Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: Baby-steps

Dear Virginia, I'm 43, and have been married for four years to a man who is now 40. In spite of 10 IVF attempts, we have no children. We can't adopt a baby, only a child up to six years old. I'm sure that had my husband known this, he'd never have married me, but he's too honourable to leave. We're thinking of surrogacy, or adopting from abroad, but that would be second best. I so want his happiness that I feel I should leave. I know I could cope on my own, but I love him. Am I being selfish? Best wishes, Monica

Virginia writes:

As someone who once co-wrote a book on subfertility, I know that unless the problem is very, very clearly a male or female one - he has absolutely zilch sperm, or her Fallopian tubes are blocked up to the eyebrows - the problem is nearly always a joint one. And as you've been approved for 10 - golly, you've got stamina! - IVF attempts, clearly the problem is not necessarily your fault alone. True, it could be that with another woman he might produce a child, but it could be that with another man you'd become pregnant. The reasons for subfertility are really murky. For instance, there's anecdotal evidence that a bereavement can trigger fertility. Why? No one has a clue.

So, stop beating yourself up! You're doing it so successfully that your letter's painful to read. When you've punched yourself in the stomach, and stamped on your feet, you end up whacking yourself over the head by asking if you're being "selfish" staying with the man you love.

The reason the marriage ceremony includes the phrase "for better, for worse, in sickness and in health" is to cover contingencies like this. You've agreed to stick together through thick and thin. OK, so your particular joint problem seems to be fertility, but it could be that one of you got early Alzheimer's or manic depression, or was run over by a 4x4 and could never walk again... or took to drink. Of course, "had we known" that the partner was going to suffer something like this, becoming a mighty burden, we would not have married them, but the point of getting married is that you jump blindfold into a future and bear it, whatever it throws up. You say your husband's "too honourable" to leave. (And we only have your word for this; have you actually asked what he'd like?) Well, maybe he likes being honourable. Maybe, of course, he loves you. Simple as that.

If you were to leave, making what you regard, bizarrely, as an "unselfish" gesture, are you sure it would be that unselfish? Maybe he would find a younger girl. Maybe she'd suffer endless miscarriages, or run off with his child the moment she'd had it... and so on and so forth.

The possibly of becoming parents, one way or another, is not denied to you. How do you know that adopting a baby from abroad would be "second-best?" You might find a child 10 times more adorable than one you produced yourselves. Surely your husband isn't one of those blokes who's obsessed with having his boring old genes carry on. If so, he was a bit of a wally when he married a woman of 39 in the first place, wasn't he? He must have known that the chances of your getting pregnant were low, because of your age.

I think you, Monica, feel bereaved because you appear not to be able to get pregnant. Bereavement and feelings of guilt often go hand in hand. Rather than feeling powerless, one tries misguidedly to take responsibility for one's misfortunes. But your situation is just a fact of life, one of many you'll have to cope with in your married life together.

Readers say:

He may find someone else

Can I say first how I admire your evident altruism and care for your partner. Many years ago, my partner of five years announced that he'd decided he wanted children and was returning to his teenage fiancee. She had had two children already. Things got nastier as he continued to reside under the same roof as me for weeks, while his involvement with her intensified. Eventually he went, leaving me with all sorts of difficulties. He did indeed have a family with his new partner. It would have been very different if we'd sat down together and worked out an amicable separation, with no third party involved. It would have been painful, but very different from the agony of sexual jealousy, rejection, abandonment and loss of being left "for another woman".

What concerns me about you continuing with your relationship is that your partner may find someone else - younger, fertile - five, 10, even 15 years down the line. After all, effective male fertility continues later into life than female. You would always have this possibility hanging over you, whereas a separation now would be at a time, and in circumstances, of your own choosing.

All this leaves out your partner's reaction. How would he respond to a proposed end to the relationship now, at a time when, presumably, he does not have another partner in mind? This might be difficult for him to cope with.

Name and address supplied

Ask your husband how he feels

You're being very hard on yourself. Your husband married you when you were 39, which is very late in life to have a first child. He married you for you, not for a child. Have you asked him how he feels? Please sit down with your husband and discuss this so that you are both aware of what each wants or you will be forever guessing, whereas you could both be giving a child a good life.

Jennifer Deavall

Carisbrooke, Isle of Wight

Not your fault

How certain are you that your husband really wouldn't have married you had he foreseen the problems? When my wife and I went through a series of failed IVF attempts, it dawned on me after a while that my wife saw the whole thing as her failure and convinced herself that I was staying with her under sufferance. This was not the case. I was grief-stricken, of course, but I only wanted to have children with the woman I loved and had married. Eventually, my wife accepted that I would never reject her, and we became closer as a result.

Talk to your husband, and accept that there may be ways to come to terms with this together.

Peter Crosier

London SE27

I've been there

Your situation almost exactly parallels my own at your age, except that my partner was a few years younger. Pregnancy and children are a blessing, not something we can expect to happen. Would you be so hard on yourself if you as a couple were 10 or 15 years younger yet still unable to conceive? Your husband married you as a person, not, one presumes, as a baby-making machine. Having said this, my partner eventually left me for a younger woman of proven fertility. Tragic? Not really, as I later met someone I know does love me for myself, and who brought children and grandchildren to our marriage too.

Caroline Dempster


Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I am so angry. When my mother-in-law had her grandson for the day - our four-year-old - she apparently told him that Father Christmas didn't exist. He was confused and upset. She had already upset us by giving him a toy gun, which we disapprove of. What should we do? I feel her stupid remark will ruin Christmas.

Yours sincerely, Hilary

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