'I was told I couldn't have children at 14. Now I'm a mum'
‘Hearing that as a 14-year-old, I was devastated,’ says Lauren Johnson Reynolds, of the moment she found out she couldn’t have children. ‘I had no idea what PCOS was, but I knew I needed to be a mum.’
Lauren, 34, was told she was ‘essentially infertile’ due to a ‘borderline PCOS’ diagnosis she received in her teens.
The hormonal condition, causing multiple cysts on the ovaries, can make it harder to get pregnant, as well as bringing on unpleasant physical and mental symptoms, such as weight gain, excess hair, acne, anxiety and depression.
But Lauren, from London, says the information she received then was ‘irresponsible’. She’s now a mum to a three-year-old daughter, and is calling for change in the way PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) is diagnosed and treated in the UK.
As September marks PCOS Awareness month, she also wants women to know that, while the condition does cause infertility in some women, others can go on to concieve.
Speaking to Metro.co.uk, Lauren, who is a registered nutritional therapist and founder of Complete PCOS Plan, says: ‘I was 14 [when I was diagnosed]. My family and I knew something was going on because I had my first period at 13, then I just didn’t have one again.
‘The doctor said to me you have PCOS, you probably won’t be able to get pregnant, if you do you’re going to need help, you aren’t going to be able to have a baby naturally. This is why you’ve got acne and struggle to maintain a healthy weight.
‘Come back when you want to get pregnant and we’ll see what we can do.
‘I’ve always known for me that becoming a mum was my goal in life, even at that young age.
‘So this news was like a dark cloud over my life, because from that moment it became such a part of me and hovered over the rest of my life experiences, because in the back of my mind I thought “I’m not going to be a mum”, and it killed me.’
She was told that PCOS causes infertility, and it was very unlikely she would be able to get pregnant naturally – then was ushered out the door, without any aftercare.
‘There was no regard for the mental implications it would have on me. I remember my mum being really upset and crying on the way home, and thinking this must be very serious. It made it sink in a lot more,’ she adds.
‘It was very scary. I recently found an old diary from the time and in it, I wrote that I might not be able to get pregnant and I really want to be a mum and hope I can have children.’
The toll of this news explained some symptoms she was having, but left behind a wash of new fears, anxiety and worry.
Lauren had been struggling with acne on her chest, back, and face, calling it her ‘beard’ as it was all over her jawline. She also had excess hair and found it hard to control her weight.
Like many people diagnosed with PCOS, she was put on pill which helped control the acne, but it amplified ‘mood swings and anxiety’, so at 26 she decided to come off it again.
She believes ‘a lot of people are flippantly told just come back when you want to get pregnant’, but aren’t given any guidance on how to cope and manage PCOS in the meantime – assuming a person even wants to get pregnant.
‘It does so much damage after dropping that bombshell, especially on a young teen,’ she says. The damage haunted her more aggressively as she got older.
‘In my early 20s I put it out of my mind as much as I could. But I was still obsessed with children and worked as a nanny.
‘As I got older, those mental implications became more of a thing for me. The symptoms of PCOS were weighing quite heavily on me and I wanted to understand the condition more.
‘Having people starting to fall pregnant around me, and feeling I had to make the men I was dating aware of my diagnosis, definitely brought it to the forefront of my mind, and then once I met my husband at 26 and I realised it was serious, it became a focus.
‘Every time someone around me would get pregnant, it would hurt, because I didn’t think that could happen for me, and I didn’t believe my body could do it.’
It was in this period of her life, keen to plug the knowledge gaps doctors had left her with, that she retrained as a nutritional therapist and began researching PCOS.
Her irregular periods made it harder to track ovulation, so she learned other methods to monitor the potential signs in her body, such as tracking cervical mucus and vasal body temperature. Both of these change during your monthly cycle. She also took supplements and prioritised her health, taking lockdown as an opportunity to focus on pregnancy.
At 32, Lauren found herself pregnant – much to her disbelief.
‘I was crying on the phone to my mum, thinking my period was about to come, but she told me to do a test and I remember thinking, “no way” when it was positive,’ she said, and remembers feeling ‘shocked’.
‘I was crying and happy, but then within a few minutes was terrified and worried I’d lose it and reverted back to not trusting my body.
‘The anxiety stayed with me throughout the entire pregnancy. I was terrified. I’d wake up in the night, I’d go to the toilet lots to check I wasn’t bleeding. I’d check miscarriage counters online every few days.
‘I had private scans to check the heartbeat to settle my nerves. I used hypnotherapy and that really helped. I had to try everything to calm my brain.
‘It took away a lot of the enjoyment of pregnancy, and when I’d hear the heartbeat it would be a relief.’
While she believed it was possible to get pregnant, thanks to being more knowledgeable about PCOS and realising what she was told at 14 was ‘irresponsible’, there was still plenty of fear to navigate.
‘Because my body couldn’t do the basics like having regular periods, I thought how is it going to carry a baby?
‘I’d felt so disempowered since the age of 14. Even now having had my daughter, I still have it in the back of my mind that I can’t get pregnant again. It’s become a part of my core belief system.’
In reality, it took Lauren 10 months of trying to conceive, which is considered a normal length of time to be trying according to the NHS.
In her 30s, Lauren decided to wanted to get re-diagnosed to see if there had been any changes. Once again, she got no sympathy and received the results via an abrupt phone call without any guidance on how to improve symptoms.
It’s only since taking matters into her own hands, she’s found that for her personally, an altered diet, increased amounts of rest, and lifestyle changes, have improved her symptoms. Her cycles are still long, but they’re now regular and she doesn’t struggle with acne.
Now, she wants diagnosis and treatment to be better for women and people with ovaries to come.
Around 60% of people with PCOS can achieve ‘spontaneous ovulation’ through improved lifestyle and weight loss over the course of a few months, according to doctors at the period tracking app Flo. No, it isn’t a quick fix or solution for everyone (this does not work for 40%), but it is worth getting clued up about.
Others may go on to conceive with medical intervention, such as IVF. But even for those who have severe PCOS, impacting their ability to have children, there needs to be more support.
‘It hasn’t changed in 20 years, it’s the same process as it was when I was 14,’ she says.
‘It’s doing women a disservice and it’s irresponsible to say they’re infertile. There’s a lot of blame and shame.
‘The current approach is hindering women from being able to improve their lives, and it’s worsening their mental health.’
You can find out more from Verity, The UK PCOS Charity, here.
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