with condom and lube) which would show us my antral follicle count. Ovaries are filled with follicles, which are fluid filled sacks each containing an immature egg. Each menstrual cycle, several of those follicles will start developing eggs, and usually, just one of them will be released, while the remaining follicles disintegrate. Think of antral follicles as ‘follicles of the month’ because they’re the ones that have the potential to grow, mature and release an egg. Because of their larger size and fluid-filled cavity, these follicles can be seen on ultrasound, and are what Mr Shah would be counting. Your number of antral follicles can indicate how much time you have left, and perhaps more importantly, what your body’s response will be to stimulation of the ovaries for egg retrieval. It’s important information to have because, not only does it tell you how prolific your ovaries are (follicles with the potential to ovulate decline with age) but also tells your surgeon how much medical stimulation you will need if you do decide to go ahead with the procedure.
The second step was to have blood tests to measure the levels of Anti-Mullerian Hormone (AMH) in my blood. AMH is a hormone produced by your active ovarian follicles, so your levels of AMH often relate to the number of your antral follicles. AMH levels in isolation can also depict the remaining lifespan of the ovaries, and again, tell you how much time you have . Like antral follicles, AMH declines naturally with age, while high levels can suggest polycystic ovaries. All important stuff.
Suddenly, despite having never heard of them before, how many antral follicles I had became all-consumingly important, and I found myself hoping and praying for a good result. After an agonising few days, I met with Mr Shah to discuss the findings. “Your AMH levels have come back at 22 pmol/L”. I stared back at him blankly. “Which is higher than expected for your age” he added. Ok, well that’s good, I thought. “I would normally expect AMH levels to be between 15-17 at your age” he continued. “Well done, ovaries!” I cheered, silently. Mr Shah went on; “the ultrasound scan showed 12-14 antral follicles which, again, is a good number, and your ovaries aren’t showing any polycystic ovarian morphology. It’s a satisfactory result”. It was like getting a 2:1 from York all over again, except this time I hadn’t had to read any books, study any scholarly essays or write any dissertations. But somehow I still felt as smug as if I’d passed a test; my ovaries were adequate… for my age. Yay!
And that’s the caveat; at almost thirty-eight, having adequate ovaries ‘for one’s age’ still isn’t the best prognosis when it comes to the business of baby-making. Especially if you’re currently single with no sign of a partner on the horizon, and you’re hoping to harvest strong eggs that will withstand the freezing, and maybe also one day, the thawing processes. The second caveat is, that just because you might have a relatively good egg count, it doesn’t necessarily mean that quantity equals quality. Nor does it mean that you’ll definitely get viable eggs, or any egg at all. So while the news was as good as it could be, I still had to keep my feet on the ground. The question now was: should I shell out five and a half grand and take a chance on freezing my fertility?
Raising the £5500 it cost to freeze my eggs
Mercifully, I did at least have the five and a half thousand pounds to be in the position to make that decision. But I had worked really hard for it, so it wasn’t an easy decision. I had been saving up to launch a new business; my baby, if you like, which was an idea I had gone to ITV with to turn one of their iconic TV gameshows into a real-life immersive experience, and I was in the midst of developing the idea, finding a London location, and most importantly, raising over a million pounds to launch it when I first went to see Mr Shah. Having previously been a jobbing actor (translation: unemployed), I had no money whatsoever when I first started the business, so in order to raise some much needed seed capital, I had landed a temp role with a telecommunications company, moved out of my flat and joined a housesitting website.
Housesitting turned out to be the best way ever to live in London for free. Literally for free. The only snag is that you are constantly moving; each ‘placement’ would last anything from one week to three months, with my average stay in any one home lasting about ten days. So if you housesit full-time, you’re constantly on your toes, always having to line up somewhere new to live so that you’re not out on your ear. With a full-time, pressurised job to maintain plus a start-up to launch, having to find somewhere new to live every ten days can be unsettling at best and stressful at worst, so you have to be comfortable with the unknown. And you have to love pets, which I did, so that part wasn’t a problem. I would move from swish Marylebone townhouse to forest retreat, from Richmond terrace to Paddington house boat; from cat to parrot, to pug to hen with nothing but a suitcase and a prayer. I was a hobo in heels.
