Jessica Hepburn is an extraordinary woman. I mean, properly extraordinary. Not only is she the veteran of eleven rounds of unsuccessful IVF but she’s also one of a very small group of people who’ve successfully swum the English Channel – that deceptively narrow stretch of water, just 21 miles across – that separates England from France. And she’s doesn’t even like exercise! These two things are intimately and surprisingly connected, as Jessica explains in this short, moving and funny interview she gave to me in 2018 just before the publication of her book, 21 Miles: Swimming in Search of the Meaning of Motherhood.
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The book is a series of 21 interviews, with 21 inspirational women, some mothers, some childless and others childfree that Jessica approached with two questions: “Does motherhood make you happy?” and “Will you eat a meal with me to help me fatten up to swim the 21 miles of the English Channel.” I was honoured to be one of them.
21 Miles is a record of that year of training, swimming, eating, talking and thinking, mixed in with a poignant love story of what was going on in Jessica’s private life as the impact of all those years of unsuccessful treatments took their toll on her relationship. I read it in one big weekend gulp last year, which is when this interview was recorded, and I couldn’t recommend it enough to anyone who wants to understand what it means to be a 21st Century woman, whether motherhood is your destiny or not… It’s beautifully written and very thought-provoking.
As well as swimming the Channel, Jessica has, with her friend and colleague Gabby Vaultier, created FertilityFest.com – the world’s first arts festival dedicated to fertility, infertility, reproductive science and modern families. This year will be its 3rd year, and I’m proud to be a part of it again, this time as the chair of the There’s More to Life than Children day at the Barbican London on Saturday 27th April. Tickets are now on sale and this looks like it’s going to be an even more extraordinary event than last year – and that’s saying something!
Here’s a transcript of our conversation, which took place in April 2018:
Jody: Hi Jessica.
Jessica: Hi Jody.
Jody: Oh, it’s so lovely to see you.
Jessica: Yeah, you’re in Spain you lucky thing.
Jody: Yes, you’re in London you lucky thing.
Jessica: I am in London.
Jody: I just want to say that I read your book over the weekend and I just wanted to say, in my very calm, measured, professional tone… that book is amazing!
Jessica: Jody. Bless you.
Jessica: Yeah, it’s a big thing giving it to the world but to have your support and “You’re amazing” is amazing.
Jody: Well, I was very proud to be a part of it and to be one of the interviewees. And then to see the illustrious company…
Jody: … that’s in there as well. It was really fascinating too to be alongside you as you met them because actually, the stories that unfold from the other 20 women … some of them mothers, some of them childless, some of them childfree, are extraordinary. They’re extraordinary encounters.
Jessica: Yeah. I mean it really … I mean it feels like … well you, just after you read it, you wrote me a beautiful text about it being a story of the human spirit and it absolutely … that’s a wonderful thing to hear, but also the women I met as part of this journey are the stars of the book. It’s the sort of book, I hope, of female solidarity around the subject of motherhood, but whether you’re a mother or not, looking at what female fulfilment means.
Jessica: I was so delighted that you were in it and obviously our interview which comes towards the end of the book, and is very, very significant. Well, they’re all significant, but yeah … it was an amazing journey.
Jody: And you talk about one of the things … I said yeah, it’s a journey of the human spirit, but for me, also, what came through that book is your spirit, your indomitable spirit as you tackle this extraordinary challenge which you set yourself by accident – almost – swimming the Channel, and I learned so much. Obviously, I knew nothing about swimming the Channel. It turns out you didn’t either, which is … that is an amazing journey, literally, to follow in the book.
Jessica: Yeah, I mean you’re so right. I mean I think people think because I did this thing that somehow, I’m super athletic, but swimming the Channel had been a childhood dream that I had not thought about for 30 years.
Jessica: But when I turned 43 and as you know, I went through 11 rounds of unsuccessful IVF and I just decided I needed to do something different with my life, and I started casting around for what am I going to do? I need to do something big, which I know is something that you don’t always counsel that childless women should go off and do, but that’s what I felt, and I just started on this journey to swim the Channel.
Jessica: The most frightening thing about it was that I had no idea what was involved, and it is incredibly tough, but the toughness of that journey became really significant and the parallels between that and going through IVF are kind of extraordinary and it did become, really, and I hope this comes across in the book, like a conversation between me and nature, really, which is I haven’t … nature’s let me down in this other area and here we are again and sort of learning about that and about myself and about what we can and can’t have in life. It’s a really important part of the story.
