The first time I recall seeing journalists huddled en masse was on the doorstep of a nondescript terraced house in an inner city backstreet of my hometown Bristol, just down the road from the church I attended as a child.
Nobody was inside at the time. The house would remain empty for days. But the reporters and photographers maintained a vigil in the hope of a glimpse of Louise Brown, or “Superbabe” as the international press had christened the world’s first test-tube baby.
Thirty years on from that late-Seventies breakthrough, in a fertility clinic halfway around the world in Sydney, my wife, Fleur, and I hoped to benefit from the same scientific alchemy – or invitro fertilisation, to give this technology its proper medical name.
When first we embarked on our IVF journey, I thought it could be traced back to my time on the road as a BBC foreign correspondent.
Male fertility is a sign of general wellbeing, and after years spent covering the 911 beat – first in Washington and then in South Asia at the sharper end of America’s “war on terror” – I was horribly run-down.
A posting in Australia, which often had the feel of a lifestyle sabbatical, helped repair body and mind. Still, however, we struggled to conceive.
At first we tried natural remedies: everything from Chinese herbs to acupuncture, naturopathy to kinesiology.
Surely all we needed was a minor corrective. Then, after a further year of trying, a doctor suggested an exploratory operation to find out if something more serious was amiss.
Even if it turned out to be a condition like endometriosis, which creates blockages in the fallopian tubes, we went into hospital that day believing the problem could be remedied without too much difficulty. It would be a medically routine. Alas, the anesthetics from the operating theatre had not yet worn off when the surgeon called to tell us, in a cruelly matter-of-fact way, that it would not just be hard to conceive naturally, but impossible.
As a journalist, one hopes never to become inured to awful news. The moment that happens it is time to relinquish the press pass. But covering disasters and conflicts, from the tsunami-wrecked shores of Sri Lanka and to the mine-scattered border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, does build up something of a protective shell. When this call came through, however, those emotional defenses were breached in an instant.
It felt as if we had suffered a bereavement.
Only a few years earlier, the “kids’ conversation” had been such a joyful part of our relationship. How many children would we have? What would they be called? Would they inherit Australian traits from their mother or the British reserve of their father. A virtual family had already taken shape in our minds. That day, however, the mental screen went blank, as we contemplated for the first time that the virtual may never become real.
Now, in misery and self-pity, we found ourselves having the “no kids” conversation – or, just sitting in dazed silence.
In those days of what felt like convalescence, I found myself thinking of the moment in a Punjabi hospital where our news team had actually been offered a baby.
We had been filming a story on female foeticide – a problem that India’s rising prosperity has actually aggravated – and watched from the edge of a birthing suite as a surgeon slid his scalpel across a young mother’s abdomen and pulled from her womb a beautiful tiny infant.
In what should have been a moment of uncomplicated joy, the mood was leaden. Almost morose.
The mother had just delivered a second baby girl in a family without a son. Shortly afterward, a relative of the young mother asked us to name the child. Then, the baby was thrust towards us more determinedly. Would we take her? In another time, the family might have been thrown the baby down a well. A visiting film crew offered a modern-day means of disposal. Looking back on that scene, the notion of an unwanted child seemed even more brutally oxymoronic.
Fortunately, IVF was a viable option. Fleur was still in her mid-thirties, and thus not yet at the point when the fertility graphs start to nosedive. There was a good chance that we could conceive, though it was by no means guaranteed.
News has a habit of intruding at the most unhelpful moments, and so it was as we embarked on our fertility treatment.
Needing to test my virility, I had booked in at a fertility clinic in Sydney where it took months to secure an appointment. When I was finally offered a slot, the Victorian bushfires, Australia’s worst-ever natural disaster, were still aflame. For a time it looked as if I would have to race from the fire zone, catch a flight to Sydney, conduct the test, then return to mountains to the north of Melbourne in time for the breakfast news shows in London.
News intervened again in the morning that Fleur started her IVF injections, a blend of powerful drugs that first tricks the body into thinking it is menopausal and then hyper-stimulates the ovaries into producing a welter of eggs. Australia’s then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who had turned down our interview requests for months, finally opened up 30 minutes in his diary. One of the few assignments near impossible to turn down – it came on the eve of the Copenhagen climate change summit, where Rudd was slated to play a central role – it meant I was in Canberra as in plunged the first needles.
Quickly, Fleur got into the rhythm of daily injections, and also the dawn visits to a clinic in the Sydney where couples wait in what elsewhere would be called a pregnant silence for blood tests and progress reports on the production of eggs.
Our first IVF cycle showed signs of real promise.
Though we harvested only a relatively small number of eggs, they were healthy and strong. After being fertilised, they combined to produce robust-looking blastocysts, the small bundle of cells that provide the first bloom of human life. The transfer stage, when the embryo is implanted through the cervix into the uterus through a thin, plastic catheter, also went smoothly. By now we had fallen into the trap that commonly ensnares IVF first-timers: we were incautiously optimistic.
Then came our letdown on the unkindest of days, New Year’s Eve. It seems odd to grieve for something you have never had. Perhaps it is more accurate to say we had been deprived rather than bereaved. But so many hopes had come to be vested in such a small, fragile bundle of cells, it feels like life has been extinguished, or never been given a proper chance.
A gnawing sense of injustice comes with infertility, and you are reminded of it whenever you see a young family. Why them, but not us?
We limped into the New Year determined to have another go. This time we were far more pessimistic, even though our egg harvest had gone better. During the dreaded two-week wait, the time between the insertion of the fertilised egg and the pregnancy test, Fleur was convinced we could come up with another negative result.
Not patient enough to wait until our official blood test to confirm our disappointment, we bought a cheap pregnancy test kit from the chemists. As Fleur handed me the plastic stick, it registered just one bold blue line. Failure. We had repeated this process on countless occasions before, but this time I lingered before throwing away the stick. Was that a pale hint of azure? Within a second it had become a firmer shade of powder blue. Then light blue.
Seconds later it was bright and definitive: a lustrous shade of baby blue.
In retelling the story of the birth, I have often found myself lapsing into foreign correspondent-speak – that occupational hazard of equating every personal event to a major news event, of which there are shades above. In newsroom patois, waiting for the start of labour was like waiting for the start of the Gulf War: shock and awe were imminent, but we did not quite know when it would unfold.
As any parent knows, however, the wonder of the birthing suite defies comparison. Bravery also takes on a new meaning. My wife endured three days of labour, without the relief of pain-numbing narcotics. At its end, we could report back to Britain the most consequential story of our lives: the birth of a 10.9lb boy.
Bonny and beautiful, we called him Billy Bryant.
The journalist in me feels honour-bound to end with a news update. The happiest of “And finally,” in fact. Our second child, a beautiful little girl, Wren (left), was born at the beginning of August, who was conceived, I am delighted to say, without needles, drugs or any outside assistance.
To us, the seemingly impossible has become flesh and blood. We have our very own “Superbabe.”