The Right To Try

When I was a little girl, I always imagined that when I grew up I would be a mother. I had it all planned out: two girls; two boys; and a house full of noise. I also always thought one day I would run the London Marathon, the most iconic long distance race in the city where I was born, grew up and live today. Although the first dream hasn’t quite gone to plan, it’s not going to stop me pursuing the other. This year on Sunday 23rd April, I will be at the starting line in Greenwich pointing west towards the Mall.

I feel honoured to have secured an official charity place to run for Fertility Network UK – the national charity supporting everyone who has experienced fertility problems. In today’s blog, I am launching my sponsorship campaign in the hope of encouraging everyone I know to support them by supporting me. If you’re feeling flush/generous/kindly-coerced, you can read more and donate here.

As I am writing this, I do feel mindful of fundraising fatigue. We all get asked to sponsor people all the time and I’m conscious that many people have already sponsored me in 2015 to swim the English Channel. I will always be so grateful for your support. But this is my pledge: the London Marathon is the second of three personal fundraising challenges that I am planning to undertake during my forties. The final one won’t be for a few more years and after that I’ll be off your case, I promise! Any amount, however small, will mean so much to me and FNUK.

I’m doing all this because a while ago I decided to dedicate this decade of my life to improving the lives of people who struggle to create the families they long for. One of the many ways I’m trying to do this is by raising the profile of and money for charities like Fertility Network UK who are doing vital work to support people going through fertility issues. I would urge everyone to read about their day of action on the 25th March calling for ‘The Right To Try’ – because whilst no-one has the right to have a baby, everyone surely has the right to try and the only way to achieve this is by ensuring there is equality of access to treatment.

I also really need your sponsorship to help me to run. Whilst I’m pretty confident about my determination and endurance, I have always run at the speed of a snail so my real challenge with the London Marathon is to do it in what (for me) is a good time. I’m not confident enough to disclose what I think that is yet (my heart quickens at the thought) and please don’t get any ‘sub-four’ ideas (that’s just impossible when you’re starting from a place where you regularly get overtaken by small dogs and toddling children). But I do want to stretch myself, so I will tell you this…

I ran my first ever half marathon in March last year (you may have read about it on my blog) but what I didn’t tell you then is that I did it in 2 hours and 43 minutes and if you know anything at all about running, you’ll know that’s slow. It’s the kind of pace that when you get to the finishing line, everyone else has already gone home. And whilst I was delighted to complete it, I knew then that my challenge is to become a better runner for all the mid-forties women who are keen to find their inner Mo Farah.

So please sponsor me because I may never be a mother and I may never even be a runner but like all the hardest challenges in life, the important thing is to have THE RIGHT TO TRY.

http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserPage.action?userUrl=JessicaHepburn&faId=778906&isTeam=false

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A is for Argentina. B is for Beyoncé.

I’m back! Goodbye Argentina. Hello London.

It’s great to be home but, before you die, if you possibly can, you must see a tango show in Buenos Aires; drink a glass of Malbec in Mendoza; ride like a gaucho across the Pampas (I highly recommend doing it at this place – Los Potreros); and visit the Iguazu Falls – there’s no other word for them but awesome. And, of course, if you feel like you want to, you must also climb the highest mountain in the Western and Southern Hemisphere – Aconcagua.

So this week, A is for Argentina – one of the most amazing countries in the world – but B has to be for Beyoncé.

I wonder whether it was just a coincidence that the night before the Carters’ twin-pregnancy announcement, I was sitting in an Argentinian hotel room, listening to Jay Z’s Glory – his song about the birth of their first daughter, Blue Ivy. Was it just coincidence or did my psyche somehow know, ever attuned to other people’s pregnancy announcements like so many people who have struggled to conceive.

Prior to the birth of their first baby, the couple experienced a miscarriage. Beyoncé has spoken of it; in Glory, Jay-Z sung about it. This and the five year wait for their second child and the announcement that the couple are expecting twins has naturally led me to wonder – although nothing has been officially said – whether the couple might have been through IVF?

