BE­YOND THE FAIL

El­iz­a­beth Day re­flects on why fail­ing isn’t al­ways a bad thing

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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’

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