"I was 34 and running a London theatre when I decided to start a family. I thought that making the decision to fit a baby into my busy life was the hard part. I was wrong. After a year of having ‘sex to schedule’ my partner and I were diagnosed with “Unexplained Infertility” and so began our long – and, at times, heartbreaking – journey to have a child. For years I told very few people about my struggle with infertility. I thought my secrecy and strength was another professional achievement. Then one day I started writing about it…”
And thus begins author and theatre producer Jessica Hepburn’s journey into an unchartered future infused with ever-present grief of involuntarily childlessness. I came across Jessica’s work as part of my research for my new book, and I remember being struck by her fierce determination not to be corralled by a life that she did not choose.
Having children is the most natural thing in the world to do. Almost everybody seems to have children. It is a given. Taken for granted. Assumed. Our whole society is based around this fact of existence. Moreover, the history of humanity is built upon this very foundation. For the most part, everybody takes having children to be the normal and natural part of life. You grow up, leave school, get a job, get married, settle down and then have kids.
But what happens when things go wrong? What happens when things don’t go to plan? For the involuntarily childless woman and her partner, what follows is profound grief. In some cases, this is a lifelong grief. It is the grief of losing a vision of a future, of hopes, of dreams, of expectations. In some cases, it is the grief of the loss of little babies through perinatal loss. This is the grief of being an outlier to the norms and social mores of civil society; an outcast in the ubiquitous land of mum, dad and the kids. This is the grief of being without child in a world dominated by pronatalist attitudes, agendas, hierarchical social structures and prevailing collective sentiment.
The grief of being involuntarily childless is profound grief, typically not recognised by society at large, and sadly, often disregarded as inconsequential by the majority of people who have children. It is this grief that has driven Jessica in pursuit of alleviating her pain, of finding new life after loss, and undertaking incredible feats of physical endurance. These achievements give voice to the deep pain of what she describes as the Pain of Never. These extraordinary feats of achievement simultaneously speak to the resilience of the human spirit and, in Jessica’s case, the tenacity to tackle adversity and profound personal grief head-on and for all the world to see.
What is one of the most difficult things about the “Pain of Never”?
So, just to explain to readers who might not know what ‘The Pain of Never’ is…this is how I describe the feelings of unwanted childlessness – representing all the things you want but fear you’ll never have such as hearing your child’s first words; seeing their first steps; having someone call you ‘mum’. I think the most difficult thing when you’re in the ‘eye of the storm’ is that you don’t know how your story will end; and your deepest fear is that if it doesn’t end the way you want and you don’t get to experience being a parent - with all the joy and meaning that brings - you may never be happy. The feelings of shame, anger and profound sadness that come with this can be unbearable. And that’s ‘The Pain of Never’.
Project Everest and Different Ways of Mothering
Can you tell us a little bit about the Everest Project and how, in a sense, this taps into different ways of mothering whilst at the same time creating families for girls who don’t have the families they wished for?
After my 11th round of unsuccessful IVF which was just after I turned 43, I knew it was time to do something different. I’d lost a decade of my life to ‘Project Baby’. It started a chain of events that has resulted in me writing two books (The Pursuit of Motherhood & 21 Miles); establishing an international arts festival called Fertility Fest; and taking on some of the world’s most iconic endurance challenges to raise awareness of the physical and mental toll of struggling to conceive. I’ve run the London Marathon; swum the English Channel and am now in the final stages of training to climb Mount Everest and become the first woman to complete the ‘Pond to Peak Challenge’.
My aim with all these things has been first and foremost to save myself from ‘The Pain of Never’ but also, crucially, to use them to campaign for and support those coming after me so that they are in a better position to create the families they dream of; and to feel less alone if they can’t. I passionately believe we have to turn the disappointments of our life into something positive – and I see my activism as my alternative form of nurturing - because ‘mother’ is a verb, not just a noun.
The Great Divide
There seems to be this cruel irony in the world where, on the one hand there are women like us who long for children of our own, and on the other, millions of children who are either unwanted, abused, neglected, or orphaned. Do you see a way forward in closing this global divide and perhaps getting greater support and recognition for projects like your Everest Project?
It has always struck me that there are many similarities in the feelings of adults who struggle to conceive with the feelings of children who haven’t got the families they long for. For one thing, we all hate Christmas as well as other ‘family occasions’ which highlight what we lack. One of the things I hope my work will achieve is encouraging new ways of thinking about family. Everyone knows that the idea of a biological mum, dad and 2.4 kids doesn’t exist anymore. The growth of families made through assisted reproduction including same sex parents; solo mums /dads; and donor siblings is only going to increase. So why don’t we have an even wider dialogue around the way families can be made. I really believe this could be one of the answers to reducing ‘The Pain of Never’ – both for people who long for children, as well as children who long for parents.
Can you briefly share with us one of the most helpful and soul-sustaining ways you have dealt with your grief?
For me, it’s helped to recognise that the grief is never fully dealt with or going away. I’ve accepted that I’ll be carrying it around for the rest of my life – sometimes my rucksack is heavy, sometimes it feels lighter. That’s life, it changes day to day, even hour to hour. I believe everyone carries their own sadness – this is mine. And having accepted that I’m not able to live the life I ideally wanted (and still want!) what I’ve tried to do is live the best alternative life I can. And, for me, the way to do that is finding your passions in life. Right now mine are writing; going on adventures; and doing a really hard training session followed by great food and wine on the sofa!
One of the quotes I live my life by is from the nobel prize-winning writer Kazuo Ishiguro: There was another life that I might have had, but I am having this one! That’s my mantra.
Find out more about Jessica!
You can visit her website here:
Read Jessica's Books
21 Miles is available on Amazon here:
The Pursuit of Motherhood is available on Amazon here:
Say hi to Jessica on Social!
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