Saturday mornings are the worst. Claudia, a teacher, wakes up alone in bed in her London flatshare. The weekend stretches out before her, an interminable expanse to be filled as best she can – with walks, and TV, and more walks. Sometimes, she finds it hard to summon the motivation to get out of bed. “It sounds dramatic,” Claudia says, “but I’ll lie there, thinking: ‘What’s the point of getting up?’”
She goes over the arithmetic that has tortured her all year long. She will be 34 next month, single, no closer to finding a partner to have kids with. Even if she did meet someone next year, say, would they be ready to start conceiving within a year? Probably not. That could mean she will be 36 before she even starts trying – if she meets someone next year. And there’s the rub – because the Covid-19 restrictions have made dating nearly impossible. “My friends are either pregnant or looking after small children,” Claudia says, “and I struggle to even get men to talk to me online. It feels hopeless.”
Claudia is one of the many women across the UK who fear that the coronavirus has put paid to their plans to have children, possibly for good. As Covid swept the country in March, IVF clinics hastily closed; most would not reopen until May. And women who had planned to travel abroad for fertility treatment were unable to leave the UK, due to the travel restrictions. Once-solid relationships collapsed under the stress of a global pandemic, leaving women in their late 30s who want children searching for new partners. And women who were in a secure financial situation before the pandemic suddenly found themselves out of work – meaning that they couldn’t afford to become mothers, in the short term at least.
“There have been delays to fertility treatment at all levels,” says Dr Raj Mathur of the British Fertility Society. “Elective work in the NHS completely stopped, and patients presenting to GPs with infertility weren’t referred to fertility clinics.” Although most clinics have now reopened, there is a backlog of patients, with limited resources – plus, clinics are vulnerable to Covid-induced staff shortages. “It’s been a struggle for many clinics to deliver an effective service this year,” says Mathur, “because staff are getting Covid and having to isolate, or their children are being sent home from school.”
For some women, this delay may have been disastrous. “A big issue is that some patients may lose their access to state-funded fertility treatment,” says Mathur, “because delays in referrals means they’ve crossed the age threshold at which the NHS will not provide treatment.” (The age threshold varies from 34 to 42, depending on where in the UK you live.) The British Fertility Society is lobbying clinical commissioning groups to waive it for women affected by the Covid shutdown; so far, most clinical commissioning groups – which allocate health services in their local area – are proving reasonable.
When you have been waiting for fertility treatment for such a long time, any delay is distressing. “We would have started treatment this year, definitely,” says Anna, 35, a social worker from Hull. She and her husband have been trying to conceive for six years; in that time, she has had two miscarriages. After being referred for fertility treatment last year, Anna learned that she has a chromosomal disorder that causes recurrent miscarriages. In order to carry a pregnancy to term, she requires preimplantation genetic testing.
She was due to begin NHS treatment in April, but that was cancelled because of Covid. In November, she received a letter saying that it would be another nine months at least before she is seen. “It feels like setback after setback,” Anna says. “Another year has gone by. Your life is constantly on hold, waiting for treatment.” But she is trying to keep her worries in perspective. “I know there are people worse off than me,” she says. “People have gone without cancer treatment. I can take a step back and appreciate that, although it’s upsetting for me, the NHS is doing its best.”
It is not only NHS IVF clinics that are affected; for the women who are self-funding IVF treatment in clinics abroad, 2020 has also been a disaster. “He is enough, of course,” says Emily Sheahan-Jones, 39, a teacher from Bristol, of her two-year-old son, Wilf. “But we’d really love a little sibling for him. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, to be a mum.” After five rounds of IVF with her husband, Sheahan-Jones conceived her son at a clinic in Athens, where fertility treatment is cheaper – she had had a round on the NHS but it didn’t work, so she had to go private. “The clinic was the last-chance saloon,” she laughs. “People go there when they’ve been told to give up by everyone else.” Wilf was born in March 2018. “It was the best day of my life,” she says. “I was such a wreck. I couldn’t believe it. After all those years.”
Sheahan-Jones planned to visit Greece for fertility treatment this year. “But you can’t get out there,” she says. “Greece is in lockdown. There aren’t really flights.” She did manage to get there for a consultation over the summer, but because the fertility drugs she has to take before flying out cost £1,500, it seemed too much of a risk to start taking them, only for flights to be cancelled. “We’re in limbo,” she says. “I’ll be 40 next year, and that is quite scary. I never thought when I started trying to have children at 31 that I’d still be in this position aged 40.”
For these women, Covid-induced delays only intensify an already fraught and upsetting time. “IVF and assisted fertility is such a difficult process anyway,” says Dr Amanda Sives of the University of Chester, a counsellor and expert in involuntary childlessness. “Delays can be heartbreaking for women who have already been on waiting lists for a long time for these opportunities. Because there simply isn’t time.” Anna has been trying to stay positive, but when she got the letter from the clinic, she broke down. “The team at the hospital is brilliant,” Anna says, “and they’re doing everything they can. But I did have a little cry.”
