Unbearable: What Happens When IVF Doesn’t Work?

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Having a child is usually a happy time in a woman’s life. Unfortunately, as we wait longer to have children, infertility and trouble conceiving can become a part of the family making process. Unbearable addresses these difficulties.

The overall success rate for in vitro fertilization is about 30%. In the middle of reading Holly Finn’s brutally honest look at infertility in The Wall Street Journal, this statistic stuck in my mind. 30% is a little less than one in three women. One in three women who walk away from months of shots and raging hormones, from egg retrievals and implantations, from thousands of dollars in generally uninsured medical procedures with a pregnancy.

That means that two in three women who go through all of that stress, anxiety and anticipation don’t have a baby to show for it. In the opening of this piece, Finn observes that we rarely hear from these women, the unsuccessful ones. Normally, people open up about their fertility treatments once they have a beautiful newborn or a proudly prominent bump. Those stories are much more fun to share. The other seventy percent tend to keep to themselves. Often, they continue to dedicate even more of their time, energy and money into more treatments, with an even smaller chance of success. That’s because your chance of getting pregnant with IVF decreases with every failed attempt.

This is the real fear behind my hesitancy to start fertility treatments. Sure its a lot of money. Sure my hormones might turn me into a dramatic rollercoaster of a human being. And of course, there’s the shots, which don’t sound like very much fun. I think I could deal with all of that though. I think I could handle being an emotional wreck and cancelling my vacation plans to save money and rearranging my schedule. But I don’t know if I could handle all of that and then have the procedure not work. I mean, honestly, I have no idea how I would cope.

To make matters worse, I feel like each failure would only make me more committed to trying again. Once you’ve invested such a large portion of your life to having a child, its even more difficult to come away empty-handed. Where can your search finally end if you never get to experience those first kicks that feel like butterflies flitting around your stomach or if you never get that rush of emotion from holding a newborn in your arms as it opens its eyes for the first time? How do you give up on that?

There are literally millions of IVF success stories. Finn cites that some four million children have been born through IVF. I, personally, have two close friends who used in vitro to conceive. They are both glowing, happy examples of the wonders of modern reproductive medicine. Each is incredibly open and honest about their experience. They acknowledge all the long hours and money, discuss the fear and doubt. They don’t sugarcoat the process and make it sound like fairytales and gumdrops. But when you’re staring at their adorable infants, you can’t help but think of fairytales. You look at those incredible miracle babies and see how everything turns out all right in the end. Lots of work for an amazing reward. And those moms will tell you, “It was all worth it.”

But when you talk to a woman who never got her fairytale ending, its excruciatingly difficult. On a recent post, a commenter suggested that I give up, grieve and move on with my life, instead of letting fertility treatments become a never-ending cycle of hope, anticipation and depression. At first, I was pretty taken aback by the cavalier way that someone could tell me to “save yourself the heartache”. But maybe it was good advice. What if I’m one of the 70% and IVF doesn’t work? Will infertility ever stop being unbearable?


  1. Eileen

    July 28, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    I have a couple of cousins born through IVF (both moms had multiple failures beforehand), so I can’t exactly say that I wish they hadn’t been born, but I’ve never been a big fan of it myself. The money and the resources invested in a 30% chance of creating a new baby when there are so many abandoned and unwanted babies in the world – in this country, even – just always rubbed me the wrong way. Not that I think it’s wrong to want to have a baby naturally, but it might be nice to look into adoption, including of a slightly older baby/toddler who might be facing another sixteen or seventeen years in foster care. Yeah, there are risks involved with adopting someone else’s kid, but there are always risks. (Side note: did you see that 20/20 special last weekend about child-onset schizophrenia?) In addition to my IVF cousins I have friends and even a grandparent who were adopted, foreign and domestic, and it’s nice to think that they got the chance to have parents who really wanted them.

