Can you tell the Anotherhood community little about yourself?
I have just turned 40, and I live with my husband and our two cats in South East London. I have a background in law and I started off as a criminal lawyer, I then shifted to become an Ombudsman.
I’m a bit of a workaholic and I’m very career driven. My job has been my saviour for a lot of things as I’ve been able to focus on it when times have been tough.
I have always had a bit of wanderlust. I moved to Japan on a whim in mid-2003. I suddenly decided I wanted a new career change. At the time, I was a duty solicitor, I was in and out of police station at silly hours – such as 3am in the morning, and I just started to hate it. So I saw a job advert in the back of the Times newspaper and suddenly I was quitting my job, my house and my boyfriend! But I loved it! Absolutely loved it. I was there for nearly two and half a years and I met my husband there.
Anotherhood is about turning up the volume of the voices of women who do not have children; can you tell us why you wish to share your story with Anotherhood?
I remember after my hysterectomy and cancer diagnosis, desperately trying to find some kind of positive group for women who couldn’t have kids and there just wasn’t anything. I found groups but often I would find the women in those groups to be sad and bitter. Although I have had moments of feeling like that I knew I couldn’t live my life being cross or unhappy. I hope that by reading my story, it offers support to someone going through something similar.
Can you share with us what was happening in your life when you made the decision not to have children?
I got married in 2007 and we planned to have kids. I had already had an indication that something wasn’t right my periods were really infrequent, painful and heavy when they did come.
As soon as we got married we stopped trying to not get pregnant and nothing happened. After three years had passed I remember saying in passing to my GP about it. She was very supportive, and was like “mmm that’s not right, let’s send you for some tests”. The tests came back that I had Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and the advice was pretty much, loose weight and it will be fine.
I did every diet you should do and lost weight, but still nothing was happening and then they started to talk about IVF but I was still to big. I needed to loose more weight. Then work and life got in the way and I thought I am not quiet ready for this yet, so I put the IVF on the back burner.
When I was about 32/33 my periods suddenly got horrendous. Every period I was bleeding so heavily, it was horrific. I got a referral to a consultant and they said to me it’s because of your weight and your PCOS its just one of those things. I was given medication to help me clot quicker so the periods were shorter and more ‘manageable’. I would still have days where I couldn’t leave the house or go to work. When I wasn’t having periods I was having constant light bleeding and the whole trying to make a baby thing was completely off the cards.
In summer 2014 I began to feel awful I had extreme exhaustion, my usual ten minute walk from the station to my house was like climbing Everest. I just kept thinking, “I am so unfit, I need to get fitter.” I really hated myself.
The crunch point came when I bled all over a bench during a meeting at work. It was absolute carnage, I was mortified.
I went back to my GP and said, “this is not normal, and I can’t live like this! I want to have a baby, I want to have sex, I can’t do either like this, help me.”
I was referred to a different consultant and straight away she was concerned and I was sent for an urgent biopsy. It took ages for the results to come back, like four weeks. When the results finally came back, I went to the appointment, thinking my consultant was going to say what everyone else says, ‘its because your overweight’, but she didn’t.
The reason it took so long was the first pathologist was so concerned by the result they sent it to a pathologist in Ireland who was an expert, and what came back was worst case scenario it’s cancer, but best case scenario its due to the hormones I was taking to help reduce my periods. So I was told to stop taking the drugs and have a retest.
I had a second biopsy in October and the same results came back. This kick started treatment by oncology, involving hospital stays, MRI’s, PET scans and CT scans. Numerous dyes pumped through me and lots and lots of blood tests! FUN!
When the Multi Discipline Team (MDT) reviewed all my result, they divided a room full of consultants and specialists. Half thought there was definitely cancer there they just hadn’t found it. The other half were satisfied that there wasn’t cancer because it hadn’t been found but to be on the safe side I should continue taking the hormones but at a increased dose and be re-biopsied in three months time.
I knew I couldn’t keep on taking the progesterone it was making me feel insane.
I went back to my consultant and she said “I was one of the people in that room saying I think there is cancer there they just haven’t found it yet.”
She advised me to have a hysterectomy and explained she would rather me have that finite surgery and there not be cancer then there be more delays and suddenly I’m being diagnosed with stage four cancer.
So December 11th, 2014, I had a total hysterectomy, removal of both my ovaries, cervix and fallopian tubes. The full lot!
On 22nd December 2014 they told me that they had found cancer and it was graded stage 2.
