Elizabeth Day is right: Accepting you might not become a mother can feel ‘amazing’

Author and broadcaster Elizabeth Day has spoken about her fertility journey (PA)
Author and broadcaster Elizabeth Day has spoken about her fertility journey (PA)

It’s a curious thing, scrolling through the dating app profiles of heterosexual men in their mid-forties. I only noticed it this time around the singles circuit, perhaps as a consequence of being older myself: the number of them who have written “not sure yet” next to the question of whether they want children.

I laughed out loud the first time I saw this. Imagine the luxury of being “not sure yet” at the age of 45! Imagine going through life without having to give it much thought or make a decision, because time was forever on your side…

It’s one of the fundamental remaining gender differences, for all that we’re continuing the fight to break down stereotypes and challenge accepted and often limiting norms. Women are told from the off that we have an expiration date – a time frame in which to achieve life’s biggest purpose. Men are not.

If we don’t attain the goal of motherhood within that window, we’re forced to confront and accept that script-change head-on. “There was a time when it was so upsetting I couldn’t really talk without crying,” bestselling author Elizabeth Day said of her fertility struggles in a recent interview with The Times. “It was horrible.”

The 45-year-old, who also presents the popular podcast How to Fail, was describing how she has finally made peace with the fact she doesn’t have children, after a “soul-crushing” 12-year journey that included failed rounds of IVF, miscarriages, divorce and constant disappointment. Having always imagined what her Hallmark movie-style life with perfect kids would look like, she started picturing “other stories that exist in this ecosystem, where actually I’m an older mother and things don’t turn out as planned. I found it helpful thinking with constructive pessimism about what it might be like for us to get the baby, but for it to feel not what we wanted it to. I experimented with the idea of giving myself permission not to do more fertility treatment. How would that feel in my body? And it felt amazing.”

Day has gone from believing her purpose on this planet is being a mother, to realising that her bigger purpose is “to speak for those who are not mothers or fathers, often not by choice”.

“That gives my life meaning, and that’s the thing I was worried I wouldn’t have,” she added. “The fact that I can talk about it without crying shows me that I’m in the right place.”

The question of whether to become a mother weighs heavily for many women (Getty)
The question of whether to become a mother weighs heavily for many women (Getty)

It’s a feeling I can deeply relate to. I don’t share Day’s story – at 36, and with no known fertility issues thus far, I’m not completely out of the running when it comes to motherhood – but I do know all too well the creeping realisation that the life you blindly assumed you’d have might not happen.

I always took it as a given that I would have kids. Was it because I’d always wanted them? Had thought about it maturely and responsibly and decided having a family was a priority? Had started feeling my womb skip a beat every time I inhaled the talcum-fresh scent of a baby’s head? Nope. Very much none of the above. I had instead accepted my future path based on the compelling argument that “it’s what people did” – and, in this regard, I was largely correct. My millennial friends and peers started popping them out from our late twenties onwards, and I never even considered a possible alternative. It seemed less of a choice than an inevitability.

It was only after my own long-term relationship resulted in a breakup rather than a walk down the aisle that I was forced to interrogate this long-held assumption, and whether motherhood was even something I particularly wanted. “You’re running out of time!” screamed popular culture, from the “tick-tock, tick-tock” of the smug marrieds in Bridget Jones’s Diary to the sharp-suited, big-city career women in romcoms who were only truly happy once they’d returned to their small town to fall in love with a local blacksmith and bear his children.

I thought about the question of ‘to baby or not to baby’ constantly, like a fertility-mad Hamlet

I remember an older friend telling me, with a sense of urgency, that I should proactively start planning: freeze my eggs; only date men who were seriously ready for marriage and a family. I thought about the question of “to baby or not to baby” constantly, like a fertility-mad Hamlet. It coloured the lens through which I viewed every facet of my life and relationships. So I stormed off in the other direction: I decided it wasn’t for me, that I hated kids and always had done, that I loved my child-free life and wanted nothing to change. Looking back, I now see this was a way of feeling in control of something I was patently not in control of – a means of swiftly reclaiming power. I was back in the driving seat: take that, universe!

But my hardline on the subject led to the breakdown of the best relationship I’d ever had. Once again, I was forced by pain to do the internal soul-searching that falls to women wrestling with the question of whether motherhood will be part of their story.

These days, I have made the toughest choice of all: to embrace uncertainty. There is no “destined” future. Nor can I live my life as if the decision were a guillotine hanging over my head. If I meet the right kind of person at the right kind of time, and everything works physically, who knows? I might have children. If I don’t, then I won’t. But I’m bizarrely grateful for the constraints of being a woman that mean I’ve had to work through my preconceived notions and rash retaliations to arrive at the place I’m in now. If the biological clock imperative often forces women to be more intentional in the way we shape our lives, it also prompts us to allow space for deep introspection and self-reflection. I truly believe reaching a place of acceptance – that the myth society told me about what my life “should” look like simply isn’t true – is one of the most liberating experiences a person can have.

I suppose I’m just as guilty of writing “not sure yet” next to the baby question now. But, for me, that “not sure yet” feels like a hard-won badge of honour – proof that I’ve finally come out the other side and surrendered to whatever the future has in store. Over to you, universe.