Taking my future into my own hands
So when I say I worked hard for that five grand, I really mean it. Literal blood, sweat and tears. But in a way, all the effort, energy and passion that had gone into making that money was the last push in my marathon towards motherhood. Because the way I see it, spending a significant amount of money on something is like making a big statement. It might not necessarily be a statement that anyone other than you can hear, but nevertheless you’re choosing to transfer all the energy and effort that it took to make that money onto something you think is a worthy investment. And when you make an investment, you’re doing so with the hope, the belief even, that something will grow and develop from it; that it will be worth more in the future than what you’re spending on it now.
For me, it was a powerful commitment to the change I had initiated five years earlier when I had decided to do something about my destructive pattern of relationships, my self-limiting beliefs and my fear of vulnerability. No knight in shining armour arrived to save me from Mr Shah’s needle, and thank God they didn’t, because it was time for me to woman-up and take responsibility for my own future, to have the balls, nay the ovaries to make that silent declaration to the universe that I was ready and willing to invest in having a family of my own. Who knows whether, had I not gone through with it, the amazing events that followed soon afterwards would ever have happened.
I transferred the money and took a deep breath. In order to get my ovaries ready to be ‘harvested’, I would have to inject myself with a combination of two drugs; Bemfola, a follicle stimulating hormone which would encourage several of my follicles to mature their eggs all at the same time, and Fyremadel, to prevent my ovaries releasing those eggs before they were ready to be collected. Because of the decent amount of antral follicles I had, Mr Shah decided to put me on a ‘low dose stimulation protocol’ in order to avoid Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome, a side effect of the treatment which can cause uncomfortable and potentially dangerous symptoms including nausea, bloating and vomiting in mild cases; weight gain, severe pain and blood clots in severe cases and kidney failure, ovarian torsion (twisting of the ovary) and haemorrhage in the worst.
He explained that some doctors like to administer as much medication as possible in order to encourage the ovaries to mature the maximum amount of eggs, but in addition to the risk of gruesome side effects, a high dose protocol doesn’t necessarily guarantee plentiful eggs. Just because the follicles are large, and even if they each contain an egg, the quality may not be sufficient to go ahead with freezing, and they could, in theory, all have to be thrown away. Under or over developed eggs have a lower chance of conception success, so the whole process is a fine art, combing precision timing, balanced pharmacology and skilful handiwork.
Mr Shah’s approach was to use a modest amount of drug-induced stimulation in order that the eggs that I produced were viable. My follicle growth would be monitored carefully with frequent vaginal scans, and when they were at just the right stage of development, I would inject the all important “trigger shot”, precisely thirty six hours before going in for the operation (this shot is usually a hormone shot of Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (HCG), which triggers the ovaries to mature their eggs). In a natural menstrual cycle, HCG would tell the follicle not only to mature its egg, but crucially, to release it. However, in a medicated cycle where the endgame is to collect the eggs, it’s imperative that this release doesn’t happen. Eggs, once released from the ovaries, can not be collected, so the timing of the trigger in relation to getting to the operating table is vitally important. Miss your appointment and you could potentially have multiple mature eggs floating down your fallopian tubes towards your womb (note: do not have sex at this point unless you want to risk being the next Octomum).
Mr Shah and I had to work out the best dates to go ahead, because not only was the timing of the operation going to be vitally important, the date that you start the drugs depends on where you are in your monthly cycle, and we had to make sure that we were both going to be available at the right moment to proceed with the operation once my follicles were ready. Dates decided, he handed me a big box of pre-filled syringes and told me it was time to practise injecting. Having never been a diabetic nor a drug addict, I had never had the opportunity to master the art of using a syringe, so I didn’t realise what a wuss I was until Mr Shah demonstrated how to do it before asking me to have a go. It was imperative he could trust me to administer the drugs myself on a daily basis, and if not, I would need a nurse to do it.
