Let’s Not Forget The Fertility Fallout Of The Covid Crisis

For those feeling the weight of the baby 'deadline' the virus only makes things more complicated, writes author Nell Frizzell

The Panic Years

by Nell Frizzell |
Updated on

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Buying a toaster, celebrating your birthday, trimming your fringe; very few things have been made less stressful by living in a pandemic. But for many women and people with a uterus, there is one particular decision that has been rendered near- impossible: should you have a baby? And if so when, where, how and with whom? The monthly reminder that your fertility is finite brings a certain tang of intensity to life even under normal circumstances. Especially as you hurtle through The Panic Years: that great transitionary period between carefree youth and careworn adulthood, where friends suddenly scatter into separate lives; getting married, buying houses, changing jobs and getting pregnant.

But over the last year, the question of whether to become a parent has become particularly febrile. Whether you’re single and struggling to date under social distancing restrictions, facing financial uncertainty thanks to Covid, having your fertility treatment frustrated by the closure of clinics and chronically underfunded, overworked NHS services, suffering discord in your relationship after the challenges of living through lockdown, or have simply had your life put on hold by the pandemic, having babies suddenly became significantly harder for millions of people. The uncertainty of life, the frailty of our mortality, the shortcomings of our leaders, the risks we face as a global community have all been brought thudding into our laps.

‘I’m really lucky; I had work and a warm place to live and friends. But there is this major pressure because I do really want children,’ says Imogen*, 37, a graphic designer from Oxford who has been single since before the pandemic. ‘I keep thinking about that post-war generation of spinsters who just missed their window. This isn’t a war, but I’m already 37; if the pandemic goes on for another year, I’ll be 38. My fertility is slipping away and it might be another six months until I get the vaccine. How long do I realistically have?’

While lockdown hasn’t stopped her from meeting people on dating apps and going for walks, Imogen explains that the possibility of building a relationship with someone – the kind that might lead to starting a family – feels harder. ‘Everything feels weird and exhausting and stressful. I feel emotionally depleted around dating.

I just can’t be bothered to open that app. Perhaps because there’s so much electronic communication. I had a Zoom date on Sunday, but it was the same medium that I’m doing all my work through. In that way, it was like going on a date to a conference room, or an office with strip lighting.’

For LGBTQ+ people, getting pregnant or having a baby has always been more complicated. As a single, queer woman, Anna*, 41, who lives in South East England, was unable to access fertility treatment on the NHS and so spent years saving up.

After a failed round of IUI (intrauterine insemination) in October 2020, she decided to go for it again. ‘But then everything happened with the second wave,’ she tells me over the phone. ‘The day after lockdown was announced [on 4 January] I found myself on a train to London and thought, “This is insane.” The NHS was on its knees. I didn’t want to put further pressure on them. I’m asthmatic and, if I got pregnant, there would be extra complications, I’d be putting myself at risk. So I turned tail and came back.’

Anna describes her current state as a ‘hinterland’, caught between an uncertain present and an unknowable future. ‘Some days, I feel quite tearful and panicky. If it doesn’t happen soon then that door is closing. But on other days, I feel OK – I know that I might just have to wait until summer. It’s all tinged with a bit of sadness because I would have liked to do this with a partner. It’s a quagmire of feelings.’

Even for those who were already having fertility treatment, the last year has been difficult. Maeve*, 34, a communications manager, discovered after a series of tests that she has endometriosis and a sister condition called adenomyosis. This meant that to access IVF she had to take medication that gave her night sweats, migraines and sickness. ‘There were rumblings about Covid but we were still being told treatment would happen on 19 March 2020.’ But just two days in advance, medics called to say her embryo transfer was being cancelled. ‘They were pulling the plug on all fertility treatments from that week. They were having to redeploy staff and might have to turn the clinic into an ICU. I was devastated – pumped full of hormones for weeks and weeks, then suddenly it was being taken away from me,’ says Maeve. ‘I was angry with the clinic and angry with myself for being angry at the clinic. I had a very impassioned discussion with a nurse, asking why aren’t they telling couples who can spontaneously conceive to stop trying? Why aren’t they being told to protect themselves from getting pregnant? Instead, lockdown babies are coming thick and fast, while I’m being told to wait.’

When faced with a question so sensitive, complicated and uncertain as should you have a baby, there can be no easy answers. Perhaps all we can really do is make compassion our priority and recognise our steps forward, whatever shape they take.

In September, awaiting the birth of a friend’s first baby, I found myself sitting on the edge of my bed, slowly unwinding one of the jumpers I’d made my own son during our pregnancy. While my Panic Years are by no means over, I have come to see my partner and I will not be having another baby soon. Perhaps not ever. He never wanted more than one child and I am no longer willing to suffer the disappointment, frustration and sadness of trying to change his mind, especially after a year without childcare. And so, taking that unwound wool, I started to knit my friend’s new, as-yet-unknown child a cardigan of her own. Because while we are all in a state of uncertainty, while the future is unknowable, while we tread water in the freezing sea of a global pandemic, sometimes only these small gestures can feel like hope.

‘The Panic Years’ by Nell Frizzell is out now. Nell will be talking about how to navigate the panic years on Thursday 4 March for Grazia’s Support Bubble on IGTV. Follow us on Instagram to watch along, and check out more information about the Grazia Support Bubble here.

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