The End of Hope: How a cake helped me let go of my dream to have a child

Hello lovely friends.

This month’s post (well, I just squeezed it into July!) is longer than my usual. Nevertheless, I hope it will be helpful and perhaps will shed some light on the power and the potential tyranny of hope and how we can find inspiration, in unexpected ways, to transform a stale hope for an unachievable dream into a fresh hope for the future.

The BWI (Big What If)

What if?: two words that have begun many of my questions over the years. What if I’d thought about having children in my twenties? What if I’d met the right person sooner? What if we’d chosen a different treatment/clinic/country? What if I’d chosen the herbal tea over the coffee? And so it goes on…

From the trivial to the life changing, every day presents us with myriad choices, myriad forks in the road. Each possible path leads to a different potential future.

The ‘Big What If’ still pops up for me, making me wonder if somewhere in the universe, there is Another World where I’m sitting smugly, knowing without any doubt, that I’d taken the right decision – followed the one true path. And at no time is that musing more vivid than when I think about our decision to end fertility treatment and then, further down the line, to stop hoping for our ‘miracle’ child.

The Road not Taken

The ‘end of the fertility road’ scene must be played out many times a day across the world: an individual or a couple are sitting in the fertility expert’s consulting room being told that their chances of conceiving either spontaneously or with treatment are negligible. Each person’s unique circumstances apart, I imagine the patients’ responses must share similarities: shock, anger, disbelief… There must be something we can do. There must be someone who can give us hope. Our own experience of this scene was not particularly positive. The news was delivered dispassionately (in retrospect, perhaps not such a bad thing) and without empathy (even in retrospect, still emotionally crushing).

Of course, we had a choice. We could have carried on pursuing hope with all the emotional, physical and financial implications that road carries. The decision to not take that road and to end treatment did not come at that moment in the consultant’s office. When it did come, it did not arrive in a sunbeam of clarity; rather it developed out of hours of soul searching, days of talking, sometimes out of weeks of avoidance and ultimately, out of a gradual letting go. But, looking back, the seed of the decision was most definitely sown at that final consultation. I now realise that when the consultant revealed our fertility fate, some part of me – almost at a cellular level – felt a release.

In those first months after our final fertility treatment cycle, I would often wake in the morning having dreamt of wandering through the fertility clinic’s corridors at night, in secret. For those months I experienced a totally surprising, emotional and physical longing for the clinic we used to attend. The clinic represented positive action – actually doing something. And for so long the clinic’s corridors, operating theatre and waiting room contained and nurtured our hope for a child. Now it was just my husband and me, an uncontained longing and a deeply addictive hope habit.

Fear of the Abyss

Hope is a good thing. Sometimes hope can keep us alive and it can help us achieve seemingly impossible dreams. But a relentless hope for one particular, constantly out-of-reach outcome can be damaging on so many levels. As Tracey Cleantis in her book ‘The Next Happy’ says:

Sometimes hope is sadistic, sometimes optimism is dangerous, and sometimes this really annoying thing called reality really must be faced if you are to preserve your sanity.

And I believe that sometimes, hope can keep us in an emotionally sterile place where we are prevented from ever discovering what else is possible. The odds were categorically against us conceiving a child but every cell in my body and every neuron in my brain seemed to cling to the hope that we would defy those odds.

So how the hell do you let go of such an intense and all-consuming hope?

Have you ever seen that photo of Felix Baumgartner, the guy who did the highest free-fall skydive, standing outside his capsule almost 128000 feet above Earth, preparing to step out into space? That’s what letting go of the hope of having our child felt like. One tiny step, the smallest of movements forwards and I feared I would be falling into space, wingless, parachute-less. Safer to keep hoping, then. Far more comforting to continue believing in the child that might be rather than facing the abyss of childlessness.

Surprisingly quickly after our last treatment cycle, we began to accept the realities of the statistics – less than 10% chance of conceiving a child – but the truth is, for me, the hope of conceiving our child didn’t go anywhere for the next 5 years. Letting go of that hope felt like a betrayal to all that we had been through, to all the losses we had survived and to our potential child. Even when I finally knew I wanted to give up that hope, I just didn’t know how. Let’s face it – there is no ritual, no ceremony for the ‘end of hope’!

The Fork in the Road

I finally stepped away from that capsule of hope and into the abyss of the unknown on my 40th birthday. What was it that finally allowed me to lean forward and career towards Earth? It wasn’t the realization that at forty my fertility was fading to a glimmer on the horizon. Nor was it the reality-check that reaching a milestone birthday presents. It was, quite simply, cake! Yes, dear friend, you read this correctly. Cake!

The cake in question was the top tier of our wedding cake that I had kept for the last three years in the hope of using it as a naming ceremony cake, diligently injecting it with whisky every few weeks, using (in a satisfyingly defiant gesture) the unused syringes left over from our fertility treatment. After three years of marinating, one teeny slice of said cake would have taken the consumer over the legal alcohol/driving limit! On one of the cake injecting sessions I screamed, ‘What’s the ####ing point?!” Something in me knew that I would never use the cake for its intended purpose. I was at a crossroads.

Injecting the cake with the whisky seemed to be symbolic of the constant fuelling and nurturing of my hope for a child. I was storing my hope, like my cake, in a cool, dark and airless environment. And that’s when it hit me – rather than a lifeless lump of stodgy, un-enjoyed carbohydrate; the cake could be a symbol of transformation. So with a few weeks to my fortieth birthday, I decided to have a party, to change ‘naming ceremony cake’ to ‘birthday cake’ and to watch every morsel get eaten by the people I love most in the world. I had chosen a new path.

The Transformed Hope

And the cake was both transformed and transformative. My husband took it to be re-iced and it was simply beautiful. As I blew out the candles on the night of my party and watched the cake being divided, people eagerly receiving slices (and laughing at the alcohol content!), I knew something fundamental had changed in me. My ‘what if’ had changed to ‘now what?’ Deciding to let go of my precious cake, to re-name it and, importantly, to share it, was the ritual and the ceremony I needed to help me let go, to say goodbye to a dream and to celebrate my release towards the future.

Creative Invitation

This post’s creative invitation is to do no more than read (or for many of you, re-read) Robert Frost’s poem, ‘The Road not Taken’.  I’m posting here an interesting article about how to read his poem in a different way to the one traditionally proposed: that there is some implicit regret in the road not taken.  Perhaps you can find other meanings, other ways of reading not just Robert Frost’s poem but also ways of re-framing the stories of some of the roads you have taken…and not taken.

The Road Not Taken


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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