When Professor Nick Macklon told me to get both vaccines and go and enjoy the summer, I didn’t need to be told twice. There was – literally – nothing else for it. First we went to Wales and climbed Snowdon. Then we were both beasted at work and I had to deliver a project with three lovely men who all had children: one brought their boxfresh second baby on work calls to give his wife a break; one was excited and nervous about becoming a dad for the first time and the third ringfenced bedtime and unwrapping Zara purchases as the sacrosanct activities they (obvs) are. Camera off and face planting the dining room table were my friends. Then we flew to Jersey, taking off under a rainbow at Gatwick, which after years of finding an airport and aircraft environment panic attack certifiable was a monumental break through. As we skimmed the clouds and I gulped down a(nother) large G&T without losing my shit (that had happened in the ladies’ at Gatwick) my thoughts about the last decade were running like a torrent. Years of avoiding flying, chronic physical anxiety on trains and planes (sometimes retreating but never enough to feel I had made permanent progress), the dream I wanted most desperately sliding further and further away under repeated trauma, crushed hope, emotional pain and disassociation, the pain of empty arms and an overflowing heart; wondering if not ‘this’, if not motherhood, what could I bring? What could I do? I realised as I looked down at Guernsey and felt a physical stillness at Doing The Thing That Terrified Me that I had begun to look behind the veil.
For the last eight years I had resolutely refused. We still had the hope, the blind faith that childlessness not by choice wouldn’t, couldn’t happen to us. The happily married couple’s version of middle class emotional NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard). Surely all we had to do was keep trying, keep on weathering the storms, keep on throwing every pound into IVF, keep on dealing with society’s and social media’s obsession with what we should be doing procreationally speaking in our 30s. Keep being the brave and resilient woman / man / couple so many people told us we were being. (No other fucking option mate). Keep dodging the well-meaning but appallingly thrown out there comments on adoption. Keep turning ourselves inside out to cope with the increasing grief and life sorrow, making difficult choices to keep our family dream alive. Surely it was only a matter of time for some benevolent force aka a second successful IVF clinic or urban myth natural pregnancy to burst forth, and we could all breathe again (briefly) that we would get a second bite at the baby cherry. We were born to be parents. It was a moral, emotional right that would eventually assert itself.
All the while the veil stayed hidden, indiscernible; moving slightly, then increasingly in the corner of our minds’ eye whenever we experienced that sharp breeze of terror brought on by another miscarriage. As life moved on, it rested quietly, a delicately bound thread count so skillfully woven we did not have the emotional strength or capacity to begin to unpick or appreciate what we could understand from its complexity. The winds of hope blew differently here. The briefest of balms, they offered such calm yet fleeting mental peace we could almost pretend the veil and its quiet whisperings had slipped from our conscious altogether. Then, another failed cycle. Another miscarriage. The storm had never fully left. The winds would change direction, reassert the veil’s power; and its presence, its prescience felt inescapable. The trying to conceive equivalent of a real life Nightmare on Elm Street, the upside down Black Mirror version of your own fucked up Narnia. One by one, couples with a myriad of hard fought, heartbreaking stories dropped into the redemptive but no less easy expecting club. I remember looking at the train line and not wanting to be here. Their veils had receded, hopefully for good. Ours by virtue of odds and reality seemed to be moving inexorably closer. It could go further than, say, Rhianna and ASAP Rocky’s scandi noir and knitted slankets at the Met Gala and drown us.
It’s amazing the amount of energy it takes not to confront while confronting reality. The thought of not ever being parents was where the real, indescribable fear lay. Instead, it got translated into everyday life, on trains and planes where I would shake, and panic if it went too fast, or stopped without warning, where my headphones and music had to be with me at all times and everything just. Took. So. Fucking. Much. All the tools, the techniques; nothing seemed to give the permanent relief I craved. If I’d had the energy I would have cried every day. I didn’t, so I didn’t – until I felt the veil’s overwhelming tsunami of suffocation, the certainty of our childless fate. Like many of you, I had to bear this state of uncertainty the best I could. The best I still can.
On a beach in Pembrokeshire, with unexpected sunshine, we could have been in any warm and evocative holiday destination. I looked at the sleeping figure of my husband and realised it had always been first and foremost about us. We wouldn’t have done anything differently: the deep breaths, the hope, the diving back into the shitshow of fertility treatment on the odds that this may be the one. We were proud of each other, of us and what we had achieved. “We’re not doing this as a tick in the box,” he said, ever understated when it came to deciding whether to do another cycle, what holiday could best fit his wife’s anxious state of the moment, whose donor eggs we should pick in a pandemic at a point when we had lost all our babies and were now choosing to gracefully let go of genetics to keep our familial hope alive. (When Ocado ran out of M&S Mountain Bars he responded in similar fashion: “Will the cruelty of this pandemic never end?”)
Eight weeks later, between the south coast and Guernsey on that Easyjet plane to Jersey, I felt Pumbaa with me, spurring me on. The worst had happened. I wasn’t panicking, or gulping down panic attacks. I sat there, my husband’s hand resting comfortingly, and realised that tank was much emptier than it ever had been. Life seemed to be flooding back in, so much so it all seemed to be technicolour mixed with Bombay Sapphire: the clouds, the setting sun, the coastline, the freedom and pride I felt for Doing This Difficult Thing. Because I was already doing The Difficult Thing: living without my babies. Living without Pumbaa. Living without my motherhood. I had always been doing it. The much needed outlet of travel, of changing space, seeing friends, seeing the world differently was returning. My resilience could be channelled into progressing this, in moving forwards to the girl who used to run on planes with glee and duty free shopping and who once had to be called out on the passenger tannoy at Changi Airport because she was keeping the A380 waiting.
The aircraft covered the 100 or so miles to Jersey steadily, calmly. There was no going back, not to Gatwick or the place I had been. I was once told by Emma, my acupuncturist, and all round supporter, that I had deep capacity for joy. The word had shaken me because for so long I felt I had lived a life pretty much devoid of its flashes, its brilliance; of that true feeling where miracles can happen. I had always associated such joy with parenthood, children, a life devoted to both as part of a wider community. As we took our barefoot steps at St Ouen’s Bay later that week I could see it: the joy that could equally be found in close relationships, friendships, books, writing, art, gardens, news, travel, culture, home, cats. So much I didn’t yet know as I put my hands out tentatively towards the veil, my fingertips brushing its strange yet familiar material, of memories, people, love, words. It wasn’t yet outfit of the day. It had a long way to go before it made the best dressed lists. It could still drown me. But just as there was a world and a life to be forged the other side, perhaps in time it could fully reveal itself and come to rest next to me in companionable silence, draping in a way that feels less Spanx, more support.
I’ll keep reaching.