The secret squirrels

I love watching squirrels. I have been known to shriek like a lunatic and run after them in parks all over London, and even when I lived there for two years, it didn’t get old. I love the way they bounce, like Pepé le Pew. My particularly favourite part is when they grab an acorn or a nut or some other little morsel of squirrel goodness, and run, bouncing, back over the autumn leaves to do the most pathetic attempt at burying the thing you’ve ever seen. They then spend a long time patting it down, and running away a bit, only to come back and pat down their “buried” nut again. And mate, the other squirrels are watching. They know the drill. They know it’s only under three leaves and they can collect at will. We don’t have squirrels in Australia, so I still find them amazing. Squirrels bring out my inner three year old.  I remember once in Kew passing a tiny park I had visited a hundred times before, but stopping this one day to feed the ducks. There was a woman there with her two year old on the playground. And they kind of stared at me as I started freaking the hell out because some squirrels appeared. “Oh my God!!!! Squirrels!!!! there’s squirrels! Did you know there were squirrels here?”


“Oh my god! Look at them!”. Even the two year old was relatively nonplussed. My status as a Londoner was being threatened by an above normal level of squirrel excitement. But I continued to go mental and ignored the ducks, unable to capture the squirrel madness on video in the pre camera phone days of the nineties.

But there’s a different kind of squirrel, and I witnessed it first hand the other morning on my way to the clinic for blood test #2. I was doing ok time wise, parked the car, grabbed my esky and freezer bricks out of the boot, and headed around the corner to the clinic. And once I lifted my head out of my own ass, I looked around. I saw four other women converging, as I was, all carrying freezer bags, as I was. All with a slightly distracted “geez I hope they’re on time I have to get to work” face, all inwardly focused on their “keep going” energy, unaware of the other secret squirrels descending on the same clinic.

And I began to wonder, how many women are converging, right at this moment, on fertility clinics all over Sydney, or all over Australia, or indeed in the world. And how many of them come in, and collect their little freezer bag full of drugs, and go, and stash them in the work fridge. Or go home, and pop them in above the yoghurts and juice. And how many of them have told very few people, and wander around, on their secret squirrel business, carrying this burden alone? Whose workmates don’t know, whose friends don’t know, who hide what they are doing in case of stigma or judgement, or simply not wanting such a personal area of life to be writ large and commented on by the water cooler.

Last night was the first night I was out at injection time. And it worried me all day how I would manage it. Would I inject sitting in the car park, or in the toilets? I didn’t like the idea of public toilets and sticking things into me, just not my bag baby. It also had a special poignancy, because the evening was not a normal evening out…otherwise I would probably not have gone, or delayed it to a later time. It was a fundraiser for a hospital newborn care unit, in honour of a perfect little three day old boy, who did not live to see his fourth, or fifth, or other days. And he was an IVF baby, long fought for, hard won, and cherished. And back when we were maybe four months into “trying” and starting to get worried about it, we went to his funeral. So in some ways his little life reminded me of our fertility “journey” too (god I hate that term. It’s so Masterchef. I think it’s not so much a journey as a series of random terrorist attacks…).

I was not the only secret squirrel nicking out to load up on IVF drugs at the function last night. There were four of us that I know of..and hell, given the age group, you could probably double that number in reality.

I ended up nicking out to the car in round 4 of trivia, and I couldn’t bear to come back in carrying my little esky, so I did it in the car. The light was bad, and there was no bloody car park, so it was just in the street, thankfully a quiet one. But it was awkward. And I was rushing to get back in, and embarrassed to have to do it at all. It is such a reminder of how we have failed. And the stupid cetrotide with all its mixing saline with powder then drawing down out of the little vial, it’s really not made for front seats of cars. And of course, feeling like a complete elephant with my rockmelon/cantaloupe sized hurting ovaries (which started on day 3 this time. HELLO?), I made the stupid decision of wearing the “suck in your stomach” undies, under my dress, which made it even harder to manage injections. What a dill. But manage I did.

Now there’s two things that have come out of my observations this week of the secret squirrels, descending on clinics all over Sydney. One is the ridiculousness of IVF, the insane juxtaposition of the “doing” of it, the pragmatic steps of showing up, laying out the cash, getting the tests, doing the injections, taking the phone calls. And somehow you have to fit this in around “normal” life, which often puts you in ridiculous situations like “shooting up” in your car a quiet suburban street. The other complete opposite aspect of it is the import of what you are doing, and the weight of it never leaves you. It certainly never leaves you when you see the extreme outcomes that can happen, like the funeral of a three day old little boy. Now that can happen in any pregnancy, it is a risk any time we decide to expose ourselves to the unpredictability of nature and all its variations and impossibilities. But in IVF you have chosen deliberately to start the journey, indeed you have paid to make it happen.  So an extra element of responsibility seems to sit, sometimes not too easily on your shoulders. There is always that “what if”, what if this is nature’s way of telling me I am not meant to be a parent, and I am not listening to her. What will be the payback?

