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One in six Australian couples of reproductive age experience fertility problems and for many of them the struggle to conceive is only half the battle.
Sydney mum Alice Almeida knows this only too well, after her own journey with infertility and IVF left her feeling so 'broken' she even told her husband to leave.
Alice's journey started when she was diagnosed with stage four endometriosis at the age of 30 and was told by her gynaecologist to consider IVF almost immediately because she may have issues conceiving.
"Between the ages of 30 and 35 I had five operations for Endo," Alice tells Yahoo Lifestyle, adding she knew she would face challenges while trying to fulfil her lifelong dream of becoming a mum.
Alice and her husband began IVF after months of trying but neither of them knew how difficult things would truly get.
Like so many others in the same situation Alice’s infertility journey was long, emotional, and she felt like she was never in control of the decisions being made about her body.
Things got so bad, that in the depths of it she even told her husband to leave her because she felt like she was "holding him back".
"It was after the third failed transfer where we were putting in perfectly healthy embryos and they weren't even implanting," Alice recalls.
"My specialist said something along the lines of, 'it's just a numbers game, we just have to keep putting them in'. But the problem was, I didn't have many embryos, and I wasn't producing many eggs."
Three failed transfers
In fact, Alice's right ovary was damaged after needing to have large cysts removed.
"Every time we did an egg collection there was less than less. And in fact, the last collection we did before the third failed transfer. We got nothing. Absolutely nothing, and so at this point I think I had seven [eggs] in total, I had transferred three, and three hadn't worked."
That's when Alice says she hit "rock bottom".
"Because I knew that I only had, you know, four left to go it was just so much for anyone to actually take on and so after the third failed transfer everything just kind of built up. My husband is also quite an emotional person and he was obviously very impacted by the constant loss.
"I just got to this depth of darkness, which I've never been to in my life, I'm usually a very happy, bubbly person, and I just thought, I need to give him an out. I know he desperately wants kids, and I know that he would be an incredible father and I felt like I was holding him back from from having that life."
Alice's IVF success
Incredibly though, after initially deciding to look into an option of surrogacy instead, a former colleague suggested a different specialist and method to Alice, which as luck would have it, changed everything.
"We had decided not to do any more egg collections at that stage, but we still have four left," Alice explains.
"I thought initially, why didn't I know about this guy. And so I had an appointment with him, and I wasn't feeling hopeful, and we were still pursuing surrogacy, but I just wanted to hear what he had to say. And he seemed pretty confident that he was going to get me pregnant.
"I had to convince my husband to try again, but we put in an embryo and two weeks later they told me I was pregnant."
Alice and her husband Sean welcomed their daughter Maya in 2018.
One last surprise
In 2019, Alice decided they would use the remaining eggs to try for baby number two, but despite things having worked once, sadly they were unsuccessful from the final three attempts.
"Then that was it, you know, between my husband and I, we were both very certain that there was going to be no more IVF," Alice says.
"Just financially, and also we'd been married, at that point, five years, and our whole marriage had been about trying to get pregnant."
Now aged 40, Alice decided she would take some time to really focus on her mental health and self care, wanting to give her body one last shot to potentially conceive naturally.
She started seeing a fertility naturopath and after going on a retreat she says she found "real clarity".
"It was on this retreat that I had an avalanche of emotions and I had a breaking point, but I also had that 'aha' moment where they really helped me process so much and see that, you know I was blaming infertility for so much and I was saying, infertility defines me.
"But the at the end of it, it wasn't all about infertility, I just really didn't realise what infertility had turned me into. So I think I found a lot of clarity with mental health. And I was seeing the naturopath and then I fell pregnant.
"Obviously it was a massive shock and surprise. The chances of me conceiving naturally were pretty, pretty slim. I did five years of IVF to conceive and you know for it to happen like this, I was like this is crazy."
The Amber Network
Alice experience of struggling with her own mental health, and her feeling like she had nowhere to turn to for information or an understanding shoulder to lean on, led to the founding of The Amber Network.
The Amber Network is a portal for Australians experiencing infertility or going through IVF to find all the services, support and information they want and need to help them through their journey.
"I didn't really understand the huge importance of mental health and the huge importance of self care until the end of my IVF journey.
"And that is when I kind of went, why did it get to this, why wasn't mental health, something that was kind of mentioned to me at the start, why wasn't self care strongly encouraged by the clinics, and by the professionals.
"And also what kind of frustrates me a little bit is that I wish I had known about this fertility naturopath, five, six years ago. I had to seek out so much information myself. I just thought, there has to be an easier and better system for people going through IVF."
After launching in October, The Amber Network offers women and men alike five core resources to support them through infertility and fertility treatment.
"I wanted to give people using The Amber Network somewhere they can learn about all the services available to them, to provide all round support and care," Alice says.
"There’s nothing more important than feeling informed and empowered, particularly when your physical health is under so much stress and you are making such emotional decisions."
With mental health at its core, The Amber Network has been developed in consultation with psychologists, and includes a self-care section offering guided yoga, meditation and breathwork, as well as a calendar to monitor appointments, medicine, and emotions, and a community section to meet and chat with other people.
"My number one hope would definitely be to remove this sense of isolation and guilt, and failure that women feel," Alice tells us.
"And by building this community, I want to contribute to kind of normalising infertility because at the moment not many people openly speak about it, because there is this guilt in this shame.
"But it's one in six Australian couples. Like, it's not rare. It's actually sadly, very very common, and so that's why I feel like it needs to be talked about more."
Mental health support for yourself or a loved one can be found by calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, Mensline on 1300 789 978, or Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800. Online support is available via Beyond Blue.
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