No One Talks About This Stuff

By Kat Brown

15 writers on their experience of infertility, childlessness, baby loss and almost motherhood

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Contributors include Alice Jolly ('Dead Babies and Seaside Towns'), Laura Barton (journalist and author of 'Sad Songs'), Prof Pragya Agarwal, data scientist and author of 'M(O)therhood', Seetal Savla (@savlafaire), Yvonne John (Gateway Women, 'Dreaming of a Life Unlived'), Alice Rose (@thisisalicerose, The Fertility Life Raft podcast), Nana-Adwoa Mbeutcha (Black Mums Up Front podcast), Noni Martins (unfertility.com), Sophia Money-Coutts (Freezing Time podcast) and Miranda Ward ('ADRIFT'), with more yet to be announced

 

In 2020, the journalist and writer Kat Brown was told, after years of trying and two IVF rounds, that it was unlikely that she would ever have a biological child of her own. Nothing had prepared her for this outcome. Suddenly, something that seemed to her a given - that she would one day have a family; that IVF would, eventually, work - was taken away. With that came a very particular kind of grief - a new language to navigate and an uncertain landscape to explore. She knew she was not the only person to have experienced this loss and yet it wasn’t a loss she felt was publicly acknowledged.  

There were, she realised, many losses and griefs like this. She found that personal stories of IVF struggles, of trying for children but never conceiving, of choosing to have them or not, of miscarriage, of infertility, of baby loss, were hard to find. People endured, but how they endured was not something that was being shared, or passed down.

In this anthology, she invites 15 women to explore how they navigated these losses, lives and in-between states, in order to reach out a hand to anyone needing it now and say, ‘You have done so well, and you don’t have to go through this alone.’

 

 

Kat writes: After our IVF operations failed, my husband found me a new therapist who specialised in infertility. She looked about 20, and we called her TCT: ‘Terrifyingly Competent Therapist’. I respected and admired her, and she helped me to heal until I ghosted her the following winter. She had made the wonderful, thoughtful suggestion that we might hold a funeral for our unborn children to honour them. I said this was wonderful, and then I never spoke to her again.

I couldn’t hold a funeral because how could it just be us two who loved our children? How could I ask our friends and family to come to a funeral where the only things being buried were memories of people who were real to us yet didn’t exist. How could I equate this thin misery to the lovely christenings and weddings and birthdays we celebrated? How could I subject them to this? And, in a much smaller voice, I thought: how could I dare to ask them to hold me through it?

In therapy, I’d written a great long letter to my children. I’d even imagined them sitting in the armchair as I had talked to them, but I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. In the early spring, my husband and I made an appointment with a new IVF clinic, where we planned to try an “all you can eat” option where you fork over a lot of money and then keep…having…IVF until you have a child or go insane. I had been ill with a shopping list of mental illness for many years so was pretty confident I could cope with this. We had been given three cycles of IVF on the NHS, but as none of my eggs was mature enough to fertilise on our first cycle, that was the end of that. We paid for the next one ourselves and now we could keep paying.

In the end, our appointment was cancelled because our private doctor broke her leg skiing. And then because there was a global pandemic, the appointment was moved to a phone consultation. Which is why my husband and I were hunched over my iPhone on speaker mode as she told us that she couldn’t in all good faith recommend we do any further IVF because it wasn’t going to work for us. We walked out of the house and into the grey-nothing sky of March, walking in silence to Brockwell Park, and then walking home again.

I had been fully confident that IVF would work for us, partly because I have the blindly optimistic outlook of a golden retriever, and partly because the science didn’t show any reason for it not to. My AMH levels were great, at 35 I was young (ish), and because at the grim heart of it I knew that the world is filled with women becoming pregnant during the darkest times. Stress wasn’t going to prevent me from getting knocked up.

When I had found out that our second cycle had failed, again due to my eggs not maturing, it was as though I entered a black hole of grief. I left all my WhatsApp groups and sent a public tweet to comprehensively cover any well-wishers, and make it clear that I just wanted comfort: “I’ve just found out that our second round of IVF hasn’t worked, for reasons that mean that I will probably never be able to have a baby. If you have time to send good thoughts, I would really appreciate it. I never knew I could feel so ill or so sad.”

Was this an appropriate response? I don’t know. There aren’t books about what to do in these situations. Etiquette guides have no advice on how to word a notice in The Times that you are welcoming a little bundle of nothing to the world. I shouted my grief into the world, begging that someone anonymous would hear me and carry it for me so that I didn’t have to ask friends or family because I didn’t trust that they wouldn’t leave me to it. I judged them all so unfairly because that was how I saw myself. I didn’t know anyone who had tried IVF and not had it work, eventually. That was the story, you emerged sad, bruised, broken – and with a child.

