Alexandra Heminsley, who dealt with the emotional side of IVF through swimming


The emotional challenges of IVF, and how one woman found solace in the sea

Alexandra Heminsley took to swimming to overcome the emotional fallout of IVF treatment. In the water, she learned to live in the moment 

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By Alexandra Heminsley on

It was the needles that I was dreading most about IVF treatment. They’re the aspect everyone always asks you about. “Oh, God, do you have to do the injections?”, “I’d never cope with the needles”, “Do you do them or does your partner? How did you decide?” and so on. Then there’s the drama of its arrival. In my case, it was delivered by courier and a cool box was opened – puffing dry ice at me while I took the drugs to the fridge. I slipped the sealed bags of needles into my bedside drawer and waited, filled with dread, until the clinic declared it time to start. But it turns out that the needles are the easy bit. Once my husband had stared me in the eye and said, “If you had to do this to someone whose life depended on it, you’d find it easy…” that first tip slid into my abdomen like a hot knife through butter. 

Significantly harder to overcome are the emotional challenges – and it was them that I was so ill-prepared to deal with. Not associating a referral for IVF with failure is the baby slope of the fertility slalom. While I know some find it difficult to accept that they need help, I had every confidence in the doctors who had referred us for treatment, I respected the specialists we were referred to and I was pretty relaxed about the fact that, as an otherwise healthy couple, we could overcome the challenges ahead with relative ease. I didn’t feel ashamed that we needed treatment back then – I just wanted to get on with it. 

Things became trickier once the treatment itself began – and I realised that there were two, almost utterly incompatible selves that I needed to usefully be. The first – the eternal optimist – needed to have every faith in treatment, and my ability to help it along with a positive mental attitude and healthy lifestyle. I needed to believe, to focus and, above all, as was repeated to me day after day, to relax. Relaxing on command – rather than to avoid putting away the ironing, doing your accounts or attending a party you were dreading anyway – is pretty tricky. Doing it when what the world seems to believe is your entire future happiness is at stake is all but impossible. “But it’s all you need to do!” people tell you, ad infinitum. “The doctors will take care of the rest!” 

But, reluctant to let myself, my husband or my doctors down, I committed to this optimism, to the green juices sprinkled with bee pollen and to the cancelling of holidays so that I could give it my all. I would be the Pollyanna who could manifest offspring by thinking the right way. 

I longed to have a baby, I had never imagined not being a mother and I was filled with a chilly trepidation about navigating the alternatives


Meanwhile, there was a second self. And she was busy with feverish eye-rolling at the entire fertility industry. She poured scorn on the terms used in fertility chat rooms, the way women were spoken to by both the media and their own doctors regarding their bodies and their prospects. This self despaired of the idea that anything should be compromised in pursuit of a baby. She had read the statistics; she knew that IVF – at this age – was very far from a guaranteed result. Consequently, she was reluctant to cancel plans, to submit to invasive treatment, to lose the early years of her marriage to what might be an impossible pursuit. 

Above all, she refused to surrender to the idea that to not be a mother was to be a lesser person. This self knew with every fibre of her being that her friends who had not given birth – as a result of choice, fertility or sexual orientation – were no less empathetic, interesting or selfless than the parents. There was no secret club of which they weren’t a member. Sometimes, they could be just as tired, just as stressed or just as kind! This self even, from time to time, daydreamed about the fabulous, inspiring life she would lead when the IVF didn’t work. 

Alexandra and her friends, swimming in Brighton


Both of these selves were right, but it was a larger, more complicated and more thoroughly gruelling challenge that I had ever imagined to accommodate them in the same body – for years of my life. I longed to have a baby, I had never imagined not being a mother and I was filled with a chilly trepidation about navigating the alternatives. But, with equal, boiling fervour, I believed with every fibre that my sense of myself, my worth or the value of my marriage were not dependent on it. It was a choice, not a right. 

Then came the drugs themselves. I had imagined that, within days, the “crazy hormonal behaviour” would begin. But, like a friend who undermines you in public about things you have said in confidence, the effects were significantly more subtle. In my case, I was taking injections designed to make me ready to ovulate over a year’s worth of eggs in one go, on command, to a schedule meticulously tailored to coordinate with the surgeon and embryologist’s availability. Where I had foreseen a few days worth of injections followed by an identifiably “crazy with hormones” phase, the shift was instead slippery, amorphous and incremental. 

As I wrestled and wriggled against the idea that “all I had to do was to relax”, the salt and ice of the seawater began to feel like a safer, softer place to be than any other. Because it was here that I truly had to live in the moment

The drugs never made me feel crazy, just a little … further away from myself, as if I were trying to relate to myself, and the world, from behind a thick layer of Perspex. And, with each fresh batch of drugs, each failure, each fresh tussle between the two equal selves I needed to be, I felt a little further away from who I actually was. The Perspex became thicker, a further layer was added and the world I used to live in seemed harder and harder to access. 

I had fought – and enjoyed the fight – for a body I was proud of and now I saw a body that barely felt like mine at all. I missed the old me, I longed for the future me and I had no idea who the current me was supposed to be. Yet, against it all was the background of my swimming. An unlikely athlete anyway, I had learnt to swim in the year preceding our treatment and had surprised myself further by enjoying the cold water of the sea off Brighton as the seasons changed and the water became less hospitable. 

And, in the sea, I found enormous solace regarding the unknown self that I had become. As I wrestled and wriggled against the idea that “all I had to do was to relax”, the salt and ice of the seawater began to feel like a safer, softer place to be than any other. Because it was here that I truly had to live in the moment. You can’t fret about the political implications of not being a mother when you are focused on snatching an inhale between rolling waves. You can’t dwell on whether your deadening sadness is real or merely a side effect of expensive drugs when you’re navigating a lobster pot in the dark because you’ve chosen to swim round the pier for Halloween. And you don’t have time to worry what your thighs look like when what they are doing is gifting you the warmth and buoyancy to keep swimming, to keep exceeding your own expectations of yourself, to keep feeling alive. 

When, after a break of several months and a lot more swimming through the coldest months of the year, we eventually chose to return to the clinic and use that final embryo, it decided to stay. In the summer, when this year’s sea is warm again, it is due to arrive. There is absolutely no connection between my swimming and my finally getting pregnant. But there is every connection between those months, when I chose again to love my body, and to use it instead of to demand things of it, and the peace I found at last – regardless of the outcome. The water returned me to myself, a united self that I could finally recognise once more. And I am forever grateful. 

Alexandra Heminsley is the author of Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim, out now


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Alexandra Heminsley, who dealt with the emotional side of IVF through swimming
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