So I did have cancer so I had made the right decision. Thankfully the operation got rid of it all, and no further treatment was needed.
I did something that saved my life, and I am pleased that I did. I think I was just so relived to be feeling better, even being pushed into a surgical menopause I felt better than I had done.
Do you feel your decision to not have children, has impacted the relationship you have with your body?
I think that constant hatred of myself that constant “it’s your fault you feel so unwell it’s because you’re overweight”. Hating the way I looked because as far as everyone was concerned I was making me sick. I know I am not conventionally sized, I don’t care any more, I am like “fuck it, I survived cancer who cares what you think about me?!”
(see Claire’s instagram post below)
What has been the most challenging part of your experience of not being able to have children?
Before the surgery I was trying to get my eggs saved. The NHS refused, as my BMI was too high. A private consultant we paid explained that ‘if’ I had cancer it was linked to hormones and the last thing he wanted to do was therefore pump me full of hormones and potentially make it worse.
That was the hardest thing, and I remember crying and crying and crying, it was the one thing that nearly broke me. I was so angry that this, amongst everything else, was being taken away from me. It still makes me upset now, five years on.
In one way the choice being taken away about getting pregnant meant I could grieve quicker. I could move on from that hope, in that you know, every time your period is late, or every time you have sex, you know, its maybe like this time, maybe this time, now that’s physically impossible.
Me and my husband had always spoken about adoption, that was something that kept coming back around and I am sure you know, its always the knee jerk reaction from everyone “you can adopt, what about adoption?” yeah because adoption is literally like this stork flying in and dropping a baby in our lap, its that easy.
We did try and adopt and my weight was the slammer again. It boiled down to 2 things about my weight; one; I might die, but two: their biggest concern was that I might raise my child to be fat.
People ask have you tried adopting again, and I think, try having your heart broken twice and then tell me if you would go back for a third time?
Also when you get sent a sonogram or you get that dreaded text saying “hi we’ve got news” it’s like being punched in the face.
I know its grief, I lost my Dad when I was nine and I recognise it as the same. I always describe grief to be like treading water. When it first happens you will be treading water and the waves keep coming and coming and keep washing you under and then you eventually you get stronger and you get ready to anticipate those waves. You cope with them better but, then once in a while you will get side-lined by a massive wave, and you’re like “where the bloody hell did that come from?” and you’re back to square one where you are scrabbling.
As well as the challenges you have experienced, I wonder can you share any positive aspects of choosing not to have children?
In some perverse way, having that hope taken away is really freeing! I’ve learned to listen to my body. It was telling me that there was something wrong and it saved me. That completely changed the way I think about my body. To not hate myself when I look in the mirror but to love that my body and me fought this together and right now we are WINNING.
Travelling has really helped, my husband and I like a bit of adventure and we like heading off to places. It’s likely if we had had a child, we probably wouldn’t be able to do these things.
We are learning to embrace that we are double income no kids (D.I.N.Ks) and really enjoy that.
Last year we had four amazing holidays included a roadtrip down the east coast of American for nearly four weeks! I also did my masters last year, worked full time and completed it because I had the time.
If you could change one thing about how choosing not to have children is viewed, what would you wish to change?
Society, that you’re only valued as a woman if you have a baby.
Anotherhood is about connecting women with shared experiences, I wonder can you share anything that you have found that has helped you to embrace your life, your body, and your infertility?
There is a saying in Japanese philosophy “you make the best life of the life you are given.”
I remember being invited to an event by a Japanese friend and speaking to an older Japanese lady in her 60’s or 70’s she said“there is no guarantee if you have children they will be there for you in old age. There is no guarantee they will even like you or you will like them, don’t fear getting old without children.” It was a resonating conversation; you will have a good life, which I think is an important message to tell people.
I personally think it’s important to have a happy place. If, anyone asks me my happy places, one is a temple on Kyoto and another one is on the shores of Loch Eck up near Dunoon. They are the two places in the world if I ever want some peace or soul searching. They are where I mentally go if I am trying to sleep at night.
Going and getting good quality therapy, by that I mean finding a therapist that understands you.
Are there any podcasts, books or anything you might recommend that has helped you, lifted your spirit?
Randomly the book, The Lido, by Libby Page. One of the main characters is a widow who wasn’t able to have children but the bond she makes with a young journalist whilst trying to save a local lido (open air swimming pool). It gave me hope – that even if I lose my husband I can still find love and support.
Interview by Laura