A book review: Olive, by Emma Gannon

Infertility can lead us to be envious of not just those with bumps and babies but also those who are childfree by choice. All of these women are where they want to be; living their lives in alignment.

Olive, written by Emma Gannon, is about a woman in her early 30’s who is childfree. Not childless. Olive doesn’t want a baby—something she has always known. The book explores Olive’s personal relationship with motherhood and also the ones she has with her 3 close friends when she begins to feel she is losing them as they become wrapped up in a world of babies.

Emma Gannon has carefully crafted a friendship that we want to be a part of. Olive reminds us of a less sociable, less glamorous and more down to earth Carrie Bradshaw. Bea is the laid back Mother hen who lives in a big but messy house with her 3 children. Cecily is an exhausted new mother is also an award winning lawyer and lives in a stunning townhouse that sounds like an interior design dream, and Isla is a successful therapist who is brokenhearted and numb through her struggles to conceive.

After a failed round of IVF Isla is distraught with grief desperate to have a baby of her own. There is a powerful moment when Olive sees her friend’s pain for the first time: ‘Making an active choice about motherhood is one thing, having that choice taken away is another’.

In this moment Olive actively listens to her friend. There is no bad advice, no suggestion of adoption, no toxic positivity, no telling her to relax. Olive is the friend, the colleague, the family member and the stranger so needed by those struggling to conceive. 

Emma Gannon’s writing is spot on. She writes about Isla chewing ‘a baguette with her mouth open like she has completely given up on the world’, which is exactly how infertility feels at some point for everyone after failed cycles: hope is lost and you’re terrified by the possibility of never becoming a mother. It reminds us of our own initial naivety to fall pregnant when starting out on a path to conception when Isla says ‘how silly of me to think that I could just click my fingers’ and fall pregnant.

The conversations around infertility are relatable. Isla mentions ‘fiddly doctors appointments’ and is grateful for being self employed so she can manage IVF around her career. This reminds the reader that not all women have the compassion, support and flexibility they need from employers when undergoing treatment .

The lack of support towards women’s issues in the workplace is a passing sub theme that really does bring to light just how many women struggle with managing fertility appointments whilst working a full-time job. It highlights the reality that unless you have a compassionate and flexible employer there will be a limit to how far this empathy will stretch before wearing thin. Some workplaces have fertility policies and others don’t. 

Which is better? To have a policy that states you’re allowed the equivalent of 5 days to squeeze all fertility appointments and procedures into per year? Or would you prefer to work for someone who doesn’t have a policy in the hope that they will be flexible and allow as much time as you need for appointments? 

Ideally we need fertility policies at work that enforce equity so that every woman has paid leave to access fertility treatment that reflects the needs for that particular cycle and level of treatment. 

Infertility is just one theme of the book. To see these four women each experiencing a different relationship with motherhood: the overwhelm of it, the disinterest in it, the craving of it or the joy of it, is delicious. It reminds us how unique we are and of that all important lesson to not assume we know what someone else is going through. The book encourages us to be a better friend and reminds us how vulnerable relationships are. To have a friend you have to be a friend first. 

The complexity of female friendships is explored throughout. Emma Gannon grasps the intensity, balance, tension and power shifts between Olive and her four best friends as they each reach stages in their lives that they struggle with.

We learn that it’s not only those who are struggling to conceive who receive crappy advice from friends and family. Instead of ‘stay positive and it will happen’ childless by choice women hear ‘oh you’ll change your mind one day’ [about having babies]. Undermining and insulting. Childfree by choice is sadly still a taboo. 

The message from this book is simple- when it comes to fertility- mind your own business and DON’T under any circumstance offer advice. Listen.