For my friends whose little boy did not live, this is not an isolated tragedy in their IVF unmerry-go-round, and I don’t know how two skins of two human beings can contain that amount of pain and keep breathing in and out. But they do. They have one perfect little man, who is the coolest little bloke I’ve ever met. So Nature’s not always a bitch, but geez she’s fickle. Their story so far makes ours look like a Sunday picnic, and it’s also made me fully assess the possible consequences of what we are doing.

The second thing to come out of my observations of the secret squirrels, and a little bit of unjustified googling, is that IVF still has a stigma attached. I wear it, I carry it, and sometimes the burden is not light. I never realised, in my ignorance, that there’s still large sections of community out there, who believe people treat IVF like getting a new pair of shoes on Ebay. They think that this is the domain of women who “commodify” having a family, who are too stupid to have kids “at the time in life when they are supposed to”, and who should just “understand when nature is trying to give them a message”. Despite scientific research to the contrary, they bemoan what will be the effect on “the health of the children” and criticise older parents, and argue that public health systems should never fund something so self indulgent. I even read one woman (sadomasochistic, I know) who said these people on IVF just want a”copy of themselves” in the world, and it’s selfish because of overpopulation. Ok love. But your science is a bit lacking. It’s reproduction, not cloning, you freak. “yeah could I get one of those, with a penis, in a blonde, medium build? thanks. How much for the one with the higher IQ and cooking abilities?”.

I was also surprised (stupid, I know) to know how against IVF the Catholic church are. There are whole blogs out there on this, and I would not recommend reading them. Apparently, after years in the wilderness not welcome in the church as a crazy person DATING and OMG using CONTRACEPTION, and having finally got married in the church and muscling my way back in, I’m out in the wilderness again because even though I’m married and we are very much doing this out of love, we’re not respecting the sanctity of the soul of each embryo (this is where I start singing the Monty Python song “Every Sperm is Sacred”) by undergoing IVF. Thanks Catholics, way to kick a girl when she’s down. Idiots. Apparently, we’re supposed to accept infertility as a “gift from God”, and try to pray our way to higher insights and give our rather impossible fate over to him.

So now, in the way of all good academics, I’m going to rip these arguments down, one by one by one. But don’t be fooled into thinking that just because I can intellectually counter stupid thinking that it still doesn’t emotionally sting. Sometimes knowledge you are going through IVF is like walking around in a hair shirt. So here goes.

Women who go through IVF do not commodify having a family. The clinics might. The women rail against this, and paying to have a child will never feel anything but wrong. Going through drugs and operations will never feel anything but wrong. And it does not come out of a place of inappropriate desire for something you cannot have. It comes out of pain and loss and medical conditions. We’re not broken, we have medical problems. Really poorly understood ones that often don’t have names. And it’s not always the woman’s “fault”, and it’s not just the woman wanting kids. And I don’t long inappropriately for kids. I hope we can have them and I’ll be really disappointed if we can’t. So I am willing to go through this shit for it, but i understand there will be an end point where if it doesn’t work we’ll have a different kind of life with more travel and bands and plays and less school fees and nappies. But we’ll still have each other. I know we’d make it out the other side, but I’m not saying it would be easy to suck that up.

On the next matter, yes we are too stupid to have kids when we are at our most fertile. But given that our paths to jobs are much longer, via uni, that we have to both work to afford even basic housing, I’d say it’s our society that is out of whack here, not us as individual women. And because women’s rights have come a long way in recent decades, we didn’t realise there was a personal cost to not accepting a life sentence with men in their “asshole phase”. I think the asshole phase applies to most men before they are 28, 26 at a minimum. They should not be allowed to breed during this phase. They only become reasonable human beings after this point and you want them to breed as assholes?

I was too busy with post graduate qualifications to “settle down” , not even being fully qualified until 25. Your employer then thinks this is the time to reap what they have sown, with long hours and lots of responsibility in the post qualification period. Not exactly out on the dating scene then. Not choosing career over family, but simply, and practically, putting in the hard yards at work and not meeting suitable men. Period.

For me also, I lost about 5 years to serious depression at my most fertile, and any decision I made at that time was going to be a dodgy one. So I didn’t make any.

Now the next argument, one that even hub-in-boots raised at the start, is “nature is trying to give you a message you’re not meant to be a parent”. Ok. Got to put this one in the faulty logic basket. Lets look at other medical conditions with this logic. Cancer is natures way of telling you you should be dead, so don’t agree to surgery or chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Epilepsy is natures way of telling you you need a good lie down, so you shouldn’t take drugs for it. Diabetes is nature’s way of telling you you should have kidney problems and damaged eyesight and lose some limbs. So don’t seek medical assistance for it. Uh huh. And having trouble conceiving is nature’s way of telling you you should not be a parent. Ok. You’ve really worked the grey matter on this one. What a ridiculous way of looking at the world.  Just because one set of medical conditions is about life, and one is about reproduction (ummm, which is life?), it does not mean the conclusions should be different. Just because some are medically well understood (some cancer), and others are total mysteries (reproduction), doesn’t mean we should all stand in the corner and throw up our hands.

