Gemma Peanut’s two year (in)fertility journey

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“Going through fertility treatment is so not a failure. But it’s this weird thing where you feel really abandoned by your body, like, you feel let down. And you don’t want to admit it but it’s almost like, “Oh, there’s something wrong with me and my body”” – Gemma Peanut

Gemma Peanut, known for her beautifully curated and personable parenting content on Instagram, her photography and Shutterbug photography course, and for her podcast We Don’t Have Time For This, struggled with fertility for almost two years. Watching her closest circle of friends all fall pregnant around the same time as she continued to test negative was one of the hardest parts. 

An Instagramer with a natural ability to ‘share’, Gemma withheld talking about her fertility struggle with her online community – until she finally fell pregnant.

Determined to give fertility and infertility stories more visibility, I was keen to sit down with Gemma to discuss fertility options, cultural gender bias, sperm cleaning and why more people should know about IUI (Intrauterine insemination). 

With a few years of reflection under her belt and two kids later, Gem was ready to go there… 

When did you and your partner first know that it was time to start having a family?

We very much followed the typical pathway of wanting to get married and then have kids very shortly after. We didn’t get married till we were 30…and we felt like we’d done a lot of things in our 20s. So, it was an engagement then marriage. And we basically wanted to start on our honeymoon. In fact, I think we removed the goalposts on our honeymoon and just hoped to get straight to it.

And what happened?

Well, it didn’t happen. That was the problem. I think it was really unexpected. And looking back, I feel a bit naive about it, because I didn’t know many people who had fertility issues. And I was in this unique situation in 2015, where eight of my school friends, I mean high school friends – we all got married in the same year. Like, it was ridiculous. I went to eight weddings in 12 months. And pretty much all of my friends fell pregnant within three months of trying. So it was that bizarre thing of, like, ‘Oh, I’ll be next – it’ll happen for me soon’. 

And you know what it’s like, Viva, when you have a child you join this club. Whether you want to believe in it or not, it’s a real thing. And when you’re on the outer of that, but so desperate to get in, but you don’t have a child to connect with these women on that level, it becomes quite challenging. I think the longer that I struggled to conceive the lonelier and more isolated I became in my head. 

It took us nearly two years to conceive Rafa, and it’s funny. I find it interesting with women who have struggles with fertility or are battling infertility. Depending on how long you’ve been trying determines whether or not or how much you’re allowed to cry or feel sorry for yourself. Like, I find it’s interesting because I speak to a lot of women now, since having my children, who are going through infertility. And I always get met with these comments of, ‘Oh, but, like, I feel really crappy about this journey, and I’m really down about it – but I’ve only been trying for six months’. And I always think, well, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been trying; from the minute that you decide you want a baby, every single cycle that rolls on by that you’re not pregnant is hard. Doesn’t matter if it’s six months, it doesn’t matter if it’s two years. It’s all hard. It’s all met with feelings of disappointment. And, yeah, it might accumulate over time. But for me, it was nearly two years. And honestly, I feel like I’ve kind of blocked it out a little bit. But it was some of the darkest two years of my life. I think my coping mechanism was to just throw myself into work, because I didn’t want to deal with it, or think about it. And I certainly feel a little bit disappointed in myself that I didn’t share any of those struggles on social media until after I fell pregnant. Because I was too raw.

Because it’s not visible. Again, it’s like miscarriage. We have this thing in culture where we don’t talk. We don’t want to tell people, you know, until we’ve gotten to 12 weeks, that we’re pregnant in case we miscarry. But yeah, wouldn’t we want the support from our community if we did have a miscarriage? I mean, miscarriages are common. And that’s one of the hardest things that a woman and a man can go through. So, I feel like it’s a similar thing. It’s like, we don’t really talk about it. And yet, it’s during such a time when we need the most support.

