‘I’ll tell you what, though: I wish asking women about babies was forbidden. I long for the day when strangers and acquaintances don’t feel entitled to ask me about my reproductive choices.’ Katie Edwards, The Independent, 11 October 2021
Sigh. Just when you thought that the 21st century had finally – maybe – arrived, the new president of Murray Edwards College, the University of Cambridge’s one remaining all-female college, jerks you right back into the 1950s by complaining that it seems to be ‘almost forbidden’ to ask young women about their plans to start a family. (Nothing about asking young men about their plans to start a family, you’ll note: it’s only women who need a bit of a nudge.) There are, of course, many reasons why people’s reproductive choices are none of anyone else’s business, and I’m not going to rehearse them here. What I am going to do is to write about what it’s like to be asked those questions when you don’t actually have any reproductive choices at all. It’s estimated that one in seven couples in the UK experience problems conceiving: chances are that even if you’re not affected, there’ll be somebody in your workplace, in your family or your circle of friends, who is. That means there’s an awful lot of us who face those questions, and we need people to know why it’s not okay to put us on the spot.
I’m in my late forties now, so it’s a long time since I’ve been on the receiving end of questions like this, but there was a period of a few years when they seemed to crop up everywhere. When The Husband and I got married, it was the obvious thing to ask. Are you feeling broody yet? Are we going to be getting some exciting news soon? I got used the kind of voice people used when they asked. You know the one: that bright perky meaningful voice, reeking of entitlement and nosing its way in where it isn’t wanted. It wasn’t just the questions, it was the hints as well. When I bought a new car, one friend pointed out that its boot was just the right size for a pushchair. When I decided to grow my hair, my then hairdresser mused that many of her customers decided to grow their hair when they got pregnant. I didn’t go back.
I spent a lot of time pretending not to be interested in babies. Every week, there seemed to be another pregnancy announcement: another collection for another colleague going off on maternity leave, another round of pass-the-baby when they came in to introduce us to the new arrival. When’s it going to be your turn? I kept my head down and feigned indifference like a boss.
The reality was that The Husband and I were trying to have a baby but failing. It had all started so well. We were twenty-nine, and we’d decided that it was the perfect time to start a family. We had a mortgage. We were old enough to be responsible parents. Neither of us smoked, neither of us had any worries about our health, and we assumed that I’d get pregnant as soon as we started trying. The worst-case scenario was that it would take a few months. It would happen, naturally enough, at the time we’d decided was most convenient, fitted in between holidays and work commitments and carefully timed so that the baby would be born at the right point in the school year, preferably September or October, to have all the benefits that came from being one of the oldest in the class. But we had to be careful. We couldn’t start trying too early because then we’d risk having a baby in August, and that would be terrible. Imagine!
People give you all manner of rubbish advice when they know you’re trying to conceive. Try yoga. Or Reiki. Eat lots of pineapple. Enjoy the lack of responsibility. Just relax! It’ll happen when you least expect it. Take a holiday. We went to Norfolk for the weekend. It didn’t work. I gave up expecting people to understand, and turned to the internet, where I found a wealth of support groups for women who were trying to get pregnant. There was a whole new language to get my head round, from the technical vocabulary of reproductive medicine to the cutesy slang that people used as a means of keeping the awfulness of the whole thing at arm’s length. Having sex was ‘doing the deed’, or, more toe-curlingly, ‘babydancing.’ Posters wished each other ‘babydust’ when they were waiting to see if their latest attempts to conceive had been successful, and sent ‘sticky vibes’ to people who’d recently had a BFP (big fat positive) on a pregnancy test. Dedicated A level English Language teacher that I was, I could see why people communicated in this way: it was a shared social code, a way of signalling membership of a group that nobody wanted to be a member of for long. But it wasn’t me.
Fortunately, I found an ally. Kate – who I’m still in touch with, nearly eighteen years later – had messaged me when I’d voiced my frustration about people asking intrusive questions (see, nothing’s changed) and we’d swapped email addresses. We exchanged emails – long ones, sometimes several times a day – sharing what we’d been through and the sense of isolation we’d felt. We became fellow refuseniks, scarred and toughened. It was the first time I’d found anyone who really understood.
