Father’s Day 2007 was not a good day. I took my dad for a beer to celebrate his special day. “Son, not everyone can have kids, you know.” It was said with tenderness and I realised he was preparing me for disappointment. My wife and I had been trying for a child for two years, and I was beginning to give up hope. I was 37, I had a wife whom I loved, an exciting job making TV shows, a cool London flat, but there was a hole in my life — a hole that I felt could only be filled by a child. Since my early twenties I had always wanted kids. Women friends ask: “Why? How did you know?” But I can’t tell you why. It’s not intellectual, it’s instinctual. A deep-down primal urge. Women can desire kids, so why can’t men? I would walk past a school playground and the sound of children playing tore me apart. I started avoiding social occasions if I knew there would be children there.
My wife and I had married within 18 months of meeting. We didn’t want to just be a couple, though. We wanted to be a family. We both love kids and we wanted our own to play with and mould. My wife is Malaysian, and we were excited about mixing genes from two different cultures and countries and seeing how it would turn out. At first I wasn’t that bothered by our failures, I just felt sure that it would happen. But as the months dragged on I could see the desperation in my wife’s eyes.
We changed diets. We changed positions. Iza employed all her skills as a financial analyst to plot daily temperature readings and design optimum fertility graphs. Sex had turned into a serious business. For a long time I worried a lot about my sperm and she worried about her eggs. Neither of us mentioned it. We didn’t want to face the facts or start a blame game. For if we couldn’t make a baby, then one of us must be at fault, right? But after we had been trying for two years, I swallowed my pride and told Iza that I was concerned about the state of my sperm. Both relieved by my confession, we agreed to speak to our GP, who arranged for us both to have our fertility tested.
At the hospital I was given a pot and asked to provide a sperm sample. The room was lit by a fluorescent strip, but to get you in the mood for self-love someone had put a bedside lamp with a purple frilly shade on the formica next to the sink — no doubt the result of a management consultancy team brought in to improve masturbatory output. There was a CD player and one CD, The Best Christmas Album Ever. It was August. The only “reading” material was a pile of National Geographic magazines. I lifted one up and, to my joy, discovered that the topmost magazine was just a clever ruse — an old-fashioned, polite British way to hide the treasures that lay beneath. I assumed that the next bit would be easy. There aren’t many things I am good at, but this was something that I thought I had down to an art. But I found it hard to concentrate. What if my sperm was useless? What if I couldn’t father kids?
As my wife and I sat holding hands in the doctor’s office the next day, waiting for our results, I am ashamed to say that I couldn’t help hoping that it wouldn’t be me with the official problem. The doctor started to read from his folder. Please, please let me be OK. “ 20 per cent motility, 30 per cent dead. No fundamental problems there.”
“Yes!” I thought. The relief was incredible. But a split-second later I realised that this meant it was my wife who had the problem. Except she didn’t. There was nothing wrong with her, either. Unexplained infertility accounts for almost a third of all cases, the doctor said, and pregnancy would almost certainly eventually happen for us. But we didn’t want to wait any longer and decided to ask science for a helping hand.
We started with IUI, intrauterine insemination, where the sperm is injected directly into the uterus. My wife’s private parts soon became public ones, and I had to watch her being prodded and jabbed by endless people in white coats. Once upon a time a woman’s sex organs were to me like 16th-century America — its coastline known but its interior a hidden mystery. Now I know way more than a man needs to know about a woman’s inner workings. After four unsuccessful rounds, with each disappointment harder to take, we progressed to IVF. We went private after finding that the nearest hospital we could get funding for was a two-and-a-half-hour round trip away. I remember leaving the hospital, having written another large cheque, passing a teenage boy pushing a pram and thinking that his baby probably cost him no more than two vodka Red Bulls and a bag of chips.
It was hard being the bit-player. I wanted to play a bigger role, but assisted conception isn’t like that. The man’s role is a supporting one and it wasn’t easy when all the drugs caused crazy hormonal changes that turned my wife into Jekyll and Hyde. But I swallowed my pride and bit my tongue and even tried to massage her feet. It seemed the least I could do. Then there were the daily injections, performed by me, that ended in bruises and welts on her, and both of us in tears. Or once, memorably, me passed out on the floor — I’m phobic about needles. I had to visit a hypnotherapist and spend two weeks practising on oranges before I could even pluck up the courage to inject her. Thankfully, my wife saw the funny side. It’s one of the many reasons why I love her. In fact, it was humour that kept us strong, although sometimes the laughs were hard to find. There were the days when a friend would announce her pregnancy. We’d smile and congratulate her, then rush home to turn off the phone, eat cheese on toast and cuddle and comfort ourselves under the duvet.
Eventually we managed to produce three embryos. Our own mini-babies. But then Iza reacted badly to the fertility drugs and the implantation had to be delayed and the embryos frozen. By now we had spent more than £6,000, so when the doctor told us that there was a 25 per cent chance of them dying when eventually defrosted, then less than a 30 per cent chance of success, it felt as if we’d put all our savings on a three-legged horse.
After four months, the day came for our frozen embryos — we had christened them Magnum, Viennetta and Twister — to be defrosted. Twister never made it, but the other two came through and were implanted. I was excited and nervous, full of belief and optimism that this time it was going to happen, but deep inside already preparing for failure. The two-week wait to see if the procedure had worked was excruciating, but when we saw the baby for the first time on the scan it was amazing, this real, moving thing that was a bit of us both.
The delivery, in June last year, was a hideous 18 hours of labour at University College Hospital, followed by an emergency Caesarean due to meconium in the amniotic fluid. The operation was surprisingly quick. One minute I was holding Iza’s hand as she prepared for surgery, the next I was being handed a baby. Our baby. She was covered in poo and looked like an alien, but to me she was beautiful. I suddenly had tears in my eyes as I danced round the operating theatre with her to the sound of Nina Simone singing, appropriately, My Baby Just Cares for Me, on the nurses’ radio.
Ever since, despite the sleepless nights and extra weight of responsibility on my shoulders, I feel as if I have been walking two inches taller. A bad day is made OK by a smile from my baby daughter. My heart melts when she stretches out her hands for a hug from her papa.
I am a different man now. We are no longer two people in love, we are a family.
Tomorrow will be my first Father’s Day. And I will be smiling all day.
First published in The Times Saturday June 18th 2011.