Learning to self-inject
My hand trembling, my eyes welled up as I tried once, twice, thrice to stab the needle into the fold of tummy flesh I was nervously gripping between the finger and thumb of my left hand. My needle-holding hand seemed to belong to someone else, someone with vibrating fingers and an annoying habit of retracting the needle just at the point where it was about to touch the skin. The harder I tried to plunge the needle in, the more violently my hand would tremble. Presumably accustomed to such muppetry, Mr Shah politely assured me that my pathetic reaction was completely normal. Beads of sweat poured down my face and I began to worry about the distinct possibility that I would be staining the posh chair I was sitting on with the perspiration that was now pooling between my legs. Was it me or was the room unbearably hot?
“Come on you idiot”, I said to myself, not helping matters. “Stick it in”. If I couldn’t inject myself, I’d have to traipse into central London every day to have a nurse do it, and seeing as I’d planned a cosy two weeks working from home while I would be pumping myself with hormones, the thought of having to commute into town every day to be injected by a nurse really didn’t fit with the programme. After what seemed like ten eternities, and with tears of embarrassment rolling down my face, I finally stabbed the needle into my skin and pressed down the plunger. Surprisingly, it was like slicing through butter. The initial pain was immediately replaced by shock as alarmingly cold liquid shot into my skin. “Well done” said Mr Shah, and for a moment I thought I was going to get a gold star. “It’s completely natural that you’d feel some anxiety if you’ve never done it before, but you’ve done really, really well”. A look of smug satisfaction crept across my face —I really was nailing this whole fertility thing. Deserving of praise or not, I’d done it, and Mr Shah had a unique way of making you feel like you were top of the class. Now I just had to do it every day for the next two weeks, and without Mr Shah cheering me on.
What I would say to anyone contemplating fertility treatment, either for the purpose of egg freezing like me, or for IVF, is that self-care during your treatment goes a very long way. Mr Shah recommended I work from home during the lead up to the operation, which I was lucky enough to be able to do, and I didn’t regret it. The impact of the daily hormones should not be underestimated; some days felt like I’d mixed a hundred doses of pre-menstrual tension with ten good pinches of puberty and downed the whole bloody lot in a glass of good old fashioned Victorian hysteria. Some days, within ten minutes of injecting, I would feel a huge wave of nausea and fatigue envelop me, sending me running to my bed to curl up under a thick duvet and let out a long, primeval moan.
Other days, as the wave came crashing down, it would bring with it a complete emotional breakdown; a friend once made the unwitting mistake of calling my mobile just after I’d injected one day, only to hear me wail down the phone for ten minutes straight, for absolutely no apparent reason. Another day, after learning of the death of a (very old, terminally ill) cat that I had previously looked after, I cried for the rest of that day, and intermittently for the rest of the week. Couple the emotional instability with the fact that you get a fair whack of bloating, breast tenderness and general premenstrual funk, it’s fair to say you won’t be rushing out to put on a designer frock and Live Your Best Life during this period.
You’ll benefit from peace and quiet (if you can get it), wholesome, delicious, nourishing food, plenty of water, herbal teas and heaps of self care. Clear your diary and don’t make any plans that you can’t easily and guiltlessly get out of, and make sure that as few people as possible have any expectations of you during the couple of weeks you’ll be injecting. As best you can, avoid any situations where there will be confrontation, emotional labour or painful triggers, but say yes to anything you feel like doing for yourself, whether that be your favourite meal, a lovely warm bath, snuggling for an evening of Netflix or indulging in your favourite body treatment. On the advice of my life coach friend, I assembled a support group for the few weeks that I would be going through my procedures, made up of five or so friends who I knew would be positive about my decision and support me throughout its ups and downs. I added them to a little whatsapp group and kept them up to date with my daily trials and tribulations, and they helped me keep a smile on my face along with a much needed sense of humour.
