I remember the moment it hit me that we really were not going to have a baby. I was poleaxed by emotion, as grief and sorrow swept through me.
My legs went. I collapsed on the pavement outside the hospital in a heap, crying my eyes out. Rachel, my wife, looked down in disgust, as if to say: ‘Oh, you finally get it, do you? What took you so long?’ She had been suffering a long time.
We’d been trying for four years, sliding from hope to disappointment to despair.
When we got married and started ‘trying’ in our late 20s, friends were getting pregnant easily and we thought we’d be the same, but something was wrong.
Rachel, Jacob and Cole with the triplets (left to right) Ruby, Grace and Joshua, in 2002. They were born in December 2001
Triplets Joshua, Ruby and Grace looking up at their big brother Jacob weeks after their birth
Rachel had endometriosis, which causes terrible period pains and makes it hard for a woman to conceive.
I felt for her, but to be brutally honest I also felt it wasn’t my problem. My job as a man, as I saw it, was to support her when things got tough.
First there were pills, then surgery. A keyhole operation, nothing to worry about they said, but Rachel woke to find they had cut her right open, making a large incision, to get to the problem.
Shocked and depressed, she was off work for three months.
Then came artificial insemination at the hospital, but the NHS system was under-funded and broken.
If the drugs were effective, the nurses weren’t there or the scanners were not working, so the treatment was not possible. The months slipped by.
I was distressed by what the chemicals and stress were doing to Rachel – making her run-down, caught up in wild mood swings, obsessed and hard to live with – but it was still all about her, until the day it all hit me like a freight train.
Or a Fisher Price pull-along Thomas The Tank Engine.
Jacob at his graduation from Queen Mary, University of London in July 2019 with Grace, Ruby and Josh
Some idiot decided to put all the childless couples at Whipps Cross Hospital in East London in a waiting room reserved for children, for our next appointment.
Tigger leered maniacally from the walls, there were toys all over the floor and I felt a twist in my gut.
How dare they? It was hot, the height of summer. As my pulse raced with fury and anxiety, I fainted.
Outside, gulping down air, I realised I had been telling myself I didn’t care how this turned out, but that just was not true.
The consultant we saw was smooth. Too smooth. We were not going to have a baby at this hospital, he said. Not with all the cuts. ‘I’m just being honest with you.’
He knew I was a writer, Rachel was a hospital manager elsewhere. ‘If you have the money, I would recommend private treatment.’
And he slid his card across the table, bearing the name of a private clinic. It was unethical and outrageous. Something in me snapped.
I was raging at him as we walked out, overwhelmed by the realisation – at long last – that this was not just Rachel’s problem.
It was our problem. My problem. I loved her. If she was not going to be a mother, I was not going to be a father.
Visions flashed through my mind of all the things I wouldn’t get to do with a daughter or a son: playing in the park, going to the beach, reading stories at bedtime, walking hand in hand… all the way to old age.
The wave of self-pity was crushing. I wept and wept, unable to get off the floor, while Rachel looked on embarrassed.
We did take our savings off to a clinic, but not his.
A counsellor encouraged us to say what was really on our minds and I had to admit the appalling truth: I had been thinking that I could just walk away, go find someone else to have a child with.
I was afraid of the reaction but Rachel just looked right at me and said: ‘Do you really think I don’t know that?’
Getting it out in the open seemed to help and it did feel more like we were in this together, particularly when it turned out that my sperm count was slightly lower than usual.
No more saying it was just Rachel’s problem, which to my shame I had done. Now it was my fault too.
Yes, she was going through hell but I was prepared for that. After all, I had read numerous articles about the terrible heartache of women who realise they can’t have children.
What I wasn’t prepared for, and what is so rarely talked about even now, is how it affects the would-be father.
I write about all this from experience in my new book, a novel called The Light Keeper.
A young teacher called Sarah is caught in the terrible moment of waiting that comes when you’ve had your last shot at IVF, because you can’t afford any more, and you’ve got to wait for two weeks to find out if it has worked.
Those two weeks feel like 20 years. She runs away, looking for some peace and to face this alone without her husband Jack.
There’s a paragraph in which Jack describes the process of trying for a baby, which is more or less how it was for me.
‘Come now,’ she wrote in texts. The time was right, the temperature was right, she had called in sick, she was waiting.
‘Get home. Get here. Get your trousers off. Get inside me, quick. Do the business.’
Then afterwards she was like: ‘Roll off and make a cup of tea or something, let me put my legs up against the bedroom wall and shake it all down to the right spot…’
Of course, The Light Keeper is fiction, but those bits of dialogue were written from my life.
I read once that six out of seven couples who go through fertility treatment split up in the end, whether they have a child or not.
I don’t know if that’s true, but it feels true.