If they have, I truly hope they’ll say. I hope they’ll talk about the pain, inadequacy and uncertainty of struggling to conceive. I hope they’ll highlight how much it costs and how it doesn’t always work. I hope they’ll talk about the need to improve fertility education so that women are better placed to make choices between motherhood and their careers. I hope along with their delight at being blessed ‘two times over’, they’ll also mention the possible danger of multiple births. And if, as some people are saying, they’ve chosen the sex of their twins, I hope they’ll talk about the ethics of reproductive science and its increasing ability to design human-beings.

Because me writing and talking about the pursuit of motherhood is one thing. But if Beyoncé does, then things really might start to change. So this week, A is for Argentina and B is for Beyoncé. And C, well, C is for the Clooneys who are also, allegedly, expecting twins…

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Summit

I did it. I climbed the highest mountain in South America, one of the world’s seven summits and the biggest peak outside the Himalayas. This is not a picture of me at the top – note to self, iphone cameras don’t work on seven thousand metre mountains – this is a picture of me signing my name on the ‘Aconcagua Wall of Fame’ back in Mendoza.

Boy, it was tough – one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And I’m not just talking the final summit day, which was twelve gruelling hours up, followed by three further excruciating hours down. I’m talking two weeks in a tent. I’m talking the hot, the cold, the dust, the wind. I’m talking all the acclimatization climbs needed beforehand to get used to surviving without a lot of air.

I shared my time on the mountain with Sir Ranulph Fiennes who apparently tried to summit on the same day as me and sadly didn’t make it to the top. I kiss that man’s feet for attempting to climb it, aged 72, because this is undoubtedly a mountain made for male machines in their 20s and 30s. If I wasn’t so stiff, I might kiss my feet too because although I’m significantly younger than Sir R, I was still one of the only and oldest women up there. I’ve decided to think of it as my own small contribution to the marches that took place around the world yesterday – I’d like to see you take on Argentina’s Aconcagua Mr President.

Having said that, I did think many times, what am I doing here? How did my pursuit of motherhood reach this wild and windy place? This is hard. It’s even harder than IVF. Yet, when I finally got to the top, and the Andes were stretched out below me, I knelt down and wept. I do it because this is life in Technicolor and if you can’t have the family photo you always dreamed of, then you’ve got to create other memories and hope that there will be someone around who’s got a proper camera to take a picture. On the 16th January 2017, I did and luckily there was. My true summit photo will be with you soon and, until then, you’ll find me drinking Malbec in Mendoza!

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Don’t Cry For Me

Feliz año nuevo. That’s happy new year in Spanish because I’m writing this from Argentina. I arrived yesterday and have to say that I highly recommend new year’s eve in Buenos Aires.

Today I’ve been on the trail of Eva Perón, the country’s legendary First Lady known the world over as Evita. Pictured below is me outside the famed Casa Rosada – where she preached from the balcony to the Argentinian people. I’ve also been to her museum and grave. I’m always fascinated by extraordinary women – especially those who never had children – eager to find out how they fashioned a life for themselves without motherhood.

But there’s another, bigger, reason I’m here. In a few days time, I’m off to climb a massive mountain. It’s called Aconcagua and I won’t blame you if you’ve never heard of it because I hadn’t until earlier this year. Aconcagua is the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas and at 6961 metres, it is over a thousand metres higher than Kilimanjaro which I climbed this time last year. It will take three weeks – so forgive me if my next blog is a little out of sync because massive mountains are one of the few places left in the world which don’t have Wi-Fi – but I’ll be sure to let you know how I got on when I get down.

This morning I started reading The Tango Singer by Tomás Eloy Martínez. It’s set in Buenos Aires and is about a quest to find an elusive tango singer with the most beautiful voice in the world. I love reading books set in the place I’m visiting and, well, you know how much I love quests. First there was my quest to become a mother (more about that in my book The Pursuit of Motherhood). Then there was my quest to swim the English Channel (the subject of – watch this space – my next book 21 Miles to Happiness). And now, I’m on a quest to climb Argentina’s Aconcagua. As I’ve been walking around the city today, I’ve been thinking about how I seem to be making a habit of taking on quests where nature is in control of the outcome not me – she decides whether you have a baby; she also decides whether she’ll let you climb a mountain or a swim a sea. And what these quests are teaching me is that nature is to be treasured and revered but life with or without summits, shores and even children is still a wild and wonderful thing. So in the words of that true tragedienne Evita, whatever happens: don’t cry for me Argentina.

