National Fertility Awareness Week | In the Club?

In this National Fertility Awareness Week (30 Oct – 5 Nov 2023) Connie Atkinson, partner in the Family & Divorce team at law firm Kingsley Napley LLP, discusses the challenges of ‘trying to conceive’ that she has experienced first hand and from supporting her clients.

Statistics show that 1 in 6 people are affected by infertility. It is no surprise therefore that ‘trying to conceive’ (also known as #TTC) can be one of the most stressful periods of a couple’s life. Those who suffer from infertility often endure a number of tests followed by fairly invasive procedures if they want to start or grow their family. The physical and emotional pain of these can take their toll, even in the strongest of relationships.

Upfront decisions

When embarking on any type of assisted reproduction, a couple will need to have potentially difficult conversations about:

  • which procedure to start with;
  • how long to keep trying;
  • how many rounds of IUI or IVF to attempt;
  • should they stop at a certain age or expenditure level;
  • will they consider donor conception, adoption or surrogacy.

According to award-winning counsellor and therapist AnnMarie Carvalho, a former family solicitor and mediator who has been TTC herself and who now works with many clients who have trouble conceiving: “This is why many clinics have in-house counselling services and either recommend or mandate that couples have counselling during the process of assisted reproduction. Such support can be essential in helping couples to have these emotive discussions and reach decisions which are often difficult because they can be so binary.”

The impact of ‘trying to conceive’

More and more people are speaking out publicly about the impact of TTC on their lives and relationships, including Women’s Hour presenter Emma Barnett, writer Elisabeth Day, Chrissy Teigen and her husband Jon Legend, and McFly singer Harry Judd and his wife Izzy who said she was simply ‘not herself’ during their attempts to have children.

It took my husband and me over a year to conceive our first child and it has taken 3.5 years, countless tests and three rounds of IVF to conceive baby number two (whose arrival is eagerly awaited). I found the fertility process totally consuming and at times I did not recognise myself at all. TTC naturally, or with medical assistance, invades every part of your life and while relationships regularly take the strain, work and other relationships can be impacted too.

When fertility coach Emma Menzies recently spoke at my firm she concurred that the sense of failure which often comes with trying for a baby, seeps into other areas of clients’ lives and can make them start to question their ability to do anything well. It is a sad fact that people struggling with infertility often withdraw from certain aspects of their life and separate themselves from support networks they once relied heavily on. For example, perhaps it is too painful to be surrounded by friends and relatives who are successfully getting pregnant and having children.

Annmarie agrees that fertility treatment can be isolating in various ways. Firstly, from family and friends who seem to conceive with ease or even by accident. Secondly, from society as a whole (when you’re trying to conceive without success, suddenly children are everywhere as are nappy adverts, smug family photos etc). Thirdly, it can even isolate you from your partner (if you are TTC as a couple).

Annmarie and her husband had three rounds of IVF to conceive their twins and Annmarie also felt consumed by the process. She says: “My husband and I definitely had some difficult times during the process as we often seemed to cope in different ways and struggled with different aspects. Without doubt it put a strain on our relationship at the time. We had counselling after the process and while the conversations we had in those sessions were difficult at the time, they were absolutely necessary to help us deal with the years of IVF as well as the pressure of having young twins and other life stresses.”

Navigating the journey as a couple

It is hardly surprising that couples trying to navigate these tense periods together sometimes experience relationship pressures.  Suddenly a couple may find that they need different things to distract them in life and different things from one another to get through. Communication and compassion become extremely important.

I would not have got through our TTC without the support of my husband and the knowledge that we were broadly on the same page at most stages of our journey. That is sadly not the same for all couples and it can be particularly difficult if IVF or the process a couple have agreed to try does not work.

Annmarie shares that one of the most difficult aspects of TTC can be reaching a mutual decision as to when to stop. Often couples have frozen embryos at a clinic in case they want to try further and this can lead to additional complicated decisions as to what to do with them. The Modern Family actress Sofia Vergara found herself in exactly this position a couple of years ago when her former partner took her to court over their frozen embryos which he wanted to use but she did not.

Risk of relationship breakdown

Family lawyers regularly help clients whose relationships sadly do not survive an (in)fertility journey. Sometimes a couple find the pain of ending a fertility process too much and need to distance themselves from the person they associate it most closely with. Even when successful, TTC can alter you so significantly and while a couple may get their longed for baby, they may find they are no longer compatible.

When fertility issues are a feature of relationship breakdown, I often point clients in the direction of specialist counsellors like Annmarie who will help them process what they are feeling and help them on their journey to separation if that is what they want.

For those who have conceived, it can be difficult to accept that if one parent was the particular driver behind the treatment (perhaps in the face of their partner saying they should stop) or only one partner is genetically linked to the child, it does not mean that they should be the primary carer or can prevent the other parent seeing the child. Where the child has two legal parents, the starting point is usually that it is in the child’s best interests to have both parents fully involved in its life. If conception took place through a UK licensed clinic then legal parentage should be clear. If not, legal advice should be taken to confirm the position.

During this National Fertility Awareness Week, it is important that we are sensitive to all colleagues, clients, friends and relatives experiencing fertility issues and hope they can take comfort in knowing they are not alone.

This article was first published in WeAreTheCity, 30/10/2023 and with permission to reproduce on Today’s Family Lawyer.

Connie Atkinson is a Partner in the Family & Divorce team at law firm Kingsley Napley and deals with all aspects of private family work during divorce and separation relating to both finances and children. She is also experienced in the legal issues that arise during fertility treatment and international surrogacy. Connie won family lawyer of the year and national private client lawyer of the year at the Private Client Modern Law Awards 2023. She was one of the legal advisers on the script of The Split, Seasons 1, 2 & 3, a BBC drama series. She is also a qualified mediator.

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