Battling endometriosis throughout my teacher training and subsequent years in the classroom had been hard: heavy periods, crippling cramps, a partial oophorectomy, two ectopic pregnancies that ended in miscarriage and further surgery to remove one fallopian tube.
I was often running up the corridor with a tampon up my sleeve for the 10th time in one day. Or I would lean strategically against the desk while teaching, in order to dampen the chronic pain.
Experience: Why aren’t we talking about menstrual flooding?
All this was against the backdrop of trying to be the best teacher I could for my students. Often, I was far too embarrassed to tell my line manager about the next instalment in the saga of my failing reproductive system.
But then came the relief: my specialist said it was time to move to IVF. The good news was that I qualified for three cycles of IVF on the NHS. Three: brilliant.
IVF was straightforward. It was easy. It was a dead cert.
When your fertility is no longer your own
IVF becomes a very clear and definite part of your life before it even starts: your fertility no longer feels like it is yours alone.
I was a deputy headteacher in a school where I’d been working for five years. I discussed my fertility with my headteacher in a way that I wouldn’t have if I had been trying to conceive naturally.
The hospital appointments were neverending. I told numerous colleagues what I was doing, in order to explain so many missed lessons and meetings.
IVF became a huge part of my life. It was there: present and real. It was something so present that it couldn’t possibly lead to nothing.
Then it began: the weight gain, the hormones, the tears. Being pumped full of hormones to harvest 20 times more eggs than you should in one month (on half an ovary) is pretty tough.
It was March, and the second round of Year 11 mocks had started. I felt like I was lopsided: the drag from my ovary was so strong as I marched around, collecting errant children and making sure everyone had the correct paper.
Left with nothing
Teaching is not a job where you can sit quietly in a corner with a hot-water bottle on your stomach. It is a job that is very difficult to do when your mind is in another place. Every twinge, every ache, every cramp pulls your mind away from the class in front of you.
I lost count of the number of students who asked me if I was I OK during those days: far more than any adults. The teacher is every student’s focus, and it is hard to fake it when your mind and body no longer feel like your own.
It sounds like I am moaning about this part of the process. But, in a lot of ways, these were the good days. I was doing something, I was “getting pregnant”.
I had two lists of names on my phone: one for if it was a boy and one for if it was a girl. I had plotted when my maternity leave would fall, and was planning our wedding around it.
I remember one of my Year 11s asking me if I wanted children, and I nearly told them that I was pregnant. I mean, I was partway through my first treatment. That was as good as being pregnant. My baby was on its way.
Only it wasn’t. It wasn’t that first cycle. It wasn’t after the first frozen embryo transfer. It wasn’t after the second cycle. It wasn’t after the third cycle. And, it wasn’t after the second frozen embryo transfer.
I was left with nothing.
Well, not quite nothing. Running out of a classroom mid lesson, after feeling a flood of blood leaving my uterus, was not nothing. Collapsing in a lesson and having to go to hospital because of the crippling cramps after a failed cycle was not nothing.
Crying, locked in the staff toilets, after a member of staff came to tell me they were pregnant was not nothing. Having to smile and tell everyone that it didn’t work, but that it was fine, was not nothing.
Like a bereavement
Failed IVF is not treated like bereavement, but I can honestly say that it should be. I don’t think people generally understand how gruelling the process is. I didn’t, and the hospital certainly didn’t prepare me for it.
Our mood dictates the climate in our classroom, and our students deserve – and need – a positive and purposeful environment.
When the line of a certain poem brings you so close to tears that you almost choke for the child you will never carry, you shouldn’t be in the classroom.
When a discussion about the theme of parent-child relationships in a play knocks the breath from your lungs, you shouldn’t be in the classroom.
When you have to go to the toilet every 40 minutes to change your underwear, because of the flood of menstrual blood after a failed IVF, you shouldn’t be in the classroom.
Accepting you will never carry your own child is something that takes a long time to get your head around. You grieve for the child that you will never carry.
I was lucky: I had a headteacher who understood. I implore all of you, be the colleague, the line manager, the friend who understands, too.
Emma Mills is the headteacher of a secondary school in the North West