I recently had the privilege of attending a conference hosted by The Wake Up Project, titled ‘Women Leading Change’. The speakers included a globally acclaimed yoga teacher and humanitarian, a well-known Australian singer/songwriter, an author, a former athlete, a publisher and a Senior Australian of the Year. Each one of them had an incredibly inspirational story to tell and there were many recurring themes of love, self-care, gratitude, acceptance and faith - or spirituality - throughout the day.
But the key thing that occurred to me was that, almost without exception, all of these speakers had experienced some form of extreme suffering, and reached rock bottom, before discovering their own form of spirituality and following their true path. We often hear stories of how a heart attack or a near-death experience was the ‘best thing that ever happened’ to someone, as it suddenly throws into sharp focus everything that is REALLY important. And it is rarely the next promotion, that new kitchen, or the latest iTechnology.
Fortunately for most of us, extreme suffering is not the only way to self-actualisation. But the reality is that every lifetime inevitably involves degrees of suffering, and it is the tools that we possess to help us deal with that suffering, and our response to suffering that ultimately define how happy or fulfilled we are.
Like many of us in our early years I muddled through my fair share of death, divorce and heartbreak in my teens and twenties, and with the exception of a few highly undignified wailing scenes over the loss of a totally inappropriate relationship, I think I muddled though fairly well. But my greatest challenge was to come in my late thirties and early forties, when it became increasingly apparent that my natural assumption that I would one day become a mother was not going to be realised.
At 35, after laparoscopic surgery to remove Stage IV endometriosis from my bowel, bladder, ovaries, liver and diaphragm, my gynaecologist asked me why I was postponing having a baby? Immediately after the surgery (and before my fertility rate started diving like a gannet) was most likely my best opportunity of ever getting pregnant.
There was only one hurdle . . . I was single. And had been for several years.
Which, of course, is not to say I was unhappy. On the contrary I led a pretty enviable life, living in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney, working at one of the world’s best advertising agencies, with a close group of girlfriends and a high disposable income. In the absence of a partner I had learned to love myself. I had a regular yoga practice, a successful career and a full social life, which left little room for a man or a baby. So after briefly toying with the idea of finding a sperm donor and becoming a single mum, I simply got on with my life.
Two years later, the inevitable happened and I fell in love with the man who was ultimately to become my husband. I moved to Brisbane, and became pseudo step-mum to 7 and 9 year old boys. I still harboured the dream of becoming a mother and so, conscious of my age and medical history, we decided to get on with the job quickly and consulted an acupuncturist who specialised in fertility treatment. After a few short months of herbs and acupuncture, my faith in ‘alternative’ therapies and the power of positive thinking paid off. There was the little blue cross!
Then the shit hit the fan. For the first time in my life I was made redundant from my job. As a UK citizen on a business visa I had to find another job and apply for residency within 5 days, or leave Australia. And did I mention I was in the middle of moving house? Miraculously within a few days I did it all . . . I raced around the city interviewing and gathering all the documents and evidence to support my residency application, I was offered a job starting the following week, submitted my visa application to the department of immigration, and moved all my worldly goods into a new home with my man and his boys. I was invincible!
Unfortunately the microscopic life-form growing inside me didn’t share my strength, my resilience, my confidence that all would be well. The tell-tale cramps became impossible to ignore. And after a late night race to Emergency, and several hours of morphine and people staring up my vagina, an ultrasound the following morning confirmed the worse. The stress of the last few days had taken its toll. It was the single biggest blow of my life.
I had no choice but to pick myself up and start my new job less than 48 hours later and, with no time to waste, after a few weeks we starting trying again to fall pregnant. Except this time nothing happened. Not a flicker of life. I did everything right. Practiced yoga and self-care, ate well, minimised caffeine and alcohol, and continued the herbs and acupuncture. And every month my period arrived like clockwork. For the first time in my life something was out of my control, and seemingly out of my reach.
I was now into my 40’s and had to make a decision whether to accept infertility as my ‘fate’, or to intervene. IVF to me was always a last resort. But one of my mottos in life is ‘never regret what you do, only regret what you don’t do’. I didn’t want to look back in 10 years and regret not trying. So try it we did. And two years, two more laparoscopies and several rounds of IVF later, we were no closer to having a baby.
My husband might tell you otherwise, but I think I handled it pretty well. Two years of injecting myself daily with an increasing amount of hormones, doctors poking and prodding me monthly, my hopes raised and dashed every 4 weeks. I cried (a lot) but I was easy on myself. This was always going to be hard, but I wasn’t going to let it take over my life. I got on with my work, got married, took holidays and even started my yoga teacher training. I continued my yoga practice, and treated myself with kindness and compassion. And I strongly believe that this is what got me through the toughest times.
In the meantime my closest friends were often struggling, but ultimately all succeeding in falling pregnant. Our wedding guests included two newborn babies and three heavily pregnant friends. And I was genuinely happy for them all. By this point I had accepted that motherhood was probably not going to happen for me. My story would be a different one, but equally as fulfilling. Instead I celebrated the multitude of blessings I do have in my life. My gorgeous and supportive husband, two beautiful step-sons who treat me like a mother, and my dear friends and family who - despite being scattered all around the world - are always there for me.
Today, at the grand old age of 46, I’m often grateful that I don’t have a couple of screeching preschoolers at my feet, that I regularly get 8 hours sleep a night, and that I have had the opportunity to follow my (alternate) dream and start my own yoga business. In a few years my step-sons, now in their late teens, will have left home and my husband and I will have the freedom to move or travel wherever our hearts take us. And in a decade or two I will hopefully still enjoy the pleasures of being a step-grandmother.
The same themes of love, self-care, gratitude, acceptance and spirituality (in my case my yoga practice) that arose frequently throughout the conference have been constants that helped me through the darkest days of my adult life. And whatever unexpected challenges, disappointments and suffering life has in store for me, I know I am totally in control of my response to those events, and my own happiness.