Ever since I turned 40 people keep asking me – with a glint in their eye – how I feel (this has a lot to do with the fact that I have spent the past three or four years very rudely pointing out that I am still in my 30s while others around me tumble). On the whole, the answer is ‘bloody brilliant, thanks.’ Today, though, not so much. The reason is down to the latest political whirling dervish: Andrea Leadsom and her belief that being a mother gives her a ‘tangible’ (for that read more important) stake in the future of this country over Theresa May.
This isn't about politics. This is about my infertility. I cannot have children. A few of you will already know, some will not (sorry about telling you like this). I don’t like talking about it. In fact, I go out of my way to avoid talking about it. Writing this down feels both excruciating and necessary.
Turning 40 was like turning a massive corner and finally being given back control of life’s steering wheel. I’m bloody brilliant because I saw 40 as an opportunity to finally stop defining myself by what I lack.
This is by no means easy. I – along with my amazing husband – have spent the past four years coming to terms with my infertility. Most days are totally cool – largely helped by my equally amazing sister who has been unbelievably generous in the way she has shared her children with me. Other days are not so cool – these usually come along when you find out that a friend is pregnant. To my lovely friends and amazing mothers, forgive this next bit, I am in full honesty mode. The conflicting emotion on those days is difficult to describe. I am, of course, ridiculously happy for them. That goes without saying. But, alongside that happiness is a mutual, usually unspoken, embarrassment that one of us is reminding the other (unwittingly) of the thing they lack. The final piece of this emotional triumvirate is my desperate desire to crawl into my bed and cry all over again. These days pass, and I am now surrounded by some of the best, nuttiest and sweetest kids you could hope to know.
Then there are days like this. Confused days where a thing I have no control over apparently defines me more than anything else I’ve done in my adult life. I think we can all agree a career in politics does not await me, but the very notion that someone might do a job better than me because their reproductive organs work properly is just odd. More than that, it’s insulting.
I spent most of today trying not to be angry about what a woman I don’t know – who, at best, may have got her verbal knickers in a twist – says about motherhood. But, then she went and professed outrage at The Times’s representation of her words. Only trouble is that Rachel Sylvester, The Times journo, recorded the whole thing. The press – sometimes rightly – gets an absolute kicking from the public about its tactics, but in this instance The Times was bang on. In fact, the words in print aren’t half as awful as the audio. Go and have a listen. Leadsom’s intonation on ‘children’ makes me want to puke.
But, what sticks in my craw more than even the patronising ‘as a mother’ line, is the arrogance of her statement that her children ‘will go on to have children.’ Er, not so fast Mother. I come from a long line of women who had children who, no doubt, expected their children to have children. And yet, here I am, with a variety of individual medical complications that meant that my chances of successful IVF four years ago were less than 2%.
Professor Robert Winston wrote in the Daily Mail last year that infertile couples are being exploited by the IVF industry, giving false hope about their chances of conceiving. I’d go as far as saying that my generation has been sold a lie – we were told that IVF was a back-up plan. After the first three years of trying, it was pretty obvious something was up, but I rather naïvely thought that there were stages, of which IVF was the last. I jumped straight from trying to have kids to, well, you could always consider egg donation (which, by the way, led to one of the kindest, most generous conversations I've ever had with anyone - you know who you are).
Of course, lots of couples have gone through IVF and now have families that they didn’t think were possible. And, we could have taken my pathetic chances, but given the state I was in at the time and that I would have had to have had surgery to sort out other problems before we even got to the IVF bit, my husband – did I mention he is amazing?* – and I decided the baggage was too great to bear (I don’t really want to talk about adoption here, because, personally speaking, deciding to adopt brings an entirely different set of conversations to ‘let’s have a baby’).
I am certainly not alone in my infertility: in the UK, one in seven couples is estimated to have problems. But, I’ll be brutally honest, in the past four years I have often felt desperately alone. This is different to not feeling supported. I am blessed with an abundance of support, but part of why I am writing about something so personal is because I’m tired of pretending that I’m alright about it, that I’m alright not saying something when others feel it’s okay to comment. Most of all, I’m tired of the endless conversation in my head that goes something like this:
‘you’re not on your own.’
‘so where is everyone?’
‘have you tried talking to people about it?’
‘don’t be daft.’
I’m still not convinced that this post is the right thing to do. But, here I am.
I repeat, most days are totally cool.
Happily, no one I know who has kids has ever made me feel like crap for my lack. In fact, they’re all quite desperate for us to take them off their hands for a while, because guess what? Kids are hard. I know this without even being a mother.
Being a mother – or a father for that matter - isn’t about your reproductive organs, that’s just the biology. Maybe I would say this; I’ve never been through the joys of pregnancy. But, I’ve seen plenty of friends who have and there seems to me to be a whole bunch of pain, discomfort and uncertainty that comes with it. I’m not saying it’s not worth it (I refer you back to the sweet, nutty children), just that it’s yet more bullshit, usually designed to sell baby formula, nappies or mortgages.
For me – and I cannot stress enough that this is my way of dealing with this – being a parent means showing up for the kids in your life no matter where you got them from. Kim Cattrall did an amazing thing last year. She spoke out very publicly on her ‘childlessness’ – a reprehensible phrase – on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour, saying: ‘I am not a biological parent, but I am a parent. I have young actors and actresses that I mentor, I have nieces and nephews that I am very close to…I didn’t change nappies, which is okay with me, but I did help my niece get through medical school. I did sit down with my nephew when he was [going through] a very tough time to join the army.’
I am not a biological parent but if I can be half the mother to my niece and nephew (and the other amazing children in my life) that Kim Cattrall has been, then I’ll grow old happy.
In the meantime, my Twitter feed is doing that thing I love most about it – filling up with lots of very funny, pithy comments – mostly from women – reminding me that the Andrea Leadsoms of the world do not speak for the vast majority of brilliant, amazing mothers out there.
*he read all of this first and said it was okay to share because this is his story, too.