A Line in the Sand(ys)
Hear us talk in more depth about our childless journey on Episode #003.
I’m Claire Sandys, co-host of The Silent Why podcast, wife to Chris since 2005, and happily situated in England, just down the road from the beautiful Cotswolds.
In 2021 I turned forty years old and true to midlife-crisis form, I did something drastic and decided not to get another full-time job, to finish writing my first novel, and start a podcast (you can read more about that specifically on the Support page). It took a while to nail down the subject of our podcast but in the end we settled on something we felt we'd faced a lot, and something I found fascinating to explore - loss.
So to give you some background on who we are and our experiences with loss, I thought at least one of my early blog posts should tell you a bit about the story of Chris & Claire.
Our first big loss as a couple was a financial one. We had been living in a mobile home and renovating an 1800's stone lodge house, that we acquired cheaply, to sell and get us on the property ladder. Unfortunately we put it up for sale mere months before the UK property market crashed, and waved goodbye to £90,000 profit and hello to £5,000 instead. Ending up in rented accommodation to start all over again.
Then, after navigating the inevitable loss of grandparents and well-loved role models, the next step in life was to see if we could start a family. The unexpected twist on this journey happened in 2010 when my husband discovered on a phone call with his brother (who was training in medicine) that an operation he'd had as child was likely to have left him infertile. So, we got some tests done and it was confirmed – we had a 5% chance of conceiving naturally.
We found ourselves in front of an IVF specialist discussing ICSI (Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection) - the start of a lot of conversations involving words like sperm. We both remember leaving the room with a strong gut-feeling that IVF didn’t feel like the path for us, which was the start of a very confusing journey with infertility.
The next five years were a rollercoaster of decisions, thoughts, tears, smiles and frustration, while also waiting to see if a pregnancy would happen naturally - after all, the consultant had said 'it only takes one'.
We didn’t give up on the idea of children, and met with couples who had adopted and fostered, we heard about embryo adoption, egg donation, sperm donation, surrogacy and natural IVF. In the end we decided to have six months to consider all options, and, being Christians, we also asked a select few (who were already praying for us) to specifically pray as we mulled it all over and kept trying naturally. Technically, it wasn’t impossible for us to get pregnant, so it seemed like a good plan. Sadly, none of these options resulted in a path we felt we could move forward with, and there was no pregnancy.
Plus we discovered new pains along the way. There’s a sort of expectation, or maybe even hope, that if you don’t have children you get other perks; free time, holidays, money, peace and fun. Unfortunately, this wasn’t shaping up to be our experience, and I found it's a common error to mistake quiet for peace, free time for relaxation, or money for happiness.
Then we lost our beloved dog prematurely to cancer, 24 hours before we moved house and within days of me starting a new job. Finding ourselves in a new house, with no furry companion and a new job for me, I don't think we fully processed the toll this took on us at the time.
Unfortunately at this point my health felt like it dropped off a cliff and I was struggling to even eat normally - my digestive system taking the brunt of the stress and anxiety without me even knowing it was happening (a few years later, we’d find out it was an unfortunate combination of endometriosis, a B12 deficiency, IBS and a condition called PMDD - plus all the stressy stuff going on).
But there was another silent contributor in the background that I'd never factored in - loss.
As our friends increasingly had children and settled into family life, we were preparing to write-off our thirties as a time of loss, grief and disappointment. Isolated in our circumstances and fighting hard daily to keep the small scraps of peace we had in our decisions.
Looking back I realise now that the hardest part was carrying the unfelt grief of losing something we’d never had. Without a negative pregnancy test or miscarriage, there was nothing tangible to grieve. And it's annoyingly confusing. Throw in the perceived expectations of others and the joy you knew you could bring them by compromising on your gut feelings and pursing a path to a child - and you have a recipe for IBS right there. Or obesity. It goes one way or the other.
Then in November 2015, we saw the consultant one last time to consider IVF. We left knowing the three months we had to think about it (before you have to redo all your tests and start again) were the last – it was now or never. We couldn't carry this decision any longer, and there is only a finite timescale for IVF on the NHS.
In January 2016, still lost in our decisions, we heard of a conference starting near us - The Rhythm of Hope, for couples facing infertility. We attended and found being in a room with sixty other people, all facing similar circumstances, empowering. We came home and listed all our options for having a family, then individually, we marked them out of five for our preference to pursue them. Our scores were opposite ends of the scale on everything.
Not wanting to move forward without being in complete agreement, we decided life ‘as a two’ wasn’t so bad. If this was the worst-case scenario (and there were people going through much worse), then we’d be okay. Our priority was always our marriage, we didn't want to follow the path of those that had sacrificed this in their desperation to have a child.
We decided to give ourselves a year of not pursuing anything or making decisions – just live life, take off the pressure and give ourselves a break. It was releasing.
But as another year, and another conference, came around, we were once again faced with – what now? Are we enough as a two?
In January 2018, back at the conference again, we were chatting to an older couple ahead of us on this journey. They had been through many rounds of failed IVF and adoption attempts and were now at peace with ‘just being a two’. We were talking about how heavy and confusing hope can be when you don’t know which way your life is going to go. Then they asked us something that brought up face-to-face with where we really were.
