Womb with a view: the silent an­guish of ‘so­cial in­fer­til­ity’

One fifth of Bri­tish women will not have chil­dren by their early for­ties. So why can’t they speak out about their pain? Emily Mad­dick re­ports

Grazia (UK) - - Contents -

ihave a re­cur­ring dream that I’ve failed my uni­ver­sity de­gree, hav­ing obliv­i­ously missed an en­tire mo­d­ule. It’s grad­u­a­tion day and my friends are toss­ing mor­tar­boards and quaffing cham­pagne – but I’m look­ing on, pan­icked, shout­ing, ‘ Wait! What? No one told me about the 2pm lec­tures on a Thurs­day, and the 10,000word dis­ser­ta­tion. How has this hap­pened?’

It’s a fit­ting metaphor for my sta­tus as so­cially in­fer­tile. ‘So­cial’ or ‘cir­cum­stan­tial’ in­fer­til­ity is a rel­a­tively new term, coined to de­scribe women who, through no med­i­cal rea­son, have not had chil­dren. This year it was re­ported that now one fifth of Bri­tish women will be child­less by the time they reach their early for­ties – the third high­est ra­tio in Europe. Yet, de­spite this, so­ci­ety still seems woe­fully ill-equipped to know how to talk about – or to – them.

Iron­i­cally, hav­ing re­cently been di­ag­nosed with en­dometrio­sis at the age of 37, I may now qual­ify as med­i­cally in­fer­tile, as it af­fects one in three women’s chances of con­ceiv­ing. When I asked my gy­nae­col­o­gist if he thought it would af­fect me, he perk­ily stated, ‘ The best way of find­ing out is to get on and try!’ Notic­ing the silent tears prick­ing my eye­balls, he said, ‘ This seems to have up­set you?’ I qui­etly replied, ‘I’ve been try­ing to find some­one to try with for some time now.’

This piece is not de­signed to be a pity party. I know that noth­ing is guar­an­teed in life, ev­ery­one has their own cross to bear and com­par­ing one­self to oth­ers is fu­tile. I also know how lucky I am, as I have lots of chil­dren in my life, all of whom I adore.

How­ever, hav­ing spo­ken to many friends and col­leagues in their late thir­ties/early for­ties, all sin­gle and child­less not by choice, there seems to be a col­lec­tive grief we silently shoul­der. These feel­ings are par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult to ar­tic­u­late, oc­cur­ring as they so of­ten do in a mud­dled re­sponse to friends’ and loved ones’ own re­pro­duc­tive cir­cum­stances.

So we re­main silent, ric­tus grins plas­tered on our faces, ter­ri­fied of ap­pear­ing self­pi­ty­ing, self­ish, jeal­ous, in­sen­si­tive or – the worst – bit­ter. But the de­spair, help­less­ness, panic and fear – fu­elled by bi­ol­ogy and po­tent hor­mones – is real. And, if left un­tended, it can con­sume you.

It’s a hack­neyed trope tack­led by all the greats from Brid­get Jones to Brides­maids: the sin­gle girl hear­ing the news of her best friend’s en­gage­ment/preg­nancy and dis­solv­ing into a hot mess of de­spair. I’ve been there. Re­cently, I was present when two of my best friends dis­cov­ered each other was preg­nant. In­stead of ex­press­ing how thrilled I was – and I was – I bolted from the room, fight­ing back tears. It was a clumsy sit­u­a­tion, but I des­per­ately didn’t want my own feel­ings to over­shadow their happy news. But they did. And I hate that.

These un­com­fort­able feel­ings have also am­bushed me when sup­port­ing loved ones through fer­til­ity treat­ment. One of my friends nearly died los­ing a baby on round three of IVF, so I know how phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally scar­ring it can be. But what has in­spired me – and in­spired envy in me – is how it made the cou­ples stronger. As my 37-year-old friend Sarah* ad­mits, ‘I’ve seen some of my friends strug­gling with mis­car­riages and IVF, and ob­vi­ously I feel des­per­ately sad for them. But know­ing that I’ve never even had the chance to try and con­ceive is so dif­fi­cult and painful. Some­times, as mad as it sounds, I envy their fer­til­ity treat­ment be­cause it seems so far down the road from where I am.’

As my friend Rachel*, 44, says, ‘I’ve sat for years with friends who have strug­gled with fer­til­ity, with failed IVF, with their fears of never be­com­ing par­ents, and seen how much sup­port and sym­pa­thy they re­ceive. And yet here I am, fac­ing a fu­ture with­out chil­dren – the very fu­ture they dreaded and even­tu­ally avoided. But no one asks me how that feels. In­stead, most peo­ple say, “Well, if you want a child, just go and have one,” which is so shock­ingly sim­plis­tic.’

It’s true. So of­ten we find our­selves be­ing sug­gested this al­ter­na­tive, as if it’s like book­ing a hol­i­day. For me, right now, this route would be fi­nan­cially and emo­tion­ally ir­re­spon­si­ble.

Fer­til­ity treat­ment is ex­pen­sive (one round of IVF costs ap­prox­i­mately £5,000). And for­get about ap­ply­ing to the NHS as a sin­gle woman. Cur­rent NICE guide­lines say that cou­ples wish­ing to have IVF on the NHS

need to have been try­ing for two years. For a sin­gle woman, you have to have had 12 cy­cles of failed ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion be­fore be­ing el­i­gi­ble, but in most ar­eas, you will never be of­fered any kind of treat­ment for free.

It hasn’t helped that, as my thir­ties have whizzed by, so too the boom­ing business of moth­er­hood has ex­ploded. Baby show­ers, baby moons, baby blog­gers – it’s deaf­en­ing. Ac­tual uni­forms have emerged, friends whose club I so des­per­ately want to join, now sport­ing jumpers and jew­ellery with ‘mamma’ em­bla­zoned all over them, all talk­ing a lan­guage I can’t speak. But again, I am aware that vo­cal­is­ing this can make me seem bit­ter and jeal­ous.

So what’s the an­swer? On­line dat­ing and egg freez­ing? I’d ar­gue it’s more com­pas­sion, kind­ness and con­sid­er­a­tion. It’s fear that drives us all to re­main silent about this uniquely mod­ern sit­u­a­tion. Fear from those with chil­dren feel­ing des­per­ate for those who don’t – and fear from those who don’t that they may never.

Last week, I met an el­e­gant Parisian lady. She was 68. She asked me about my life, so I im­me­di­ately launched into how I’m trav­el­ling and writ­ing, as I don’t ( yet!) have my own fam­ily. I en­quired if she had chil­dren. ‘No,’ she replied with gen­uine seren­ity. ‘It just didn’t hap­pen. Bad boyfriends, bad luck – but, like you, I have my free­dom.’ If it doesn’t hap­pen for me, I aim to find the peace that this fab­u­lous lady has. But in the mean­time, as I con­tinue to hope, I would like for my de­sires and de­spair – and those of all my child­less peers – to be ac­knowl­edged, not side­lined.

just be­cause I’m not In a relationship, the pain of long­ing for a baby Is no less valid

p ho­togr a p h dav id y eo

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