No matter how progressive and open-minded we consider ourselves to be in this day and age, it surprises me that we continue to treat certain (very important) subjects as taboo. One such area is reproduction. Sure, when a pregnancy is announced and when a child is born, congratulatory messages pour in. But there’s not enough discussion in the media and the public sphere about the range of experiences that women and men might go through and the variety of situations they could find themselves in—when it comes to giving birth.
What about that long wait before a successful conception, loss of a baby in the womb, stillbirths, the inability to conceive, the unwillingness to conceive, the ability and willingness to conceive thwarted by financial difficulties, the frustration of not finding a suitable partner with whom you’d like to settle down and start a family during your childbearing years, the complications of adoption, the processes of egg or sperm donorship, parenting within same-sex relationships, struggles with assisted reproductive technology?
All these issues and more are given space in the “Fertility Fest”—the world’s first arts festival dedicated to fertility, infertility, reproductive science and modern families—founded by London-based Gabby Vautier and Jessica Hepburn—fertility patients and arts producers. The programme brings together artists with fertility professionals, patients and the public to discuss what it means to make (and sometimes not make) babies in the 21st century. Since its inception in 2016, Fertility Fest has worked with over 200 artists and fertility experts. The balloons in the logo are a fitting symbol for the sense of rescue and relief that the event provides—allowing individuals to rise above the psychological and physical weights that hold them down—through companionship and conversation with those on similar journeys and, with that, an immersion in literature, theatre, film, music, dance, painting, etc.
The festival directors aim (1). To improve understanding of the emotional journey of people who struggle or go on a complex journey to conceive – because it can be hard and horrible and they want there to be better patient care and outcomes for everyone whatever their fertility story, however it ends, (2). To improve the level of public conversation about infertility and reproductive science – what it can do, what it cannot do and how it’s affecting the way the human race is being made and (3). To improve fertility education – young people need to learn more than how ‘not to get pregnant’, they deserve a more rounded and robust understanding of human fertility so they have the best chance of creating the families they want in the future – with or without children, with or without reproductive science!
Jessica and Gabby have been on the same journey but had distinct experiences. When eleven rounds of IVF didn’t go as expected, Jessica accepted the fact that she wouldn’t ever be a biological mother in her early 40s and began finding meaning and fulfillment in other avenues. She channelled her enterprising instincts, her willingness to nurture, the strength of her body and spirit in the pursuit of adventure—she has swum the English Channel, run marathons and is set to climb Everest(!). Gabby, on the other hand, after a stressful period of IVF, became mother to twin girls. Hers is a valuable voice on the highs and lows of infertility treatment.
The different story endings from the directors add depth and variety to the festival programme. Jessica and Gabby have beautifully coupled their personal experiences with skills gained from successful careers in theatre production and event organisation. The one-of-a-kind platform created is one of true friendship where one’s losses can be mourned, anxieties can be empathised with and joys be celebrated—by the other.
The “experts” who have participated in Fertility Fest and shared their research include Allan Pacey (Professor of Andrology, University of Sheffield), Aileen Feeney (Chief Executive, Fertility Network UK), Andreia Trigo (Founder, Infertile Life), Andrew and Nicci Fletcher (Founders, Childless Not by Choice magazine), Erika Tranfield (Founder, Pride Angel) and Adam Balen (Professor of Reproductive Medicine and Surgery, Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust).
Some of the “artists” who have had their creations featured include: Anna German (illustrator), Jody Day (thought leader in female involuntary childlessness), Tina Reid-Peršin (visual artist), Heidi Barkin (transdisciplinary artist), Julia Bueno (psychotherapist) and Maria Arlamovsky (filmmaker).
German, in her vivid picture book, examines the exhaustion that a couple struggling to conceive could go through in the middle of a prying and insensitive society. In her memoir, Day—known for her TEDx talk “The Lost Tribe of Childless Women”—lays out an satisfying alternative existence that she has worked out after years of obsession with motherhood that she couldn’t attain. Reid-Peršin copes with the grief of never being able to have a child by poignantly living the moments she has missed with a doll—for example, watching the candles on a birthday cake.
Barkin creates art that emerge from a desire to expose the human cost of reproductive biotechnologies and question their exalted status in contemporary society. Bueno describes the strange and traumatic episode of pushing two little girls—just over and under a pound—out of her body, who go to another universe before she can even understand who and what they are. She then digs deep into the painful territory of miscarriage and its consequences. Arlamovsky looks at the changing nature of reproduction, visiting doctors, scientists, and technicians in clinics and sterile laboratories all over the world. They discuss the complex field of medico-technical birth control and the future of human reproduction. The hopes and wishes of future parents mesh with research on how to “upgrade” human embryos in the face of an ever-accelerating rate of progress. How far do we want to go? The big question remains…
So, when are you going to have kids? Being asked this the thousandth time my heart deflates with…what, sadness? Frustration? Boredom? This person isn’t ready for an honest answer to the question. They don’t want to hear about the years of waiting…and waiting…and waiting…about the good news, the bad news, and most common of all…no news at all. They aren’t prepared to know about the blood tests, sperm samples, internal examinations, the medications, the injections…and quite how many people have taken a look at my no-longer-private privates.
What we, and others, often fail to realise is the depth and reach of our loss: that not only will we never have children, but we will never create our own family. We will never watch them grow up, never throw children’s birthday parties, never take that ‘first day at school’ photo, never teach them to ride a bike. We’ll never see them graduate, never see them possibly get married and have their own children. We’ll never get a chance to heal the wounds of our own childhood by doing things differently with our children. We’ll never be grandmothers and never give the gift of grandchildren to our parents. We’ll never be the mother of our partner’s children and hold that precious place in their heart. We’ll never stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our siblings and watch our children play together. We’ll never be part of the community of mothers, never be considered a ‘real’ woman. And when we die, there is no one to leave our stuff to, and no one to take our lifetime’s learnings into the next generation.
If you take the time to think about it all in one go, which is more than most of us are ever likely to do because of the breathtaking amount of pain involved, it’s a testament to our strength that we’re still standing at all.
He also understood why I repeatedly begged – screamed – for a Caeserean section. I did not want to push two dying, or dead, babies out of me. At some point later on, an obviously harassed young obstetrician appeared at my side with a deadpan face and an air of irritation. “If I perform a C-section on you,” he told me bluntly, “I risk rupturing your womb and you’ll never have a baby again. So, have another think about it.” He left as abruptly as he had arrived, and Mat translated his stinging words into kinder ones that I was better able to understand. Matilda was born a couple of hours after that, with David by my side. She delivered herself, weighing a whisper over a pound, with Mat receiving her. I feel asleep. Three, four, six hour later – I still don’t know, but it was the next day, and in fact, the first day of the next month – her sister Florence was born weighing just under a pound. I had to push this time, with Mat instructing me how to and when, as I knew nothing about giving birth. Nothing I had read about pregnany had prepared me for such an event. he took her to join her sister, who had already been placed somewhere else, by I don’t know who, in another universe.