2016: Three days after my 36th birthday and the party is over. “There’s a bit of bad news”, the sonographer announces. At twelve and a half weeks, our most cherished hopes and dreams have stopped. The wonderful hospital staff reassure me that like a procreationally challenged Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back.”
2019: I finish a sabbatical from work with a grand total of one hysteroscopy, three more failed IVF rounds, hundreds more injections, pills and pessaries, and perhaps most worrying of all, an alarmingly expensive reformer pilates habit. Given I’ve effectively paused my career and we’ve put our life and finances on hold to try and crack the baby business, this is far from ideal. I’m crushed by layers of grief, loss, trauma, anxiety and fear. I don’t know who I am anymore.
2020: With no sign of the sequel promised in 2016 and the onslaught of a global pandemic, all cards of a particularly difficult hand are up in the air. I have my tarot cards read, picking Meaninglessness, Trust and Flow. Decide I’ve served my time in the former and need to go hell for leather for the latter.
What could be more stressful than parenthood I hear you cry? Trying to bloody achieve it and spending years emotionally, financially and physically adrift doing so. The toll it takes on your relationships. The deeper understanding you gain of life versus the cost of that emotional wisdom. The years that go by straddling the grief and hope that you feel mad to even have. The not knowing. Even Bridget Jones managed a baby in the end!
What actually happens when you’re not one of those who make it across Ocean Infertility to Babyhood Island? Most people appear to eventually succeed (current definition: pregnancy and live birth, potentially by way of absolute hell) but there is a huge number of us still pounding the trying wheel, our resilience and hope eroding the more rounds and / or years go by, looking at all and any option to have our must wanted family – and then have the luxury of enjoying parenthood in all its joyful, exhausting, life changing guises.
Perhaps you’ve spent months and years of trying – tests, appointments, operations, IVF, holidays, yoga, acupuncture, mindfulness, diet, nothing. Perhaps you and your partner discover a medical reason that makes getting pregnant and maintaining the pregnancy not the simple lie in the sack you wanted it to be. Perhaps you’ve tried your utmost to be calm, rational, reduce stress and be patient but it still didn’t happen, or the bab(ies) didn’t stay. I bet you tried all the above. At some point the unfairness and enormity of what is happening to you both and to you as a woman hits you like a tonne of fucking bricks.
You are not alone.
The whole saga has the curious effect of expanding your emotional repertoire, producing mine breaking reserves of resilience, hope and strength you didn’t know you had while simultaneously turning me at any rate into a basic bitch (I blame the repeated intake of oestrogen and progesterone). It has taken a long time to properly acknowledge and understand the obvious: that the very act of trying, repeated infertility treatment, repeated miscarriage, loss of hope and fear of a childless future has been an incessant wrecking ball to my confidence and happiness.
Up until the last few years, the traumatic side of trying to start a family has not been openly and widely shared. Awareness, however, is growing in the UK, with Babyloss Awareness week and National Fertility Awareness Week each October. Social media influencers have given voice to this difficult and sensitive subject in newspapers, books and on Instagram. Elle Wright, @feathering_the_empty_nest , honouring her son Teddy and raising baby loss awareness through her book, “Ask Me His Name” and Teddy’s Legacy charity work; now (after years of secondary infertility and IVF heartbreak) expecting her rainbow baby; Sophie Beresiner @sophieberesiner award winning Times Columnist about her journey from cancer, infertility, IVF and miscarriage to successful surrogacy and her beautiful baby Marlies; Michelle Tolfrey @from_the_other_chair a clinical psychologist who personally and professionally reflects on trauma, loss and discovering hope after losing her daughter Orla and having her rainbow Esme; and Jennie Agg @jenniemonologues journalist and recurrent miscarriage survivor, writing sensitively and eloquently about navigating her current pregnancy. They and other influencers have opened the floor and expanded the narrative further for everyone to talk more openly about an incredibly raw and broad subject that, with its spectrum of loss and grief, has the insidious capacity to take over your life.
Not knowing if you will ever become parents to a live child rocks you to the core. It is a chronic state of grief and suffering, a lot of it in mental silence as other people’s lives move forward. The direction of your life can feel permanently on hold. It’s life changing without the baby and future family spoils. The existential nature of infertility and babyloss that in theory you knew about, knew of people who had suffered but never thought it might happen to you? When it does, it’s an absolute showstopper. It’s disbelief mixed with fear, shock, grief and trauma. It’s soldiering on in the face of an alternative reality, wondering ‘how can I make this / my life work?’ where other people’s babies come but yours doesn’t. Lighting does strike twice. Three times. Four times. More times. Can your bodies (because it takes two or more of you, plus the cast of a laboratory) ever do this? What makes you keep going? When should you stop? Why do you want a baby so much anyway? Freud would have had a field day had he been a woman.
Motherhood is now starting to emerge slowly as a role and way of life not necessarily expected of, for and by men and women (despite society’s obsession with womb watch) but for many, the urge to conceive remains primeval. To have it thwarted creates a personal challenge like no other. I always said to my husband that if I reached 40 and we didn’t have a family I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself. I didn’t see how I could lead my life not being a mother. The worst has happened and here I am, newly 40, filled with renewed hope. Resilient as fuck and ready with retinol for the next decade. Watching other people cross the baby finishing line and daring to hope again that one day, in some form, that will be us.
Mother Nature is all powerful. Coming into the world is bloody magical, what with the myriad of things that need to happen to secure conception, a healthy pregnancy and a successful birth. If you’re one of the one in five women who have and are struggling to have a baby, it can get to the point where you feel you need bloody Dynamo to do it. All’s not fair in procreation and birth. The dark side of this magic is grief, anxiety, a sense of incalculable loss, at times abject fear and the total inability to watch a Kleenex clearing episode of One Born Every Minute.
Every day, as each year seemed to get worse and worse and I didn’t know how I was going to survive all the losses intact was in fact every day that I survived. You develop the strength and mental endurance of a marathon runner without a pair of trainers. The best pep talk is the one that you’ve got going on inside your head. You learn and re-learn boundaries of hope and sadness; in some cases you finally understand what heartbreak really means. With inimitable irony, you find there is nothing more life affirming than trying to create life. Our stories are not over.
Welcome to babyhood without the baby. Welcome to Maybehood.