If you asked me how I ended up in Munich, I would probably say something about how my now-husband moved here for work, and I joined him a few years later. Then I found a job I liked, and we have friends and hobbies here, and we love being so close to the mountains, and the UK is in political turmoil right now so we’re not rushing to move back… And so we’re still here.
(Eibsee lake at the foot of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain.)
This is not the full story, though. I usually leave out the part about how I looked around at Germany’s generous shared parental leave policy, at the way people feel safe letting their kids walk places by themselves, at the people hiking in the Alps with toddlers in backpacks, and thought: this is the place where I want to have children.
I leave this part of the story out, because I don’t want people to ask the question I often ask myself – where are these children?
At the end of 2017, my husband and I spend Christmas in Munich, by ourselves. We are adults. We do not have to go ‘home’ for Christmas but can spend Christmas in our own home. Plus, in January 2018, we are going to start trying for a baby. If I get pregnant very quickly, this might be the last Christmas we spend just the two of us. So we drape greenery over our bookcases, drink Glühwein at Christmas markets, plan an elaborate vegan banquet, all the time thinking we must savour this time together. We don’t know how much more of it we might get.
Things don’t quite go according to plan. After a year, we decide it is time to investigate what help the German healthcare system might be able to offer us. My gynaecologist refers us to a fertility clinic in the city centre, where they do a raft of blood tests, and send me for an MRI to rule out a benign pituitary cyst that might be causing the high level of prolactin they found in my blood. The MRI is normal. When they do more blood tests, my prolactin has gone back to normal. All the other tests were normal. We do a monitoring cycle. Everything is normal. This word keeps getting thrown around – normal, normal, normal. But if I am so ‘normal’, why am I here?
After a few months on the fertility treatment rollercoaster, I feel the familiar tendrils of my depression creeping around my ankles, slowing me down. I cannot concentrate on anything. Nothing feels fun. My insomnia returns with a vengeance unseen since my university finals.
Depression always speaks in lies, but this time it makes me question my fitness as a potential mother. If you find this hard, it says, how will you ever cope with parenting? I had overcome my last depressive episode by reimagining a future I was excited about – a future that included staying in Munich and having a family. This time, I feel caught in between two possible futures: one, I eventually go on to have a rich, full, happy life as a mother; two, I do not have a child, and eventually go on to have a rich, full, happy life doing something else. I can imagine myself finding peace, joy and meaning in either outcome. Eventually. But I don’t know what to do in the meantime.
I have confided in a few close friends, but I know from past experience I need to call in more support. I need somewhere I can unload my feelings without worrying I’m burdening people. I go to my GP, who prescribes me something to help me sleep and signs me off work for two weeks. With this time, I draw deeply on my German-language skills, making phone calls and sending out emails. I find a support group, which I am frightened of because none of my 1990s school textbooks or the courses I’ve taken at the further education college have equipped me for talking about deeply personal medical or emotional topics in German. I find a yoga class, which seems more promising, because presumably we will spend some of the time lying in silence on the floor. I find therapist after therapist who doesn’t do sessions in English, doesn’t accept public health insurance, or doesn’t have any openings – and one who does.
The yoga class turns out not to be a good fit. Fortunately, my new therapist is great. I hold off on going to the support group.
Around this time, a charity I have been supporting for several years says in their newsletter that they are looking for people to run the Royal Parks Half-Marathon for them. I briefly imagine what it might be like to be the sort of person who could commit to this. Who could get off the sofa and train several times a week. Who could make plans and set goals and trust their body to follow through. I think of my dodgy left knee and delete the email.
At our next session, my therapist urges me to ‘make friends’ with my body. Is making your body run a half-marathon a friendly act? Probably not, I decide. But the idea won’t go away. A few weeks later, the charity are asking for runners again – they still have free places.
I sign up.
Something happens when I start running again. I can’t imagine making friends with my entire body, but I can lavish kindness and affection on my left knee. I can buy it foam rollers and compression socks and new trainers. I can join a gym and do strength training. I can make playlists of upbeat songs. And I can’t imagine calling on the people around me to support me in my fertility struggles. But I can make fundraising requests on social media and have a birthday party where I ask people for donations in lieu of gifts. I explain briefly, on my JustGiving page, that my life being dominated by Brexit and fertility treatment had motivated me to raise money for the Abortion Support Network, an organisation that literally moves people across borders to access the reproductive healthcare they need. Although the challenges I am facing are very different, I can empathise with the lack of control, the feeling of being thrust into a future that was different from the one you envisaged, which I imagine might accompany an unwanted pregnancy or having to terminate a wanted pregnancy for medical reasons. I can empathise with going through intimate, uncomfortable medical procedures in an unfamiliar healthcare system, far away from friends and family. The donations flow in, and along with them, a small trickle of stories from friends having their own difficulties conceiving – stories I would never have heard if I hadn’t tentatively shared my own. Running also helps me fall back in love with Munich, a city with an abundance of parks and green spaces.