Acupuncture for fertility
Alongside all this, I treated myself to acupuncture. A lot of women undergoing IVF have acupuncture as a complementary treatment alongside the fertility drugs, and tests have shown it to significantly improve the chances of successful implantation of in-vitro embryos. Although I was not having any embryos implanted, I figured it couldn’t hurt to get me some of that acupuncture while I was maturing my eggs, as it’s meant to help combat stress, regulate your hormone levels, increase blood flow to the reproductive organs and regulate your immune system Sign me up! Whether or not it helped with creating better or more eggs is debatable, but it definitely helped me mentally, and it felt good to know that I was doing as much as I possibly could to ensure the best possible outcome. Overall, the time leading up to my egg freezing procedure was probably the most self-caring I’ve ever been; never before or since have I made such a concerted effort to protect and nourish myself physically, mentally and emotionally, and this, in hindsight, was another big part of my motherly awakening. It also meant that I bounced back after the procedure as good as new, without any lingering exhaustion or sense of depletion.
Stopping the clock: a contentious issue
The irony is, of course, that I embarked on the expensive and physically draining journey to freeze my eggs in the hope of never actually having to use them. I still had faith that I’d be lucky enough to meet someone and have a child naturally, but deciding to go for egg freezing helped to take the pressure off having to meet someone like, yesterday. It’s a contentious issue though; some argue that the egg freezing industry leads to dangerous complacency in women in their late thirties and early forties, who are led to believe that they can stop the clock, but who will unfortunately and inevitably find later down the line that when it comes to thawing their eggs for use in IVF, the guarantees of motherhood they believed they had do not survive the defrosting process and end up being discarded. But despite the statistics on the viability of thawed eggs, others argue that egg freezing removes the time constraint from finding the perfect mate, and with a new relaxed outlook and less emphasis on finding a man to father your baby, you are less anxious about the future and more open to letting things happen naturally.
A symbol of independence
It also marks a pretty powerful step forward for Feminism; men have never had to worry about being ‘past it’ in the fertility race, which has arguably put them in a stronger position in the dating game and beyond. Now, with advancing knowledge and increased availability of female fertility treatments such as egg collection, sperm donation and embryo freezing, women have more options —not as many as men enjoy, granted— but we are certainly freed up somewhat from the age-old notion of ‘being left on the shelf’. I can’t speak for why other women go through with egg freezing, but for me, it was the final step in taking responsibility for my mental health, dealing with both my childhood trauma and my adult depression, and facing the fear of relationships and motherhood that had blighted my personal life for the preceding ten years. It was an important symbol: I was saying that I wanted a baby, that I was willing to invest care, time and money in a chance to have one, and that I believed I would be a good mother.
Good eggs vs Bad eggs
Once home and ensconced in my cosy bed after the operation, Mr Shah called me on my mobile for the moment of truth. How many eggs did they manage to collect? This was the most nerve-wracking part of the whole, entire process. Before the operation, the scan had indicated that I had a decent amount of mature follicles, but no one knows how many follicles will contain viable eggs until they’re actually collected. Mr Shah had described the way that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ eggs look under a microscope. Healthy, mature, genetically viable eggs appear uniform in shape, nice and round with smooth edges, even borders, and a nice clear nucleus, and their surface should reflect the light. ‘Bad eggs’ on the other hand are irregular in shape, oblong rather than round, grey in colour and with rough, fragmented or jagged edges and poor light reflection. Being well over thirty-five, the chances of my follicles containing a few ‘bad eggs’ was pretty high, so I was anxious to know what they’d found; the whole thing would be in vain if most of the eggs they had collected were useless.
The all important number: how many eggs?