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Christmas is coming…

…and the goose is getting fat. As is the Christmas lurgy. Has it got you yet? It has me. In fact, last night I took two Night Nurse (my wonder drug) and slept through until 10.30am this morning. This is unheard of for me – I usually wake up at five. Suffice to say, I felt a whole lot better but half the day was gone by the time I got there. It’s discombobulated me, hence the late entry of my blog tonight.

Christmas is always a difficult time for those people who are in pursuit of parenthood or who are childless not by choice. It’s the same for the many children in the world who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to be part of their own happy family either. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the similarities between us and there will be more from me on this in the future so keep reading this space… But, for now, if you’re worried about the week ahead, I also know some brilliant people who have written and spoken about how to cope with Christmas without the family you long for. I would highly recommend you take a listen to Fertility Poddy’s latest post on the subject. It could be the best present you give yourself!

As for me, well, my answer is to keep very busy so there’s no time to think about what I haven’t got. But that does, of course, make you very susceptible to the Christmas lurgy…

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Add-Ons

I am writing this from the tranquility of the Scottish Highlands after a crazy, busy week.

On Monday evening, I was on BBC’s Panorama programme: Inside Britain’s Fertility Business which then, inevitably, resulted in lots of other things. Radio, newspapers, and more TV. If you haven’t read it yet, do have a look at my Guardian Opinion piece on the whole shebang.

The Panorama programme explored the proliferation of fertility treatment ‘add-ons’ which are being given (for a fee) to patients trying to conceive. A study by Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine into 27 treatments has found that 26 have no good scientific proof of success. I won’t elaborate here because you can watch the programme and read my article if you’re interested in the detail.

What I will say though is that this is a complex issue. Some people – including doctors and patients – really think these ‘add-ons’ work. Some people really think they don’t. Some people think the Panorama programme was one-sided. Some people think it’s investigative journalism at its best.

I think – and I hope whenever I speak and write this comes across– that I don’t know the answer. But I do know that the world needs to get better for people facing fertility issues and therefore it’s vital that this and so many other conversations are had.

So to end this crazy, busy week I’ve come to the Scottish Highlands for my own add-on – a weekend of swimming in lochs and sea! And I know many people will think: swimming in Scotland in December, are you mad? Well, maybe, but this is an add-on that works for me.

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Me about to swim…

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Kittens

When I give talks about my/the pursuit of motherhood, I often mention the value of fur babies although I’ve never actually had one. That is, until last week when two adorable balls of fluff arrived.

In the lead up to them coming, I noticed I was getting stressed. I’ve wanted a baby for such a long time but suddenly the prospect of the responsibility was making me anxious. I contemplated postponing their arrival until after Christmas. I realized that despite trying so hard to conceive for so many years, the freedom of not having children had become a rather wonderful thing.

I gave myself a talking to and didn’t postpone. After all you can’t pick and choose what date you go into labour. So last Saturday, they came home in a cardboard box, right on schedule. The first thing they did was dash to the safety of behind the sofa. Parted from their real mother, they looked at me with fear in their eyes. They didn’t want me to pick them up. It was a horrible reminder of how infertility infiltrates your mind and destroys your belief that you’re ever supposed to be a parent.

But one week in, we are getting used to each other. They really aren’t a lot of work, they’re just a lot of fun. And when they’re not chasing each other’s tails or decimating the furniture with their tiny claws or kicking the fluorescent orange ball we’ve bought them round the room, they’ll come and sit on your lap. They may even purr. There’s a reason why I tell people about the therapeutic value of a fur baby when you’re trying to conceive, it’s because it works.

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The Fertility Show Take-Three

I’m on the 27 bus heading to Olympia. At 10.30am I’ll be giving a talk on the IVF Roller Coaster. A cliché, but like many clichés, true.

