Tucked away among the pile of duvet covers and blankets in my cupboard, there’s a baby-sized sheet with a matching pillowcase, which is appliquéd with sherbet-colored giraffes. I found it at a charity shop in my mid-30s when all I could think about was conceiving a child.
But fate, it seems, had other ideas. At the age of 39, I went through a brutal early menopause. Now, at 47, it’s highly unlikely my own child will ever fall asleep with that miniature bedding set for comfort in their bed. Egg donation could still throw me a lifeline, but it’s not one I want to grab.
I’d made a promise to myself to give the set to a friend who recently gave birth, but when it came to it, I simply couldn’t do it. Wrapping up these symbols of what could have been in shiny, happy paper and giving them away was just too final.
I’ve largely accepted this reality of my life, but I am still grasping the smallest grain of hope that I might yet experience this major life event in one way or another.
Ambivalence best described my attitude toward having children for the majority of my life. I spent my 20s in London, where I worked hard as a journalist and played hard, too. Apart from one serious relationship, it was a dizzying time filled with flings, fun, and a "whatever" attitude.
I wasn’t in a rush to give up a life I’d worked so hard to get by having a baby. Besides, with advances in reproductive technology offering me a perceived safety net of freezing my eggs or in vitro fertilization, even when my 30s arrived, the ticking of my fertility clock was still barely audible. I just didn’t feel anywhere near ready to bring another human into the world. But inevitably, as all of my close friends started to couple up and joyfully watch their pregnancy tests turn positive, I couldn’t shake the nagging fear that something was wrong with me. Scared I might regret letting this major part of life pass me by, I went to therapy to examine why I wasn’t crazed with the need for a child.
I came to realize that an early childhood spent in the foster care system and subsequent fostering experience had left me with a fairly cynical view of family. My early role models didn’t exactly sell the idea of family as a positive life choice, so the real reason I wasn’t ready to be a mom was because I was still mothering myself — I was making up for what I had been sorely lacking as a child.
That’s not to say I don’t have a huge maternal streak. I also genuinely love kids. I’ve experienced that soul-deep ache that can grip you when you visit a friend and her new baby, an ache only soothed by the comforting weight of the newborn in your arms and their yummy, new-to-the-world smell. And yes, I’ve rushed home to sob afterwards, confused by the rush of maternal feelings mixed with ambivalence.
I researched sperm clinics in Copenhagen, Denmark. I figured I might as well go for broke by sourcing the good stuff from the home of tall men blessed with bone structure to die for.
That’s when I discovered that the brain fog, daily crying episodes, and low-level sadness I began to experience at 39 wasn’t depression, but the beginnings of early menopause. (Which, I was later shocked to discover happens to 1 in 100 women under 40.) It brought every emotion I had about motherhood into sharp focus.
With no potential father on the scene, I considered freezing my eggs, but was gently told my reserve was so low, there was hardly any point. The most brutal part was the day my periods simply stopped. There’d been no tapering off to prepare me. After years of them arriving like clockwork, it felt as if my womanhood had screeched to a cruel halt. Just as I was coming around to the idea of becoming a mother, my body betrayed me. I went to some pretty dark places during that time, which were made worse by feeling isolated from my friends. Although supportive, they couldn’t really relate to what I was going through.
Over the past few years, I’ve made peace with the fact that a biological baby won’t be a feature in my future. But as the saying goes, there are many ways to live a life, and I choose to celebrate what I do have. Part of that celebrating is nurturing the many special children in my life. I’m surrounded by some pretty amazing kids and I'm delighted to play the role of the favorite silly, fun aunt.
And what about the baby sheet and pillowcase? Although one route to motherhood has been blocked, there may still be other possibilities. Perhaps I’ll meet someone who already has children — I understand better than most that you never know what might be around the corner. So for now, I’m hanging on to those little symbols of hope.
This post was written by Rachel Roberts. For more, check out our sister site Grazia.