When IVF fails, how can a loving wife give her husband the baby she believes will save their marriage?
This story is probably true.
In our city there are no less than two world class IVF clinics, and we have several friends who work in the field. During a dinner party one evening in which the red wine flowed rather too freely, we began to challenge them – mostly playfully - about the cost of programmes and their success at making money out of people's misfortune as well as babies.
It wasn't a fair criticism but it did prompt a raft of stories around the table, one of which concerned 'Charlotte , a long-term client of theirs who, after years of unsuccessful treatments, suddenly produced three healthy babies in quick succession – apparently naturally.
Our friends were much too discreet to let slip the identities of the individuals involved, but they are fairly confident from consultations after the first natural conception of the 'donor's' and his relationship to their client.
I found the whole idea intriguing and could possibly even imagine myself in similar circumstances...
I hope you can too.
The happy sounds of small children laughing and splashing echoed off the white painted walls of the neatly kept villas that surrounded the clear blue water of the large, private swimming pool. I took another sip of my gin and tonic and watched my grown-up son and his wife playing happily with their three year old boy in his armbands and their eighteen month old daughter who bobbed in the water in her bright yellow swim ring.
I looked across at my own lovely wife Jane who sat reading her book across the table from me in the shade of a large umbrella. Even after all these years she was still very attractive. It was hard to think of her as the mother of a grown up child and a Grandmother too but then, I mused, we had started our family when we were still quite young. There was a lot to be said for an early start to a family, as I now knew very well.
As if knowing instinctively I was thinking of her, Jane looked up from her book and smiled at me. I smiled back, nodding towards the young family before us. She grinned indulgently and went back to her reading as I watched the heart-warming scene a little longer, thinking how much it brought back happy memories of the two of us in the same pool with our own child over twenty years before.
The playing slowed a little and Charlotte – 'Charlie' to the family - our pregnant daughter-in-law, stood up in the shallow water before taking her son Jack by the hand and leading him up the shallow steps towards their sun beds and the pile of towels lying there. As she began to dry him carefully, I was reminded just how beautiful she undoubtedly was; even more so when, as now, she her pregnancy was starting to show.
Although a difficult time for many, some girls seemed to take pregnancy in their stride, I reflected, and Charlotte was definitely one of the fortunate ones; her long dark hair positively shone, her eyes sparkled and her slightly tanned skin was fresh and clear. She still moved gracefully despite the swelling in her belly that was now becoming noticeable and, if her previous two pregnancies were anything to judge by, would continue to do so almost to the very end.
That was ironic, I thought, given that it had taken so long and so much unhappiness for her to conceive in the first place.
To me, the biological father of her two children and the unborn child within her belly, she seemed especially beautiful. But that was a secret only she and I shared and one which we must take with us to the grave.
Charlotte turned away for a moment and I chuckled as her cheeky son made a quick dash back towards the pool. His mother gave playful chase, skipping after him across the grass before scooping him into her arms a few feet from the water and tickling him enthusiastically in mock punishment for his attempted escape. Once his compliance was assured, she surreptitiously re-adjusted her miniscule clothing. I pretended not to notice.
Once satisfied with Jack, Charlotte dried herself off on another big blue towel, laid it out on the sun bed and stretched herself out after rubbing both herself and her son liberally with sun cream while my son Adam played with little Emily a while longer. They were obviously father and daughter. Everyone said so - she clearly had his features which, as he and I are very obviously father and son, should be no surprise. Indeed this was one of the main reasons Charlotte had asked me to impregnate her three times.
As I watched surreptitiously, Charlotte rolled over onto her side to watch over Jack playing with his toys - lying on her front in her condition was now uncomfortable if not yet impossible – and in doing so unconsciously turned her slim, feminine, barely-covered bottom towards my wife and me. I glanced across at Jane whose gaze was still firmly fixed on her book then back at the shapely, sexy figure before me.
How many times had we made love? I closed my eyes and thought back. It had taken nearly three months of lovemaking to conceive Jack; barely eight weeks for Emily and fewer still for the baby growing inside her now.
