'They drew sad faces on my chart.' The reality of navigating IVF as an 'older' woman.

One fertility doctor draws a sad face next to my bad AMH blood results to let me know they are, in fact, bad. Another speaks about reproductive studies done on mice, then repeatedly refers to me as an ‘old mouse.’ The internet tells me I’m a decaying swamp witch with little hope for kids. I’m 35.

Welcome to the fertility industry, a place which works tremendously hard to help people have children, but simultaneously is a for profit industry - one which is making increasingly lucrative returns.

I was thrown into this world two months ago without having even tried to have a baby. Naïve as it may be, I wasn’t thinking about it. I’m a writer oscillating between LA and Sydney, so my thoughts have been focused on how to build this fairly unhinged career. Around the time I’m deemed an old mouse, the writers' strike is in its fifth month and I’m not allowed to earn a cent - which also means I’m about to lose my US health insurance. Due to a medical condition any pregnancy of mine will be high risk, so said insurance is somewhat critical. Oh, and I’m packing to move in with my partner so it is really a bingo card of stressful events. 

Sure, you say, but didn’t you notice the small army of babies that pop up in friendship circles around age 33? Was that not a tip off to think about it? I guess it should have been, but a lot of those friends are stressed and sleep-deprived, and another said she wished she'd waited a few more years, so I can’t say there’s been some Barbenheimer-level marketing going on over here.


Besides, I want more time. And I assumed I had it. So when a gynaecologist offers to check my AMH levels - anti-mullerian hormone, a guide to egg quantity - I say yes and think nothing more of it. Until the results are automatically uploaded on a Saturday afternoon and... they’re well below what they should be for my age. The wind is knocked out of me.

Watch: Tanya Hennessy opens up about her infertility struggles. Post continues after video.

Video via The Project.

A quick Google tells me I’m doomed and maybe also have several unrelated but fatal diseases. More Googling has me discovering the eye-watering prices of fertility treatments - in Sydney it’s around $10,000 to freeze eggs, in LA a friend paid $22,000, plus yearly storage fees. Places like the US are so pricey that companies have popped up with the sole purpose of organising egg-freezing holidays to relatively cheaper destinations like Spain, the UK and Mexico. I also discover fertility treatments are rarely covered by insurance, making these treatments inaccessible to anyone without the financial means. Younger me had never had the money to freeze eggs, so I didn’t, and now here I was with a dwindling supply.


I decide to freeze my eggs - better late than never! I see three different fertility doctors, each well-qualified and experienced, but with wildly different opinions, recommendations, medicines, hormones and treatments, all with hefty price tags. I’m overwhelmed with spiels of information and so many tests.

One does an AFC (antral follicle count) ultrasound, which looks at how many follicles I have in my ovaries. Halfway through, he takes the fun little probe from his nurse and digs around my insides, confused. I find out why - I have less than half the egg-bearing follicles I should have. Which means likely three to five rounds of egg freezing. Which means an ungodly amount of hormones and cash. 

He tells me I may be 35, but in fertility years, I’m 41. I understand there’s no good way to deliver that news but I lost six years in three seconds. That is a rough feeling.

Further tests showed elements, including my AMH, had got quite a bit worse in a month. “Are you under a lot of stress?” asks the man who'd just told me I was 41 in fertility years. “You need to stop stressing.” The bad news about my eggs is making me stress about my eggs to the point where I am now damaging the eggs even more. I’m in a doom spiral.

I get in the car, and I cry. I feel everything and nothing at the same time. I feel hopeless, even as I try to reason that things could be worse. Until this moment, I had planned to become successful and financially secure before having any babies. Like really successful. Like I'm writing a franchise successful. I’ll spoil the ending now - I don’t have a franchise.


On the drive home, in LA rush hour traffic, I rearrange my entire life plan.

My partner had heard some snotty sort of crying noise coming down the phone at him so by the time I get home, flowers and food are on the table. In return, he gets more snot followed by a series of rapidfire solutions. One is for him to leave and go find a younger, less burdened version of me. Half-joking, but I’m well aware his life could be a lot easier right now. He declines.

