A doctor’s unpredictable journey to fatherhood

Dr Mark Nethercote’s journey through the world of IVF was an emotional experience. Photo: Susan Nethercote

By OLIVER KAY 

IVF occupies its own misunderstood corner in the minds of many Australians. It is often seen as a scary and invasive medical procedure, and some see the need for it as a personal failure.

But it’s surprisingly common: infertility can affect one in six couples, according to a study from The Journal of the Public Health Association Australia. 

For Dr Mark Nethercote this statistic became his reality. A paediatrician and writer based in Ballarat, he was drawn into the world of IVF after he and wife ran into a number of pregnancy complications.

As a way to cope and process the difficult situation, he began to write what would become A Time for Grace. Released in March this year, this deeply personal memoir follows Dr Nethercote and his wife Susan on their journey towards the birth of their first daughter, Grace, in 2011.

Dr Mark Nethercote

From Dr Nethercote’s perspective, he had to wrestle with the different parts of himself: father, husband and physician.

He spoke of that journey at the Ballarat Writers’ Festival last weekend, taking part in a Q&A in front of a small, attentive audience.

He spoke with refreshing candour about what was a difficult time, and answered the audience’s questions with care. With him were his parents, wife and daughter; it’s clear family is everything to him.

Since graduating as a doctor and moving back to his hometown Ballarat in 2011, Dr Nethercote has become accustomed to delivering difficult news to families and he understands the many emotions that come up – fear, anxiety, paranoia and hope.

Being on the other side of that relationship during IVF was surreal.

“The moment the doctor came in to impart information to us was a strange experience. For her it was just another session of imparting information to patients, but for us the exchange completely changed the direction of our lives,”  Dr Nethercote says. “It was something that I struggled with.”

He often found himself as the medical translator for his wife, Susan.

“There is a shorthand language in medicine that I understood but my wife didn’t. So it was actually a real challenge at times being the one decoding information for her, when I really just wanted to be the hopeful dad.”

He says the journey through IVF meant finding out who they were as people and learning how to cope with the unexpected curveballs life presents.

In Dr Nethercote’s case it meant finding the funny side. Writing A Time for Grace became an extension of that process.

“In the book I’m consistently talking about my emotions and how terrible they made me feel. My way of working through those emotions was with humour,” he says.

As a habitual writer – he regular writes about health, family and travel – the process of writing A Time for Grace was an organic part of Dr Nethercote’s IVF journey.

“I’d be sitting in hospital with wife in a bed with a drip in her arm and I’d be making notes or actually writing. So when I look back at the book the imagery is so vivid.”

It’s important for readers to see the human side of the IVF experience, though he sees it as equally important to inform and help those heading down that rabbit hole.

More than anything I wanted people to see that it is okay to be vulnerable. That was the main thing. It was really important to my wife and I to try and remove the veil of secrecy around IVF. People don’t talk about it and all the different failures they’ve had. 

“I want people to get to the end of the book and see that it’s okay to fail. To see a doctor, someone that’s supposedly got all the answers, and understand that we don’t actually have the all answers, and that it’s okay.”

Yet despite taking the role of the doctor and laying bare the facts in the book, it is his perspective as a father-to-be that shines through. 

“There are points in the book where serious things are happening and I made the decision that I’m not going to be a doctor about it and demystify it dispassionately, I’m going to be a husband,” he says.

While difficult, the path through IVF has changed him from a man who couldn’t have children to a man with two daughters. And it changed his work as a paediatrician, having seen the process from the other side.

As he signs the last of his books for those at the Ballarat Writers Festival, it is apparent his young daughter is itching to leave, most likely her attention is drawn to the playground outside. Even being an author does not give one time off from being a dad. IVF or not.