“Have you drawn a line in the sand?”
In other words, have you decided enough is enough with treatments, options and trying to make it happen?
“Because you can’t move forward before you do that.”
It was exactly what we needed to hear, and I knew it was what we needed to do to. My heart was torn but this path just felt like what I needed. Chris took some time to also think it over and then we agreed. It was time.
We had a holiday booked in Lanzarote in March, so we decided this is where we’d do it–somewhere hot and sunny, on a real beach.
So, at lunchtime on the last Friday, we went and sat on the sand on an empty beach.
We wrote a list of everything we were letting go of by not having children, then we wrote some things that awaited us on the other side of deciding to move forward as a two. We cried, we prayed, then we drew a literal line in the sand and, with two large half naked people watching in the distance, we stepped over the line.
There were no fireworks, amazing confirmations or whales jumping out of the sea afterwards. And, if we’re honest, it felt like nothing changed. However, the day-to-day stress of wondering about what we were going to do slowly faded, and we felt free to move forward planning our life and what we wanted it to look like, rather than accepting it as a backup-plan and resenting it for what it isn’t.
We really thought that in the words of Carrie from Sex in the City: ‘We’re adults without children; we have the luxury to design our lives the way we want.’
When we got home, we bought a chameleon for a new pet/hobby, and we booked a three-week holiday to tour California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada. Something we’d put off for about ten years in case the family thing happened.
And for Chris' 40th, we went to Iceland to find the northern lights (which we did!).
We decided to start living the life we had – no apologies for it.
(I won't mention that recently I dropped the hard drive with all the photos of these holidays on and they were unrecoverable, or that the chameleon prematurely died in 2020... I'll save those for another loss episode on the podcast!)
In November 2019, we reached our final option, and hopefully, solution to my hormone condition, and after years of many treatments and medications, I had a Total Hysterectomy.
Of course, there’s some processing involved when you know that a biological family is now definitely off the table forever, but this would have been a much bigger decision if we hadn’t already crossed our line in the sand. We wouldn’t have wanted this surgery to be what made the decision for us, and we’re grateful it didn’t. And yet again there were more losses to consider and recognise.
(Looking back, my hormone condition might have made IVF an unbearable journey for us – sometimes, you never know what you are saved from when you follow a gut feeling. We find that the important thing isn’t what route you choose–it’s that you are strong and together on it.)
Then of course, there was Covid-19, which brought losses for everyone in many different shapes and sizes.
Life isn’t a breeze for us, even now, and there will always be reminders of what we don’t have. Our friends will keep having children, they'll have grandchildren, they'll reach milestones that make our hearts ache, my hormones are still not sorted as I battle menopause and HRT levels.
And it's a big but (snigger).
We’ve found, you can choose to be the victim or the victor in your situation. Yes, it’s easier to be the victim. Society will even encourage you at times. But we only get one life, and we don’t want it to be one that’s pitied by others, but one that’s admired.
It’s a hard balance, sharing the pain and showing strength in it. People think if you didn’t do everything you could (i.e. IVF or adoption), then you just didn’t want children as much as those that do. That’s not true. The depth of desire isn't any greater because you let it get to desperation, or pushed everything/everyone else aside to get to what you want.
And sometimes beginnings are naughty and disguise themselves as endings. We thought our ‘line in the sand’ was the end of our pain and confusion, but it was actually the start of the loss and the grief.
We’re learning every day to define our own lives and not let the opinions of others steer our emotions and feelings. A good tester for us is when we’re on holiday just the two of us – how do we feel then, without all the distractions and cultural pressures? If we’re at peace and feel strong about our decisions, then they’re the right ones. We don’t make decisions or let ourselves be guided by emotions or how we feel around new babies, friends being parents, Mother’s Day, grandchildren, family gatherings – they’re not the reality of our situation. They’re just our painful bits, and everyone has those.
Here's a passage from the end of a blog I wrote for a childless blog just after my hysterectomy in November 2019...
"We have high hopes for 2020. Not only does it look like a cool number and mean perfect vision, but there are a lot of reasons for us to have hope.
I’m hopeful I’ll be fit and ready to work full-time again in February 2020 (which I haven’t been able to do for a few years). And we’re looking forward to new adventures in work, home, travel, and marriage.
We want to share our home with anyone, of any age, that wants to come and enjoy the relaxed, quiet environment we can offer.
We want to enjoy new hobbies and recently got a Panther Chameleon.
My husband finally loves his job, and we’re settled in a lovely house with four bedrooms, which we’ve turned into rooms for us like writing (I’m trying to finish my first fiction novel to fulfil a dream), reading times, press ups (husband!) and having guests."
As you can imagine, with Coronavirus arriving, pretty much everything there was suddenly impossible. Then the flippin' chameleon died!
But we did decide to start a podcast, and that's how you got to be reading this, and we're so glad you're here with us.
We want to find others going through loss, who are also spending time digging in the dirt looking for diamonds. Maybe we can all share our gems together, and make something beautiful.
That reminds me, check out our 'What's Your Herman?' short podcast episode to find out more about how we're getting all our guests to share their gems with you.
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. — Oscar Wilde
And boy I do love the stars.