How a Channel swim eased pain of infertility

Jessica Hepburn swimming

Jessica Hepburn swimming - Credit: Archant

What is it about Hampstead women and water, wonders author Jessica Hepburn

Looking back on my Hampstead heritage, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised how my life turned out - although it isn’t what I ever imagined.

My grandmother was a well known literary figure – the feminist poet Anna Wickham, who spent her life railing that women should be seen as more than wives and mothers.

And my aunt, Margaret Hepburn, was the indomitable chair of the Kenwood Ladies Pond for many years. But if you’d asked me how women and water would end up featuring in my own life, well, I wouldn’t have guessed.

I spent my 20s going to university, pursuing my career, being picky about choosing a partner – all the things that my generation, thanks to women like my grandmother, were given the opportunity to do. By my early thirties I was running a major London Theatre and had found the man I wanted to start a family with. But after a year of trying to conceive nothing had happened.

The doctor diagnosed us with ‘Unexplained Infertility’.That was the start of a decade long struggle to conceive that involved eleven rounds of IVF, multiple miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy that almost took my life. It was a dark, desperate time. In public I was a successful ‘career woman’, in private I was on a mission to become a mother that ended up costing over £70,000.

What would grandmother have said? I didn’t want a job, all I wanted was a child.

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Our eleventh round of IVF was just before my 43rd birthday. All we added to our family was more debt and disappointment. That was the moment I decided if I couldn’t be a mother, I had to do something different instead.

My decision to swim the English Channel was part childhood dream, part mid-life crisis. As a little girl I had enjoyed swimming and even took the odd (squealing) dip in the Hampstead ponds much to my aunt’s disdain. (She wasn’t a woman who believed in squealing.)

But I guess it was back then that the idea of swimming the Channel had been born.

As my punishing training commenced, I soon realized I had underestimated the task ahead. It’s one of the toughest physical and mental endurance feats on the planet – less people have swum it than have climbed Everest. The only redeeming thing is that you get to eat – a lot. It’s the only way to keep out the cold. I love food so this was a dream come true and it led to another idea. What if I were to ask a collection of inspiring women to meet and eat with me to help me put on weight and answer the question - does motherhood make you happy?

It might help me decide what to do next - did I still need to find some way of becoming a mother or could I be fulfilled without children?

The response was overwhelming. From baronesses to professors, record-breakers to household names and people who have done something quietly amazing, all with compelling truths to tell about female fulfilment and the meaning of motherhood. My interviewees included Bake Off queen Prue Leith, who has one adopted and one biological child; the world renowned scientist Professor Baroness Susan Greenfield who is childless and says that being a mother is still difficult if you want a high-flying scientific career. The candour of all 21 women, was breathtaking. It was a life-affirming journey of female solidarity – with a lot of cake! Gradually the conversations led me towards an answer as well as to my new role as a fertility campaigner, nominated as one of Amnesty International’s Women of Suffragette Spirit 100 years after winning the vote

Finally I was ready to attempt to swim from England to France. I set out from Dover in the dark. For the first few hours the waves made me sick and I retched into the water with the guttural sound of an animal dying in pain. The sickness stopped around about the time the jellyfish began. Stinging me all over my face and body, it was like swimming through jellyfish soup. But worse was to come, when I reached French inshore waters the tide turned and it took me hours to land. Ultimately the swim would become my own version of giving birth – 17 hours, 44 minutes and 30 seconds of labour followed by the most extraordinary euphoria that eclipsed all the pain. Now I may not be a mother but I am a channel swimmer. Hopefully my aunt and grandmother would be proud of that.

Jessica Hepburn is the author of 21 Miles: Swimming in search of the meaning of motherhood (Unbound, £14.99) and founder of Fertility Fest (