Definitely. I would have done things totally differently, because sharing these stories gives other women, people, partners, husbands and wives – I want to include men as well, because it’s hard on them as well. It gives them permission to kind of recognise in you what’s going on in their life. But what’s been really nice to see over the course of the last six years, is that conversations are happening more and more. And if I were to do my time again, I would have been much more open. It’s a very strange thing to say, I didn’t share that I had any infertility issues until I announced my pregnancy. And in my pregnancy announcement, I made my whole announcement about all the women who are still struggling to conceive, because I felt guilty that I was now pregnant – it’s so layered. There are so many emotions.

I didn’t have that fertility struggle. So, I actually haven’t considered it from your perspective to such an extent before. This is really fascinating to me. And it’s interesting that you mentioned how men struggle and we don’t really hear about that much. You know, what is it like? What was it like for your partner? To go through those two years? Of course, I want to find out more about what it was like for you, but because you mentioned men, let’s talk about that too.

Well, I have this theory about men, and I’m going to grossly generalise here.

Let’s do it.

I don’t think that nothing is real to them until it’s a thing. Now, I don’t think you shared this, but I’m also a photographer, and I’ve shot a lot of weddings. But what I often find is that men get caught off guard at the ceremony at that moment when their bride walks down the aisle because they haven’t given any thought to it. Whereas women who do the bulk of the preparation think about it, they visualise it, they imagine it during the rehearsal, but, you know, we allow ourselves to feel everything, every step of the way. And then, so when it gets to our ceremony, we’re sort of a little bit more prepared, or we’ve had our cry many times over beforehand, even just thinking about it, but men get caught off guard and it’s the same thing I think with having a baby where we women live with carrying a child for nine months. So, we never forget that we’re pregnant. You’re reminded daily with every kick or every spew, or whatever, you’re feeling it so you’re reminded. Whereas men, yeah, it’s abstract to them until the baby is in their arms. 

Even then it can, you know, for some new dads it can take some time for bonding with their baby. 

And when I say that infertility is hard for the partner of the person who’s trying to carry the child, I think it’s hard in the sense that they don’t know how to support the person going through it. 

What we haven’t gotten to is my fertility treatment – through that process, I had to inject myself every day with follicle stimulating hormone, and every second day, I had to go get that giant dildo thing shoved up my clacker to, like, check how my ovaries are going with growing, you know, the eggs, and all this stuff. I had to get blood tests every third day, and I’m terrified of needles. So, all this stuff was happening to me. And then he was kind of on the sidelines watching on, not knowing that I was so devastated and upset. And the hard thing is, when someone’s going through fertility struggles, you just don’t know what to say to that person. Unless you’ve been through it yourself. 

You know, you don’t want to hear things like, “Oh, it’ll be right”. “There’s lots of options to explore”. “Have you tried this? Have you tried not stressing? Maybe you need to pretend like you don’t want to have a baby and relax so that these things are just known to you?” People want to remedy me and my problem. 

So, I have like an inner circle of friends who I told. And again, it became really challenging in the sense that they all had babies, because, as I mentioned, there was a whole group of us who got married at the same time. So, they all had their babies. Not only did they all fall pregnant, at the same time, have their babies, they reach their child’s first birthdays, and I still wasn’t pregnant. So, I became this friend where it was like, “Oh, Gem…”. You know what I mean? Like, it sounds awful.

I mean, you can laugh about it now, because I follow you on Instagram, and you have these two thriving children. And so, I guess that’s the beauty of hindsight. And you’re so on the other side of this. 

But let’s take a few steps back. We’ve jumped to IVF – and I want to ask about that in more detail. But when did it become apparent that you weren’t just going to get pregnant? And then what did you do about it?

So, you have these funny milestones in your head, like, six months of trying, one year of trying, and then you have weird things like, ‘Oh, my dad is flying in from Thailand for Christmas – wouldn’t it be nice to be pregnant by then so I can share that news with him face to face’. So, you get fixated. And you also get fixated, which I’m sure you’ll understand as someone who had two babies, when you imagine being pregnant, you think, “Oh, they’re going to be an Easter baby. And their sign will be this”. I don’t know, I obsess over every detail. 

