This story appears in Homemade, the latest edition of Tortoise Quarterly. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can buy a physical copy here.
Sex by appointment was truly one of the weirdest experiences of my life. It wasn’t great for my husband either.
If you’re trying – and failing – to conceive a child, making whoopee (as the song goes) rapidly turns into making out by ovulation stick. I refer, of course, to the dreaded home hormone tests that women trying to get pregnant find themselves peeing onto in the hope of determining when to order their partners to perform. I’m not saying they’re unhelpful, it’s just they can be one hell of a passion-killer.
I asked my husband how it had felt for me to tell him month after month: “We’ve got a 48-hour peak fertility window and so we have to do it NOW!” His reply: “No offence to you, but by the end it made me feel more like a pit pony than a stud farm stallion.”
Four years of increasingly unsexy sex, three miscarriages and a head-against-brick-wall attempt at grappling with the UK adoption system (another story altogether) led us to climb aboard the IVF rollercoaster. If my husband felt like a pit pony, I was about to become a battery hen.
Our local NHS clinic was vastly oversubscribed so, after weeks of poring over hospital data, reviews and research we settled on a reputable private clinic. Like so many other couples before us, we went on to spend thousands from our savings on the blood tests, drugs, hormone injections, egg collection, lab time, scans and keyhole surgery that constitutes an industry built on a sliver of hope and (even now) limited understanding of the science of human creation.
Each part of the process involved time spent in the waiting room. During the day, light would stream in through huge windows, illuminating tiny threads of carpet that had broken free of their tightly bound weave. As they floated through space, I watched them sparkle like tiny stars carrying the hopes of the men and women sitting in neat rows in near silence.
It always struck me as odd that here we all were, experiencing the same events at the same time, and yet we determinedly avoided one another’s gaze. I don’t know why we never talked. Perhaps English reserve held us back from expressing our emotions to strangers – despite the fact we were probably the only people who truly understood one another. Or maybe there was something more uncomfortable holding us back – the fear that if we started chatting we might learn of someone else’s success in the baby game, when ours still seemed so far away.
Then, a few months into my life on the fertility farm, on a particularly blustery November evening, we found ourselves summoned to the leathery-green-walled office of an IVF consultant. She told us we would probably never conceive a biological child of our own.
After she delivered the first blow I was too numb to take in what she was saying. There was something about our results being “almost unique”; we were “one in a thousand couples”. There was mystery too. She said “the previous pregnancies” I had were “confusing”. I was punch-drunk and nauseous with grief.
The final diagnosis of our infertility was that it was “unexplained”. The prognosis: “unsuitable for further treatment”. Once our 20-minute appointment was up, we were handed black and white photocopied sheets explaining to us how we could buy an egg or sperm – or maybe both – from donors for another few thousand pounds and then we were shown the door. My husband and I made our way home in silence, holding each other’s hands more tightly than we ever had done before.
A couple of days after that appointment at the clinic, I sat in a local café, absorbing the shock. Time tiptoed past me, silently hauling in half past three. It brought with it The Mums: lugging the heavy artillery of motherhood – a pram here, a rucksack there. With them were their toddlers. I watched them settle and cuddle and order – and I was heartbroken. The children were scrumptious: all soft hair and smiles, genetically spliced from their mothers. I waited until it was polite to leave, clambered over the ordnance and left.
I walked home in a daze through the maze of family-friendly streets that had attracted us to the area. We’d bought the house three years earlier, renovating it from scratch ready for our imagined family – ensuring there were decent schools nearby, woods to play in and, would you believe it, a youth theatre so that my imagined children could fulfill the dreams I never had.
I made a cup of tea and crashed onto the sofa. The recent round of hormones, surgery and failed pregnancies had taken its toll on my physical and mental health. Our marriage was also under strain. I’ve always been one of those (probably irritating) solutions-driven people. The “unexplained” diagnosis had left me hanging in the cruellest way possible – how could I find a way out of this situation when we didn’t even know what the problem was. Was it him, was it me, was it some combination of us?
If the doctors didn’t know then maybe cyberspace did. I opened my laptop and entered the following search terms: “unexplained infertility”, “miracle birth”, “bonding with egg donor-babies”. I had entered the rabbit hole of hurt, confusion and loss. As the winter nights drew in, my husband and I struggled hard to understand what had happened. We became each other’s best ally but also our own worst enemy: in an attempt to support each other by fighting off the triumvirate of blame, self-doubt and the judgment of others we were running on emotional empty. If we went on like this – at once together and profoundly alone – our marriage might be lost.
And then one day it struck me that there was another option we’d never considered: to remain childless. I set out on yet another cyber search, this time using radically different terms: “childless women”, “life without children”, “happiness without babies”.
Not long after, I returned from my mission almost empty-handed bar one startling fact: a quarter of women born in the 1970s are expected to reach 45 without giving birth. Like me, the majority would be childless through circumstance rather than choice. It led me to wonder if there are so many of us why are we so… unheard.
It’s that question, a year after our appointment in the leathery-green-walled consultation room, that became the basis of my BBC Radio 4 documentary, A Family Without a Child. I wanted to hear from this group of women – my group of women – and give them a voice. The women I came across are the pioneers on this road less travelled. I let them speak and only now am I adding my own voice.
One of those women was the author, psychotherapist and social entrepreneur, Jody Day. Her website, Gateway Women, helps women actively build a positive and creative vision of a fulfilling life for those left childless through circumstance. I stumbled across it, on one of my many visits to the only remaining infertility expert in my life, Dr Google.
