Being childless doesn't mean you can't nurture others
Learning that you will never be a mother can be devastating. But Amanda Revell Walton has a message for women facing the heartbreaking news.
Leaving my GP's surgery clutching a flimsy piece of paper, the numbers 46.9ml were etched on my mind. That was the result of my FSH blood test, which, as anyone who has had fertility treatment will know, gives an indication of your ovarian reserve.
I had already endured two cycles of IVF, which had been unsuccessful. This was to be my third time lucky, my final attempt to have a longed-for baby with my husband. But those numbers 46.9, followed by the very definitive word "menopausal", signalled the end of my IVF rollercoaster ride. At the age of 42, I was going through an early menopause.
Although most people equate the menopause with hot flushes and HRT, for me it meant that my fertility shutters had finally closed and in doing so had blocked out the last ray of hope I might ever have of becoming a mother.
I can honestly say it wasn't until that moment that the enormity of living life as a childless woman really struck me. And it continued to strike me for some time thereafter.
As a woman, you grow up with the widely held assumption that it's a sort of inherent done deal that you're going to be a mum. As little girls, we're given dolls, not only to play with, but to love and nurture.
But even more compelling than the ingrained belief that being a woman equals being a mother, for many of us there is that inbuilt biological urge to reproduce. To us, it is a part of our nature - the one thing that lets us know why we are here. "What," I kept asking myself, "is going to be my meaning in life - if not to be a mother?" I felt cheated out of what was rightfully mine. I had heated discussions in my head whereby I'd cross-examine myself. Was I somehow to blame? Did I somehow deserve this? I found myself looking back on my life and asking myself if I could have done anything different that may have prevented my disinheritance from this God-given life of motherhood.
In hindsight, I think I went through a kind of grieving process, although what I was experiencing was a strange kind of bereavement because I had not "lost" anything as such. My loss was invisible, but that didn't make it any less painful. This unseen grief would hit me out of the blue - often when I was driving and listening to some music, or walking my dog. A deep sadness would engulf me as I realised there would forever be a hole in my heart that would never be filled with the love of a child.
It felt almost physical, as though I had just slammed straight into a wall that had appeared out of nowhere. And those were the times when it really hit me. I was never going to be a mum. That feeling would immediately be followed by a kind of panic attack, which would send me spiralling. It was as though I'd been thrown down a dark well and there was no escape, nor room to move.
But as I mentally stood in shock at the bottom of this well, I began to realise that not being able to have a child was beyond my control. I could not do anything about it - other than accept it. And, with that understanding - with that acceptance - to quote from the Serenity Prayer, "to accept the things I cannot change, and the courage to change the things I can" - I, too, started to change.
Looking around me, I realised I wasn't the only woman in the world who didn't have children. Far from it. I learnt that one in every five women is childless. I even started to feel a little relieved, even liberated.
For the first time in a long time, I was free from the constant internal dialogue of "Am I going to have a child - or not? Will the IVF work or not? Will I miraculously fall pregnant?"
And so, gradually, I found my feet in this new child-free world - and I discovered that it could be quite exciting.
Over the past few years, my husband and I have been on a road trip to the lakes of Northern Italy, stopping over at a chateau in a Champagne vineyard and an art hotel in Basel, Switzerland. I've ridden pillion on my husband's motorbike to Le Touquet in France, and we've had romantic weekends in places such as Bruges, Budapest, Berlin, and in Britain.
There are, of course, times when a sudden eruption of sadness will engulf me when something touches the mother inside me, and I will cry silent tears. But these times are rare. And they have lessened as time has moved on.
I look at my life and instead of seeing what I don't have, I see what I do have. I am sharing my life with someone I love and have fun with - as well as with my beloved dog, Rosie.
I also have a job that I love, which has given me the answer to the question, "What is going to be my meaning in life?" My work and my writing have become my raison d'être. Everyone has got their own reason for living - you just need to find it.
I also allow the mother inside of me to live and breathe. Just because I don't have my own children doesn't say this part of my being has to be shut away and never allowed out. I have learnt how to give the mothering instinct freedom in a way I feel benefits not just me, but those on the receiving end.
To me, "mothering" is about loving and caring for others. I try and do that, not just with the children I'm lucky enough to have in my life - I revel in being an over-indulgent aunty to my sister's three young children, Ivor (9), Matilda (7), and Flynn (3) - but also with other people in my life, be they younger or older.
It doesn't have to be anything dramatic - it may be just lending a sympathetic ear, or giving someone a shoulder to cry on.
Just because you don't have a child or a family doesn't mean that you can't help, guide and nurture others. You just need to find your own way of passing that on. I can honestly say that, four years on, I've now reached a stage where I love my life as a child-free woman.
To any woman out there coming to terms with the knowledge she will never be a mother, I'd say, yes, feel the sadness and cry the tears, but please, don't let it destroy this wonderful, unpredictable life we've been given.
Not having children will not destroy you, or your life. I'm passionate about sharing my experience and showing that it is possible to live a positive life without children.
Being childless is just another path that perhaps you didn't expect to be walking down, but one that can be equally fun, equally satisfying, and equally happy.
Amanda Revell Walton's e-book, The IVF Diaries (Cycle One) is £2.05 from amazon.co.uk
New life: Amanda Revell Walton has come to terms with being childless
Family ties: above, Amanda with her nephew and niece, Ivor and Matilda and (right) with her dog Rosie