Holly Brockwell, 30, made headlines nationwide last year when she announced she was on a mission to get sterilised on the NHS because the idea of being a mother didn't appeal to her in the slightest. After telling her story, Brockwell was met with an onslaught of online abuse. But she was also met with praise for her honesty, and from women who found themselves in a similar position. In May 2016, Brockwell finally had her surgery. Here, she talks Stylist through her lifelong desire to be child-free, and the process through which she had to go, to get there.
I can’t have kids. But that hasn’t always been the case - in fact, it’s only been a fortnight. After a four-year battle with the NHS (and lots of internet trolls who disagreed with my decision), I finally had my tubes tied in May. But the journey started long before that - here’s how I came to be voluntarily infertile at 30.
When I was a little girl, I had all the usual dolls and pushchairs. But I didn’t see them as practice for my future – they were just make-believe. As I started to think about my future, I always imagined I’d follow the traditional path of uni, job, marriage and babies. It hadn’t occurred to me, at that age, that these things were options – and in the end, I didn’t choose any of them.
In the first week at university, I met the man I’d end up dating for the next seven years. Six months in, we created versions of ourselves in The Sims and laughed when they had a baby. I knew I didn’t actually want a child, but assumed one day my biological clock would switch on. That’s what everyone told me when I said I didn’t want kids.
As I set up my first home with my partner, the subject of children loomed on the horizon. Some of our schoolfriends had several already. We talked, and both confessed we didn’t want any. I felt enormously relieved, and the rest of our relationship was sprinkled with jokes about two-seater cars and long lie-ins.
To avoid unwanted pregnancies, I’d been on the pill since I was 18, but the only one that didn’t give me unbearable side effects was a high-risk, high-dose brand called Dianette . When I moved house, my new GP wouldn’t prescribe it. “No one takes this anymore,” he said, and put me on something safer - Cerazette. It made me bleed every day.
Soon after I split up with my long-term boyfriend, who all of a sudden liked babies, telling me: “I want a family.” He sounded like a complete stranger.
Meanwhile, I was dating, and having to awkwardly drop hints that I didn’t want kids in case it was a dealbreaker. It was. One man walked off in the middle of speed-dating because he was looking for the mother of his children. I wasn’t even worth speaking to for three minutes.
Explaining, discussing and defending my viewpoint on kids with potential partner after potential partner forced me to confront the strength of my feelings. Some dumped me when they realised I wouldn’t “just change my mind”. I got used to hearing the same old comments - selfish, naive, uncaring - from people who took my decision personally.
A few short relationships later, taking precautions was causing major issues. I’d tried several more pills and had lots more side effects: nausea, anxiety, depression. One pill - Yasmin- made me vomit so much I was convinced I’d throw up the tablet and get pregnant.
I looked into my options online for the millionth time. The only one that seemed appealing was getting my tubes tied.
Yes, it was full surgery with a general anaesthetic, but after that, I’d be done. No more hormones, no more pregnancy scares. The NHS website said it was available whether you’d had kids or not, and there was no age limit.
But when I asked my GP about it, she just about laughed me out of the room. She said it would be crazy to do something irreversible on someone so young (some sterilisations can be reversed, but rarely, and not on the NHS). I knew I didn’t ever want kids, but she didn’t believe me.
I went home with yet another pill.
Every time I saw a GP - often for pill side effects - I brought up sterilisation. The reaction was always the same: “This is not something for people your age. It’s for women in their late thirties with kids. And you might regret it.”
I thought the doctors were worried I’d sue if I changed my mind, so I offered to sign a disclaimer. But it didn’t sway them.
Frustrated, I spoke to my mother - she told me she hadn’t been keen on having kids either, but had ended up having them for my dad.
“You know your own mind,” she said, “Stick to your guns. I don’t regret any of my children, but if I had my time again, I wouldn’t let anyone tell me what to do.”
I kept asking. And asking. And asking.
I was desperate to get off the pill, but condoms alone weren’t effective enough to put my mind at rest - I was constantly worried. I even kept emergency pregnancy tests in my desk drawer at work. Eventually, I was put on another high-dose pill. It came with more vomiting and a higher risk of fatal blood clots, but at least I could still have a baby one day! Sigh.
Fed up with being patronised by GPs and knowing there must be other women in my position, I started writing about about my predicament. I was met with support – and a slew of abuse - because the idea of a woman not wanting kids is somehow shocking to society in the way that a vasectomy is not.
I took my articles to my GP who said: “You’re really serious, then?” to which I nodded, furiously. She signed the referral form, and I felt like I’d won the lottery
It didn’t last.
The clinic I’d been referred to had no surgeons, and couldn’t do the procedure. I was devastated - it felt like being back at square one. My GP was determined to help me find a new place to have the surgery. It took six months, but I was referred to a hospital, where I had to convince another barrage of doctors that I was serious. I got all the same frustrating comments again.
By this time I had a new boyfriend, Zack. Doctors even offered him a vasectomy - even though, at 24, he was two years younger than I was when they first said I was too young. But Zack understood that since it was me who was constantly worried about being pregnant, it needed to be me that had the operation.
A few months into our relationship, I finally got approved for surgery. I was absolutely over the moon, and we went out for dinner to celebrate.
May 2016 - the procedure
Finally, after four years of asking and a lifetime of never having the slightest inclination to be a mother, surgery day arrived.
I couldn’t wait. But, over the last few weeks, endless internet strangers had told me my boyfriend would inevitably leave me for someone who could give him kids, and it was playing on my mind. I asked him if he was completely sure, and he hugged me assured me that he was.
We arrived at the hospital really early because I was nervous and excited. I couldn’t wait to wake up in the recovery room and know I’d never have to take a panicked pregnancy test ever again.
When the anaesthetist laid me down on the trolley, she looked me in the eyes and said “You’re really sure about this? Because once you’re under, there’s no going back.”
For the last time, I said yes.
Coming round after a general anaesthetic feels a lot like unpausing the world. Suddenly, I was back in the room.
My throat hurt from the tube and I was insanely thirsty, but even through the fog of drugs, I felt happy. The doctor told me everything went fine - they’d made one incision in my belly button and one in my navel, and put metal clips on my fallopian tubes. The whole process only took half an hour.
I picked up my medical file and found photos of the clips on my tubes. It was grim, but so reassuring. They really did it. It was done. Finally.
Although I’d still have periods, I wouldn’t need to take the pill ever again. I was ecstatic, and there wasn’t a shadow of regret.
June 2016 - two weeks later
The recovery has been harder than I anticipated - it really knocks you off your feet. I’ve had to go back to hospital twice with horrible side effects, but the painkillers helped, and I’m nearly back at 100% now. I imagine it’s a lot easier than recovering from childbirth!
My stitches are out, and the only sign of an operation is a centimetre-long scar on my navel in the shape of an ‘H’ – for Holly, or maybe a tiny helipad.
Now that two weeks have passed, I can have sex again – without the need for the pill.
It’s amazing to know I won’t have all those side effects anymore, and won’t have to keep wasting my GP’s time. I got a lot of abuse for “wasting NHS money,” but in actual fact, this process was significantly cheaper for them than keeping me on contraception - and a heck of a lot cheaper than maternity care.
A lot of people said I’d regret my decision when I woke up from the operation, because it was finally real and irreversible.
But I don’t – not even a little. I just wish that I had been able to donate my eggs. Sadly, though, I’m a carrier for Cystic Fibrosis, so I’m barred from donating.
That means there’ll be no more of me in the world, and if the trolls and I can agree on one thing, it’s that we’re all pretty happy about that.