21 Miles: Reconciling Grief, Love and Fear

21 Miles not only held my attention (no small feat in today’s distraction-addled environment), it fed my heart and nurtured my soul.

21 Miles recounts the story of Jessica Hepburn‘s valiant efforts to both swim the English Channel and answer whether “motherhood makes you happy” or whether “you can have a fulfilling life without children.” Blog readers may recall Jessica’s first book and her 11 rounds of failed IVF.

She and Mother Nature battled it out on procreation but Jessica didn’t come away with the 0utcome she’d tried so hard to achieve. As those of us who have been in that same arena know, there’s a huge void as you try to piece your life back together in the aftermath of failed IVF. There’s no easy transition. The emotional gymnastics and lack of social construct present their own exhausting ‘what now’ matrix. Eager to prove she could achieve something against the odds, she set her sights on the English Channel.

Keen to avoid two different kinds of failure — physical and personal — Jessica enlists the help of swimmers. She also extends invitations to 21 inspirational women to discuss their lives. During these ‘eat and meets’ Jessica gains needed weight to stay warm in the cold water. She not only fuels her swim sessions, she feeds her heart and soul.

My ~21 Reasons to Procrastinate

It took me more than a little while to crack the book’s spine.  The package arrived in early May, but it ended up in the garage with a pile of other parcels and packages.  I had every intention to open it, however, I was slogging through a dizzying array of checklists, changes and disruption. Our house, you see, had been under construction for a year while we inhabited it.

This meant every day presented a unique set of challenges. Was there water to flush the toilet? Was the electrician interrupting, again, to deactivate our  temporary home office?

A shoe or a fork or even a clean towel? This often involved a protracted scavenger hunt through an ever-changing maze of boxes and locations.

Beyond that, I’d also engaged in a year of reliving grief — packing away old memories and letting go, once again, the family dreams associated with our former home.

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Apart from those practical and emotional challenges, my other reading reservations:

  • Once a bonafide book worm, book reading in recent years lost its magic. Where once a wondrous escape, books now require a hard-to-keep time commitment
  • Worries about whether I could enthusiastically read yet another book centered around failed IVF (been there, done that — more than a few times — what more could I learn?)
  • Swim training as a subject holds about as much interest for me as watching paint dry … but perhaps most importantly …
  • Was I prepared to hear women opine about motherhood (a topic that more often than not rankled me. I mean really, really rankled me — as in enough already)

Musings on Motherhood Obsession

I put the motherhood vs. non-motherhood question (and society’s often myopic worship of all things mother) to bed years ago. My musings on separating myself from the ‘motherhood expectation’ were complex. Very often, a bit tortured. You can find a sampling of  expanded thoughts in these posts:

Furthermore, I anticipated her story would resurrect a few ghosts. (It did … hello, ghosts.) So, in short, I needed to be in a good space before diving into Jessica’s 21 Miles.

How 21 Miles Surprised on the Upside

Rather than be bored with the swimming portion, I found Jessica’s writing about her training relatable and enjoyable.  I’ve never particularly liked swimming (aside from a back float or side stroke on a hot day in a cool fresh lake). Apparently neither does Jessica. This makes her time in and around the water a great metaphor. Who among us relishes the hard work needed to assimilate the dark, cold, and unpredictable experiences life throws our way?

“Nothing great is easy.” Matthew Webb, first to swim the English Channel

Fair warning: you will cry a bit with Jessica. I also felt my grief resurface as her story unfolds.

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Collective Experience

The women who agreed to meet Jessica and discuss her questions ran the gamut. Some were mothers. Some were childless by circumstance. Some were childfree by choice.  Refreshingly, few fit the usual associated stereotypes. Some were more relatable than others. But, not for the reasons you might expect.

Conversations about motherhood, fulfillment and meaningful lives can be fraught with danger. Particularly so when it involves those who completely miss or downplay the complex grief that accompanies failed IVF. I was relieved to hear compassion and sensitivity across the range of voices. Here is a small sampling of conversation snippets:

Divorce attorney Fiona Shackleton, also a mother, shared this candid assessment.

“There’s something about IVF, the indignity of it, the mechanical sexual relationship, the actuation of blame. It’s incredibly stressful.”

Well said.

Successful scientist Susan Greenfield, Jessica writes, has “felt the stigma of not being a mother even if she has not felt the pain.”

 “It saddens me,” Greenfield said, “that some women are pressurised culturally to feel that they need to have a child. And that many women who don’t or can’t are regarded as objects of pity and feel they have to justify it in some way because somehow it’s unnatural or abnormal.” … “Whenever I meet another woman who hasn’t had children I still feel like I have to say, ‘Neither do I’ as if somehow it’s important to share our difference.”

Documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto made me laugh aloud with this observation:

“I hate the mummy voice.” This came when she learned from Jessica there is a website called Mumsnet. “Mumsnet,” Longinotto added, “Even the name makes me feel ill.”

Not what I expected from a mother. Later in their conversation, Jessica asks her about happiness. Longinotto answers:.

“Being with people you love, and having a really good laugh. The best times I’ve had have been outside with friends … you find happiness through the people you choose and the people you love.”

Ballerina Debra Bull added a new family dimension insight: the ‘upwards family’ being one half of the parent-child relationship. She tells Jessica:

“When I’m asked about not having children, I talk about my upwards family because I think there’s a sort of feeling sometimes, ‘oh you wouldn’t understand, you’re outside the club’ and I think: ‘No, I do. I do understand. I have been one half of the parent-child relationship…so don’t say I don’t understand, because I sort of do…”

Jody Day, who has gone on to shape the lives of many through Gateway Women along with her advocacy and writing, shared another moving insight.

“You only grieve what you have loved. I loved my children. I just didn’t meet them.”

Gift Words

Jessica asked each interviewee to give her a word that she could take on her swim across the Channel.  She wanted inspiration and to keep her mind occupied for the long time in the water.  One of my favorite word gifts was ‘ruth.” Like Jessica, I didn’t realize it was a word unto itself and refers to compassion.  I only knew its antonym, ruthless. Ruth, she writes, derives from the story of Ruth and Noami in the Old Testament. Tears stung my eyes as I read of Ruth’s profound compassion and loyalty to Naomi following the loss of Naomi’s sons.

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Put 21 Miles on Your Reading List

During the course of a deliciously quiet week I set aside a few blocks of time. Once I got over my own fears and reservations, I devoured 21 Miles. I encourage you to do the same. Maybe you’ll pour a glass of wine and grab some nibbles to join in the ‘eat and meets.’

I finished 21 Miles this morning (sans wine) over breakfast. Jessica’s moving and well-told story was rewarding on many levels.  She is a natural storyteller and a keen observer of human experience, and the importance of connection and expression. Jessica explains it this way:

“If you can’t get [connection] ready-made by having your own children you need to create it in different ways…

“Every single person in this world seems to have something that makes them terribly sad. And life is about making the best of your sad thing.”

21 Miles made me realize just how far I’d swam in my own search for connection, understanding and healing.