Trying…to build a life without children
Guest post by Caroline Stafford
I first met my friend Caroline through the medium of biscuits and terribly delicious they were too. I had been looking for something to send a friend in a tough spot and someone I know recommended her biscuit gift boxes. I was hooked on her business Kitsch Hen from the off. Hers were the first biscuits with stamped messages that made me laugh and cry.
Plus I had never seen biscuits with messages for those traversing the pain of infertility before. As well as the other pains of life. Sweet they may taste, but Caroline’s messages are anything but sickly saccharine. The wise woman behind the biscuits was always going to be a good one and when we ended up making a connection, bizarrely through my radio show, as she refers to below, I was thrilled.
I picked up the phone and we spoke like we had known each other for a while. She was generous enough to share with me some of her infertility experience and explain how she had poured that love and loss into her business and the rest of her life. I am now proud to call her a pal and still send a box or two a month of her clever and witty biscuits to someone I care about in need.
I invited Caroline to share her experience of trying for children here with you in the form of a guest post and had no idea if she would want to. I am grateful she agreed. I know you will feel the same.
What happens when trying for a child doesn’t work out? She knows and wants to share her story with you.
I am sure you will give Caroline Stafford the warm welcome she deserves:
This September marks 12 years since we began trying to have a baby, and almost three since we stopped. It feels like a lifetime, yet looking back, I can’t quite believe where all those years have gone.
So what happens when despite all the trying, things don’t work out? It’s the hardest thing I think, to know when enough is enough. To know when to stop trying and admit defeat. Though, it’s only now, looking back, that I realise it's not about being defeated at all; it’s about knowing when it's the right time to gently begin letting go of what you hoped and imagined life was going to look like and begin living it as it is.
There are so many stories of eventual happy endings at the end of the infertility path. It’s all we seem to hear. Although there are many people, like me, that things don’t work out for, it is still rare to hear what happens when it just doesn’t happen. I’m grateful to Emma for asking me to share my story here, because when we were right in the middle of it all, and I knew we couldn’t just keep going, I didn’t read or hear anyone telling me it was OK to stop. I couldn't find those stories of people who ‘gave up’ trying; the ones who chose a different kind of life, but still found purpose and joy. And yet, they exist. I know that now for sure, because I am one of them.
My husband and I began trying for a baby not long after we met when I had just turned 30, and a year or so later, we found ourselves in front of our doctors, with a diagnosis of unexplained infertility and a referral for IVF. The years that followed were a haze of IVF cycles both here and in Greece, some momentarily successful and ending in missed miscarriages, some that just didn’t work, but each of the cycles we went through followed that same rollercoaster of hope and heartbreak, over and over again.
I lost 10 years in total to trying, because as much as life went on around us, and as much as we did our best to live through and around what was happening, it can’t not swallow you up. It can’t not be the very first and last thing you think about each day. You can’t not quietly count the number of pregnant women you see pass you in the street, or not wish for it when you squeeze your eyes closed to blow out candles as another year passes by.
So how do you decide enough is enough, when there is always the chance that one more try could be the magic number? I’m still not 100% sure I can answer that, except to say that I will never forget Christmas morning 2019, when I was curled up on the bathroom floor bleeding away a miracle that had taken us by complete surprise. I found out I was pregnant naturally a few weeks earlier, the first time conceiving without IVF, after all those years of trying. The cruelty of the timing; of knowing that a time of year we already found impossibly hard, would always now also be a reminder of another heartbreak felt like too much. And although it took a while to voice it, I know that was the point we both quietly came to the decision that it was time to stop.
It’s another part of our story that I am so grateful for, that we came to the decision to stop together, and felt it at the same time. I know how lucky that makes us.
Because we made a choice. Together. We chose to embrace the life we had, with all its gifts and heartbreak. We chose to make that enough, and let go. We didn’t give up - there's a difference and the language we use matters.
Though I know our choice is the right one for us, my stomach can still tie itself up in knots when a friend or family member announces a pregnancy. I’ll often find surprise tears behind my eyes when I overhear a sweet conversation between a mother and her daughter (always a daughter strangely) as I stand behind them in a queue and there are moments when I feel left behind in our friendship group, as well as being fearful of a loneliness old age might bring.
In my wobbly moments, I might question whether I really wanted it enough, because surely if we did we wouldn’t have stopped, we’d have kept going for longer, tried harder, wouldn’t we? But that makes it seem so black and white, when it's anything but. I think we all have our limits, and they’re different for each of us. They depend on so many things, not least the financial, emotional and physical toll that fertility treatment takes on us, and we’re the only ones who know how far we can go, and how long for.
Almost three years on, we’re choosing joy. We’re choosing a narrative of hope, of gratitude and of making the most of the beautiful life we’ve been gifted.
In a funny way I have become thankful to infertility. For making me softer rather than harder, more accepting, less demanding and for teaching me a degree of compassion and empathy I know I wouldn’t have had I not been through this.
It’s taken time, and by no means have I nailed this yet, but now, instead of the effort of trying to convince ourselves of the silver linings to our story , they come a little more easily and I’m grateful for the quiet uninterrupted lie-ins, the spontaneous weekends away, and the space to enjoy the freedom to grow a biscuit business that, in a funny way (and I used to hate it when people said this, but now I kind of love it) is my baby.
I accept now that the grief will always be there, that we will forever live alongside it and it will always be a delicate, sensitive spot that feels harder some days than others. And that’s OK.
My work is one of my ways of finding my meaning in life and having an impact that I hope ripples out beyond just me. From quiet beginnings at my kitchen table to a commercial bakery and building a small, brilliant team that supports me, I guess, like Emma, I want to instil hope that infertility and IVF don’t have to mean stopping pursuing something that we love. In my case, I wouldn’t be doing the work I do were it not for what we went through. I began it right in the middle of the IVF years, stamping biscuits with messages of love hope and encouragement that I needed just as much as the friends and fellow IVF warriors I was sending them to. I’m so grateful for it.
I’ve also got my business to thank for the joy of knowing Emma, first as a customer (which I only realised after a chance conversation on her radio show), and now as a friend. Right there is another gift of infertility that I’m so very thankful for.
Life is full of surprises, some the happy kind, and some the kind that break us right in two. I prefer the happy sort, but I think that maybe it's the ones that break us and that give us the opportunity to gently piece ourselves back together, cracks and all, that teach us the most about ourselves and this thing called life we’ve been trying and trying to create.
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