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Wanting to be a mother should not ever be allowed to destroy a woman’s life. Yet, it almost ruined Martina Devlin, who chronicles her nightmare in The Hollow Heart.
Martina was in her early 30s when she married Brandan, her second husband with whom she had been desperately in love. Theirs seemed like the perfect match, and their wedding was a fairytale affair with all the romantic trappings of a charming Irish celebration.
Deeply in love and longing to become parents, they started trying for children almost immediately after marriage. Sadly, the process turned out to be more difficult than expected, and would lead to the eventual breakdown of their relationship.
With no luck in conceiving even after a year, they visited the doctor, only to be told that there was advanced damage to Martina’s fallopian tubes – most probably a lingering after-effect of an infection years before. The couple was, thus, unlikely to conceive a child naturally.
Martina writes in her book, “Having a baby seems to be the easiest, most natural thing in the world. Until you can’t. And when you can’t, the desire to be a mother – controllable until this point – becomes overwhelming.”
Unwilling to give up, the couple plunged into the traumatic and demanding process of In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) treatments. All three attempts in the first cycle were unsuccessful, and they were devastated.
The stress of attempted parenthood led to persistent conflict between Martina and Brendan. Each became blind to one another’s emotional difficulties, and they were eventually torn apart by misunderstanding and a lack of communication. The marriage was over.
Sharing her story
It is a heartbreaking story, yet Martina, in a phone interview with Family from her home in the UK, speaks about her experience with sanguine calm.
She says, “People have asked if writing the book has helped me in any way. The truth is it has been extremely difficult and it didn’t help at all. In order to write about my story properly, I needed to relive those experiences all over again.”
Yet, despite having to walk the same dark path once over, Martina felt that telling her story was her responsibility. She explains, “Of the hundred reasons there may have been to write this book, only one reason was so compelling to me.
“I remember what it was to feel so desperately alone. I felt like I was the only person in the world who had to go through this whole experience. Through my story, hopefully other women in the same situation can see that others have also gone through this before.”
Never too young
One of the lessons she hopes women will learn from her story is that having children is not an option that should be delayed. “My generation was raised on the belief that women could have it all – a career, and a family.
“I put off motherhood because I felt I still had time. But your chances of conceiving naturally are better sooner, not later. In fact, after 35, one in seven couples is expected to have problems conceiving.”
Even with modern science, conceiving via IVF is not as simple as it seems. In the book, Martina writes, “I wished I had known in advance how IVF treatment has the capacity to rip, tear, and lacerate, how it can eat you alive, organ by organ.”
Apart from severe mood swings, Martina also details her lack of energy and lethargy, presumably a side effect of the large quantities of hormones she consumed as part of the IVF process.
Recounting the experience, she says, “My whole body was awash with hormones, and I was filled with emotions ranging from self-pity, to panic and irritation at the slightest thing. I was sleepy, and constantly tired.”
Counselling and IVF
Her erratic moods became one of the reasons for the eventual breakdown of her marriage to Brendan. Looking back, she points out that they lacked counselling before the actual IVF process, meaning the couple was therefore ill-prepared for what was to come.
In her book, she says, “Forearmed, I might have been prepared for what was to follow. It might have helped Brendan and me to be more compassionate to one another – to appreciate the enormity of what we were embarking on, and to make allowances.”
She again reiterates this during the interview, saying, “Counselling should be mandatory.” Yet, her sympathies are not restricted to women undergoing IVF. In fact, she feels that men need the same understanding.
She says, “Men tend to become very sidelined by the process. I’ve spoken to some IVF patients, and their husbands drop them off at the clinic and wait in the car. It’s not because they don’t want to show support, it’s because they don’t feel welcome.
“The entire process of IVF tends to focus on the woman. The woman undergoes the treatment. The woman feels the emotional turmoil as the hormones take effect, and the man is somehow relegated to the corner and left to deal with these changes alone.”
Despite the heavy price she paid for the three failed IVF attempts, Martina has few regrets. “I take comfort in knowing that I’ve done everything possible. I wanted children so badly that it was important I give it my very best shot.”
However, she does wish that some things could have been done differently. “I only wish I had access to the information on IVF that could have made the process a lot easier for both Brendan and I,” she says, stressing again that counselling should be available “at all stages”.
“For example, I went ballistic when my husband suggested trying for a second round of IVF treatments after we failed the initial time.
“I thought I wasn’t important to him and he wasn’t considering the difficulties I had to endure. If we had counselling at the time, then perhaps, he could have explained his story, and reassured me it wasn’t the case.”
Although Martina has totally lost contact with Brendan, it is apparent in her book that she feels some anguish that their relationship ended so abruptly. She writes, “I wished I could turn back the clock for just a few seconds to wish Brendan well, as I do now.
“Why couldn’t we have hugged each other one last time and said ‘Good luck’? I’ve whispered it countless times in my imagination. But I can’t change what happened between us, for all my wishing, and so I try to remember that I loved Brendan once.”
All’s well that ends well
These days, Martina has come to terms with her infertility. While it still pains her, she accepts her reality, and tries to take comfort in her family and large numbers of nephews and nieces.
“Yes, well, I still worry about not having anyone to take care of me in my old age sometimes. But I have to hope that my nephews and nieces remember me when they grow up.
“Actually, there are no guarantees. But even with your own children, there are no guarantees. You only have to try to love the life you have, and live it to the best of your abilities.
“Today, I count my blessings. I have a wonderful boyfriend, a lovely house by the sea, a huge family circle, and I love the work that I do.”