21 Miles

By Jessica Hepburn

Swimming in search of the meaning of motherhood

A List


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.



  1. Sappho
  2. Jane Austen
  3. Virginia Woolf


  1. Frida Kahlo
  2. Coco Chanel


  1. Ella Fitzgerald
  2. Edith Piaf


  1. Hepburn, Audrey and Katherine
  2. Marilyn Monroe

World Leaders

  1. Cleopatra
  2. Boudicca
  3. Joan of Arc
  4. Elizabeth 1st and Queen Victoria
  5. Margaret Thatcher

Political and Social Activists

  1. Mary Wollstonecraft
  2. Emmeline Pankhurst

Humanitarian Figures

  1. Florence Nightingale
  2. Mother Teresa


  1. Marie Curie


  1. Isabella (Mrs) Beeton (well, the world’s got to eat!)


OK, I realize that Number 8 is a cheat as I’ve included two names. But as Katherine and Audrey regularly top best ever actress lists and both share my surname, I’m going to take author’s ancestral licence and include them as a single entry (not that we’re directly related, but there must be some kind of link). And, yes, Number 13 is another cheat. But if you’re going for a Royal (and sorry again, Kate, it isn’t you), then how do you chose between these two?

With the list complete, I start to research who had children. The good news is that my two cheats actually cancel each other out so I don’t need to feel bad about those. Katherine Hepburn didn’t have children but Audrey Hepburn did. Likewise, Elizabeth, the virgin queen, had none and Victoria had nine. Sadly I think I’m going to have to omit the Ancient Greek writer Sappho. Not from the list per se but from the statistics. Some sources say she had a daughter but so little is known about her life that’s it impossible to be sure. The fact that she is one of the first known lesbians – she came from the island of Lesbos, the origin of the term – is irrelevant. It certainly doesn’t preclude the ability/desire/right to become a mother.

Also cancelling themselves out or at the very least making things complicated are my two musicians. Ella Fitzgerald never had children herself but adopted her half-sister’s son, who she named Ray Brown Jr after her husband and then gave to another of her sisters to bring up. And Edith Piaf did have a daughter, called Marcelle, who was taken away from her as a baby and died of meningitis at just two years old.

So where does that leave me? Well, on the writer front Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, never had children. The designer Coco Chanel and the artist Frida Kahlo, didn’t either. Nor actress Marilyn Monroe. In terms of world leaders, Cleopatra did. In fact, sources say she had four children, which bemuses me because I always think of her doomed love affair with Antony, which had no hope of any progeny. Boudicca (or Boadicea, as I was brought up to call her) apparently had children too, despite her warring preoccupations. As did Margaret Thatcher (twins). But Joan of Arc was only nineteen when she died on that stake and was way too busy saving France and making sure she became a saint to think about getting pregnant. Mary Wollstonecraft and Emmeline Pankhurst, two of the leading figures in the women’s movement, both had children. But notably Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa, who were arguably much more maternal figures, didn’t (although admittedly Mother Teresa was a nun). Marie Curie was a yes. So was Mrs Beeton. Of course she was. What else would you expect from such an archetypal homemaker – a mother of eight, she adopted her husband’s four children from his first marriage and then had four more of her own.

So the results are in. After I’ve removed the don’t-knows, the cancelled-outs and any other complications, I discover that well over half of the women on my list didn’t have children. Given around 80 per cent of women in the world do - probably even more in the past - it’s a rather staggering statistic. In fact, on the basis of historical probability, you could go so far as to say that if you’re a woman and you’re going to do something big, you’re more likely than not to be childless. For a moment I feel excited at being in such good company but then I feel something else: a pain all too familiar. What I really want to know is whether it was enough for these women that they did something with their lives which has resonated for generations to come or whether, deep down, they wished they were mothers?


A couple of days later I’m checking my work emails in bed before going to sleep. Apparently this sort of thing kills your sex life but so does trying for a baby. No, that’s not quite true. It’s great when you start trying for a baby – there’s nothing nicer than having sex for the purpose it was originally intended – what kills it is when you have to start trying very hard. I remember naively thinking that the first month we threw away that feminist-prized contraception, we’d be pregnant. But a month passed and nothing happened. Then two, then three, then more. We progressed to the ovulation predicator kit designed to pinpoint the optimum moment for conception. But having sex to the tyranny of pee on a stick is a guaranteed passion killer.     

Just before I close my laptop for the night, I decide to Google and find out who the first woman to swim the Channel was. Everyone keeps telling me about the first man, Captain Matthew Webb – the man with the moustache who was immortalized on a box of matches – but there must be a first woman too. I discover that she was an American named Gertrude Erdele. I laugh when I read that one of her most famous sayings was: ‘I eat whatever I want, whenever I want it.’ She was definitely my kind of girl. So I get out my list of women who changed the world and add a special entry. Number 21: Gertrude Ederle. Her position on the list seems serendipitous – the exact number of miles from England to France. She lived to the age of 97 and it turns out she’s another woman who never became a mother. I wonder why.

Then I put down my laptop and think about Optimist, the support boat available on the neap tide starting on the 21st of August next year. And then I think about the little girl I couldn’t take my eyes off in the baggage hall at the airport – the one in her OshKosh B’gosh dungarees and baseball boots pulling her miniature fushia pink suitcase – and I wonder if that’s a tide that can ever turn. And thinking all these things, I eventually fall asleep. But as soon as I wake up in the morning, before I’ve even got up, I send an email to Paul the pilot to book the boat. I’ve had an idea about how swimming the Channel might help me decide what to do next in my pursuit of motherhood. Besides, I can always cancel the booking, if that baby does decide to arrive.

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