"I was stuck in a loop. In the first half of the year I would conceive, be happy, but three months down the line, I would have a miscarriage. I would slump into depression, then I would pull myself up again, and in the second half of the year I would try again."
Gitanjali Banerjee, a Delhi-based writer, says this was her life for 10 years before a second round of IVF proved successful. She is now a mother to a healthy 8-year-old.
Gitanjali's story is that of millions of couples across the world, and yet, many of them go through this difficult journey alone, enduring in silence.
In vitro fertilization (IVF) refers to a series of complex processes where an egg and sperm are fertilised in a lab and then introduced to the womb of the biological or surrogate mother.
25 July is celebrated as World IVF Day to mark the birth of the first successful IVF baby back in 1978.
Forty-four years on, though it has given healthy babies to thousands of parents, the process isn't foolproof, and the journey can be a long emotionally draining one riddled with disappointment, guilt, and pain.
FIT speaks to some women who share their stories.
'What Am I Doing Wrong?'
The first time Sheetal's (name changed) IVF failed, she says she couldn't help but feel like it was her fault somehow. "They told me the risks, but I still felt like I had failed everyone – my husband, my in-laws and my parents," she adds.
Sheetal says she doesn't feel like she's ready to go through it again just yet, but every day that goes by, she says, she feels guilty for keeping them waiting, 'like a timer is ticking.'
"When I started to conceive, I went through 5 miscarriages and a brush with ovarian cancer before I started my IVF journey," Gitanjali, an IVF mother, tells FIT.
"My first IVF failed." Although the second time was a success, "it took me ten years to reach there," she adds.
When asked about those ten years, Gitanjali says, "ten years is a long time. I was 23 when I started trying to conceive, and I was 33 when it finally happened. These are the prime years of your life."
"I was frustrated, depressed, borderline suicidal, and I had a lot of existential questions of 'why is this happening to me?', and 'what am I doing wrong', and 'why am I being punished'?"Gitanjali Banerjee, Founder, Fertility Dost
Her own 10-year-long ordeal inspired Gitanjali to start Fertility Dost, a portal that provides support to couples struggling with infertility on their journey. Fertility Dost does this by putting aspiring parents in touch with doctors, mental health practitioners, as well as providing a community support system.
When she started the platform - as a Facebook group at first, she talks about how women started flooding the chats with their own stories, voicing their desperation, their fears and trauma.
"Do anything with my body, just get me pregnant." Gitanjali recalls the harrowing plea of a young 23 year old who was afraid of her mother-in-law throwing her house if she didn't conceive soon.
"I see women leaving their jobs. They think it's because they're focusing too much on their careers," she adds.
'It’s a Lonely Journey': Inner Battles & External Stigma
"Only my parents and my in-laws knew we were getting fertility treatment, and it was such a difficult time because I couldn't talk to anyone about what I was feeling, they just didn't understand," says Sheetal (name changed).
"Since we started the process two years ago, I haven't enjoyed anything. I see others my age having fun, going on holidays, worrying about their jobs, and all my time and energy has been taken over by doctors, injections, and feeling sick."Sheetal (name changed)
"You start feeling like you don't deserve to enjoy. I felt like everything I had achieved in life was a waste," she adds.
Pressure from family to have kids, and unsolicited remarks from strangers, don't help.
"If you don't tell people, they will keep hounding you, demanding good news. If you tell about your issues, they will overwhelm you with their desi nuskas (home remedies), and suggestions, and getting into your personal space," she goes on to say.
"When I had my first misscarriage, I remember someone, a friend of mine, came up to me and said, 'I saw you at the party that day, you were wearing heels and dancing. That is why this happened.'"Gitanjali Banerjee, Founder, Fertility Dost
"I felt so guilty. It's very difficult to come out of a dark place like that," she adds.
Not talking about it makes it an even lonelier journey, says Gitanjali.
Data says around 20 million couples in India go through infertility every year, which is nearly one in ten couples. "Then where are these people?" She asks.
Before Fertility Dost, Gitanjali says, when she tried finding a community of people going through what she was, she didn't find anyone talking opening about infertility and the challenges that come with it.
Gitanjali says this strengthened her resolve to create a community and safe space for people like her.