It is not all doom and gloom: a recent study, published in the journal Fertility and Sterility, of IVF patients in a clinic in New York found that patients who had their treatment paused during the Covid pandemic were as likely to conceive as patients who did not experience delays. “We should take care not to unduly alarm people,” says Mathur, “as fertility treatment is already a time of great stress.” But he acknowledges that although most women will not be affected by the delays, there are always outliers. “There may be individual cases where Covid does make a difference that doesn’t get picked up in the numbers,” he says. “If their treatment is unsuccessful, they may always say to themselves: ‘Maybe if I got treated six months ago, I would have been successful.’ And who am I to say that’s wrong? It is possible.”
Covid-induced financial worries are also scuppering many women’s dreams of motherhood. “I have regular meltdowns,” says Josephine, 39, from Oxford. “There’s a lot of weeping.” She usually bottoms out on Monday mornings, when her husband is back at work, and she sits down at a laptop to resume the horror of applying for jobs. “It’s been nine months of searching,” she says. “It’s just relentless.” Josephine is a consultant specialising in conflict analysis. “My area of speciality is very niche,” she says, “and the entire sector has pivoted to dealing with Covid.”
She and her husband had planned to spend their life savings on IVF this year – but now that seems like an irresponsible decision, given that Josephine may find it even more difficult to get back into work with a young baby. “I’m going for interviews,” she says, sounding close to tears, “thinking, this isn’t just about trying to save my career. I’m trying to have a career to be able to have a baby.” She could bite the bullet and pay for the fertility treatment, regardless of her job situation. But she worries that would make for a stressful and uncertain pregnancy.
For Victoria Dewsnip, 32, all dreams of motherhood are off the cards for the foreseeable future. An artist and counsellor from Liverpool, she and her fiance, Paul, had planned to buy a house this year. “It was all looking straightforward,” she says. “We were going to buy a house, get married and try for a baby.” But then Covid happened. Paul’s landlord put his flat up for sale as soon as the moratorium on evictions ended, and because he has been furloughed from his job as a dental technician, they cannot get a mortgage. Dewsnip has multiple sclerosis, meaning that she can only work part-time, and therefore could not shoulder mortgage or rent payments on her own. Now they are living in Dewsnip’s mother’s house, which is crammed full of their belongings.
“We don’t want to have a baby until we have our own house,” Dewsnip says, “and that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen any time soon.” Complicating matters is the fact that Dewsnip has polycystic ovary syndrome, which affects her fertility.
Struggling with your fertility in the midst of a global pandemic that has removed many women from their wider support networks can be profoundly isolating. “I’ve found myself even being envious of friends who are going through IVF,” Claudia admits. “They still seem to be further ahead than I am.” When she is feeling more resilient, Claudia downloads dating apps, but she finds that men her age tend to avoid dating women in their mid-30s, and besides, she prefers to meet people organically.
It is common for women experiencing involuntary childlessness to experience feelings akin to grief. “There’s a loss of an imagined future,” says Sives. “Sometimes, there’s also a sense of failure: your body has failed, you’ve failed as a woman … you’re not able to have children.” Three of Claudia’s close friends announced they were pregnant this year – she is happy for them, of course, but there is sadness there, too. “During lockdown, I’ve found myself in a constant internal monologue,” Claudia says. “I tell myself that having children isn’t going to happen, and I just need to wrap my head around that, and be OK with it.” She has started seeing a therapist.
Sives advises women feeling anxious or overwhelmed to reach out to other women in similar situations. “They’ll have a shared understanding of what it feels like,” she says. “Because infertility is seldom talked about, women often get well-meaning but frankly insensitive questions, like, ‘When will you start a family?’ and ‘How come you haven’t had children?’ Feeling like there’s a space to share the pain of that experience with other women who understand what it’s like is key.” She directs women to Gateway Women, an online community of people who are involuntarily childless. “The truth is that infertility makes you feel so low,” says Sheahan-Jones. “You feel the need to put on a brave face because you’re constantly having to find positivity and hope. Otherwise, you just can’t do it. But underneath it’s just frustration, despair and the dread that it will never happen for you.”
It is a bitter pill to swallow: that a global pandemic may have cost these women their dreams of motherhood. “This year just feels like such a lost year,” says Claudia. “It’s almost like a year of my life has disintegrated, just melted away. And there’s no guarantee that next year will be better. What if there’s another six months of restrictions?” Josephine is trying to focus on the positives, at least for now. “Covid has been horrific for my career, and my attempts to have a baby, obviously,” she says. “But it’s made my relationship with my partner stronger. I’ve made new friends – I joined my local Covid support group, which helped expand my social circle. And I’m fitter than I’ve ever been, because I have so much time to exercise.”
She exhales, a deep breath, and her voice sounds stronger. “I have to have faith that this is just a shitty period right now,” she says. “It will pass, and things will be fine. I have to believe that.”
Some names have been changed.