Kate and I had a hot date every Wednesday night. It was a very particular kind of date, for two reasons. The first was because it took place over the phone, a necessity given that we lived on opposite sides of the country. The second was that it revolved around watching the BBC TV series Bodies. Written by Jed Mercurio, a former doctor, Bodies was set on the obstetrics and gynaecology ward of a fictional NHS hospital. Its plot focused on two characters: an ambitious but bumbling consultant, Roger Hurley, who wreaked havoc on the nether regions of countless pregnant women, and a junior doctor, Rob Lake, who agonised over whether to risk his career by blowing the whistle. There was plenty of NHS politics – cheeseparing managers, league tables and people watching their backs – plus a maverick senior consultant, played by Keith Allen, whose personalised number plate read VAG 1. But it wasn’t the politics that interested us. It was the gory scenes of childbirth and its aftermath: uterine prolapses, forceps and Ventouses, fourth-degree tears and cascades of blood. Separated by the best part of two hundred miles, curled up on our respective sofas, we’d sit and talk, breaking off occasionally to watch in horrified fascination when something particularly gruesome happened. Because really, what lay beneath our obsession with Bodies was the knowledge that we had escaped all this. We may have been infertile, we may have endured all those months of symptom-spotting and been left feeling like failures, but at least we’d be spared the horrors of the delivery room and the emergency C-section. For an hour every Wednesday evening, we could console ourselves. We could run for the bus and not worry about leaky pelvic floors; we could drink wine and stuff ourselves with pâté and soft cheese. We were heady with the intoxication of having found a gang to join, even if it was only a gang of two.
Deciding to adopt put an immediate stop to all the questions about when we were going to start a family, and probably gave some people food for thought about what had been going on in the background during all that time when I’d been practising my evasive tactics and pretending not to be interested. To my immense regret, I never confronted anyone back then about how insensitive their questions were. Kate was braver than me. She’d taken colleagues to task for tactless remarks, pointing out that fertility is a privilege that not everyone shares. Many of our conversations revolved around the importance of openness. Kate told me that she’d gained huge comfort from her friendships with older, childless women, several of whom had shared their own stories of being unable to conceive at a time when infertility was a subject that people just didn’t talk about. Her experiences had prompted them to reveal griefs that had been hidden for decades, and to show her that it was possible to envisage a future without children. She’d also told some younger friends what she’d been through. ‘If nobody talks about infertility, Carol,’ she’d explained to me during one of our Wednesday night phone calls, ‘then everyone who goes through it thinks they’re the only one, they’re completely alone. And younger couples just carry on thinking that when they decide it’s time to start a family it’ll all be okay, it’ll happen just when they want it to, just like we did. Somebody needs to tell them it doesn’t always work out like that.’ We were going to be the wise women, we decided: the people who knew how it really was. We’d been fired in a crucible, burnished and hardened, but with knowledge to pass on that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.
There might seem to be a contradiction between wanting to be open but not wanting to be asked intrusive questions. The key difference, though, is obvious. I’m open about infertility on my terms. It’s a conversation that I get to start, when I feel comfortable about it. It’s not a corner that I should feel backed into. It’s driven by my desire for honesty, not your thirst for gossip. It’s a horrible experience – crushing and isolating – and it’s one that people should know more about. But only when I’m ready to tell.
Raising awareness is very much on my radar at the moment. Next week, it’s National Adoption Week, and you can bet your life I’ll have lots to say about that, but that’s for another post. This week, it’s Baby Loss Awareness Week, which aims to break the silence that can exist around the loss of a baby. Every year, the week culminates in a global Wave of Light on 15 October, when bereaved families around the world light candles, at 7pm local time, to commemorate the lives of babies who died during pregnancy or soon after birth.
It’s a necessary event. In the past, stories abounded of parents whose babies were taken away before they had the chance to say goodbye, let alone to grieve. Doris, the narrator of Alan Bennett’s monologue ‘A Cream Cracker Under the Settee’, gives birth to a stillborn son who is wrapped in newspaper, ‘as if he was dirty’. Nowadays, bereaved parents are supported: specialist workers help them to create memory boxes with handprints and locks of hair, and there is time – however brief – for them to hold and cherish their baby, to ease this heartbreaking loss. So many couples go through this. Every October, on social media, I’m struck by how many of my friends and acquaintances light candles. I knew about some of their experiences, but had no idea about others. Then, a pink candle, a blue candle, sometimes alone, sometimes in multiples, and I rethink my perceptions of particular lives and the sorrows they must have contained.
So, in a week when the president of Murray Edwards has lamented the fact that she no longer feels able to ask young women about their plans to have children, let’s think about all the possible answers that people might give, and the experiences that lie behind them. Let’s remember those who have suffered those gut-wrenching losses, and those who, like me, never got to see a positive line on a pregnancy test, and never had anything tangible to grieve. This is a club that none of us ever wanted to join. But let’s try to share our experiences, if we can, in the hope that it might make things easier for those who don’t yet know what life has in store for them.