"It was a challenge for me too, because at that point, only my very close family knew that my son was an IVF child. And if I was going to go out and ask people to not feel alone, talk to each other and find help, I have to talk about my own experiences."Gitanjali Banerjee, Founder, Fertility Dost
Has the ART Bill Made Things Better?
The physical, mental and emotional trauma of this journey often leaves couples reeling for months, and even years after.
"I still cry thinking about the process that happened 7 months ago," says Anjana (name changed), who has undgone two unsuccessful rounds of IVF treatment.
It isn't unheard of for unethical clinics and doctors to take advantage of the desperation of couples at their most vulnerable.
Speaking of her first IVF round in 2018, Anjana says, "about Rs 3 lakh were taken from us. As well as 80 thousand rupees, on the pretext of hidden charges."
"We were not given accurate information about the process. The doctor didn't even examine me. The doctor did not know how to extract the eggs properly and in sufficient numbers," she adds.
"At that time we did not know that there was even a license for these procedures. After we found out, that hospital was closed before we could do anything."Anjana (name changed)
This is the reality of many unregistered fertility clinics that mushroomed in India with the aim of capitalising on the soaring demands for these treatments, and stigma that surrounds them.
"Because it's such a hush hush topic, even the couples who were being duped by unethical practices were not ready to speak out," says Gitanjali.
The ART (assisted reproductive technology) Bill was passed in 2021, to tackle this issue of rampant unethical practices and regulate the fertility industry among other things.
Under the ART Bill, all ART clinics and banks must be registered under the National Registry of Banks and Clinics of India, which will act as a central database. This resulted in many clinics that didn't meet the mark, shutting down.
But there is also a downside. The ART Bill also tightens restrictions on gamete donations. According to the bill's new provisions,
The donor must be an ever-married woman having at least one alive child of her own (minimum three years of age).
The woman can donate oocytes only once in her life, and not more than seven oocytes can be retrieved from her.
A bank cannot supply the gamete of a single donor to more than one commissioning couple (couple seeking services).
This has created an offset in the ratio of supply to demand.
"The challenge is that the bill has been a bit hard on the couples that are going through infertility,"Gitanjali Banerjee, Founder, Fertility Dost
The cycles of those who were already in the process of receiving gametes was stopped abruptly, people have lost donors they had tied up with.
Gitanjali talks about how this created a situation of panic.
"People were taking advantage of this as well," she says. A sense of scarcity was created and used to bump up the already high prices to almost twice the amount."
"I had a conversation with a clinic the other day, and they are now charging 5 lakhs for a donor cycle that used to cost around two, two and a half lakhs before ART Bill came about," she explains.
She says that some clinics also use the scarcity scare to pressure couples into getting it done, now.
"They were playing on the desperation of the couples who want to go through IVF, but want to hide it from society."Gitanjali Banerjee, Founder, Fertility Dost
But, she says she's hopeful of the wrinkles ironing themselves out as the bill is implemented better.
"Any system takes time, but the government should have thought through the execution better," she adds.
'Staying Strong & Keeping Your Spirits High'
"A person who has not gone through IVF will never know how complex it is," says Gitanjali.
"You have to understand that this is an extremely private matter to have a baby through sex, and you're supposed to have a baby naturally, and when that doesn't happen, and you're supposed to go out and talk to people, tell them about your history, your sex life, your menstrual cycle, it is a very difficult process for them to accept that they are going through infertility."Gitanjali Banerjee, Founder, Fertility Dost
People like Gitanjali are trying to help make it easier for couples by providing a platform and a safe space for people to share their experiences and talk about their struggles.
Studies have shown that stress can contribute to infertility, and the added stress of going through IVF - a painful, expensive process, with around 30 percent success rate - can further worsen the cycle.
With Fertility Dost, Gitanjali says, couples are offered meditation and counselling sessions, informed on the different processes, and how they work. They also facilitate direct appointments with doctors and clinics that they have vetted.
"That's one thing that I felt in my ten years of going through this, that there has to be a better way of managing inferitlity, and even how we think about it. "Gitanjali Banerjee, Founder, Fertility Dost
"Even if it is a problem, you can't just get so depressed about it that your life just stops moving," she adds. "Couples just need to be provided with the awareness, strength and dignity to go through this problem."
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