BY TULA HOWARTH (EDITED BY TASHA BISHOP)
There are some women who are mothers long before they have a child. I believe I am one of these women. Motherhood is a calling like any other career, and yet it is often underestimated and misunderstood. As a 20-year-old living in the UK, I am fully aware of the stigma around women having children young, before they have established a career of sorts; teenage pregnancies are often seen as failures, embarrassing mistakes or bad life choices. But pregnancies that take place at an earlier stage of life can also be much the opposite.
I had worked as a professional actress since 12, and although fully intended to continue indefinitely, I knew motherhood was my calling in life. I have been incredibly blessed to have met the love of my life at a young age, and at just 17 I fell head over heals for a man who is also my best friend. Around the same time, I was experiencing mild but persistent abdominal pain. I went to my GP, who dismissed my pain as common and told me not to worry. Months passed, but the pain became gradually worse, so I went back. Stumped, she told me she didn't know what it could possibly be - except endometriosis, only it couldn’t possibly be that as “women under 25 don’t get it”. So I was told it was probably a wheat intolerance... in my uterus...? I buried my doubts and cut wheat out of my diet as suggested. A month later, apart from being generally less bloated, nothing had changed. Next up her sleeve of diagnosis’, was cystitis. Two weeks of cranberry tablets later, and again, very little results.
Months went by and the pain continued to increase. I was 18 by this point. Frustrated but determined, I started my own research. I found that her original suggestion of endometriosis ticked a scary amount of boxes, a condition in which the womb lining forms outside of the womb itself. I researched it a great deal and concluded this route should be investigated. The worst thing about it was the effect it has on a woman’s fertility; untreated, it can make becoming pregnant very difficult. I panicked and went back to my GP, asking for a scan. She told me point blank I didn’t need a scan, that it was a waste of everyone’s time. I stood my ground and eventually she reluctantly agreed to refer me for one.
Two months later, it was time for my scan, revealing that my right ovary was enlarged and abnormally close to my uterus. Even with these results, my GP insisted that due to my age I did not have endometriosis, suggesting that I may have Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID); a condition caused by bacteria, resulting in scar tissue on the inner uterus wall. I was sent to the hospital and underwent a painful internal examination with sharp edged instruments - I cried for most of the duration. They couldn't tell if it was PID (there is no official test for it), but they decided to put me on a month’s course of antibiotics, just in case. Once again, this did nothing and after reviewing it with my GP, she had no further plan of action.
I went home crying. I wasn't getting the help I needed, and I couldn't progress because of it. My father was outraged and I made another appointment, but this time he came with me. He sat down in the GP’s office with me and told her that our own research on endometriosis had rung true with my symptoms, and that now having crossed everything else off the list of possibilities, we expected it to be pursued. My GP was enraged that we were challenging her, and proceeded to shout. My father calmly continued the conversation and would not leave until he had watched her book me in with a gynaecologist. After overrunning into several other patient’s appointment times, she finally cracked and booked me in. I received a letter for an appointment to “discuss only” my symptoms with the gynaecologist, in three months’ time.
I was due to leave for South America to teach in a rural jungle school for a year, and this appointment would be cutting it fine. I decided to ring them and explain my situation, and luckily they were able to reschedule. By this, they meant they’d push my appointment back seven months, instead of the original three. This did nothing to rectify the situation and I wouldn't even be in the country at the time of the rescheduled appointment. At this point I was in consistently intense pain, and was reaching breaking point.
Deflated and outraged by the situation, my father was luckily in a position to pay a few hundred pounds for a private consultation with a gynaecologist. She immediately agreed it sounded like endometriosis and said she would happily give me a laparoscopy - a key-hole surgery operation in which they observe your organs using a tiny camera, proceeding to remove the endometriosis should they find any. It was very simple, except it would cost £6,000. Unfortunately, we were not able to pay it and again I felt I was at the end of the road. But by some miracle, she decided to go out of her way for me. The gynaecologist knew about our situation and was angry that the NHS was not pulling their weight. She offered there and then to fit me in as an NHS patient in another local private hospital. It would be difficult for her to arrange and take some time to do. I was so grateful to this woman and her kindness in going out of her way to help me.
I was given an appointment for a laparoscopy a few weeks before I was due to leave the country. I went to the hospital 2 weeks before my operation, for my 1st pre-op session. When I came in the week leading up to my surgery for my 2nd session, the nurses seemed confused. After waiting for an hour, they informed me there was no record of me being booked in for an operation at any point in the future. Apparently there hadn't been enough beds available on the day of my surgery, and the matter of informing my gynaecologist had been forgotten in the process. Everything was beginning to feel like a joke, except it was far from funny. I now only had a few weeks before leaving and there was no way the surgeon could fit me in beforehand. If I left the surgery until I came back in a year’s time, the damage done to my uterus would likely be too much for me to ever have a child, not to mention the excruciating pain I would have to live through in the meantime.
However, fate was somehow on my side. Another gynaecologist at the same hospital was able to fit me in just before I left the country. I arrived on the day of my surgery and still wasn't entirely sure it would happen, but amazingly, nothing went wrong that day. Almost a year after first going to the doctors, I was given the surgery. They successfully found and removed endometriosis from my uterus and right ovary. After the operation, my surgeon came to me in my dosed up state and told me that he didn't think it would have effected my fertility too badly, but that I would need another operation in a year or 2 as it would have grown back by then.