There was nowhere I could call: there were charities for infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth or for parents whose children had died. I hadn’t miscarried. I hadn’t experienced any of these dreadful tragedies and yet, oh God, I had lost a child.

I could see them so clearly. These little lives that would have been growing with me and my husband. Our little family, quickly becoming a huge family because we’re both over six feet tall. There are so many little stings in infertility that you suck up, until suddenly you are queueing in the Post Office, flayed alive. All the nurseries and school runs I’d looked into from our house, the friends I’d chosen to be godparents, the little gingerbread Star Wars onesie I’d bought from GAP one Christmas and kept hidden in a cupboard.

My grief is a rebellious Victorian child who must sit neatly and cleanly in its Sunday best while grown-ups talk about boring things, instead of doing what it wants to do, which is to run screaming into the garden and up the nearest tree, to feel the sun on its face, to hide away to read for hours, and to make no small talk whatsoever. I lost the ability to be appropriate when well-meaning strangers asked if I have children, or would like children, or any other of the questions that people feel they can ask women that essentially amount to “conversations about your vagina”.

Someone didn’t speak to me for months because my infertility was taking attention away from their being able to take joy in their pregnancy. I swallowed down everything I could to make this better, and I haven’t spoken to them about it since smoothing it over because if I do, I might actually kill them.

But if people were to ask me about my children, what would I say? That I see them, menacing around and lost in exploration, in the corners of my eye. That they are constantly in my mind like willows o’ the wisp, these spirits of another timeline. That my husband and I never could decide on a name for a boy, which means that I would have exercised triumphant veto for reasons of Being The One Who Pushed The Bloody Thing Out. I don’t think of my children all the time, but my God, I love them. How I love them. Life only makes sense when you can pull it together into some semblance of story, discarding the bits that don’t add to it even though they are all part of the foggy muddle that took you to wherever you are. If you’ve ever put a CV together you’ll know that. It’s easy to look back and fixate on the moments that didn’t happen how you wanted – or didn’t happen at all – and think, “If only I had gone down that path, I would be amazing, incredible, happy, me.”

So how do we make sense of a world in which we can see another possible path taken so clearly? A world in which it feels as though we are living it simultaneously, papered thinly over ours until the joins are hidden away and all that is left is confusion, not living in one reality or the other. I had no clear path to go down now that motherhood was cut off to me. But I found comfort of a sort in learning about disenfranchised grief, grief that isn’t recognised by wider society. I found comfort in the stories of others: in Kate Bowler’s ‘Everything Happens’ podcast, in which she interviews people about tragedies that self-help mantras can’t get you through. (Her own plans to expand her family were cut short when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer at 35.) Listening to other people’s darkest moments, and to know that they still somehow found the courage to keep going, anchored me at a time when I worried that, if I didn’t pay close enough attention, I would float away.

This book is very selfish in that I hope that it will help me just as much as the reader. I have always found comfort and reassurance in the stories of others. Whatever the specifics of someone’s story, there are always similarities to be found. And God, I need to get out of this bloody hedge and I am finally admitting that I can’t do it myself.

There is no user manual to our self beyond the one that we assemble through years of mistakes and gut feeling, but it helps to hear other people tell their stories about how they dealt with their nightmares. Whatever pain keeps you from peace, whatever path it is that your mind keeps trying to go down, I hope that you will find some comfort here.

Expected book spec: Paperback, demy format, 272pp.

Pledge levels will be fulfilled once the project has funded and the book is released.

Image credits: Design by Mecob. Images: Nadia Snopek / Shutterstock.com.

Book title, designs, cover and other images are for illustrative purposes and may differ from final design.

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    Kat Brown

    Kat Brown is a freelance journalist and commentator whose work has appeared in The Telegraph, Grazia, the i, the independent, The Times, Empire, The Lady, and more. She is a regular guest on national radio and television. Kat mainly covers arts and entertainment, but her more personal work on her experience of IVF, childlessness, and adult ADHD diagnosis has struck a particular chord with readers – or indeed anyone who has seen her extremely varied CV and gone, “Ah, this makes sense now”. She has also worked in social media at BBC Radio 4, British GLAMOUR, The Telegraph and Twitter; and edited British GLAMOUR’s podcast, Hey It’s OK. She lives in London with her husband, dog, and two cats, amidst a complex network of stairgates and extremely capable vacuum cleaners. www.katbrownwrites.com

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    14th January 2022 Stella Duffy joins NOTATS book!

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