We can extend this logic out to whether IVF should be publicly funded. When a man has trouble producing sperm, his likelihood of testicular cancer increases 10 fold. When a woman has not had children, she has a higher risk of ovarian cancer, and when there is uterine scarring or tube damage there’s all sorts of higher risks to her health. Not to mention the flow on effects in  mental health or subtstance abuse issues or when a couple is faced with infertility. My level of  cheese twisties abuse has quadrupled since the infertility “journey” began. And you should SEE what I do with water. Gallons of the stuff. But seriously, why is an infertility issue seen as separate from medical issues and a matter of want? And what are all the other unknown links between the causes of illness and causes of infertility?

As to the older parents issue, my mother was 42 when she had me, and dad was about 46. Shocking. And great parents. And a lot more measured, less prone to panic, more able to provide for me, in a stable relationship. There’s something to be said for being raised by grown ups. You’ll get no older parents criticism from me.  And I’ve lived it, so I reckon I’m qualified to judge.

Now the last one, the Catholic Church. I know I should not be surprised at their judgement of me and what I’m doing. I know that there are millions of women who take a contraceptive pill AND go to mass on a Sunday morning. But I just thought, I’m married, I got married in the church, we even went to the pre marital course. We tried to have kids, and we couldn’t, so now we’re trying something else that isn’t anywhere near as much fun, and appears, at first glance, to be more expensive. And you’re rolling out the lines on me.

Every sperm is sacred

Every sperm is good

Every sperm is needed

In your neighbourhood.

Way to alienate people, Roman Catholics. Well bugger you. I have examined what we are doing in my moral conscience. And I know that nothing that is this difficult, this requiring of everything I’ve got as an individual and everything we’ve got as a couple, could be so morally wrong. Because in nature, not many eggs get fertilised. And in nature, not many fertilised eggs make it to the womb. And in nature, not many fertilised eggs in the womb actually implant. And whilst in once case, all those “decisions” are made in the body “by God”, as you say, and in IVF’s case, there are two levels of decision being made by a human in a lab with a microscope, ( this egg mature enough to fertilise?, this fertlised egg of sufficient quality to try and implant?), if god is around he made the scientists and their ability to advance technology. IVF is no less disrespectful to an embryo than nature is, nature who is quite happy to make fertilising eggs a total crap shoot for some of us, nature who is bloody uncooperative and fickle and probably lets any number of fertilised eggs slide through to the keeper in the average woman’s life. I doubt that there are many couples out there who go through IVF unaware of the import of what they are doing. They have thought long and hard about the unused embryos, about the fertilised eggs that do not progress, about the “rightness” of this. They have balanced up the odds, have looked at their relationship, have thought about their abilities as a parent, and have said “give me this suffering. Give me this suffering because our love should make a child, and I will take this on willingly to have a chance at expressing our love in this profound way”. On the other hand, there’s a 19 year hold at a pub in Newtown who’s had 16 vodka lime and sodas who slept with someone last night, and in a few weeks will realise her period’s late. She’s meant to be a parent. Uh huh.

Ok so my happy little squirrels and their nuts has descended into a bit of a rant today. But just remember all around you are invisible women and their partners. And even if you know they are going through IVF, you don’t know what they go through. You don’t see their secret squirrel journeys, trying to find room in the fridge for another box of hormones that they stack alongside the organic eggs and free range chicken (now there’s irony for you). Don’t know how many times a day they think about where they’re at, when the phone call is due from the clinic, and have no idea what their futures look like anymore. They’re hiding little nuts of hope in medical procedures, they’re storing embryos, they’re hoping, in their non drinking regularly exercising balanced diet everything monitored world, they can make a life. And I am not saying feel sorry for them. We’ve chosen a rough old path because it is an option in this modern day and age. I am saying they deserve to be parents just as much as the 19 year old in Newtown, and they deserve treatment just as much as the smoker in hospital with emphysema or the coke drinking diabetic whose about to lose a limb.

And tomorrow morning, when you’re sitting over your cereal and your coffee, surrounded by your naturally conceived kids, they’ll be being little secret squirrels, with a freezer bag and bricks, wandering up suburban streets to clinics, and, like me and my hub-in-boots at 7:20am tomorrow, having a scan, and collecting medications, and ‘shooting up’ in cars, and watching friends get pregnant, and going about their day with equal measures of hope and dread. Lucky squirrels are so cute.


2 thoughts on “The secret squirrels

  1. Um, I’m pretty sure this is my favourite blog post about anything ever written by anyone. Your articulation and observation is perfect. AND you love squirrels as much as I do. Thank you for allowing me to (soon) think of myself as one, and also for contextualising all this to me as I catch the train from Newtown, looking at all the 19yos slightly differently.

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