Terrified of failing again, I set out from Dover in the dark, overcome by jellyfish stings, seasickness and swimming against the tide. It was 17 hours 44 minutes and 30 seconds of pain, followed by extraordinary euphoria when eventually I landed in France. After 11 failed IVF attempts, this cross-Channel swim felt like my version of giving birth. I sometimes feel ashamed of admitting that I put my womb through so much. But it’s a symbol of the despair and desperation that my pursuit of motherhood took me to.
I’d spent my twenties trying not to get pregnant. I’d gone to university, climbed the career ladder, finally found someone I wanted to spend my life with. Shortly after my 34th birthday, we stopped using contraception and started having sex for the purpose it was originally intended. That’s when I discovered that getting pregnant isn’t always easy. After a year of unprotected sex, ovulation kits, and the tension of monthly knicker-watch, we went to a clinic. We were diagnosed with ‘unexplained infertility’. It’s a diagnosis given to roughly a third of people who can’t conceive. But it isn’t an answer.
What followed was round after round of IVF, multiple miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy that almost killed me. We seemed to make perfect embryos – specks of life in the laboratory – but back inside me, they dissolved and disappeared. Every medical professional was convinced that if we kept trying it would eventually work. So we did.
It’s hard explaining the pain of something you’ve never had. Something that was just an expectation, a dream, at most a cluster of cells. I wasn’t dying. I call it the ‘pain of never’. Symptoms include: never feeling like a real woman because you can’t do what all other women seemingly find so easy to do; never being able to feel happy for friends who announce they’re pregnant without also feeling sad for yourself; and never seeing someone else’s photos of their children without wishing you had photos to post, too.
Infertility is brutal. It has a soul-destroying effect on your relationship with family, friends, colleagues and your partner. It decimates your self-esteem and grips you in a fear for your future. The thing that drove me through so many cycles was quite simply the terror that if I couldn’t become a mother, then what would my life look like? Was it a life I even wanted.
Like many who go through this, for years I suffered in silence. In public, I was a successful ‘career woman’; in private, I was on a desperate mission to become a mother that ended up costing over £70,000. As well as IVF I did every add-on treatment: acupuncture, dietary supplements, every therapy. I even had a stranger’s white blood cells injected into my arm. But no amount of money could buy me a baby.
Our 11th round of IVF was just before my 43rd birthday. Three top-quality embryos were returned to my womb. All the signs looked good, but then they always did. Again I dreamed about my due date; about writing a maternity leave ‘out of office’; about watching my kid feeding the ducks.
But all it resulted in was another negative pregnancy test, and with it the end of hope. At the same time my relationship started to implode. Another little-acknowledged fact is the impact IVF has on a marriage. It destroys your sex life and you start to question whether love can ever be enough without a child.
After losing most of my thirties to Project Baby, I decided it was time to do something different, something I hoped might help me decide if there was more to life than kids. I thought back on my childhood dreams. If I couldn’t be a mother, maybe I could be... a Channel swimmer. The only problem being it wasn’t something I’d thought about for over 30 years. I hated exercise, and the cold. I wasn’t even a very good swimmer. Then, to my horror, as I started my punishing training schedule, I realised that swimming the Channel is a bit like IVF. I wasn’t in control of my womb nor could I control the sea.
Still, taking on a challenge after years of living life in limbo gave me new purpose and, ultimately, that’s what saved me. So much of life is out of our control. Sometimes we can’t get the things we want, then lose the things we have. I didn’t get to have my own baby with the man I love and, in the end, I lost him too. But whatever your sadness is, if you don’t give up on life, I believe it will return your trust in new and wonderful ways. My swim helped me realise that there are many routes to parenthood – adoption, fostering, egg donation, surrogacy. And also, crucially, that maybe it’s even possible to be a mother without becoming a parent. I’m now training to climb Mount Everest to raise money for children in care who haven’t got the families they dream of, either. My pursuit of motherhood continues, but in a new and happier way.
Jessica Hepburn is an infertility campaigner, founder of Fertility Fest and author of ‘21 Miles: Swimming InSe arch Of The Meaning Of Motherhood’ (£14.99, Unbound)