Jody: I remember the part in the book when you first realized the parallels between 11 rounds of IVF and it being out of your control and the gruelingness of it and also the fact that you can’t control it. You don’t know when you’re going to do your Channel swim. You can’t plan it…
Jody: And this moment when you realized the parallels and it’s kind of like, oh my God, here I am again.
Jessica: Yeah, exactly.
Jody: I can’t believe I found something else that doesn’t-
Jessica: Yeah, exactly! Do you know … exactly … would I have ever chosen to do that if I realized I was walking into something that I had as much chance of failing at than succeeding at, just like IVF? I mean surely not, but it’s almost like, in some weird, wonderful way that the universe was giving it to me for that reason. Who knows?
Jody: The book is also a very poignant love story … those readers that met your partner, Peter, in the first book. He’s kind of present and absent in this book and his absence is very poignant and I think when I first got my copy of the book and I just opened it, I opened a page and it just said, “Was it because I took my tights off for the Daily Mail”? That was the first line of your book that I read and I thought, “Ooh, this is going to be good”.
Jody: And that, when you weave together the stories of all these women, the stories of how an IVF or a fertility journey, how it impacts a couple, which is something we just do not hear enough about, and it’s something that every couple who’s been through IVF probably has some war stories to tell…
Jody: And add the Channel … then you add the Channel swimming … I mean it is an extraordinary book. I’m so proud of you. It’s also beautifully written. I think it’s a stunning book.
Jessica: Oh Jody, you make me cry…
Jessica: And also, because you obviously really got it, because it is a love story. It is. It’s a love letter to a relationship. We went through 11 rounds of IVF together and then our relationship started to break down and it’s in the middle of this other thing. I’m trying to work out why that is and the chapter that you refer to … because of course people immediately say, “Well, was it because of the IVF”? And of course, there are a million reasons why relationships break down, but I’m really trying to explore that and absolutely … that’s a really central, central part of the book.
Jody: Yeah, and it’s beautifully handled as well because I can really feel the tension between you exploring it but also respecting his privacy. That’s handled beautifully, as someone who also writes about her personal life and has to think about how much do I say about this and that. I saw that tension and I just thought it was handled really, really beautifully.
Jessica: I also think it’s not … I actually only realized this the other day, it’s funny, because like my first book, The Pursuit of Motherhood, doesn’t end with a resolution, either the miracle baby or the ‘it didn’t work’. And in a way this book … it doesn’t end with a resolution to the relationship and…
Jody: I loved the ending. I just love it. I’m not going to say it. I’m not going to give it away, but I just went, “Ah, okay”. Don’t know what that means, but okay.
Jessica: But it means something and that’s…
Jody: But it means everything. It means everything.
Jessica: It means everything.
Jody: But it doesn’t tie it up with a bow.
Jessica: No, it doesn’t because that’s life isn’t it? And I think that’s the other thing also that I wanted to get across, and I hope this comes across … I went through 11 rounds of bloody IVF and I didn’t get my baby and you think there’s no justice in the world, and then my relationship started to break down, and then you think hold on a minute, life – what are you doing to me here? But if you can move beyond that, there is something to learn and something to love, and something to live for, and that’s what it’s about. And the sea taught me that.
Jody: Oh, you sound so wise my dear. You’re becoming so wise!
Jessica: No, I’m not wise. I’m just making it all up!
Jody: We’re just very, very wise old ladies one day, aren’t we?
Jessica: I hope so.
Jody: And rude, I hope!
Jessica: Hey, listen. I’m relying on you to create a community where I’m going to go and live when I’m old and so you better get working on that.
Jody: I’ll put you on a list. I’ll do that in my spare time.
Jody: Now we need to wrap this up. Jessica’s book is “21 Miles: Swimming in Search of the Meaning of Motherhood“, and it’s published by Unbound, and I couldn’t recommend it more.
Watch Jessica talk about the book, the women she spoke to and the swim and read an extract here: https://unbound.com/books/21-miles/
This book is absolutely fabulous, I was blown away. The ideas about wider concepts of a family and a home helped me make sense of some of the turmoil in my life of the last few years, thanks jessica
Great interview. Thanks. I look forward to reading Jessica’s book and hearing/ seeing you both at Fertility Fest, love Ali xxx