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, but to finish writing my first novel, and start a podcast instead (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 (Chris, myself and our new puppy addition - Buzz the Weimaraner) had been living in a mobile home and renovating an 1800's stone lodge house (that we acquired very 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 we waved goodbye to £90,000 profit and hello to £5,000 instead. This ended with us in rented accommodation (and not a very nice one), having to start all over again in a completely new county because Chris' job had moved south.
Then, while navigating the gradual 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. This was a few months after we'd started trying and so we immediately 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 IVF (Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection) - the start of a lot of conversations involving the word 'sperm'. We both remember leaving that room with a strong, gut-feeling that IVF didn’t feel like the path for us, which was the start of a very confusing and complicated 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'.
There were other big losses along the way with more funerals, my brother (a young father) battling a nasty cancer (which turned my family upside down), and the loss of our rescue rabbit, Alan (who we'd had for a year).
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.
Then, 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 we realised it's an easy mistake to confuse quiet with peace, free time with relaxation, or money with happiness.
Then we lost our beloved dog, Buzz, prematurely to cancer. This happened just 48 hours before we moved house, and within days of me starting a new job.
Looking back, finding ourselves in a new house, now just a 'two' with Buzz, and me being in a new job - I don't think we fully processed or realised the toll this took on us.
Unfortunately, at this point my health took a nosedive and I started struggling to even eat normally, my digestive system taking the brunt of the stress and anxiety (without me even realising that's what was going on). A few years later we’d find out it was an unfortunate combination of endometriosis, a B12 deficiency, IBS, and a severe hormone sensitivity condition called PMDD (Premenstrual dysphoric disorder).
But there was another silent contributor that I hadn't spotted in the background - loss.
As our friends increasingly had children and settled into family life, we were preparing to write-off our thirties as a time of severe disappointment, isolated in our circumstances and fighting hard daily to keep the small scraps of peace we had in our decisions.
As I look back I realise 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 make us grieve. A very confusing experience. Throw in the perceived expectations of others and the joy you knew you could bring them by compromising on your decisions and pursing any path to get a child - and you have a recipe for IBS and many other stress induced illnesses.
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.
In January 2016, still lost, 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’ was also an option, and if this was the 'worst-case scenario' (and there were people going through much worse), then we could manage that. 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 thoroughly releasing.
But as the years went by, and the conference came around each time, we were continually faced with – what now? Are we enough as a two?
In January 2018, back at the conference, we were chatting to a couple ahead of us on this journey (they had been through IVF and adoption attempts and were now at peace with ‘being a two’. In fact, we interviewed the husband in 2022 - Loss 40 of 101: about Loss of dreams with Sheridan Voysey). We spoke 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 we needed, and there was a weird, sad peace in it.
We took some time to think it over and then agreed. It was time.
We had a holiday to Lanzarote booked in March that year, so we decided this is where we’d do it – somewhere hot and sunny, on a real beach, in real sand.
So, at lunchtime on the last Friday, I dragged myself out of bed (I'd gotten ill with a fluey-cold thing!) and we went and sat on the empty beach on the sand.
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.
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 - wait for the fancy term for it - Total Abdominal Hysterectomy with Bilateral Salpingo-Oophorectomy.
Of course, there’s some processing involved when you know that a biological family is now definitely off the table forever, but as this would have been a much bigger decision if we hadn’t already crossed our line in the sand, we were grateful for the timing of it. We wouldn’t have wanted this surgery to be what made the decision for us regarding children. And yet again there were more losses to consider and recognise, and it would take me a long time (maybe I'm still there) to process that not only would I never be pregnant, it wasn't even possible now.
Looking back, would my hormone condition have made IVF a difficult process for us? Would we have survived that as a couple? Would the links to PMDD and increased chances of postpartum disorders have disrupted my early days as a mother? Would I have been able to cope with adoption or fostering when my mental health took such a hit with the health issues? Would I have been able to mother in the way I wanted to? Could pressing ahead have damaged the life of a child rather than help them? The answers to these questions are hard to face and admit to, especially as a can-do type person. But sometimes you just don't know what you are saved from. We followed a gut feeling, even though it meant sacrificing something we really wanted, and we'll never know for sure, but that might have saved us from something worse. We've discovered the important thing isn’t so much what route you choose – it’s that you're together on it.
Here's a passage 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."
Of course, nothing runs smoothly...
Covid-19 arrived in England in early 2020 and we were in lockdown by March, which brought losses for everyone in many different shapes and sizes. So much of what I'd hoped for post surgery had to change. I couldn't get a job the way I envisaged, my HRT journey didn't allow my health to just 'recover', we didn't have the money for a lot of what we thought we'd be doing, and no one was sharing our home with us.
A year or so later, in June 2021, our chameleon, Murray, died prematurely. Prompting the episode: Loss 14 of 101: Loss of pets
I turned 40 years old while the world was still dealing with Covid, and although I had a great weekend with friends, it wasn't the big holiday celebration we considered doing in Africa, because of Covid.
A few months after that I dropped the hard drive containing all the photos of our important holidays, the chameleon, my surgery, our line in the sand and many many more memories. They were unrecoverable. Prompting the episode: Loss 35 of 101: Loss of photos
Life isn’t a breeze for us, even now. 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 regulating HRT. And there are other losses along the way we share with others, life moves on, I think I counted recently that I've been to around seventeen funerals in my life so far, ranging from 8 years old to over 90 years old.
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 even encourages it at times, but we only get one life, and we're determined to find a way to make it one that's admired by others, not pitied.
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. Pushing everything or everyone aside to get to what you want is not a sign of commitment to the cause, it's actually desperation, and the depth of desire isn't any less because you didn't let desperation rule your decisions.
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, but it's so hard. A good tester for us is when we’re on holiday together – 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, or family gatherings – they’re not the reality of our situation. They’re just our painful bits, and everyone has those.
But... we did decide to start a podcast, and that's how you got to be reading this, and we are so glad you're here with us.
Finding others going through loss, who are also spending time digging in the dirt looking for diamonds, has been a huge blessing and encouragement to us, to feel less alone. Our hope is that we can all share our gems (or Hermans 😉) together, and make something beautiful.
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. — Oscar Wilde
And boy, I do love the stars.