But basically, when I hit the one-year mark, that felt rough, because by that point, all my friends had given birth. And then they were sort of three months into newborn life. And again, that motherhood gang just became even richer in terms of their friendship. And I was like, on the outside. So, a year was hard. And then at the 18-month mark, I was like, “Okay, I feel like I’ve tried all the natural non intervention ways of trying to fall pregnant – whether it was diet or acupuncture or trying to stress less”.

All the vitamins and supplements I imagined.

Yep. And then I just went, that’s it. And it’s so weird, because going through fertility treatment is so not a failure. But it’s this weird thing where you feel really abandoned by your body, like you feel let down. And you don’t want to admit it but it’s almost like, “Oh, there’s something wrong with me and my body”. And also, this is the other thing, we forget that men play a role.

Yeah, actually that was the case for a couple I know who had fertility issues. And I remember being really shocked, because it was probably the first time in my circle that I’d ever heard of infertility being connected to the man in the equation.  Which is really interesting because we sort of place this onus on or make an assumption that something’s wrong with the woman. 

Yes. Like, forgive me for tangenting for a second. But there was this ad playing on TV that really triggered me. And it’s a government ad and I understand the purpose, the greater purpose of it, but the message is that you should stop drinking before you even start trying. And it’s very much targeted to women. And I always think, “Ha?” Here’s another way, let’s guilt women into not drinking even before they think about starting. And I just thought, “Well, hang on. Why isn’t this conversation also targeted towards men?” Like, it’s been proven that alcohol can impact sperm quality?

And sperm motility…

Yeah. Anyway, that’s a whole other thing. But so going back to the 18-months, I said to my husband, “Alright, let’s explore these options. And I went to IV, Australia, and I met with a fantastic doctor there. And what I hadn’t also mentioned is by this point, I’d already done appointments, where they categorised me as  ‘unidentified infertility’, which is so incredibly frustrating, because if you don’t know, or you can’t identify the problem, you can’t fix it. So, it’s not like if it’s, “Oh, you just need to have this operation to tweak this and then you’ll be able to fall pregnant”. It was like, “Oh, no, you’re just in the unidentified infertility camp”. 

So, I was on a waitlist for three months to do IVF. And my doctor at IVF Australia said to me, “In the meantime, while you’re waiting three months to do IVF, why don’t you try and do three rounds of IUI”. 

So, IUI is slightly less invasive than IVF. I mean, they call it ‘turkey basting’, which is such a gross name for it. But essentially, what they do is they give you the follicle stimulating hormone so that they can track the growth of your eggs. And then you have what’s called ‘a trigger shot’. And because what they do is, every appointment, they measure the size of your eggs as they grow and when they reach an optimum ripeness. I’m going to use that term; you have a trigger shot and they pop the egg or release the egg from it. It’s quite amazing. Really, if you really think about it, it’s wild. 

And my husband then ejaculates into a cup. And then they take his sperm, clean it, which is the weirdest thing, another bizarre concept. And they said to me, “Would you like to look at this specimen of sperm?” And I was like, “I didn’t know this was part of the deal. But sure”. And she took us into the lab. And she said have a look at this microscope. And I remember very vividly looking into this microscope and there were all these like what tadpoles look like. Tadpoles that were kind of slowly drunk, like if you imagine Homer Simpson, like kinda swimming about, and a few of them were passed out. And I said, “They look like they’re drunk and she said yes, “Well, this is the slow sperm”. And then she said, “Now, have a look at this specimen and she got a dropper and put it on the little dish. And I looked under the microscope and she said, “And here is the healthy sperm. And the only way I can describe it was it was like thousands of sperm at a rave like on 10 cans of Red Bull, like ready to go, like almost vibrating. 

