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Book Review: 21 Miles - Swimming in Search of the Meaning of Motherhood

11 June 2018
Appeared in BioNews 953

21 Miles: Swimming in Search of the Meaning of Motherhood

By Jessica Hepburn

Published by Unbound

ISBN-10: 1783526092, ISBN-13: 978-1783526093

Buy this book from Amazon UK

Jessica Hepburn, author of 'The Pursuit of Motherhood', former executive director of the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith and founder of Fertility Fest, underwent eleven rounds of unsuccessful IVF, multiple miscarriages and a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy in a decade. Her new book '21 Miles – swimming in search of the meaning of motherhood' charts her progress through her New Year resolutions to 'Give up IVF and do something big instead'.

Her projects include training to swim the English Channel (hence the title) and interviewing 20 high-profile women who have been successful in their respective fields, from filmmaking to science. These two separate challenges form the premise of this book and are dealt with in alternate chapters, with the sponsored channel swim as the over-arching project. Hepburn compiles a shortlist and approaches each potential interviewee with a question:

'Dear …( fill in name here)
I am writing to ask whether you would meet and eat with me to help me get fat to swim the English Channel and answer the question: Does motherhood make you happy?'

First up is Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder and director of former charity Kids Company. In this chapter 'The Charity Worker, the writer first spends the best part of two fat paragraphs describing the clothes she has picked out for the interview and the upmarket cupcakes she brings to it (multi-coloured, sodden by rain, but Camila doesn't seem to mind). When asked if it's possible to be a mother without being a mother, Camila is utterly clear-eyed about her own vocation to help other people's children and pinpoints the fact that Western psychology is 'so focused on the idea of personal need'. She entreats Hepburn to 'live your life authentically'.

On meeting the Very Reverend Lorna Wood, who turns down the offer of a snack, Hepburn speculates: 'I don't seem to be having much luck persuading people to eat with me and I wonder whether this says something significant about many women's ambivalent relationship with food'. Or perhaps the Very Reverend was simply, you know - not hungry.

The frequent obsession with weight - 'slim' apparently, is on the slippery slope to 'voluptuous' which won't do at all, 'thin' being preferred - seems outdated and alienating when women are already in a constant struggle to be accepted as authentic versions of themselves. It was one of many instances in the book that I felt were unintentionally ironic, despite the author's often self-conscious signalling of 'ironic' moments.

As an English teacher, I was delighted to learn that the collective noun for jellyfish is 'a smack'. Jellyfish are the thing that Hepburn, a self-confessed reluctant swimmer, is most afraid of in her open-water training for her attempt to swim the Channel. I won't spoil the book by revealing whether or not she succeeds (though you can find out by turning to page 342). The vicissitudes of training are, predictably, turned into comic vignettes with the author as a slightly kooky, loveable protagonist á la Bridget Jones. This, depending on the reader's disposition, will be either engaging or distracting.

I was conscious throughout that I was reading a real, breathing human being who is now a public figure and not a fictional character, but I could not help feeling that I was being encouraged to see the author as both a protagonist central to the narrative and an offbeat comic creation - surely dialogue this smart isn't realistic? This creates a sharp and jarring contrast to the more reflective chapters about the author's past life which are written with such clear-eyed candour as to be emotionally devastating. The chapters 'Molly' and 'Frankenstein Dreaming' are where the writer's obvious talents lie – for lucid prose, affecting because of its simplicity and lack of dramatic embellishment.

Molly, the chapter dealing with the miscarriage, at 9 weeks, of Jessica's daughter, puts into words all the joy of having a pregnancy confirmed, the acute anxiety of early complications and finally, devastatingly, the desolation brought by a miscarriage whilst out at the theatre. The sheer roller-coaster of emotions, of dashed hopes, will be recognisable to anyone who has dared to celebrate a much-wanted pregnancy only to suffer the pain of an early loss – a grief that is hardly acknowledged by wider society.

Here I find the writing at its most affecting; stripped away of glamour, self-referential quips and lifestyle details, the writer shares her lived experience in a way that is relatable and moving in the extreme. In these moments Hepburn is at her most compelling and authentic. Whilst I understand the compulsion to lighten a subject matter that is sad and unresolved with smart, chick-lit style writing complete with sassy dialogue and one-liners, the truth of the book is, for me at least, to be found in the chapters where she shares her experiences with IVF and her considerable knowledge of the history of assisted conception, as well as the peripheral presence (or absence, as it turns out) of her partner, a relationship that flounders for a time due to the stress placed upon them.
In search of answers to the eternal question about motherhood and fulfilment, conversations take place with women of varying degrees of personal warmth. The bohemian lifestyle of one interviewee quickly lost its lustre for me when she revealed that she had left her infant son alone for several nights to go and work, and had returned to find him in obvious distress. Art is a demanding mistress. Here, I think Hepburn lets her subject off too lightly.

This particular interview highlights how the author indulges some of her high-profile interviewees by bestowing a degree of authority upon them to dispense wisdom – irrespective of morality. Their opinions, based as they are on their own individual circumstances, can only be viewed as a personal - much like any woman on the street; if Hepburn is looking for answers, they will surely be found much, much closer to home.

Ultimately, the structural flaws of the book, with its emphasis on the pluckily determined protagonist/writer and her quest for universal truths about life with and without children, proved too much for me. I simply found the narrative style too distracting. It came alive, and had something real to say, in the sections about IVF, the author's parents and in the telling interview with the CEO of Mumsnet, whose life appeared, at face value, to be the one Hepburn had wished for. Never mind that Hepburn herself is clearly a phenomenally successful and self-driven individual who has a gift for writing in a certain style (surely a novel is next?). 21 Miles has, in practice, enough material for two books, and works best when the writer presents the reader with unadulterated truths about herself to which every reader can relate.

Buy 21 Miles: Swimming in Search of the Meaning of Motherhood from Amazon UK.

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