OK, so you might be wondering why I’m asking this question.
You might be thinking: haven’t we been through this already? Haven’t we covered this topic from all angles and in all forms of media since this blog launched back in 2011? And actually, isn’t it far too late for me to be asking this question, now I’m 48, rapidly approaching 49?
The answer to all the above is Yes.
I’ve written reams on this topic over the years, in the media (links at the end of this blog) and in my book, but it all kicked off here with a blog post called The Baby Gap, which I wrote two weeks after my 40th birthday.
Yes, back when I was 40, single, and could still have kids, at least as far as I knew.
So why are we back here?
Firstly, because I imagine we might always come back here. This topic may always be there. Perhaps there’ll never be a definitive end to the wondering, an absolute acceptance, a moment of arrival.
For me, it isn’t black and white.
There are only shades of grey.
But we’re back here today in particular because my journey to non-motherhood has been featured in a podcast, called To Baby or Not to Baby, and listening to my own words, to my own story played back to me, has stirred up the feelings again.
Should I have done things differently in relation to motherhood? Should we, my husband of five months and I, have done things differently? Do I have regrets? Does he have regrets? Should we have regrets? Will I always ask these questions?
I’m pleased my story appears on the podcast – under the title the Ambivalent Non-Mum – because I believe ambivalence about motherhood deserves more exploration and airtime, although my journey couldn’t be more different to the podcast’s delightful host Naomi Kent Hodson.
Naomi has just turned 36, is happily married and is in a position to choose, together with her husband who does want kids, whether to try for babies or not.
That was never my experience. And it hasn’t been the experience of many of my friends or coaching clients. I was 43 by the time I had done sufficient “work on myself” and healing to be able to change long-standing dysfunctional relationship patterns and commit to my partner, now husband.
Once I’d committed, I fell in love. But I was approaching my mid-40s by then and our relationship was still in its fledgling stages. It needed cherishing and nurturing. Our love deserved time and space to grow. Plus I was ambivalent about motherhood – a fact I discovered after lots of soul-searching and therapy and which has a lot to do with my own upbringing – while my partner, by then turning 50, was sure he didn’t want children.
Then, just after my 46th birthday, he surprised me with a marriage proposal in the French Alps. I cried (with happiness) and said Yes. I was 48 when we married this June.
Love came late
Finally, a solid relationship with myself after years of self-neglect and disconnection.
Finally, the ability to love another person on a deep level.
Finally, a stable, committed and healthy relationship with a kind, warm-hearted, supportive and gorgeous man.
And finally, a growing awareness (from witnessing other parents) of the gifts of having children, after decades of seeing only the negatives.
But it all came late.
If my husband and I had married when I was 35 and he was 40, where would we be now? Would we have children? Would I have got over my ambivalence and persuaded him to let go of his resistance? Would those children have brought us closer together? Would they have prised us apart? Would we have decided to remain as a family of two?
We will never know.
Naomi and her husband have a choice, assuming fertility is on their side, which must be an incredible place to be as a couple, even with indecision and ambivalence.
If, like me, you no longer have the choice and are grieving its loss, I hear you and I empathise. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to feel your feelings so that the grief can move through you rather than get stuck.
If you do have the choice but are unsure about motherhood, can I suggest that you look deep inside yourself and try to uncover your own truth? Don’t allow your upbringing, your parents’ struggles, opinions, or messages, your baggage or your wounds to block you from going after the desires of your heart.
By the same token, don’t allow societal pressures or a feeling that your life is wrong unless you make a certain choice guide you down a path that may not be for you.
And most importantly, don’t get too stressed. Don’t allow the pressures and the not-knowing of the baby gap years to drive you insane, to overshadow your life or to sabotage what could be beautiful, fulfilling relationships.
Hearing my words on the podcast takes me right back to the anxiety of my baby gap years.
I can picture clearly the seminar I went to for single women at a Harley Street fertility clinic – the Powerpoint presentation that explained, with scary statistics, how a woman’s fertility dropped off a cliff; the ins and outs of shopping for a sperm donor online; the frontier science of egg freezing; and the miracles of IVF (if you could afford to pay for it).
I remember feeling distinctly lukewarm about the prospect of any medical intervention, but I signed up to the fertility MOT anyway, because it was on special offer if you paid that day.
I could justify it on two counts: I was a journalist who was researching a book about the baby gap years and I was a single, 40-something woman who could hear her biological clock ticking and wanted to know where she stood, perhaps to make the dating process a bit easier (I’d been dating with baby goggles on for a while).
With the benefit of hindsight, I also see that I felt deeply empty, lonely and lost in my life and was looking for something, a baby perhaps, a purpose, to fill the hole.
I remember chatting with the other women who were waiting to pay for their fertility MOTs, and how quickly we bonded, because of our circumstances, different in many ways, but with some key similarities: single, no children, running out of time and starting to panic.
I remember racing down Harley Street one wintry morning, my woolly scarf slapping me in the face, trying to find the heavy door of the fertility clinic, late for my appointment, which I’d already postponed once due to work deadlines. I remember the nurse’s look of disapproval when I said I’d forgotten to fill in my forms in advance (I hadn’t even opened them).
I remember feeling terribly alone as a lay on a bed in the clinic while a consultant wiped jelly on my belly and then prodded and poked my insides in order to count the follicles on my ovaries. There was nobody standing by my side; nobody holding my hand.
