Why Don’t We Talk About The Fight Some Women Have Faced To Even Try To Have Children?

“There is no easy or commensurate way to mark or honour what a woman may have been through,” says Emma Barnett

Emma Barnett

by Emma Barnett |
Published on

This article first appeared in the Substack, Trying with Emma Barnett - you can subscribe here.

I was packing our suitcase to come home from our holidays in Switzerland listening to podcasts when I heard it.

My colleague Lauren Laverne was interviewing the musician John Legend on Desert Island Discs and it came right at the end.

As he explained his choice for the final song he would choose to define the soundtrack of his life (Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly) he said a few words, a little slower than the ones that came before,  that stopped me in my tracks.

His wife, the model Chrissy Teigen has undergone IVF to conceive all of their children and recently announced she was pregnant again, after sharing the loss of their third child publicly in 2020.

And while Legend spoke with a depth of feeling about the family’s loss, it was when he dedicated the last song to his wife he said the following: “In honour of my wife and all she has gone through to give us children.”

“All she went through to give us children,” there is so much in that tiny cluster of words and I found it truly moving because the thanks he was giving was to her and her efforts to try and build a family for them all.

Often the honouring and love is aimed towards the children or perhaps there is mention of the woman traversing birth. But it is seldom to hear a reference to the fight a woman has fought to even try to have children in the first place.

There isn’t a section in greeting cards shops; a cake you can buy, a sign you can hang.

Now put aside however you may or may not feel about Chrissy Teigen, (last year the social media superuser apologised for trolling and bullying several people on Twitter), very famous people talking about IVF and fertility as it happens, with the heartbreaking problems that ensue, are still vanishingly rare. Afterwards? Sure. A few more.

But it is her openness that gave her husband the permission to quietly but firmly publicly thank her, not just for the children she has created through daily injections, bloods and pills, but the major efforts to get there.

It’s not about the thanks but equally if, and it is a big if, you do manage to conceive through assisted fertility and or, after loss, what you just went through, the woman in particular, was MASSIVE. And there is no easy or commensurate way to mark or honour it.

As part of our holidays, I mentionedin my last postthat we visited France for a close family member’s beautiful wedding.

It was an intimate affair and the woman who owned the small place where we were staying also said something which caught my ear. She mentioned that while her good friend, sunbathing by the pool, and her were the same age (late fifties), her pal had much younger children because of a “hellish fight” she had had to have them, over many, many years. That fight saw her eventually have her much longed for kids in her mid-40s. I was grateful for such detail.

You know by now that we have a four year-old after IVF and years of trying before that. Writing this newsletter, charting trying in general and trying for our second, has made me realise that I was doing a different kind of trying about the experience; trying to be breezy. About the fresh hell that went on before we had our son. Overwhelmed by gratitude and also by being a new mother, there almost wasn’t time or space to think about what had gone on to get there. Nor is it a joyous thing to focus on.

Because of course you don’t want this fight. I don’t want that history and yet it is a big part of who I am. Especially now I have done six more rounds of IVF. I have never been good at being “breezy”. I am no Monica from Friends in terms of perfectionism (see the mess in my wardrobe right now) but that episode where she tries to be breezy and ends up anything but? I relate.

When people ask if I have a child, and I reply yes, I do sometimes feel like saying - but IT WASN’T THAT SIMPLE. I didn’t just sleep with my husband and then he appeared.

But that’s not what they want to know nor have they asked for. So I am breezy. Sort of.  That is until they casually ask about where the second child is and I volley a range of bullet-style responses depending on my mood.

Recently on Woman’s Hour I interviewed the woman who wrote the book I always buy for new mothers, should they be so lucky to conceive and take home a baby. Naomi Stadlen, turning 80 later this year, wrote: What Mothers Do, especially when it looks like nothing.

I found it a godsend as it articulated what was going on for the mother (as opposed to solely the child) and stayed away from those incessant bullet-point lists of tips and instructions.

She realised there was no language to express all a woman is doing and not doing when she is mothering and set about trying to change that.

Equally there is no easy language to express and explain what some women and couples have been doing for years when they try for a baby. Especially if there is no baby at the end of such mighty efforts.

That’s why John Legend honouring “all she has gone through” was more legendary than perhaps the musician realised and should be a lyric in the making.

Until then, I will keep practising my breeziness. Badly.

This article first appeared in the Substack, Trying with Emma Barnett - you can subscribe here.

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