So that was ‘the cleaning’?

Yes. The purpose was to separate the good from the bad.

So, what is the difference between IUI and IVF?

IVF is where they retrieve and harvest your eggs. So, [doing IUI] they grew my eggs on the clinical watch, but they stayed in my body. Whereas IVF, they grow your eggs under clinical watch, and then harvest them at the right time, then they get the sperm and fertilise it outside of your body and then re-insert. But IUI is a way of doing it where it’s less invasive, nothing gets extracted.

So, two questions, how do they get the egg out of you? And then how do they insert the embryo?

So, they didn’t take the eggs. I mean, I’ve got a couple of friends who have gone through IVF. But they basically have these little tube, sucker things that kind of suck. It’s wild. It’s amazing. And then under a microscope scope–

–They suck it out of the vagina?

Yeah. And they go in through [the vagina]. It’s not like keyhole surgery or anything like that. It’s all done through the vagina, which is wild, and then they implant it back into the uterus through the vagina.

So, it sounds like you never got to the IVF stage? 

Yeah. And it’s funny, because I feel like a little bit of an advocate for IUI. Because a lot of people get put straight onto the IVF channel. But actually, it’s worth trying IUI. I think of it as a stepping stone to IVF because it is less invasive. And I was successful with falling pregnant through the first round of IUI, which I couldn’t believe. 

[However] I will say that if we’re going to talk about facts, the percentage chances of falling pregnant via IUI is 25%. Whereas IVF is closer to 40%.

And I guess that is pending the woman’s age. 

Yes, absolutely. And look, there are some women where their doctors will tell them, “Oh, no, like, IVF is kind of your only option”. Whereas because I was under the unidentified infertility umbrella, they were like, “Why not try this? Because we can’t quite work out what’s not working for you”. So now I wonder if my husband just had too many Homer Simpson’s. I don’t know, I’ll never know. But what I do know is my sister-in-law, interestingly, had a similar journey to me where she also couldn’t get pregnant. And then, because she saw my success with IUI, she gave it a go as well, before taking the step to IVF, and had the same success.

My gosh, okay, this is amazing. I’d never heard of IUI. I’m hoping that there are women and men who are watching this, who have also not heard of IUI, who really needed to hear that. Like, this is a major takeaway today. 

And can I just share one more piece of information: The entire cost for me during IUI was $250. So again, it’s significantly more affordable than IVF. And I just feel like why don’t more people know about it? Like, why isn’t it offered as a stepping stone to IVF? For people who can?

That’s incredible. So, can you just remind us, you might have already said this – where can people go to find out about IUI?

So I got a referral to the Royal Women’s Hospital in Randwick at their fertility clinic, and that’s where it all happened, every appointment. That’s where I got the turkey basting. And that’s where the lab is. And I had a terrific experience there. It was a bit of a drive, but it was worth it.

That was just under two years after you had begun trying – and you got a positive result? 

22 months, not that I was counting or anything.

Tell me about the moment that you and your partner found out you were pregnant.

Um, well, it was very surreal. I think I almost didn’t allow myself to believe it because at that point I had done countless negative pregnancy tests. And the cruel thing about not being pregnant and being pregnant and when you’re about to get your period – the symptoms are so similar, you know, your boobs swell. You feel really bloated and all that stuff. So, I spent many, many months myself thinking, “Oh, this is it. I’m pregnant this time”. But it wasn’t for many, many months and many, many cycles. 

But after the IUI, I was like, “This feels different”. Like, I just remember my boobs felt rock hard in a way that I’d never experienced before. And I just had this knowing. I was like, “I just know I’m pregnant, I have to be, unless it’s the drugs. I don’t know, it might be the follicle stimulation hormones I’m taking”. But I took a test by myself. And I just remember thinking it was negative because I didn’t let it develop long enough. It was the faintest line, and you know how they say, “There’s no false positives in pregnancy tests. 