I held my breath as Mr Shah took me through the results. The news was good —ish. He had found ten large follicles and four smaller ones. Nine of the follicles had contained eggs, seven of which were mature and ‘looked good’. Those seven were immediately frozen. The remaining two had appeared immature and ‘possibly abnormal’, which Mr Shah assured me was not unusual. In his view, it was a good outcome with seven mature eggs on ice. Phew. I had a result which, by no means anywhere near a guarantee that I’d be able to have a child, at least meant that I had a chance.
The law of attrition
And here is where the numbers start to show the stark reality of egg freezing. In my case, it cost around five and a half thousand pounds to grow fourteen follicles which yielded an eventual result of seven successfully frozen eggs. Which, if you care for maths, works out at just over seven hundred pounds an egg. The observant among you may have noticed a decremental pattern forming in the numbers already; only fifty per cent of the follicles that I grew yielded viable eggs. You’d better get used to this number-halving pattern, because in the business of fertility, this ‘attrition’ only continues as you progress through the stages from follicle to baby, and it can make for slightly discouraging reading. Here’s how it works: To make a baby with fertility treatment you need to first stimulate the ovaries to mature several eggs all at once (tick), and then extract the eggs (tick) and freeze the ones that are deemed viable (tick).
Then, at such time when you’d like to try making a baby from your eggs, you need to defrost them (cue some of the eggs perishing in the thawing process), take the ones that survive being defrosted and fertilise them with sperm (cue some of those eggs not fertilising properly and dying), nurture the surviving fertilised eggs into embryos (cue some of those embryos dying in vitro), and then, of the embryos that survive, transfer two or three of them into the womb, in the hope that at least one will implant successfully, grow into a foetus, survive to term and be born as a live and kicking baby. The fact is that at with every stage in the process, it’s fully expected that some of those eggs and embryos will be lost, so the more you set out with at the beginning, the better your chances.
Success rates: The frustrating confusion
The frustrating lack of accurate and comprehensive data on how many frozen eggs end up as live births makes it even harder for women to decide whether egg freezing is worth everything it costs them — financially and emotionally. The BBC earlier this year published an article which cited a quote from leading fertility expert Lord Robert Winston that claimed only 1% of all frozen eggs thawed for use in fertility treatment actually result in a pregnancy and subsequent live birth. Which, if it’s true, is really quite depressing. But it’s also confusing, because the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) – puts the success rate at closer to one in five. However, the HFEA are referring to how many embryos developed from frozen eggs result in a live birth as their success rate —which they put at around 19%. So the two statistics come from really quite different data when you consider the difference between a thawed egg on the one hand, and an embryo successfully developed from a thawed egg on the other. There’s a gulf —and a whole load of unsuccessfully fertilised eggs—between them.
So how many eggs do you need to freeze to get a baby?
The best way to think about it is to be realistic about how many eggs are likely to be lost at each stage of treatment. In 2016, when Lord Winston asked for data, 1,204 eggs were thawed. Of these, 590 eggs (49%) were fertilised, so it’s realistic to assume that half your eggs will be lost at this first stage. Of the 590 eggs fertilised, 179 (30%) were transferred back to a patient, but we don’t know how many of those fertilised eggs not transferred perished or were frozen for later use. Out of the embryos transferred, 22 resulted in a pregnancy (13%). There was no data for the live birth rate. These numbers vary from woman to woman of course, with the age at which your eggs are frozen being one of the most important factors in how well they will survive each stage. Having digested all of this, I decided to do the maths on my own little omelettes:
Follicle Stage: Follicles grown using Bemfola and Fyremadel: 14.
Harvest Stage: Of those 14 follicles I got 7 healthy eggs (50%). Egg count: 7.
Thawing Stage: If I apply Lord Winston’s 2016 data to my eggs; 50% of my egg will likely not survive the thawing process in order to be fertilised, should I ever decide to use them. Likely Fertilised Egg count: 3-4.