More than enough to provide lifelong memories of delight. I lay back in the sun, closed my eyes and remembered how it had all started some four years ago.
Charlotte and our only child Adam had been happily married for more than ten years. Both high-flying Graduates with research posts at the top University at which they had studied, met and married, at first they had concentrated hard on their careers.
For many years it had never quite the right time – professionally - to start a family. They had worked and studied very hard and had been blessed with considerable academic success, but as is the way with academia, the financial rewards had been somewhat meagre.
Eventually however, the sound of body clocks ticking had become louder and louder until at the age of thirty they finally began 'trying for a baby'.
After a few years of trying and with no subsequent pregnancy, it became clear that something was definitely wrong. Charlotte being the practical half of their relationship, it fell to her to do something to improve the situation and, after a few heated conversations, Adam finally agreed they should both go to see their doctor.
To cut a long story short, they found out that there was a problem and that the problem was Adam. Typical of our beloved only son, Adam's problem couldn't have just been a low sperm count that could have been fairly simply addressed. No, his situation turned out to be a complicated issue involving malfunctioning sperm which he apparently produced in prodigious quantities but which were mostly incapable of fertilising Charlotte's eggs.
Natural conception was deemed highly unlikely so, in their mid-thirties, they embarked on a series of complicated IVF programmes designed to select the best, most promising sperm and assist them artificially in the onerous task of fertilising Charlotte's eggs. This involved her going on powerful fertility drugs for long periods which played merry hell with her hormones and resulted in more frequent and more emotional rows than their happy marriage had so far encountered.
The first two rounds of IVF were paid for by the National Health Service but when these both failed the couple were on their own financially. IVF programmes are extremely expensive and Adam's 'problem' meant that they needed treatment at the higher end of the already high cost scale, but as they grew older and increasingly desperate to have a child, they spent more and more money on more and more rounds of IVF until eventually all their savings had gone, along with most of the equity in their Victorian semi-detached house.
Unhesitatingly, Jane and I loaned them enough money for two more programmes – both predictably unsuccessful – but after that we had no savings left either, apart from my meagre pension fund. Charlotte's parents were in no position to help at all, her father having died a few years previously leaving her mother with a comfortable widow's pension but with no spare cash.
There was nothing to do but save. After a year's frugal living and by selling Charlottes' car and borrowing against the final bit of equity in their house, they were at last able to afford a seventh round of IVF, using a new, recently developed technique.
At first, to our astonishment, this seemed to have been successful. Charlotte had even said she felt different inside – her hair had gone glossy - and for a few blissful weeks we all started to believe that they might actually, finally, have conceived, although none of us dared to say this out loud, as if terrified of 'tempting fate'.
Nevertheless we all began to make secret plans for having a baby in the house. Having no cash meant that DIY was very much a necessity and I took some time off my work as a builder in order to help repair and decorate their badly maintained house. A good two weeks' work would be required just on the exterior woodwork which meant that I would be around their house a great deal. Adam and Charlotte were still working full time so I had the house to myself, which frankly I prefer. I can concentrate better and work faster if I'm not disturbed.
It took three full days to make good the worst of the damage that years of neglect (and insufficient money) had caused, and I was about to begin the lengthy process of painting the results of my handiwork when I heard an unexpected sound from inside the kitchen.
Believing myself to be alone in the house, at first I suspected a burglar but, as I climbed down the ladder and crept round the corner to the kitchen window, I saw my beautiful daughter-in-law Charlotte sitting at the kitchen table, a bloodstained cloth in her hands, her shoulders heaving up and down silently.
Silently opening the door, I slowly entered the room. Charlotte didn't even acknowledge my presence; she just carried on crying and wringing the cloth between her fingers.
"Charlie? Charlie! What's the matter?" I asked softly, pulling up a stool, placing one hand on her forearm and wrapping my other arm around her shoulders.