The doctor had told me he used to work in an understaffed hospital and had to choose which patients to help in order of urgency. So we figure out my order of urgency. First, I have to get my stress in check. By this point the writer’s strike is over, but no one knows what the industry now looks like. I have no clue when I’ll be working or paid again. It’s both the best and worst time to tackle stress.

My friend is the Queen of Self Care. I become her protégé. To my usual jogging, I add yoga, meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction. I do not work around the clock in the hopes of scraping ahead. I take walks. I see my friends. Pet animals. Stop googling. I take baths and go to the beach. My partner and I point out things we’re grateful for. I speak to a reproductive psychologist. I remember that I am healthy, and adoption exists.

My partner and I then make decisions. Egg freezing is no longer a solid option. All the doctors think we should be trying to have a baby now. I have an unrelated appointment with a GP who tells me if you’re not ready to have a kid, then right now isn’t an option. This sticks with me, because we still aren’t ready. But we realise we could be ready sooner. And in the meantime, we agree to try embryo freezing.


We pick a doctor, who reminds us AMH levels and follicle counts are only a measure of quantity, not quality. Because while a party of follicles and eggs are important for egg freezing, you only need one good egg, and one good follicle, to become pregnant. It’s easy to lose sight of that in all the bad news, but it matters.

With decisions come ten thousand tests. It’s overwhelming, and scheduling the tests are a stress-management challenge in themselves. But we’re getting them done, one step at a time. There is hope in the momentum.

And there are challenges. Shockingly, I don't eliminate stress overnight so have to stay focused on it, in the middle of a stressful and draining process. It’s a tightrope, one I repeatedly fall off.

Another challenge? I have the most supportive group of friends, but this subject is way more sensitive than I realised. Some friends tell me to just not have kids, like them, while some don’t want to engage in any discussion at all, giving the impression I shouldn’t be discussing it. One well-meaning friend told me I can adopt, adding I wouldn’t have the same chemical reactions and bond as mum’s like her who carry their babies, but I’d “still love them.” That felt rooted in patriarchy, pitting women against each other. We’re not in each other's brains, we do not and cannot know how much we all love. But I try to understand why, in this of all areas, things are complicated. We’re all just hoping we’re making the right choices. And these are big choices.


As I sit here, waiting to begin a freezing cycle, I feel like I’m in the eye of the storm. From this momentary calm, I can recognise that I may not have the heartiest ovarian reserve, but I’m grateful for what I do have.

I’m grateful I have the opportunity to even try fertility treatments, a privilege I do not take lightly.

I’m grateful this forced me to take the time to take care of myself, something that was always on my to-do list but which always spilled over into next year’s resolutions.

I’m grateful for my friends, wonderful women and men I love going through life with.

For my parents who have handled repeat conversations about my egg follicles with a patience and openness I did not anticipate but am thankful for.

For my partner, who hugs me, comforts me, strategises with me, attempts yoga beside me, cooks and cleans, researches everything, brings me little treats and makes me laugh. I’d usually choose to walk on fire rather than be earnest, but this man has earned sincerity 10 times over - he has stepped up, again and again, and I feel closer to him than I ever have.


Listen to This Glorious Mess on how you can show up for your friends who struggle with fertility, when they need you the most. Post continues after podcast.

Finally, I’m grateful to my brain for never feeling one moment of shame. It seems like society wants me to feel it, that I should be ashamed my body isn’t doing the right thing. I’m not. Bodies are complicated. Mine has survived a lot. I’m thankful. But I hate that some women may feel they’re less worthy because of what their reproductive systems are doing. It’s why I want to talk about it.

So to those in the same boat, these are bloody scary results to have thrown at you, whether you’re prepared or not. It makes you feel overwhelmed, and hopeless. Let yourself feel this less-than-sunny news. From there, find a fertility doctor who makes you feel comfortable, because these doctors do care about helping you. Know that the industry at large wants to make money, but with that comes a whole lot of different treatments - we are so advanced compared to even a few years ago. If possible, see a reproductive psychologist who can support you. Work on managing your stress (do that anyway). Remember, you are a million different, wonderful things, and this one thing does not define you. And if your doctor ever calls you an old mouse, make sure you call him an old mouse right back. They don’t expect that.

Feature Image: Supplied.