I felt such relief and had a few blissful weeks of no pain, having forgotten what that felt like. Still recovering from the surgery, I took off to South America and settled in there. Soon after my arrival I was aware of a dull, persistent pain that grew quickly and intensely, until once again I couldn't bear or ignore it. After only 2 months into my year of teaching that I had spent 3 years fundraising £5,900 to do, the pain was too much. I had to come home.
Back to my surgeon I went, who did an internal ultrasound and told me he thought that after the operation, the endometriosis had developed into it’s sister condition, adenomyosis - a condition where the uterus bleeds into itself. I was told this would have a detrimental and irreparable effect on my fertility. The options were:
1) take strong contraception for the rest of my life that stopped my cycles (I would be able to come off of it when I decided I wanted to try for a baby, and then go back on it after giving birth).
2) or have a full hysterectomy of my uterus and ovaries.
I was now 19. I wanted children. Ideally I wanted to wait a few years, but I wanted them, and I wanted them above any job or career, so I went with option one. I had used the ‘standard’ pill as contraception before this journey started and hadn't gotten on well with it, but decided it was better than option 2. I started to take a very strong contraceptive drug that came with a whole booklet of serious side effects, of which I was told to expect at least a couple. However, they immediately made me bleed (not one of the listed side effects), which continued non-stop for 5 weeks. I then started to haemorrhage, and was taken to hospital in an ambulance.
After that I stopped taking the contraceptives and went back to my gynaecologist who laughed when I told him what happened, saying “I get a few of those a year”. I didn't find it funny. I was suffering the most excruciating, agonising pain every time I had my periods as the adenomyosis meant I was bleeding into my womb muscles, and in between periods I had no energy from my body trying to repair itself; a five-minute walk would utterly exhaust me.
In a final and desperate attempt, I started seeing a herbalist someone had recommended. Working with him using natural, every day herbs like lavender and raspberry leaf in the form of syrup and tea, was a very gentle and much less extreme process. In little over a month, my pain was almost gone and my energy was increasing. Despite this, along with the fresh damage caused by the adenomyosis, we knew it would only be a year or so until the endometriosis had regrown and I would need another operation. So my partner and I decided that we would try for a baby - it was now or never. My partner was now 25 and ready for children, I was 20 and although there were other things I also wanted to do with my life, motherhood prevailed. The herbs I was taking were supposed to be making me extremely fertile on top of all the other good they were doing, and so we started trying to conceive. Yet, month after month, no baby appeared and I started to believe that the damage already done to my reproductive organs was too great. Amongst all my work and everyday life, it was the main thing that consumed me. It was always with me, slithering into my mind like a mist in those moments when I was alone and unoccupied.
After seven months of trying, I couldn't deal with another month of obsession. I told my partner I wanted a break and that instead of planning when we should be intimate we should just be with each other when we felt passionate. Every time thoughts of ovulation and fertile windows popped into my mind I pushed them straight back out. Before the month was out I had a strange feeling in my belly that I hadn’t felt before, so I decided to take a pregnancy test. It was positive. I didn't believe the test and started to think of reasons why it wasn't true; the test line wasn't as dark as the control line; it could be a false positive etc. I waited an hour and took the other one in the box. Positive.
I’m now 32 weeks pregnant with a healthy baby boy snuggled inside of me. Despite the extreme morning sickness, everything I do feels more wholesome and humble. Even being sat here at this cafe writing this, I feel more myself than I have ever felt before. My calling is now being fulfilled and I am feeling the surreal euphoria of it. There is a newfound confidence instilled in me and everything I do, whether it’s feeling comfortable in the clothes I put on or wearing less makeup.
I am well aware of how lucky I am, that my fertility issues were spotted early enough to be treated - because I know all too well that this is so often not the case. I hope my story can inspire you to persist in whatever endeavour you might embark upon and to anybody in a similar situation, never ever give up hope because miracles do happen. Listen to your body, trust it even if you don't quite understand what it is telling you. Stand up for yourself, and I cannot stress my recommendation enough of seeking a herbalist to treat you. It is the only thing that enabled me to cope with the physical pain whilst simultaneously treating my condition- something I had been told was impossible, unless I had the entirety of my reproductive organs removed.
I am incredibly grateful for this blessing every single day and feel extremely lucky that after everything I have been through, I was able to answer my calling of motherhood. I am only sorry that other women have not been as lucky as I have. I hope the fact that I was able to get pregnant, just before I no longer could, does not make people feel I am rubbing it in or flaunting my luck. Since I have wanted children more than anything else, I am all too aware of how lucky I am that I was able to do it.
I was once like a painter without his paints, but I am about to start the most beautiful painting of all. I wish you all the best on your own journeys and hope that this fulfilment I now feel is something all women can experience, be it through motherhood or any other calling. I hope we all find ways to stand up gently.
Follow Tula's Instagram for updates of her bump. She is trying to use it to spread a bit more awareness about endometriosis and hopefully give people hope by following her own journey!