Jessica Hepburn wrote 21 Miles when she was forty-three and had spent around £100,000 on eleven rounds of IVF plus therapy and other expenses related to infertility. She had ended up broke and desperate, still prepared to have a twelfth cycle of IVF if she could. She had been trying to conceive her own biological child for nearly a decade.
21 Miles is the story of Hepburn’s attempt to ‘do something big‘ to deal with the fact that she’ll probably never have children – she decides to swim the English Channel instead of pursuing more treatment. This is woven around 21 interviews with very successful, high-profile mothers and non-mothers; the impossible question she sets out to ask them is:
Does motherhood make you happy?
It’s a fast read and Hepburn is likable and engaging. However, I’m a fairly unambitious late-forty-something who has (more or less) made peace with both non-parenthood and a flaccid career, so certain aspects did give me slight pause.
The motherhood question is posed to the interviewees with varying degrees of success and of course, no clear consensus is achieved. Hepburn does come to several interesting conclusions, some of which I like more than others. She thinks that there may be three categories of women in the world:
In the first category are women who are driven by a vocation, who are either not interested in having children or not particularly disappointed when they don’t.
In the second category are women who are purely driven by a maternal instinct, for whom becoming and then being a mother eclipses all other desires.
And in the third category are the women who want both a fulfilling job and motherhood in roughly equal measure.
Does this mean that all happily childfree women are driven by a vocation, or does the first category contain three different types of women? Am I misreading it? If I’m not, then I don’t really fit anywhere: I’ve never had a particular vocation, and I was always very ambivalent about motherhood. Anyway, my impression throughout the book is that you need to have a fulfilling vocation, aka ‘something big’, if you don’t have children. I suppose this stems from the fact that Hepburn and all her interviewees are exceptional or high-achieving women: mediocrity is not an option.
One of the women interviewed, Fiona Mactaggart MP, says
If you can’t have children you might as well try and change the world instead
Please god, no. Pressure. This idea threw me into a downward spiral in my late thirties that took a few years to work through. Later, Hepburn thinks about what her highly successful interviewees have told her and muses:
Some have shown me there are alternative routes to motherhood that can genuinely make you happy; others have made me think about alternative ways of contributing to the world if you can’t be a mother
In other words, get a child somehow or ‘do something big’. I need the reassurance that it is OK to just be: to not have children and also not do anything especially remarkable to compensate for it. That there are myriad other tiny ways to find contentment in your life.
I also think the pressure to do something amazing is there because Hepburn wasn’t fully ‘resolved’ when she wrote 21 Miles – she still entertained the possibility of having a baby. I’m wary of women who are desperate to have a child at all costs, as if the alternative is some sort of arid, monochrome hell. At one point, whilst interviewing the founder of Mumsnet and discussing a potential equivalent for non-mums, Hepburn says:
The truth is, I don’t want to listen to the voice of the ‘non-mother’; it’s not a voice I ever wanted to be.
That sentence chilled me a bit. Some women in Hepburn’s position make the older non-parent feel like the the grim reaper, the harbinger of doom. A pitiable outlier. This line reminds me of that: there’s a touch of dread in there.
Hepburn redeems this in her later conclusions and I don’t believe from her current activity that she feels the same now. I love what she says below – human connections are immeasurably important and they certainly don’t have to be with children:
Being a mother is so important because humans are happiest when they have connection with other people. Parenthood is often the quickest route to that connection but it doesn’t always work and it doesn’t mean that you can’t create the connection in other ways, with other members of your family (up, down and across)
I wanted to hear that you can be ordinary and average, without kids, and still be happy with your lot. That once you’ve got your groove back, you’ll be fine. You will find contentment and fulfillment again in simple interests, small bouts of creativity and daily pleasures. The book does get close to this, but aims a bit higher:
… there’s also something else I’ve learned, and that is that people are most fulfilled when they have a passion. Sometimes your children can be that passion but many people need something else as well. It might be ballet dancing, making films, running your own business or saving lives. It might be going in search of wildlife around the world, skiing to the North Pole.
Hepburn’s passion? She is now an ‘Adventure Activist’ and her next challenge is the Death Zone: Mount Everest in 2021. No simple hobbies and daily pleasures for her. (That’s not true: she loves food and fetishises cake, which is great.)
Luckily for me 21 Miles didn’t make me feel like I have to do something big because I don’t have kids. I can’t relate to most of the interviewees because I’m not driven or particularly talented, and I have a humdrum office job. But Hepburn stayed with me. She’s made me think about whether I make enough effort with human connections, and whether I do the things I enjoy often enough. These are my big things.
I think it’s possible that the process of writing 21 Miles helped Hepburn come to the realisation that it isn’t only the big, grandiose actions that count. She said after the book came out:
Everyone has something in their life that isn’t the way they want it to be. Life is about trying to get over that, and finding the good stuff
I also know a lot about Channel swimming now: mostly that I never want to do it, but also that it’s bloody interesting. Her description of that is superlative and quite moving when she completes it; I truly hope she does an Everest memoir.