Shock and grief
I remember the moment the consultant showed me my test results (anti-mullerian hormone, or AMH, and follicle count), saying they were ‘average for a woman my age’ and therefore pretty poor. I remember the tears that took me by surprise and the way the consultant slid the box of tissues towards me across her large oak desk.
Amid the shock and grief (what do you mean I’m mediocre? I’ve always been a straight A student), I remember thinking, you’ve been here before, haven’t you, Ms Consultant, sat across from a weeping 40-something, single woman who’s just been given a painful reality check that has shaken her out of her reverie and smashed the myth that her fit, healthy and toned outsides would naturally translate to stellar fertility on the inside?
I remember the consultant’s strong encouragement to move quickly along the solo IVF route, which immediately put me off because I respond badly to any form of hard-sell. And I remember my subsequent meeting with the clinic’s resident counsellor, included in the MOT, in which I knew, instinctively, at some deep cellular level, that this path wasn’t for me.
I remember chatting to another rather attractive male consultant across the road in another clinic, who gave me hope because he didn’t think my results were quite so bad. I remember thinking I bet you’re happily married with a few kids and how come I didn’t meet a solid, reliable family man like you in my 30s? (Hang on a minute, I did, but I walked away).
I remember the other fertility seminars I attended and the interviews I did with single women who’d taken creative routes to motherhood (donor sperm, donor eggs) because they were absolutely certain that they wanted a child above all else – a feeling I had never shared.
I remember visiting an egg freezing clinic in Barcelona as part of my research for the book, getting lost and arriving late, sweaty and flustered. I remember being told definitively that freezing my 40-something eggs would be a waste of my hard-earned cash, although I’d always find a clinic that would freeze them for me.
And I remember meeting my now husband and shelving the crazy-making baby dilemma, swapping it for a few months of delicious summer loving, only to ask him again at the end of that period whether he was up for parenthood. I remember feeling crushed as he answered sincerely and lovingly, but in the negative as before, and I remember ending the relationship but spending the night dripping tears onto his bare chest in bed, not wanting to leave.
Fast forward a few years and I remember coming back to him, after trying and failing to find another man I wanted to be with, knowing for certain that I wanted a life partner above all else, and feeling, when I lay next to him on the sofa, that I could stay in his arms forever.
I remember our amazing wedding this June and how all those doubts that had plagued me for years – is he the right guy? Am I making the right choice? What if there’s someone else? – had miraculously disappeared, replaced by a wonderful certainty that has, I have to say, changed my life.
But inevitably, returning to this topic stirs up all the ‘what ifs’ and ‘what could have beens’ in relation to having children and feeds into a terrible tendency I have, which goes right back to my earliest years and my deepest wounds: the tendency to assume that my life is wrong while yours and everyone else’s is right.
So as ever, my challenge today and every day, and this was the conclusion of my book, is to want what I have, to love what I have, to be grateful for what I have, and to reduce the time, energy and effort I spend wondering about what could have been or longing for something that I haven’t got.
Honouring my creativity
One more thing, and if you’re still reading by this point, hats off to you!
Listening to the podcast brought a painful reminder of how I can abandon my dreams and my creative projects. The Baby Gap was the working title of a book I began writing in my early 40s, based on my own experience and all those interviews I did with fertility experts, childless and childfree women, and determined would-be mums – a book that received offers from 5 agents, got me an interview on Newsnight, but was turned down by 14 publishers, albeit in the nicest of terms.
In truth, it wasn’t actually a book. It was a very well-written synopsis and two chapters, which I thought, naively and rather arrogantly, was enough. Back then, I wanted success to fall out of the sky, in the form of a book deal, a hefty advance, and my book in the window of notable booksellers, without me actually having to put in the hours and write the thousands of words. I had a certain sense of entitlement. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t handle the publishers’ rejections well. My agent disappeared and I lost my way.
A few years later, now in love and more interested in the reasons why I’d taken so long to form a healthy relationship than in the baby dilemma, I wrote and published How to Fall in Love, of which I’m incredibly proud. But I still have 40,000 words or so of that first baby gap book and the podcast reminded me of all the work I did do – the research, the interviews, the endless rewriting of the synopsis – and makes me feel sad that I abandoned the project before completion and went off in search of something shiny and new. But I still have my 40,000 words and I’m in the process of reviving that book in a different form, a novel perhaps, and who knows, maybe a podcast.
And I commit to you that I will honour my creative dreams and see this project, and all my other creative projects, to fruition.
Thank you, as ever, for reading my words. x
If you’d like to read more on this topic, here are other blogs and articles I’ve written:
My Guardian piece: I feel grief and relief that I’ve never had children
And you can listen to my episode of the podcast, To Baby or Not to Baby, here.
If you’re looking for someone to love and to form a family with (with or without children) my How to Fall in Love course is a wonderful way to lay the foundations for a healthy and loving relationship.
My next How to Fall in Love – Laying the Foundations small group course starts on January 13th, and Part II of the course, Date with Courage, Clarity & Confidence begins the same day, for women who are ready to date. Get in touch for a free discovery call to find out if either course is right for you (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I have retreats in Dorset, Spain and Turkey in 2020. Click here for details.
And my one-to-one coaching schedule is filling up for 2020. If you’d like to explore coaching with me, get in touch for a free call.
Thanks again x