This week I’m delighted to introduce you to Jessica Hepburn.
I’m sure many of you will have heard of Jessica Hepburn from her media appearances or read her book the Pursuit of Motherhood. I love that she says she’s ‘living the fullest life imaginable without children’ and ‘I recognise that the life I am having is not the one I wanted but it’s a pretty special one and as life is so short we’ve got to make the most of every second we’re given on this planet.’
But the road here hasn’t been easy and you’ll read the physical challenges that Jessica has put herself through. Jessica is hugely inspirational to both me and many others and I thank her for her continued passion and involvement in the world of infertility.
Over to Jessica,
Where are you on your journey now?
I am 46 years old. My last round of IVF was three years ago and I have accepted that becoming a biological mother is all but the remotest possibility. I haven’t ruled out an alternative route to motherhood but I also believe that a fulfilling life without being a parent is possible. Right now, I’m living the fullest life imaginable without children.
What’s your story?
I always wanted a career but I also always wanted children. I never contemplated that the two things could be mutually exclusive and did what many of my generation did – went to university, spent my twenties pursuing my career and finding the right partner. By my early thirties I was running one of London’s largest theatres and had met the man I wanted to have a family with. We began trying when I had just turned 34. I thought it was the perfect age to have your first baby but it was the beginning of what became a desperate decade long struggle to conceive which involved eleven rounds of IVF.
I realise that this is the extreme end of the treatment spectrum but we were diagnosed with ‘Unexplained Infertility’ which meant that technically everything looked like it was working properly. Sadder still, we seemed to be able to make perfect embryos and I could get pregnant. We went through several biomedical pregnancies; an ectopic pregnancy only discovered at three months; and a miscarriage after we’d seen a foetal heartbeat. Doctors told us these were all very good signs that if we kept trying it would eventually work – and I’m not very good at giving up – so we did. But sadly nature had other plans!
What helped you to heal/how did you deal with your grief?
There is no doubt that I lost most of my thirties to ‘Project Baby’. I don’t regret it – I don’t believe in regrets – but it was a dark and difficult time. I think my turning point was starting to write about it. I was not a writer but I felt that more stories about the struggle of infertility needed to be told and in the process of trying to do that, I discovered I loved writing.
Once my book – The Pursuit of Motherhood – was finished, I had the dilemma of whether to publish it as myself or under a pseudonym. There is so much secrecy and shame attached to infertility – not even my closest friends and family knew the extent of what we’d been through and the depths of desperation and despair it had taken me to. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to ‘come out’. But I’m so glad I did, because it has led to a new life that has changed my life in many wonderful ways.
Having said that, I wouldn’t want anyone to think that the pain I feel at not having my own children ever goes away. It hurts everyday in new and unforeseen ways. But there’s a quote I love by the Japanese British writer Kazuo Ishiguro – ‘There was another life I might have had, but I am having this one.’ I recognise that the life I am having is not the one I wanted but it’s a pretty special one and as life is so short we’ve got to make the most of every second we’re given on this planet.
What are the positives (gifts) for you of not having children?
At 43 years old, just after my book was published, I decided that if I wasn’t going to be a mother then I was going to have to do something else big with my fortieth decade. So I looked at my ‘bucket list’ and decided to follow a childhood dream and train to swim the English Channel to raise money for families without children and children without families.
The phrase ‘childhood dream’ is important because I hadn’t thought about it for nearly 30 years and when I embarked on the challenge had no idea what I’d let myself in for. I could swim, but not very well, and I was a self-proclaimed hater of exercise and the cold. None of these things are good credentials for taking on one of the toughest physical and mental endurance feats in the world.
But on 2 September 2015, aged 44, I swam from England to France in 17 hours, 44 minutes and 30 seconds. It was a hugely emotional experience which, in many ways, became like my own version of giving birth – the euphoria of stepping out of the water onto the French beach eclipsed all the pain I’d been through which included terrible sickness, horrendous jellyfish stings and sheer exhaustion. It also helped me to achieve a sort of peace with nature. It’s become the subject of my second book – 21 Miles to Happiness: a swim in search of the meaning of motherhood in which I also interview 21 famous and inspirational woman about whether they think motherhood makes you happy or whether you can have a fulfilling life without children.
Swimming the Channel, has also now led me to take on further physical and mental endurance challenges to raise money and profile for adults and children who have not got the families they long for. In April 2017, I ran the London Marathon and in a few years time I hope to Climb Mount Everest. I may even become the first woman ever to do all three!
I’m conscious that it’s highly unlikely that I would have been able to spend my forties pursuing these incredible challenges, if I’d become a mother. It’s a huge positive of not having children that has enriched my life and for which I feel very blessed.
What has not having children made possible for you?
I think the majority of people who go through fertility treatment fall into one of two camps. Either they’re successful, and they want to move on and forget the nightmare ever happened, or they’re unsuccessful and they want to move on and forget the nightmare ever happened!
I recognise that I’m a bit unusual in that I’ve stayed very involved in the world of fertility, infertility and IVF even thought theoretically I am the ‘black sheep’ of the industry. I don’t feel anti IVF in any way – it’s a marvellous science that has given many people the family they dream of but I do want people going fertility problems to get more emotional support and I also want to improve the public discourse around the subject.
I write and speak regularly in the press & media. I give public talks – from The Fertility Show to Southbank’s WOW to groups of student midwives. I’ve been a trustee of the national charity Fertility Network UK; a patient adviser to the HFEA (the government’s regulator of fertility treatment) and am a member of the Fertility Education Initiative aimed at educating young people better about their reproductive life-cycle. In 2016 I also established Fertility Fest the world’s first arts festival dedicated to the science of making babies which took place in London and Birmingham and involved over 60 leading artists and fertility experts.
People often say to me ‘how do you have the time and energy to do everything you do?’ And the simple answer to that is ‘I don’t have children’. But I also feel very grateful that my experience of not having children has made it possible for me to make a genuine difference in the world.
Yes, I am an expert in a subject that I never wanted to be an expert in but by wholeheartedly embracing that rather than evading it has been incredibly empowering. I also believe passionately that childless women share much more with mothers than what separates them and I refuse to ‘cross over’ because there are many ways to be a mother throughout your life if that’s what you want to be. Never say never. I truly believe that!
Is there anything missing in your life? (and what do you plan to do about it?)
More time – both in a day and in a lifetime. Sadly I don’t think I can do anything about it, but I do try and live life so that if I get run over the by the proverbial bus tomorrow, I’ll feel that I’d made the most of every moment here and have lived a life well lived.
How are you different now (who are you now)?
I am fundamentally the same person but I also believe that all our life experiences shape us. I think everyone in the world is dealing with something that hurts them. My hurt was not being able to have my own biological child with the man that I love but the key to life is about making up for the sad and the shit things. If there’s one single thing that’s different about me now than in the past is that I understand and embrace that at a deep and profound level.
What advice would you give to women who are not as far down the road as you are?
I think the single piece of advice I’d give is that it will be ok. It really will but you’ve got to do the work to make it ok. And only you can do it.
What brings you joy/what’s your passion?
Food is my one pure, unadulterated pleasure in life. It’s one of the reasons I take on all these challenges – they allow me guilt free indulgence!
What’s your 6 word memoir?
If you don’t, you never will.
You can find out more about Jessica Hepburn and read her blog here
What do you think?
Maybe you recognise yourself in some element of Jessica Hepburn’s story, if so please add a comment below (you don’t need to use your own name).