This is the Fertility Show take-three for me, having spoken at it in 2014. 2015 and now 2016. I always have ambivalent feelings about going. It’s the UK’s biggest trade fair for the fertility industry – everyone there desperately wants a baby – and I don’t want to be the bad fairy at the ball. In 2014, I found it really hard – I wrote about it in my blog entitled And Then I Cried. In 2015 I had such an incredible response that I felt like my talk had some real value. I wrote a blog about that too. And today? Who knows? I’m purposefully writing this blog early to avoid having to write about it later in case it doesn’t go so well.

Yesterday when I was out running (well, better to call it a slow jog) through the autumn leaves on Hampstead Heath, I thought about how infertility has caused me so much pain. But what I also realised is that the more I allow myself to feel the pain, the more I become open to love. So I continue.

See you in two weeks, however it goes today.

http://www.thepursuitofmotherhood.com

 

A Story of Love and Life

Other people’s pregnancy announcements are always going to hurt. It’s like I said in my film for Fertility Network UK about the ‘pain of never’: one of the things that infertility does to you is that you can never feel happy for someone when they announce they’re pregnant without feeling sad for yourself at the same time.

So on Friday when an email popped into my inbox with the header: ‘My biggest news ever! Yes. After five years, we’re having a Sprout!’, I felt that familiar pang. Rachel Campbell, is someone I’ve connected with over the last few years through my book and blog. She writes her own blog called ‘Sprout & Co’ and has had a long and heartbreaking struggle to conceive. We’ve never met – she lives in Australia – but I’ve always enjoyed her emails because they are filled with beautiful images of the antipodean sun and sea and, of course, because she hadn’t been able to conceive I felt a sense of solidarity.

Now Rachel’s twenty weeks pregnant and about to become a mum. And, yes, I felt that thing I always feel but when I read her email and watched the announcement film she’s made about her story – which she describes as one of ‘love, life and egg donation’ – a gift from her younger sister – my heart just soared with unadulterated joy. Do click and watch it here and have your heart soar too!

The longer I walk the road of infertility the more I feel that two things are becoming completely clear. The first is that the pain of not being able to make a baby the way you wanted to, never goes away. The second is there are many different routes to parenthood if you’re prepared to find a way to get there. So if you’re not there yet, keep looking.

And that’s enough philosophy for a Sunday night. Except to say, congratulations Rachel from the bottom of my infertile heart.

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Hidden Faces

October is an important month for making babies. It culminates in National Fertility Awareness Week (Monday 31st October to Sunday 6th November) along with The Fertility Show – the biggest IVF trade fair in the UK – where I’ll be speaking for the third year running.

This month the national charity Fertility Network UK has launched a campaign to raise the profile of what it means to face fertility issues. It’s called Hidden Faces and aims to show the real people behind fertility struggles because despite the fact it’s estimated that 1-in-6 are affected, the experience of infertility remains a subject shrouded in secrecy and shame.

I’m passionate about changing this. Unless people know how it feels, how will the world ever understand? And if the world doesn’t understand, how will we fight for equality of access to treatment in a country that prides itself on having a National Health Service but where getting IVF is dwindling and dependent on where you live? And how will those of us who have been through fertility issues grieve and rebuild our lives if no-one understands or wants to treat our pain? In saying this I’m not just referring to people like me for whom IVF didn’t work, but also those who went through the darkness and came out with the dream, because they remain deeply scarred by the process too. Whatever your outcome, we are not different, we are the same.

Coming out about my pursuit of motherhood was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I hoped that if I tried for a baby hard enough, I would eventually be rewarded and no-one would need to know. I didn’t want to publicly admit to what felt like the biggest failure of my life. But eventually I did: I did come out and it saved me. So I am honoured to be the first face of the Hidden Faces campaign. Within less than 24 hours of my film being posted by Fertility Network UK on Facebook it had been viewed over 5,000 times. If you haven’t seen it already, please watch it and share the ‘pain of never’.

By happenstance this October also marks three years since I started writing this blog. My very first post was called: Spreading the Secret. I guess you could say I’m still at it and three years on this is what I know: shame is toxic and it breeds in silence. Sometimes the only way to combat it is by going viral.

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