    I mean, ultimately it’s your choice, your money, your time, your health. The one thing I would add is that you shouldn’t get so caught up in trying to have another child that you don’t make sure to enjoy all your time with the one you already have. Not that I think you ignore your daughter, but, you know. Sometimes we can all get obsessed.

    • Lindsay Cross

      July 29, 2011 at 7:01 am

      I have looked into adoption, but I think it has to be a completely separate discussion. Adoption is such a different process. I really don’t think that adoption and IVF can be substituted for one another. Bringing a child into your family is wonderful, but everyone has to find the right way for them.

      And you’re right that it can be an obsession! It’s hard. More than anything, its difficult to keep the stress from effecting the little girl I already have. However, my darling is pretty good at demanding attention all on her own. It makes its easy to remember how lucky I am.

  2. Laurra

    July 29, 2011 at 4:45 am

    At the end of 2010 I had my first IVF (30 years old, husband 50 had a vasectomy 25 years ago). The hormone daily injections are the easy bit it’s the waiting to see how many eggs fertilise first, in my case only 1 embryo from 9 was suitable. That was so disappointing and upsetting to hear. Then comes the pregnancy test, well 5 in our case as some said no and others said yes, again very emotional.

    We did get pregnant but the week 6 scan showed nothing, I was devastated and had then wait another week, and was then elated when we saw a heartbeat, then another week and this time nothing, we were told there was not living foetus or development we weren’t pregnant, complete devastation. We didn’t stop crying all day and locked ourselves away for a week, except for the horrible hospital appointments to check if I would miscarry naturally or it would have to be surgically brought on, fortunately it was natural.

    That’s my real IVF story – honest and for me heartbreaking. And to say that we should consider adoption really annoys me and is usually said by someone who was able to have their own children naturally because if you had been through IVF you would understand how both the man and woman feel and not be so callous.

    I would consider adoption in the future, I have adoptive family members but it is my money, my right to try and conceive my own child, with a mixture of me and my fantastic husband and to bring him/her into a loving family where they are most wanted.

    And yes we are going to try again very soon.

    • Lindsay Cross

      July 29, 2011 at 6:53 am

      Thank you for sharing your story. I wish you the very best of luck on your journey.

  3. Eileen

    July 29, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Yeah. I just have always felt very strongly about adoption since my grandma and her siblings were all adopted (of course, my great-grandmother had neither a husband nor the option of IVF), so without it I wouldn’t ever have been! It’s really sad, actually…my grandma was so neglected as a baby in the orphanage that all she did was stare at the wall, and her brother was abandoned in a supermarket (and had a hard time being wanted because he was mixed race). So I always have kind of an emotional reaction.

  4. LaLeidi

    January 5, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    I know this article is old, but I want to point out for anyone else who is in the habit of perusing old articles, that the 30% success rate is per attempt. You should really go into IVF prepared to try at least three times, because the large majority of people are successful within three tries. But yes, some people leave the process without a child. It must be heartbreaking to spend so much money and energy in the process and walk away empty handed.

  5. Joanne

    May 5, 2012 at 11:27 pm

    You are an idiot. In some countries Adoption just isnt an option. Hollywood stars make it look easy to just go and grab a baby from another country. For normal people there is at least a 5 year wait with no guarantee of a baby being available. Even to adopt an older child takes years of wait and the fees are well beyond the normal salary for couples. I have been trying IVF for 3 years with no success, do you really think I would put my body and my finances through all of this if I could just go and adopt a baby? I dont think so!!!

  6. The 70%

    December 11, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    My wife and I are going to be attempting a 2nd round of IVF soon. 3 Failed IUI’s and 1 IVF that ended in miscarriage (and that’s the 2nd in a row.. 1st was natural). Starting to feel like it’s not going to happen. It’s HUGE money and mental strain. It’s a hind-sight dilemma. If it works, I’d probably say it was worth it. But if it doesn’t, then I’ve gotta say, it’s kinda like taking 12k or so and putting it all on Red (and your odds aren’t as good)….oh, and losing

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