She made a few half-strangled noises as if incapable of talking so I just hugged her close to me in silence. At first this seemed to make things even worse; her sobbing became much stronger and huge salty tears flowed down her cheeks and onto mine, but eventually she began to recover a little of her composure and a little of her powers of speech.
"Can you tell me now?" I asked when she seemed calm enough to respond.
Charlotte twisted the bloody cloth in her hands once again and I realised it was a pair of panties - her panties presumably, covered in blood. She hurled them into the corner of the room.
"My time of the month has come." She said in broken sobs. "I've miscarried!"
It took a few seconds for the real implication of this to register with me. It meant that their seventh round of IVF treatment – the one we had all hoped and prayed had succeeded - had failed like all the previous rounds.
She was not pregnant. Again.
"All our savings have gone... And we borrowed all that money from you too..." She was saying.
I put my arm back around her shoulders and hugged her close.
"You know Jane and I don't expect that money back, don't you?" I said in an attempt to reassure her. "We know how important this is to you both. It's important to us too – Adam is our only child and we want to see the two of you happy."
"But we can't just keep throwing money down the drain." She continued, her voice broken by tears. "We should have a decent house for our family now instead of living in this... hovel and spending every last penny on... on fucking IVF!"
In all the years I had known her, I don't think I had ever heard Charlotte use the 'f' word before. I stood and, taking a tall glass from the cupboard, filled it with cold water before placing it on the table in front of her. She took it and drank half in one single gulp.
"Thanks Tony." She said, her voice much better controlled now. "I just felt so... so alone..."
"You're not alone!" I assured her quietly. "You know we're always here if you need us. And don't think we'll always tell Adam everything you tell us. You're as much our daughter now!"
"I just can't bear the thought of telling him!" She said. "This is the end, isn't it? There's nowhere left to go – and no more money."
I stroked her cheek reassuringly as she carried on.
"But he will still want to keep trying!" She sobbed. "He's going to bankrupt us! I can't let that happen! But I can't destroy his dreams either, can I? I love him too much! What can I do?"
"Then don't tell him!" I said. "At least not yet."
"What?" She asked, for the first time raising her head.
"Go and wash your face. I'll make the tea and we'll talk this through now – before Adam gets home."
Fifteen minutes later the two of us sat at the kitchen table sipping steaming hot mugs of tea. Charlotte looked a lot better. Her face, devoid of make-up, was pale, pink and puffy but was improving before my eyes.
"I'm sorry I got so hysterical." She was saying. I dismissed the idea.
"It's only natural. I'm so, so sorry for the two of you." I replied. She smiled ruefully. "Are you able to talk now?"
Her eyes were still a little tearful but she nodded.
"Shall we try and look at it logically?" I asked, appealing to the common-sense girl I knew she was. She nodded again.
"Did the Doctors talk about alternatives" I asked. "If it really didn't work out for you?"
"Shall we work through them? One by one?" She sighed heavily, then nodded again.
"Well, shall we start with more IVF?" I proposed.
"I can't, Tony! Not again! Apart from the money, I just can't go through all that again, not just to have our hopes smashed to pieces yet another time. And those fertility drugs make me... well we have terrible rows when I'm on them."
She thought further.
"And even if we had the money, I couldn't bear to pour it down the drain again. We need to get on with our lives! Even if it means living without children!"
"Did you think about adopting?"
"We've talked about it." She replied, gradually calming down as I had hoped. "But it wouldn't be OUR child in the same way, would it?" She looked troubled. "I know it's a terrible thing to say, but neither of us was keen and it takes so long..."
"Well, what other options are there? You know better than I do what the Doctors told you."
She thought hard.
"I guess the only realistic route would be to use a donor – a sperm donor. But that's a problem too. Firstly there's a shortage since the new rules came in and it costs twice as much as normal IVF... And even if it works the baby would most likely look like its biological father, not Adam." She paused for breath.
"He or she might even go looking for their real father when they're older. I've seen the TV programmes." She paused, trying to hold back the tears. "I can't ask Adam to bring up a child that reminds him every day that he couldn't make one himself..."