It was all I could do to keep caring for Rachel as the drugs and the stress took her far from the person I knew. But then I was exhausted, bewildered and every bit as self-obsessed as her.
Never mind splitting up, it’s a wonder we didn’t kill each other. We lost a lot.
We had good friends who became pregnant and we couldn’t bear to see them so we grew apart. It wasn’t jealousy but just the inability to cope with the fact that they were a constant reminder of what we lacked.
Another couple, Andy and Rachael, sat us down in the back garden as if breaking bad news. With solemn faces they told us: ‘We’re really sorry but we’re pregnant.’
Desperate not to lose more friends, we forced ourselves to visit them in hospital hours after their daughter Jess was born. We cried our eyes out in the car on the way home.
Determined to do whatever it took, we threw ourselves into IVF. The process was cold and clinical.
I sat in a booth at the private clinic with a pot and produced the necessary sample, which was taken away.
It was Valentine’s Day 1997, but there was no making love to make this baby. The best sperm were injected directly into the best eggs in the lab.
Neither of us believed it would work. We were sick to death of each other anyway.
Then came a moment that really blew my mind. I saw six cells pulsing in a petri dish.
Under a microscope, I watched the fertilised egg dividing into the cells that would make up a child if it survived being put back into the mother’s body.
Nine months later, our son was born.
Jacob felt like a miracle. We had blown all our cash, nearly lost our minds and prayed so hard for this.
As he slept on my chest for the first 40 minutes of his life, after the emergency Caesarean, I wondered if he was a miracle of faith or science? The only answer I could find was: ‘Yes.’
I write this with the guilt of the survivor, thinking of all those we met at the clinic who were not successful. I know very well that having a child is not the secret of all happiness.
I know many people who have chosen not to have one, for good and worthwhile reasons. They are fulfilled and happy. But I also know that if you want to and you can’t, it feels like a bereavement.
We were ecstatically grateful. So much so, we tried again, three years later. Neither of us expected to be so lucky twice.
The doctor doing the scan said: ‘Remind me how many embryos we put back in?’ The answer was three.
You could do that in those days, to increase your chances. The law was changed soon after.
‘Congratulations’ he said hesitantly. ‘You have three in here.’
Rachel was going to have triplets. We were both stunned, realising this was a huge challenge.
The same doctor offered selective termination: they could remove one of the embryos, because bearing triplets was extremely risky for the mother and the babies.
But after trying for so long to create life, to end it by choice felt impossible. We would have to go through with this, whatever it took.
And it was hard. Astonishingly hard. First of all for Rachel, who carried them almost to full term and could hardly walk towards the end.
Then for Jacob, who was four and felt like his happy home had been invaded by screaming, incontinent aliens.
I was right at the back of the queue for attention, but at the same time it was not enough to be a hands-on dad.
I had to try to match their mother, who was putting on a superhuman display of dexterity, strength and patience.
She had to rest sometime, so it was my turn some days and two or three nights a week.
Ruby, Josh and Grace slept in the same Moses basket. I lay on cushions on the floor beside them but they woke at random, so there was never more than an hour’s sleep a night.
I was working full time for a national newspaper too, coming home after a 12-hour shift on Saturday to stay up all night with the babies, sleep a bit on Sunday then do it all again that night.
I craved sleep like an addict longs for crack. Life was a whirl of bottle feeding, burping and dirty nappies.
Neither of us could cope, but we couldn’t say so. We couldn’t admit to struggling, not after wanting this so much.
We weren’t talking to each other much either, there just wasn’t time.
The pressure cooker blew the day I just couldn’t take any more, packed a bag and headed for the door.
Rachel stopped me in my tracks by saying: ‘I want to get out of this as much as you do, what gives you the right to go first?’
I had no answer but to go back inside, pick up a baby and change another nappy.
Soon afterwards, Ruby was the first to smile at me. My heart melted, but I also knew there was now no escape.
I had not bonded with the babies, because of the detached way they were conceived and the sheer, constant crisis of it all, but now that was changing.
I had to face this, embrace this and be wholeheartedly there for them, whatever it took.
That has been rewarded a thousand times over. You haven’t been hugged until you’ve been hugged by three toddlers at once, then their brother too.
We became a gang and have had such fun and such adventures together over the years.
Now Ruby, Grace and Josh are 17, studying for A-levels and thinking of the next steps in life. They are gorgeous.
So is their big brother, who just graduated at 21 with a first in History from Queen Mary University of London – not far from the hospital where I collapsed that time.
At the ceremony, his brother and sister suddenly picked him up for a photograph, laughing.
Jacob lay along them with his gown dropping and his mortar board crooked, grinning. And I have never in my life felt more proud, or more grateful.
The Light Keeper, by Cole Moreton, is published by Marylebone House.