BEYOND THE FAIL
Elizabeth Day reflects on why failing isn’t always a bad thing
TWO YEARS AGO, I FOUND MYSELF SITTING IN A FERTILITY CLINIC BEING TOLD THAT I WAS ‘FAILING TO RESPOND TO THE DRUGS’.
I was 37 and halfway through a process designed to freeze my eggs. I had been through a divorce, two unsuccessful rounds of IVF and a naturally conceived pregnancy that ended in a miscarriage at three months. Freezing my eggs had seemed to me to be a way of taking some control over an uncertain future. I knew I wanted children, I just wasn’t sure when. And yet, here I was being told that I was failing. Again. It felt as if I’d failed at marriage. I’d failed to conceive. Now, I was even failing to respond to the hormones I was self-injecting every morning. A week later, the protocol ended. I produced three eggs to put on ice. Most women my age could expect between nine and 17. ‘Another failure to add to the pile,’ I thought.
It got me thinking about failure. I’d assumed that I’d have children, but it hadn’t happened naturally. This wasn’t a failure over which I had control, but there was a sense that it was being labelled as such by the outside world. In social situations, I was always asked if I had kids, and the response when I said I didn’t varied from an embarrassed pause to an assumption that I must be a career-driven harpy with no maternal instincts. It was only when I spoke to a friend that I realised this failure to live up to cultural norms could be viewed differently. ‘Maybe it’s not you failing to respond to the drugs,’ she said. ‘Maybe the drugs are failing you.’
It was a small but profound comment. What if, instead of treating it as a lack, I thought of my supposed failure as an opportunity? If I wasn’t going to have children right now, what could fulfil me instead? I began to seek out women with similar experiences. These women were in the same boat as me: late 30s, single and facing a future without children. We knew what it was like to go on a date with a divorced man who talked incessantly about his ‘little ones’ and how it felt when our friends popped out children with seeming ease. We knew the challenge of being invited away for a weekend knowing you’re going to be the only single woman of a certain age with no family in tow and that this may provoke questions and sometimes suspicion.
The amazing thing about these friendships was that we were supportive of each other professionally. There was none of that competitiveness I had experienced with other women in my 20s when we were trying to further our careers, fearful of running out of time before we became wives and mothers. My new friends had found empowerment and a strong sense of self in being good at what they did and in having the freedom to pursue it.
I grew from this experience and became more aware of who I was and what I wanted. It’s why I set up my own podcast series, How To Fail With
Elizabeth Day, in which I ask successful people what they have learnt from failure. My guests have included Fleabag star Phoebe Waller-bridge, political activist Gina Miller and novelist Sebastian Faulks.
My interviewees have different examples of failure to draw on, but, like me, they realise that by facing the reality that life doesn’t always turn out how you expect, you become stronger, wiser and more empathetic. It strikes me now that my failures have turned out rather well. In fact, they have been distilled into something a bit like success.
‘I became more aware of who I was’