She began crying again. I slipped my arm around her heaving shoulders and hugged her until the worst of the sobbing died away. My heart ached for her – for both of them.
"I just don't know how I can tell Adam when he comes home tonight!" She said, her voice catching in her throat. "I just don't! I'm worried how he might take it."
"Would you like me – or Jane – to be here? Or both of us? Moral support?" I suggested.
Charlotte appeared to summon a little extra inner strength because she wiped her eyes and pulled herself together in front of me.
"Thanks Tony but... I think this is something we've got to handle ourselves... just the two of us."
I felt a little better about it. At least her last words seemed to show she had regained some of her self-control.
"It's time to decide what we're going to do with our lives. We can't go on like this any longer."
This was more like the Charlotte I knew and loved.
"I understand Charlie. But remember I'm here if you need me – we both are. It might not always feel this way but you're not alone. Ever!"
The next morning I approached the house with a feeling of dread.
I had told Jane the bad news the previous evening and it had taken all my powers of persuasion to prevent her calling Adam on the phone immediately. This was a matter for him and Charlotte to work out between themselves, I insisted, at their own time and in private.
How would it be, I asked, if she burst into tears on the phone to Adam before Charlotte had been able to break the news to him herself?
It was hard for Jane to overcome her motherly instincts towards both of them but in the end she agreed. When I went to the house the following morning I would be able to see for myself.
So it was with low expectations and a heavy heart that I knocked on the kitchen door at eight o'clock the following morning. Adam's car was not in its usual place which meant he had gone to work. That had to be a good sign. The door was slow in being answered. That might be a bad one.
Eventually Charlotte opened the door and held it open while I carried a box of brushes and paint into the kitchen. She was fully dressed in leggings and a loose T-shirt which I took to be a good sign too – at least she wasn't too depressed to look after herself – indeed as she greeted me I saw little in the way of despair about her at all. No, she had the demeanour of someone who was in control – not at all what I expected.
"How are you feeling today?" I asked with what I hoped was a sympathetic look on my face.
"I'm ok..." She sighed. "There wasn't much pain. I felt sick all day but that might have been nerves – I still don't know how I managed to tell Adam without breaking down completely."
"How did you manage it?" I asked, concerned. "How did it go?"
"It didn't go well." She said, pouring hot water into two mugs and adding a tea bag. "In fact it was worse than I had expected." She passed me a steaming mug and pulled out a chair at the kitchen table.
"He looked like the world had crashed down on his shoulders." She continued. "I hadn't realised just how much he had built on the hope that this time it would work." Her voice was getting agitated. "I tried to warn him – we all did – that you can't ever be sure until after at least twelve weeks but..." She ran out of words but her expression spoke volumes.
"Where is he now?" I asked.
"He's gone to work." She replied. "Though how he'll concentrate I can't imagine." She turned to me.
"Tony, I've never seen him so... strange. Last night he was devastated – as if the centre had dropped out of his world. Today he's manic, going on and on about yet more IVF and looking for new treatments. He's even talking about America!"
She paused and her face became serious.
"Can I be honest with you?" She asked.
"I think... well I think he's worried that I'll eventually leave him because he can't give me a child." My eyebrows must have soared in silent question. "It's utter nonsense! Nonsense!" She went on. "I love him so much! He's the one obsessed with having children, not me. I'd like to have them too of course but it's him I love. It's him I want to be with – with or without kids."
The tears were back in her eyes but she didn't seem to notice.
"I've tried to get him to understand this but he's got the idea fixed in his mind. I can't let it happen Tony, I can't. He'll bankrupt us, create more expectation and disappointment and then what will happen?"
I made to put my arm around her shoulders but she moved away slightly, took a deep breath and sat up straight as if steeling herself for a difficult task. I was amazed. I had always known her to be a strong, though quiet person and more than a match for our son in terms of confidence, but when she spoke her words took my completely by surprise.