Oh yes. We learnt that from COVID – the faintest line… 

We spend a lot of time obsessing over those faint lines. And, yeah. So I actually thought I’d written it off as ‘I’m not pregnant’, and then I threw the test in the bin. And it wasn’t until I was brushing my teeth that night, that I looked over, and I was like, “Shit, that’s got two lines”. And I picked it up. 

And then I knew my husband was coming home from work late that night. And yeah, I like, I had a card. So funny, but a card that I had kept for, like, 18 months, that was positive. And I remember digging in my drawers, being, like, “No, I bought a card for this moment – what felt like years ago”, and I just wrote a card and said, “You’re going to be a dad”, and gave it to him when he came home. 

It was really lovely. It was very surreal. And then I was extremely sick. And that’s a whole other thing.

Morning sickness?

Oh, yeah. Yep, so I had like HG, which is like high hyperemesis…I was so unwell, I had to go and get a drip. I have this very, not fond memory, but horrible memory of puking in the fruit veg aisle at Woolworths, at eight o’clock in the morning. And I went to Woolies because I really wanted to get some dry crackers. But I didn’t make it to the cracker aisle – I puked! I was wearing trackies and the first thing I said to the person who was working in the Fruit and Veg was, “I’m really sorry, I promise I’m not drunk. I’m just pregnant.” Because I looked like I was hungover.

And the thing  about the first trimester is that you don’t look pregnant. And yet, you know, you feel the crappiest. I actually remember vomiting in a paper bag in the car. Although, like, I don’t even know it was a proper paper bag. It was like whatever I could find in the car. I had morning sickness with both of my pregnancies up until about 12 or 13 weeks. Which doesn’t sound long but it actually feels long when you’re in it. 

It is a long time. The only way I could get my husband to understand the feeling of morning sickness is when I said, “You know what it feels like to be completely hungover?” And he’s like, “Oh, yeah, horrible”. I was like, it’s that every day. It’s peeling yourself out of bed and showing up for work when you feel like absolute shit. 

And I agree with you, Viva, like, the secrecy about the first trimester. Now that I’ve been through it, I really want to implore and encourage women to share at least with someone or a small group of people in your inner circle, if you’re not comfortable sharing it outwardly to lots of people. Just so that you have a safety net to catch you if you do have a miscarriage because I think it’s harder than to tell someone, “I’m going through a hard time because what I didn’t tell you was I was pregnant, and I was really quietly excited about it. And now I’m not”.  

A lot of women are sick in the first trimester. And it’s just, it just makes no sense. And I think women in the workplace as well. Like there’s so much to consider in terms of how the perception at your job if people know you’re pregnant, and then you’ve got this idea of maternity leave looming. It’s very, very stressful. And I still think we’ve got a long way to go before.

I wrote an article about the 5th trimester [link to 5th trimester article], which I’m sure you’d have some good insights on – which is about going back to work, and you know, navigating and negotiating with your employer. 

I’m so grateful that you’re sharing your story today. I completely understand why you weren’t open about it when you were going through it. I absolutely understand that.

I Think I’m trying to be gentle to 30-year-old Gem about not sharing so publicly, but I do wish I had the courage some women have on social media to be very courageous about sharing the whole roller coaster. And it’s a big, big roller coaster of emotions through the journey of trying to conceive. And I just commend them for doing that too, because then you have an audience of people waiting for that positive news…I think that’s what I couldn’t handle. 

I can imagine that extending the expectation of getting pregnant to your special media community would be really tough. 

Yeah, I think as well, the minute that you decide you want a child, you’re already obsessed with motherhood – before the child even arrives. So even before you’re pregnant, I already had thoughts on how a baby sleeps and how to feed them and I think even though all my friends had babies, I really inserted myself into those conversations. Looking back now is hilarious because they would have been, like, “You have no idea because you don’t have a kid”. And I didn’t, but I read all the books and I had all these opinions on how I wanted to parent, like, I had all these ideals and how I would do it. 