“Most women find me in a moment of crisis,” Jody told me when we met. “It’s because our culture tells us that if you don’t have children, you’re going to regret it, you’ll have a terrible life, it’ll be a disaster and you must do anything and everything to have a child, for as many years as you can afford to, because the alternative – especially for women – is unthinkable.”
Hearing Jody articulate what I felt to be true was a turning point. All around me, it seemed, friends and family would tell me how having a biological child was the thing that had brought them true fulfilment. The implication was that without giving birth my life would be less meaningful, less empathetic and of less value. Anything less than motherhood, the narrative continued, was a waste of my body, genetics and time. Then there was the legacy issue: without a direct biological connection to a new generation, what of import could I possibly leave behind?
Jody tried for a decade to have children with her husband, but under the strain of not succeeding (for some of the reasons I describe) her marriage collapsed. Early menopause – at the age of 43 – ended all hope of having a biological child. “I’m apparently every woman’s worst fear,” she told me with a twinkle in her green eyes. “I’m divorced, single, childless, post-menopausal and I live alone with a cat.” I burst out laughing. She had indeed touched on the darkest fears of women like me.
Humour is a brilliant strategy for childless women who feel embattled by what Jody describes as “the cult of motherhood”. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met – usually in social settings – who have pronounced judgment on my life. The conversation normally goes like this:
“Do you have children?”
(They clock I’m over 35.)
“You’d better get on with it! / Oh, what a shame. / Why not?! / Ah, so you’re a career woman. / Have you tried IVF? / My friend gave birth at 44. / Janet Jackson gave birth at 50. / Don’t you like children? / Best thing I’ve ever done; you’ll regret it if you don’t.”
Total strangers and, on occasion, friends and family, actually say this stuff. These are not just bad eggs with bad manners. And there are a lot of them. Until I’d worked out coping strategies including retorts for the worst offenders (“Which are your children? Ah.” Pause. Then walk away) I would find myself feeling shamed by people who didn’t know me and, worse still, couldn’t be bothered to get to know me. No wonder the experience of childless women rarely gets considered. It’s almost impossible when the drum beat of assumption and projection drowns us out.
I recognise that childless men and those who choose to be child-free can also be subject to these tumbleweed moments.
It makes me wonder whether part of the taboo around discussing childlessness in a mature and appropriate way is caused, in part, because we don’t have the right language and references. Instead, embedded in our conversations are terms like “barren”, “left on the shelf”, and “old maid”. Jody, who herself has gone a long way towards creating a vocabulary for the subject, agrees. “Negative stereotypes of childless women are rampant in our culture. And we have internalised those prejudices because we have grown up around them as well.” Some of Jody’s coaching involves her asking women how they previously perceived NOMOS (Not Mothers, a phrase she coined). “Spinster is the one that normally wins; closely followed by career women.” Internalising these tropes inevitably has a huge impact on us, including making us feel worthless.
But how did we get here? “Without wanting to get too Open University on you,” Jody told me, “the fact is we live in a patriarchy. Our value has always been judged by our fertility, and in relation to men. So if you don’t have a male partner, you lose status. If you don’t produce a child, you lose status. You’d be surprised by how many single childless women tell me they feel they are at the bottom of the social pecking order.”
That’s a pretty miserable state of affairs. What, if anything, will change that, and how do we ensure that the voices of childless women (and men whose experience may be different but just as difficult) are heard? I think sharing our stories and experiences when we feel ready is a good start.
For me, it’s been a long and ongoing process. Our attempt to become parents didn’t end that day in the leathery-green-walled office. A few more years passed during which we visited squeamishly named fertility fairs where private IVF clinics and others in the industry ply their wares. We tried to adopt in the UK once again – only to find that the brick wall we’d previously butted up against had grown significantly taller and wider since. By this stage, we had now spent several years and tens of thousands of pounds on this one pursuit.
It was time to pause and rethink our future. Who were we? Our world has always been bigger than a single pursuit. We’ve travelled extensively; we are passionate about our work; we are deeply connected to the people around us. And we love having fun.
So, as our peers nursed their babies, we learned to nurse our wounds. I found a counsellor with whom I was able to explore my grief, anger and sense of loss. We had long and detailed conversations about what our life would be like without children. We discussed at length what it meant to be a woman without giving birth in a society that fetishises motherhood.
I looked for role models and in the process uncovered the stories of women whose lives had been full of love, accomplishment and creativity. I began the search within my own family. I have an aunt who has never had children and it had never occurred to me to speak to her about why. When I did, I found out it was because she would have needed surgery to give her a fighting chance. Her late husband, fearing the worst, had begged her not to with the words: “I’d rather live without children, than live without you.”
My husband and I built around us a close network of friends by whom we never feel judged. We’ve known some of them for years; others we’ve met more recently because we share a lifestyle packed with adventure, love and laughter. Those friends that do have kids make us feel included by sending funny videos, photos and invitations to important moments in their children’s lives. Many of them are either childless or childfree, old enough to have grandchildren or young enough not to be bothered about having children. And we are happy.
The awkward party question will, of course, never go away, but if you’d like to know how to have that conversation why not try this:
“Do you have children?”
“Nope, I don’t.”
“Well then, tell me about you …”
Photographs for Tortoise by Tom Pilston
Sangita Myska is a television presenter and journalist. Her BBC Radio 4 documentary, A Family Without a Child, is available here.