Visible Women

Why we need to keep having difficult conversations about fertility

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Moya Crockett
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Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women who are making a difference to society. Here, digital women’s editor Moya Crockett speaks to Jessica Hepburn: author, fertility advocate and founder and director of London’s Fertility Fest. 

As far as complex subjects go, you can’t get much thornier than fertility and motherhood. Women have fought so hard to carve out opportunities and identities beyond parenting that to confess to desperately wanting children can feel almost treacherous, or as if we’re suggesting that all the wonderful things we have – jobs, friends, partners, travel, family, passions – are somehow ‘not enough’.

The issue is further complicated by the approach often taken by tabloid newspapers when reporting on women and fertility, which can be politely summed up as: ‘shame women for wanting fulfilling careers, instead of staying at home barefoot and pregnant’. It’s hard not to want to push back against a culture that still positions motherhood as the ultimate goal for women, and to feel confused and conflicted about how much we really want it for ourselves.

Jessica Hepburn knows that discussions about motherhood, pregnancy and fertility can be difficult, and that’s exactly why she wants us to keep having them. The writer and fertility advocate, 47, stopped trying for a baby four years ago, having spent nine years trying to conceive. After being diagnosed with ‘unexplained infertility’ at 35, she and her partner underwent 11 gruelling rounds of IVF treatment, resulting in multiple miscarriages and a near-fatal ectopic pregnancy. She eventually stopped trying at 43 – something she’d always known she would do, due to the stark drop-off in IVF success rates once women reach that age.

“I’d always said that it was all about the number 43, and if I hadn’t had a baby by the time I was 43 I was going to get on with the rest of my life,” she says. “I genuinely thought: ‘I will have a baby by the time I’m 43’. You know, it must happen.”

But it didn’t, and Hepburn suddenly found herself with a life ahead of her that looked very different from the one she’d envisaged. She hadn’t been in a particular hurry to get pregnant before she started trying at 34: she’d been busy building a career as the chief executive at a London theatre, and it wasn’t until her partner came along that she’d even met anyone with whom she’d considered having a baby. Yet she’d always assumed children were in her future, somewhere.

“The shock was that actually getting pregnant isn’t as easy as everyone thinks it is,” she says. “Because we spend our whole teenage years being told not to get pregnant, you think it’s going to happen the moment you throw away contraception. And of course it can: the complexity of the situation is that it can happen immediately. But if you wait until your mid-30s, the likelihood is that it’s going to take longer.”  

“People come out of school not understanding fertility at all”: Jessica Hepburn

Hepburn first started writing about her experiences of struggling to conceive around her 40th birthday, initially more as a therapeutic exercise than anything else. That writing turned into her first book, The Pursuit of Motherhood. It was published in 2014, not long before she decided against any more rounds of IVF.

“I was trying to write the book that I wanted to read but couldn’t find,” she says. “And I genuinely thought when I started writing it that I was going to write my way to a happy ending; that I’d write a book with ‘and here’s the miracle baby!’ at the end.”

The Pursuit of Motherhood did not end that way, but it did lead to the opening of a new chapter in Hepburn’s life, as she found herself with an unexpected new career as a writer and a spokesperson for women going through the often unspoken nightmare of fertility struggles. Soon after the book was published, she decided she needed a new challenge – and so in September 2015, she set out to swim the English Channel to raise money for charities supporting “families without children and children without families”. That experience formed the basis of her new book, 21 Miles, set for release on 3 May, in which she sits down with 21 famous women and asks them the simple question: “Does motherhood make you happy?”

Hepburn laughs when discussing her decision to swim the Channel. “I know it looks like I’m this athletic person, but I’m really, really not. I worked in theatre, you know, I spent my life in a darkened room watching plays.” But she knew she had to keep setting herself goals, and she saw something symbolic in swimming.

“Swimming something like the Channel is actually very similar to going through IVF, because no matter how hard you work at it or how much money you throw at it, the outcome is out of your control,” she says. “In both cases, nature is in charge of what happens: whether you get across this sea or whether you get a baby. And so it was a really important part of me accepting, OK, this thing is out of my control, but what are the things in my control that I can do in my life?”

The swim sounds horrendous – it took 17 hours and 44 minutes, and she got badly stung by jellyfish. “Then the moment my feet touched French soil I was filled with this euphoria and it was so emotional, because it was like giving birth in a way – all that pain and then euphoria. It just felt like, well, OK, I didn’t give birth but I got this; this is extraordinary.” 

During training to swim the Channel, Hepburn asked famous women to meet and eat with her to discuss motherhood

During her training for the Channel, Hepburn realised she needed to put on weight if she was to stand a chance of keeping warm in the freezing water. And so she wrote to women including Great British Bake Off judge Prue Leith, polar explorer Ann Daniels and Professor Baroness Susan Greenfield, one of the UK’s top female scientists, and invited them to eat with her and discuss the philosophical question of whether motherhood really brings happiness.

