Does motherhood make you happy?
This is the story of one woman who ate 21 meals with 21 women and swam 21 miles to find out.
After a decade of trying to become a mother - eleven rounds of unsuccessful IVF, multiple miscarriages and a pregnancy that didn’t create a life but almost cost me mine - it was time to do something different. Something big which would eclipse the fact I was facing a future I had never imagined.
So I decided to swim the English Channel – the 21 miles of sea from England to France. No easy feat for anyone, especially someone who could hardly swim a length, hates exercise and the cold.
As my punishing training schedule commenced, one of the first things I learnt is that you’re not allowed to wear a wetsuit so you need to put on weight to stave off the cold. For someone who loves food, this was a dream come true. But it also led to another idea…
What if I wrote to a collection of inspiring women to ask if they would meet and eat with me to talk about whether they think motherhood makes you happy? It would help me to get fat but might also help me decide what to do next with my life – did I need to find some way of becoming a mother or could I have a fulfilling life without children?
So I did and the response was overwhelming. From household names to people who have done something quietly amazing; from baronesses and professors to award-winners and record-breakers. Amazing women from different walks of life - some mothers, some not - but all with fascinating and compelling truths to tell about female fulfillment and the meaning of motherhood.
Just like IVF, swimming the English channel is a challenge which more people fail than succeed. Maybe I had failed at becoming a mother but on 2nd September 2015, I set out from Dover beach in the dark – taking the words that each of the women I met gave me to the sea.
21 Miles: swimming in search of the meaning of motherhood.
On the first of January, I take out my New Year Resolutions List Book, open a fresh page and write at the top:
1. Give up IVF and do something big instead.
I love lists. I collect them like other people collect stamps. I keep my most prized lists in small colourful notebooks stacked carefully by the side of my bed. I’ve got lists of all the books I’ve read, all the films I’ve seen, all the countries I’ve visited. And I’ve also got a list book of New Year resolutions which I write in ceremoniously each year.
I think for a moment and then add:
2. Achieve (and stay at) my target weight of just under ten stone.
This resolution is a making a repeat appearance. For someone who loves food as much as I do it’s a constant struggle. Some of the greatest moments of my life have involved me and a plate. But like many women I also long to be thin so it goes on the list every year. And I do mean thin, not slim. Slim has always seemed to me to be on the slow slide to voluptuous – maybe it’s something to do with the curvature of the letter ‘S’ – and everyone knows that voluptuous is only a doughnut away from being fat. Quite what I would do about this perennial resolution if I did manage to get pregnant, I’m not sure. But welcome to my schizophrenic world where success has been all about getting fat and staying thin.
Since our supper before Christmas, I have been thinking a lot about women who have done something big with their lives, and on the afternoon of New Year’s Day I decide I’m going to start a new list – a list of twenty women who changed the world. When I’ve done it, I’m going to look and see whether they had children or not. It’s going to be my own private game. The rules are that there will be no peeking until I’ve finished. It beats watching football on the telly.
In order to hone the list, I’ve made a few decisions. First, I’ve decided that to make it on you’ve got to be dead. That’s because I’ve always thought those magazine articles and TV programmes detailing the ‘100 greatest something or other of all time’ are misleading because they often include things which are current or fashionable. Right now, for example, you’ll find that Kate Middleton appears in a lot of lists of the most important women in history. I don’t want to make assumptions but surely it’s a bit early to confer this status on her. People hardly knew who she was when I started trying for a baby but since then she’s come up on the inside, married a prince, given birth to the heir of the English throne (now two) and become one of the most influential women in the world, even though I’m not sure I’ve ever heard her speak. As pretty and winsome as she is, I’m afraid she’s not going on my list. Besides, she’s alive. I told you: alive people don’t count.
I’ve also decided to have different categories. By that I mean I’m not allowing myself too many women who’ve done the same sort of thing. When you start playing this game you realize that there are many more famous female political leaders and writers than there are, for example, composers and scientists. Arguably those people who have made a mark in fields where women are underrepresented have done something even more significant. Not that this list is about value judgements, but you’ve got to have criteria, otherwise how do you begin?
By tea time the list is complete.
Dear Wonderful People,
It’s been a while. I haven’t forgotten you. I never will! But I’ve been busy launching Fertility Fest - my arts festival dedicated to fertility, infertility, modern families and the science of making babies which will be back for its second edition at the Bush Theatre in London in May. And alongside this I've been developing a fertility arts education project for young people…
Dear Wonderful People
Hello, and Happy Nearly Christmas!
It’s been a while since I sent you an update on my book, but lots has been happening behind the scenes. 21 Miles has been in editorial development and I’ll be working on the 'copy edit’ this weekend (the final stage of the editing process). I’ve also seen a first draft of the cover - very exciting!
And I have some other important…
Balloons. Streamers. Party Popping Things. We made it! Yesterday evening, around 6pm, my target reached 100%. Thank you. A glass of champagne was had (well, maybe two…)
But now for the moving moment - imagine me sitting quietly, surveying the scene, maybe slightly the worse for wear. And what I’m thinking is that when I write the book of my life (and this isn’t it – this is just a small but…
Dear Wonderful People (and welcome to all the new wonderful people that have joined my gorgeous group of supporters this week) we’re on the homestretch. As of today, 21 Miles is 88% funded. It’s like the last five hours of my swim but back then France didn’t seem to be getting any closer and this time it definitely is! I hope that next time I write, I will be able to tell you that 21 Miles will…
Dear Wonderful People (I think I might have to call you that every time I write), this is just a pre-weekend update on 21 Miles. Less than four weeks since the campaign was launched and the book is now over 70% funded. You did that - you wonderful people. And the thought that you are all going to be listed in the back of the book, standing beside me as it (hopefully) goes out into the world, makes…
Dear Wonderful People, just a little update from me. Thanks to all your amazing support (and truly it is amazing) in just two weeks, since the campaign was launched, 21 Miles is now nearly 50% funded. Above everything else I feel humbled at your belief and generosity. You are all 21 miles of angel. Love Jessica x
PS. A number of people have asked about the ‘launch date’. This will only get confirmed…
Today, the 2nd September, is my Channelversary! Exactly two years ago I was a little blue dot in the sea swimming 21 miles! I'm so grateful to all of you who followed and supported me then. And two years later, in less than a week, my book is nearly 20% funded - thanks to all of you for supporting me again! Your generosity and commtiment means an incredible amount. Jessica x
These people are helping to fund 21 Miles.