I raise almost double my fundraising goal. And in October, I travel to London and run 13.1 miles past landmarks and through parks, cheered on by my family.
I go back to the clinic for our third IUI cycle feeling a lightness I hadn’t experienced in either of our previous cycles. I am almost hoping for my period to come, so we can move on to more testing, perhaps get some answers, perhaps try new treatment options.
My period doesn’t come.
Everything looks fine at first. I have two promising scans at the clinic, and at six weeks they refer me back to my gynaecologist for regular pre-natal care. At seven weeks, I wake up and all my pregnancy symptoms are gone. They come back the next day, although not as strongly. At eight weeks, on the day of my first scan with my gynaecologist, I notice a small amount of blood when I go to the toilet. When I arrive for the scan, my doctor tells me it’s very common and probably nothing to worry about. I am taken into a side room for a blood test. On one wall there is a collage of baby pictures and thank you notes. I hope that she is right, that everything is fine, that in the summer I can give them a picture of my baby to add to the wall.
The assistant weighs me and takes my blood pressure and writes the results in my Mutterpass – a kind of pregnancy booklet where your doctors and midwives record all the details from your appointments, and that you’re supposed to carry with you whenever you leave the house. It says ‘A Special Time’ on the front in sparkly silver letters. I do not get to take it home with me. When my gynaecologist does the scan, she cannot see the heartbeat that was there two weeks ago at the clinic. The embryo is much smaller than it should be. I am convinced it stopped developing that day I woke up with no symptoms. It is oddly reassuring to think that, for once, my body’s instincts were correct.
Five days after the scan, four days after I take the pills to bring on a miscarriage, two days after another scan to check everything has ‘completed’ properly, we fly back to England to go through the motions of Christmas. We return to Munich for New Year, and we see in 2020 from our balcony. We have plans for 2020 – moving to a new flat, applying for German citizenship – which felt exciting when we thought we might be doing them with our baby, but now just feel like a load of tedious admin, on top of going back into fertility treatment. My husband goes back to work. I am a freelancer, and I spend my days stitching a tapestry, doing yoga, writing, and playing the piano, instead of working. I tell my therapist I’m worried about this, that I feel engaged in activities that support my healing but resolutely reject anything that connects me to the rest of the world, like working or socialising. ‘What would happen if you just accepted this part of yourself?’ she says. This seems like an interesting proposition.
Immediately after the miscarriage, I reached out to some friends and received an outpouring of love and support – including from people who had had similar experiences. But as I slip out of the ‘miscarriage’ story and back into the ‘infertility’ story, the loneliness closes over my head again. This experience seems to confirm something I had long suspected about motherhood: that it is tough, so tough, but there are people in the trenches with you, who have gone through the same thing, or know someone who has. On a wider cultural level, my grief for my brief pregnancy feels invisible, but among family and friends, I can point to something I had, and lost, and be understood. I can name my grief in a way I struggled to name the cumulative monthly losses of infertility as grief.
In my one social act of 2020, I gather some friends to form a book group. We schedule our first meeting for 13th March. My citizenship test is scheduled for 14th March.
Just as I am poised to return to the world, the world raises the drawbridge.
When everything changes irrevocably, I know one thing: I don’t want to go back to ‘normal’. I have no nostalgia for my life in January or February, and not much for 2019. I don’t say this to romanticise the pandemic – any healing I have experienced is not because I have been using newfound ‘free time’ to do self-improvement projects, but because there is simply nowhere else to go but inwards. In Untamed, Glennon Doyle writes that ‘grief is a cocoon from which we emerge new’. In the swirling, multiple griefs of this global event we are all experiencing, and the enforced cocoon of Bavaria’s strict lockdown, I stop fighting my own grief. It is easier to accept the part of me that doesn’t want to work when I am surrounded by memes about how hard it is to work while also living through a pandemic. It is easier to talk about my pain and loss when all my friends are discussing the David Kessler article about grief. And since all my social life is now conducted online, regardless of where anyone is located, I can let go of the pressure I was putting on myself to find support locally. I have reconnected with old friends in the UK, and joined online activities like the Rainbow Running Club virtual events.
If I don’t go back to how things were before, what can I build instead? I am still figuring this out, this new life in which I allow joy and pain to exist alongside each other. But two certainties keep emerging: Writing. Connection.