Each of the women came with different experiences of motherhood or childlessness: some are child-free by choice, while others conceived naturally or had children via IVF or adoption. All had different answers to Hepburn’s question. But the consensus was that motherhood alone is not enough to guarantee happiness – because, of course, happiness is never guaranteed. “Women need other things [apart from motherhood],” she says. “It’s not enough on its own.” 

The women she ate with also taught her that motherhood has no power to inoculate you against grief. “Every woman I met had something in their life that made them sad. My sadness is that I could not have a baby with the man I loved, and I tried really hard and it didn’t happen. But other people have lost people early, or they’ve been ill. Everyone has something in their life that isn’t the way they want it to be. Life is about trying to get over that, and find the good stuff.”

Something that can be filed under “good stuff” in Hepburn’s life today is Fertility Fest, the arts festival she launched in 2016 with Gabby Vautier. Billed as a space to explore the complicated emotional and cultural terrain around “fertility, infertility, modern families and the science of making babies”, this year’s event will take place over six days in May at London’s Bush Theatre. There are plenty of fertility fairs and shows in the UK designed to sell fertility services, but that’s not what Fertility Fest is about.

“It’s about the emotional journey,” she says. “It’s about philosophical ideas and societal issues; it’s not about ‘which is the best clinic to go to.’” One of the things that makes Fertility Fest so special, she says, is that it brings people together who are trying for a baby, whether they’re a single woman or a gay or straight couple. 

“You’re in the same space for a day with people who understand. Because that’s the thing that you feel so much when you’re on this journey – you feel like you’re on your own, you’re alone and no one understands.”

Funding for IVF on the NHS has been slashed in recent years 

A key part of Fertility Fest is the Modern Families project, an education project run in collaboration with University College London’s Institute for Women’s Health and Cardiff University’s School of Psychology. It aims to increase fertility awareness among young people, and will be delivered in schools throughout 2018 and 2019 while the government consults on the future of the Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education curriculum. Hepburn believes there is a disproportionate focus in secondary schools on how to avoid pregnancy, and not enough education about the reality of women’s fertility. “People come out of school not understanding it at all, because all we’re taught is not to get pregnant and to get on the career ladder.”

It’s true that there’s an almost total lack of education about fertility in schools. But, I venture, I don’t think that’s the only reason younger women are putting off having babies (more than half of all live births in 2016 were to mothers aged 30 and over). There’s also the fact that many millennial women in their 20s and 30s have lived through the effects of a dramatic recession, and are not so much climbing the career ladder as trying to keep financially afloat in an unstable job market (not to mention pay off student loan debt or break into the impenetrable housing market). I’m sure there are many women who would love to have babies in their mid- to late-20s, but know they won’t be able to afford it until they’re older.

Hepburn agrees enthusiastically. “We do have to change the [economic] structures to make motherhood possible,” she says. “We have to change stuff like that.” But, she says, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that simply putting it off is the answer, especially given that NHS fertility services have had their funding slashed in recent years (meaning more and more people are having to pay for private IVF treatment, which can easily cost thousands). “It’s not a solution to leave it later and then struggle – it just isn’t.”

It’s a debate with no easy answers, she says, but one we have to keep having. “I’m just passionate about having this conversation. Because otherwise women are just f**ked again, do you know what I mean? Because they’re not getting what they want – again.”

 “If motherhood is really what you want for your life, it is possible”

Next on her to-do list, after the publication of 21 Miles and this year’s Fertility Fest, is climbing Mount Everest. She’s on track to do it in 2020, and, if successful, will be the first woman to have both swum the Channel and scaled Everest. She hopes to raise money for girls in care homes who haven’t had the mothers they dreamed of, just like she didn’t get to have the children she dreamed of.

Training, she says, “is really hard. I don’t enjoy it. But I enjoy going on the journey and also just feeling like it’s sort of like a conversation between me and nature, like: OK, you didn’t give me that one [children]. Let’s see if you can give me this one.”

I ask her what her advice would be to women who have learned that they can’t have children naturally. First, she says, remember that there are ways of being a mother that don’t involve conceiving biologically. “If motherhood is really what you want for your life, it is possible. You might just have to readjust the route to get there.

“But, she continues, “I also genuinely believe that you can have a fulfilling life without children. There are extraordinary things to do in the world. It is a wonderful world, it really is. Everyone has a sadness, and if your sadness is childlessness, I really understand that. But the challenge in life is to try and go: how am I going to take that sad thing and turn it into something good? And I think everyone can.”

The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Jessica Hepburn is the founder of Fertility Fest (8-13 May, Bush Theatre) and the author of 21 Miles: Swimming in search of the meaning of motherhood (out 3 May from Unbound, £14.99). 

Images: Courtesy of Jessica Hepburn / Getty Images