On a plane heading to the United States, I settle on a film called By The Sea. Angelina Jolie plays the lead female and I find her loveliness astonishing, even in a world where we are constantly assailed by manufactured beauty. I know nothing about the content of the film. I choose to watch it simply because I like Jolie.
But then unexpectedly, as it unfolds before me, I see it is about the effects of childlessness, and at one point, when the male protagonist, played by Brad Pitt, hurls the word ‘barren’ at his wife, I find myself flinching in my tightly packed, airless world.
My husband, Alan, is beside me; he smiles at me. I feel soothed. But the word ‘barren’ lingers in my head like the sting of a slap. I have a fleeting image of a woman beaten by her neighbours, even her family, with sticks, with fists, cast out of her home and village.
Lorna Gibb, 53, (pictured with her husband Alan, 50) from Hertfordshire revealed how she and her husband have grown in solidarity since she was diagnosed with infertility
I know I am fortunate. I am a successful lecturer and writer. Alan is an accountant. We live in a lovely house in Hertfordshire. But oh, how I hate this word, barren. I am thankful I have never been called it in anger.
I am 53 now. Alan is 50. We have been together more than 18 years. When I was still getting used to my diagnosis of infertility, I was determined not to let it get in the way of daily interaction, so I cultivated a polite expression of sadness when asked about my own children, my own births.
I was content to listen to other women’s accounts of their maternity experience and less willing to speak about what I still saw as my own failing. I made it clear from my demeanour that it was not by choice, but from necessity.
Is it better to be an object of pity than of unkind presumptions? I don’t know the answer. I do know that I got very tired at one point of people saying how sorry for me they were, how awful it must be.
With friends, with people who cared, it was comforting, but the state of childlessness was a public one that made passengers making casual conversation on trains, distant family I hadn’t seen for years, new acquaintances at social events, and once even a new boss at our very first meeting, ask without hesitation: ‘So, you don’t have children — is it by choice?’
No, it wasn’t; it isn’t. But to reply and say so would herald one of two things: a well-meant, but intrusive, inquiry into my medical state, or, on more than one occasion, the casual: ‘Did you leave it too late, then?’ It’s impossible to say which I grew to resent more.
If I replied ‘by choice’ — and I confess to having done so when I really couldn’t face another dissection of my medical history — there was a whole other set of responses, some fine, some as upsetting as recounting the history of my condition.
Lorna (pictured) and Alan decided early in their relationship that they wanted children, however when they began trying for kids she was diagnosed with endometriosis
A common one, especially in the working-class area I come from, was to say: ‘A career woman, then,’ and to hint that I must be disappointing my parents.
In other circles, where people pride themselves on their liberal attitudes and progressiveness, I’d be told: ‘Well, it’s not too late to change your mind, not with all the treatments available now. Sebastian [or Chloe or Portia] has brought us such joy.’
By MY 40s, I had armed myself with appropriate answers, bluntly challenging the appropriateness of the question. Yet through these petty exchanges, I grew to realise that childlessness still carries a stigma.
Alan is childless because I am. Yet when we met, the intention to have children was something we agreed on from the very beginning.
It’s a difficult thing, that navigation in the early days of a relationship. Mentioning children hints at a commitment that one or both of you may not feel ready for.
Avoiding it until your future together seems irrevocable can lead to a lifetime of regret, of unspoken blame, of disappointment, resentment.
We were lucky — if, in retrospect, you can call it that. The subject of children came up a few months after we started seeing each other, in the guarded way that must be typical among many couples — if you settle down one day, will you have children?
It was an easy question for both of us; we both said yes, and that was that. Or not. I wasn’t a good bet — I even said something like that to Alan in those early days, when my endometriosis had not been diagnosed but I suffered excruciating period pain.
A surgeon told Lorna that her case of endometriosis was one of the worst he had seen his 20-odd years of surgery (file image)
On our second date, I passed out after a pub lunch and came round to see him beside me, looking worried, but embroiled in an argument with someone who had sneered that it was disgusting to see someone so drunk this early in the day.
Actually, I hadn’t drunk any alcohol at all; I was taking strong painkillers, which precluded it. In the battle between my oozing, battered body and the medication, the former had won a brief victory and the shock of the pain — something even now I cringe to recall — had sent me into unconsciousness.
My GP’s explanation was that some women have painful periods; take some pills. Only when we started to try to have a child did a battery of tests show I had endometriosis, which causes inner bleeding.
Endometriosis is common enough, you learn, once you know what it is, but occurs with widely varying degrees of severity. Mine was severe but, in my stubbornness, I adamantly refused to have a hysterectomy. That would end even the possibility of hope, even if it did bring respite from the pain.
Instead there were surgeries. And through them all, caring for me, was Alan, calling from work every other hour to see how I was. Amid it all, we found a camaraderie — it was us against it, whatever the outcome.
Ultimately, aged 38, after yet more surgery, a surgeon came round to the side of my bed and stood beside Alan. ‘It’s not good news, I’m afraid. It’s probably one of the worst cases of endometriosis I’ve seen in 20-odd years of surgery. The damage is extensive. I’ve done my best, but I don’t think it will be enough.’