But I do have another friend who went through infertility at sort of the same timeline as me. And she and I had very different coping mechanisms. So, she had a similar thing as well, where her core group of friends had all had kids, and then my core group of friends as well. So, we sort of bonded over the fact that we were both struggling. But she was very, “I can’t be around other people’s babies”. I can’t be around pregnant women. So, I really felt for her because she was very alone and isolated. She couldn’t feel happy for anyone when she heard a pregnancy announcement, because it was like holding up a mirror to her own situation, which I respect, and I think everyone deals with it differently. There’s no right or wrong way. And if removing herself from pregnant women and babies is what she needed at that time, then so be it. I went the opposite. I liked to go out of my way to impose on my friends with babies. I injected myself into their lives because I felt left out so I was, like, “Well, I’m just gonna force my way in”.

Were your core group of friends very nurturing and supportive of you throughout that time?

Extremely. And I had to say to them, “You guys are allowed to complain. You’re allowed to complain about how hard the first six months are or how hard the first… Because I could feel all my friends censoring themselves. Yeah, like they almost go to whinge about, “Oh my god…” and then they almost check themselves and go, wait, “Gem doesn’t even have a baby and she would kill to have a baby. And here I am complaining about the lack of sleep”. And I was constantly being, like, “You’re allowed to complain”. 

I don’t know if you’ve heard the term going around: “Toxic gratitude”. I felt like a lot of my school friends were experiencing that where they were doing it tough. But toxic gratitude is like when you’re constantly saying, “But someone else has it tougher”, so you diminish your own feelings. And all my friends were doing that where they’d need to vent about how hard motherhood is but they would sort of squash it in front of me and I hated it.

Okay. So, did you go through a similar fertility journey with your son?

No. 

What happened? 

Well, hence, you know the 20-month age gap. I was like, “I’m not going to go back on any birth control because we couldn’t fall pregnant with Rafa without the support of medicine. So why would I go back on birth control?” And one holiday at Bluey Beach. Next minute. I was pregnant. And I was so grateful I got to have that experience.

Gemma, it’s been so lovely chatting with you today. I’m really grateful to you for sharing your fertility journey with me today.

Well, thanks for having me. I’m always happy to talk about these things now. And I think it’s really important that we have these conversations.

And I’ve learnt a lot from you today. And I bet that everyone who watches this will be humbled by your story. And I’m sure there are people who will watch it, who perhaps are on their infertility journey right now. So, I hope it lands in front of the right people.

Yeah. And on that note, I just want to quickly say for anyone who is watching who is struggling with infertility, like, I just really want to say: hold on to that hope. I know it can dwindle. And it’s a journey, but just hang on there as we are lucky to have lots and lots of options. But just have at least one support person who you can have a cry to if you need to.

Support person outside of your partner?

Yes. 

That’s great advice. And before we wrap up, I like to ask women when I’m interviewing them, what that one piece of self-care is that you do just for you? 

Well, I’ve been thinking about this a bit, not because I knew you’re gonna ask me this, but just in general, I think there’s a movement for self-care for women, which I’m loving. Like, we have the baby showers to rain gifts on the child. The mother is often forgotten. And I hear that there are now these women’s circles to celebrate the woman being pregnant and the self-care journey after giving birth. 

Look, if I’m really honest, the thing that fills my cup the most is a girl’s lunch. Sounds really basic, but uninterrupted conversation with my female friends is my self-care. I leave feeling lighter and brighter. Like I’ve, I’ve also sort of taken a weight off my shoulders because I’ve vented some things that I needed to get off my chest. And my girlfriends make me laugh. So, I think when you become parents, you stop reaching out sometimes because you are in the trenches of raising your children, and it can feel really indulgent to take time away from your children. But I think it’s actually vital.

I think that’s great advice. Gem, thank you so much.

Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Viva. 

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