Fertilisation Stage: 30% of the 2016 fertilised eggs were transferred back to the patient, but as I pointed out above, we don’t know whether that means the others died or were kept on ice for future rounds of IVF. Because of this, I’m going to make a conservative estimate that 50% of the fertilised eggs from the last stage would develop into embryos suitable for transfer. Likely Transferrable Embryo count: 1.5 – 2.
Pregnancy Stage: 13% of the embryos transferred to patients in the 2016 data resulted in a pregnancy, so this is where the chances of my 7 eggs resulting in a baby become —on paper at least— negligible. Pregnancy count: 0.2 – 0.3.
Live Birth Stage: There was no data available for this. But if we take the HFEA’s statistic that 19% of embryos made from frozen eggs result in a live birth, and if my likely embryo count is 1.5-2, then my Live Baby Count would be: 0.3 – 0.4, which is not even half a baby!
Statistics aren’t everything
This is why statistics make for such alarming reading. To stand even a low chance (according to statistics) of achieving a live birth from egg freezing, I would have had to have spent in the region of fifteen thousand pounds so that I could have had three cycles of ovarian stimulation over the course of a few months, requiring me to inject hormones for every cycle. Assuming I’d produce roughly the same number of eggs each time, this would have resulted in about twenty one healthy eggs. Using the same maths above, this would have given me a chance of having five transferrable embryos and one live baby. Makes grim reading, doesn’t it? But as history has proven time and time again, statistics aren’t always everything. One woman’s chances of success with IVF can vary wildly from another and there are plenty of success stories which fly in the face of statistics; I personally know of several that have defied all odds. So there is a small chance that, should I decide to take my seven little eggs out of the deep freeze, every single one of them could survive every stage of their fertility treatment and I could end up with more children than any multi-seater people carrier could accommodate.
Is it worth it?
Favourable statistics or not, going through the process of egg collection, with all its mental, emotional and financial labour, helped me reach an important and ultimately life-changing shift in attitude; one that quite soon after my operation led to me realising my dream of having a family –naturally. It’s my belief that in taking that very definite action in committing to having a baby, I was finally being honest with myself and others about what I wanted. For as long as I could remember I had been a commitment-phobe, but if you’re going to have a baby, boy do you need commitment, and in spades! I had spent years in a conflicted state between longing for something more, but making choices which ultimately ensured that I remained on my own; I was attracted to men from overseas, to ‘exciting’, noncommittal men, to younger men, to men who’d ghost me after three months of seemingly-amazing dating. When any of the nicer ones tried to get close, or whenever anything got remotely serious, I’d get overwhelmed and would convince myself that I was better off single.
Spending such a large chunk of the savings that I had worked so hard and made so many sacrifices to amass seemed to tell the universe/God/my own subconscious that I was serious about becoming a mum. Sharing my honest experience of the process in all its darkness and light with my little supportive group of friends seemed to heap yet a more gravity onto my declaration. And making a conscious effort to heavily prioritise self-care during the months leading up to the operation turned out to be a pivotal move in how I prioritised everything in my life at the time. Not only was I spending time and money on nourishing, quality food, drinking more water, getting loads of sleep and taking supplements, I was becoming more discerning about who I gave my time to.
Growing up and being honest
A die-hard Tinder user, I had until that point spent many an hour conversing with men I wasn’t particularly interested in, going on dates with guys who I knew deep down weren’t going to turn into long-term commitments, and agonising over being ghosted or breadcrumbed for way too long than the experience merited. I had always put on an air of breezy nonchalance when it came to the subject of long-term commitment or having a family, never bringing it up myself or admitting that it was something I was keen to get on with. But because I was spending so much time and money on freezing my eggs, every minute I spent on my own or with others during the lead up to the op became extremely precious. I no longer had the capacity to engage with people (read: men) who were going to waste my time, or whose time I was going to waste. As a result I found myself being much more honest. For the first time ever, I would tell potential Tinder dates that I was looking for a serious relationship, and for the first time ever, I would tell one potential Tinder date in particular that I wanted to have children. Luckily, he said that he did too. That was Rob, my now-partner and the father of my child.