Lorna (pictured right with Alan) had early menopause that put an end to the pain caused by endometriosis
In my early 40s, my periods stopped. A sympathetic doctor spoke to me about the menopause, gently, I think, expecting tears. I already knew I couldn’t have children; all I felt at this new revelation was relief.
But pain has memories. I can’t walk down the street near our old house without thinking of the cab that brought us home after one of my operations. How the speed bumps, every one of them, made me cry out, and how Alan held me, asking the driver again and again to try to be as gentle as he could.
When early menopause finally brought an end to all that pain, Alan and I agreed that we were indeed fortunate. Occasionally, we would share our sadness that we didn’t have children, but much less so than we had done when we had waged our war against my body.
We travelled — because we could.
I was doing contract work lecturing and writing during the worst years of my illness, because it was easier to manage a few hours a day. Now, post-menopause, post-pain, I took on more and more work and eventually got a permanent job teaching at a university again.
We moved around a lot — in one five-year period we lived in three countries and worked in four — and by the time we returned home to London, it was as if we were taking up a different life. Yes, it was one without children, and we had taken time to adjust to that, but it was also a freer one.
Lorna (pictured) who is an only child, revealed she sometimes thinks about the daughter she and Alan couldn’t make together
The residual sadness still affects us in waves. I am an only child, so the legacy of my parents’ long and happy marriage ends here, with me. I have no sisters or brothers. So all of this — the thin, unbroken thread of history, the narrative of my parents and of me — is final.
Some days, I think about a child who loves books, about cascading red hair, a horse rider, who can sing and dance, like my mother still does even at her late age.
Sometimes I think I see her — an unborn girl, turning and skipping, restless gracefulness, just out of reach somehow, our never daughter, the one Alan and I could not make together and never will.
Having children is something that defines us and perpetuates humankind. The title of parent means you are assumed to have a publicly acknowledged responsibility and desire to care about the future. You must protect and preserve the world, for your children. Your concern is universally regarded as being beyond that of your own lifetime. If we have loved our parents, having children is a way of ensuring that a part of them lives.
A child can be a way of creating something with someone we love, and of making sure the beloved’s features or personality, or at least some vestige of them, will remain in the world after he or she is gone.
A son or a daughter can be someone to whom you can bequeath all you have worked for, someone to care for you in your old age, someone to bring you, in their turn, children, so that the continuity of your family seems like a surety.
Lorna and Alan have spent time travelling since her diagnoses, she recalls revisiting where they married and remembering their hope for the future
In some parts of the world, having a child marks you as an adult. Without the ability to procreate, you remain a child yourself, limited in choice and freedom by the society that is threatened by your state.
On a trip to Loch Awe and Oban in Scotland, more than a decade after we had come to terms with our state, Alan and I found ourselves in the grey, swirling sea mists of December, looking across from Oban Bay to Kerrera and Lismore.
It had been a short break brimful of nostalgia — this was where we married all those years ago.
There were thoughts of two friends, wedding guests, both lost to us far too soon, and of my dad, whose ashes we had scattered across different parts of this expanse of constantly changing, addictive land, which he had loved, as I now do.
We had had such hope then, in that newly married future, which we had thought began so well, with the simplest of blessings and fair weather.
Implicit was always the idea that we would have children and bring them to this place we thought of as ours.
Yet here we were, on a drabber day, at the close of a year, at a much later stage in our lives, knowing we would have no one to bring, to show, to say: ‘Look at this, this piece of shingle beach is where your dad proposed to me with two plastic glasses and a bottle of cava.’
We would never share the delight of the surprise of it, or the joy, or the way we had always, always agreed that, of course, there would be children, and then there was you.
Lorna (pictured) says she’s lucky to have three godchildren, and no longer wishes that things had been different
My parents’ happy marriage and the myriad, countless bequests to me — from red hair to impatience, cleverness and acts of simple good manners — end with me.
Yet, with time, there are also moments of quiet relief. By finding joy in the life I have, I am freed from the prison of ‘what if’, and realise this moment, this time, is precious too and would not have happened if it had all come out differently.
I am lucky. I have three beloved godchildren. These small mercies, quiet pleasures, honours bestowed, are all such precious offerings that I can no longer wish that things had been different.
We lived in Liguria, in Italy, for three years, and one of my most powerful recollections is of the doctor and two nurses — all women — who kindly, spontaneously, gathered round me in an awkward group hug after looking at a scan of my damaged insides, because they thought it must be awful to know I would never have a child.
Their empathy was moving, but also strengthening, because I was being embraced, not rejected.
That’s how it was for me with Alan, too.
Our solidarity in the face of shared adversity gave me potency because there was always somewhere I belonged, and that place was our relationship. Robert Frost ends his poem Hyla Brook with the line: ‘We love the things we love for what they are.’
I believe even my brokenness was loved because it was part of me. When I look at Alan, every day, even after the occasional argument, I can never forget the steadfast kindness, the loyalty, the love, that brought us both through all of this.
Extracted from Childless Voices: Stories Of Longing, Loss, Resistance And Choice by Lorna Gibb (Granta, £9.99) is out now.
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How our childless marriage forged an extraordinary love: She longed for children, yet never became a mother, but in a haunting testimony, LORNA GIBB reveals the sadness she shared with her husband brought them even closer have 2601 words, post on www.dailymail.co.uk at February 24, 2019. This is cached page on ReZone. If you want remove this page, please contact us.