At the age of 43, after ten years and eleven cycles of IVF, Jessica Hepburn decides it’s time to give up on her dream of motherhood and get on with her life. Hepburn remembers an old childhood ambition and starts investigating whether or not she can actually achieve it. At first her dream of swimming across the English Channel seems as impossible and out of reach as motherhood, but Jessica turns the same dogged tenacity she put into a decade of fertility treatments into swimming. In terms of difficulty, she points out, more people have climbed Mount Everest than swam across the Channel.
One unexpected benefit of her ambition is that following the example set by Captain Matthew Webb in 1875, she won’t be able to wear a wet-suit and is encouraged by her swimming coaches to put on body fat to help her keep warm in the water. In order to help her put on weight, Jessica decides to have lunch with a list of 21 inspirational women (only some of whom are mothers) from neuroscientists and polar explorers to the founder of Mumsnet, an MP and a ballerina to discuss whether motherhood makes women happy.
Over the course of her training, Jessica has to overcome her doubters and her own self-doubt, as well as her aversion to cold water and fear of jellyfish. Working her way slowly from swimming in the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park to open water, and finally her solo voyage across the Channel, I found myself rooting for Jessica and welling up during the description of her crossing.
Written with self-deprecating humour that had me chuckling out loud, this is also a thought-provoking and poignant book as Jessica doesn’t shy away from describing her disappointment and grief at not being able to have children, the shame and isolation of infertility, and the strain it put on her relationship. Unlike a lot of other books written about infertility, 21 Miles doesn’t end with Jessica having a baby, and yet it is life-affirming and inspiring. Throughout this book, Jessica considers the complex relationship women have with food, as well as the difficulties in her relationship with her partner, her relationship with her own parents, the social pressure to have children and the tension that sometimes exists between mothers and childfree or childless women, and in many ways, 21 Miles is as much about the modern experience of being a woman as it is about swimming or motherhood. Have a lovely week! X