'How writing children's books helped me process traumas of my IVF experience'

Nothing Anna Brooke had encountered before could prepare her for the “sci-fi concept” of bringing life into the world from minus 180 degrees. Six years ago, she gave birth to her son, almost 12 months to the day after he had been conceived via IVF.

Anna, who spent her formative years in Wetherby, Leeds, underwent fertility treatment with her husband in France, where she has lived for more than 20 years.

As her second children’s book is published, she has been reflecting on the experience and how writing has helped her to work through the emotions she felt on her IVF journey.

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Though it may not at first seem obvious, Anna says there are parallels between her real experiences and feelings and what happens in both her debut, Monster Bogey, which sees a snot tower brought to life by lightning, and her latest Monster Stink.

Anna Brooke reading her book Monster Stink to her son.Anna Brooke reading her book Monster Stink to her son.
Anna Brooke reading her book Monster Stink to her son.

When she began the editing process with her first book, “I thought my goodness this idea hasn’t arrived by accident,” she says. “There are blatant parallels with the story I’d written and what I’d gone through. And I realised it had done me a lot of good in terms of the trauma I had felt with IVF.”

“That period was singularly one of the hardest, most mind-bending experiences I’ve ever had,” she says. “Writing helped me work through the distress brought on by IVF and it occurred to me that Bogey’s existence draws a parallel with my son’s life – as in life created outside the body.

"My son was frozen for three months at the blastocyst stage, then born almost a year to the day later. Nothing I had encountered before prepared me for the sci-fi concept of bringing life into the world from minus 180-degrees – something as surreal and frankensteinian to me as a snot tower coming alive by lightning.”

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Anna’s writing career actually started in journalism, as a film critic for Time Out Paris and the author of travel guidebooks. She had moved to France after university, having fallen in love with Paris during a year abroad as part of her degree in French and European studies.

Anna Brooke and her husband during their IVF journey.Anna Brooke and her husband during their IVF journey.
Anna Brooke and her husband during their IVF journey.

It was in the country that she met her French-Canadian husband. There was nothing on paper to explain why the couple weren’t able to conceive naturally, Anna says. But in 2016, they began fertility treatment.

Anna, a former actress, cabaret singer and electro-pop artist who regularly writes for The Times, started taking hormone medication to help her ovaries produce more eggs.

“I’m naturally a very optimistic person,” she says, “and during this time, I became the most blathering pessimist that I’d ever met. I would sob at night. I was totally disrupted in terms of emotions and hormones.

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“I also had this surreal moment where whilst normally you don’t physically feel your ovaries, when they were being stimulated, I felt like I had golf balls in my stomach.”

Eggs were extracted from Anna and fertilised with sperm in a laboratory in to create several embryos back in April of 2016.

The first and second attempts at returning one to her womb to grow and develop were unsuccessful, but three months later, after two more were inserted, Anna found out that she was pregnant. “That kickstarted this whole new phase of IVF,” she says. “I had already felt tremendous guilt about having to have this process, that it was the only way I could have a baby.

"Now I felt guilty that it was working for me, almost like survival guilt. You’re very aware that everyone else you’re sitting in the hospital waiting room with might not be so lucky at this point.”

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In August that year, Anna started to bleed and feared the worst. Sadly, one of the embryos had not developed as expected and Anna experienced loss. But the other was growing and a heartbeat detected. Her son was born healthy in March 2017.

“It was a very traumatic time,” Anna says of her IVF journey. “And it was while writing the first book that I realised all the parallels and realised that through writing I had turned all of the angst, the guilt, the stress into something that is aimed at children and that’s joyful…

“The trauma I felt from IVF, in the books there was part of that I wanted to convert into something joyful and funny. I think that’s one of the reasons I wanted to write a real grossed out comedy - for children, but for myself as well. It helped me counterbalance the IVF process.”

Monster Stink, published by Chicken House, is out now.