Within seven months of having my eggs frozen, I was pregnant with our first child, a little boy named Odhrán who we conceived naturally. At the beginning of our relationship, we had chatted for a while on Tinder, and because I had declined to meet on account of having to have an operation, Rob had asked me what the procedure was for. Because we were conversing over text, I had time to decide whether or not I wanted to tell a potential date that I was having fertility treatment. In the end I decided to just go for it; after all, there’s nothing like telling him you’re having your eggs sucked out of your vagina to test a guy’s mettle. I was tired of playing games, if he was the right guy he’d take it in his stride. “I really want to have children”, I told him, “…and because I’m not in a serious relationship yet, I’m freezing my eggs”. If he was taken aback, he hid it well; he responded quite readily to say that he really wanted children too, and he was very understanding about delaying our first date until after my operation. Needless to say, we did eventually meet, and in the early days of dating, while I was deliberating whether or not to go back to Mr Shah for a second round of egg collection, it was Rob who suggested that instead of doing that, we just try for a baby the natural way. We’d only been dating about six months, but I felt that I knew enough about him (and myself) to take the leap and make the life-changing decision to grow up already and have a baby. I was thirty-eight.
Pregnancy in your late thirties and forties
Little Odhrán is now seventeen months old and we are expecting our second (also naturally conceived) baby in April 2021. I was two days short of my thirty-ninth birthday when I had Odhrán, and I’ll be a couple of weeks short of my forty-first when the next one arrives. I’d like to think this gives hope to anyone in their late thirties who is single, reading the statistics and wondering if it’s all too late. When I froze my eggs, I really had no idea whether they were even genetically viable, and to be honest I still don’t. My age was against me and according to statistics there was a good chance that none or very few of them would be good enough to develop into a baby. The ones we froze looked good under the microscope, but you don’t know until you try to fertilise them whether they are going to be up to the job. Then there were the two duds, the eggs that came out ‘immature and possibly abnormal’, and the five follicles that didn’t have any eggs in them at all. If you thought about all that too much you could drive yourself insane thinking about how small the chance of being fertile enough to have a baby really was.
It’s not too late
But the fact that I now have one healthy child and another on the way, both conceived naturally without any issues, is evidence that statistics don’t tell the whole story. It’s good to inform yourself of them, and indeed be aware of the fact that fertility declines with age, but it doesn’t mean that the death knell is ringing for your dreams of a family. For me, as a woman approaching my forties, the most important thing I did was to be honest with myself (and with the man I was contemplating being with) about wanting a family. My eggs are still frozen in time, still costing me just under two hundred pounds a year to keep in liquid nitrogen, and still, after everything, the best thing I could have done on my journey to motherhood.
Egg freezing: Not a guarantee but the chance of a Plan B
Freezing those little ooyctes, with the hope of never having to use them, turned out to be the pivotal moment when I realised my own potential as a mother, on my terms, in my own way, and no longer paralysed by the trauma of my own childhood or my own mother’s troubles, but free to give myself the chance to be a good mum. It took responsibility, courage, dedication, care and honesty to decide to go for egg freezing; the very same qualities it takes to be a good mother. My advice to single women in their late thirties and beyond? Don’t be scared by the statistics, but do respect them. Now’s the time to be honest with yourself if a family is what you want; and now’s time to take real steps in starting one. If one of those steps is getting your eggs frozen, who’s to say that it’s not the right thing to do? In my case it got me, albeit in a roundabout way, the family that I really wanted.
Freya is one half of The Amateur Parents, along with her partner Rob. Follow Freya on Instagram @the_amateur_mama for more parenting articles and photos.