Elizabeth Day: ‘The way society treats women without children made me feel like a failure’
The author and presenter of the How To Fail podcast on overcoming multiple miscarriages, reclaiming failure and counteracting the age of curated perfection
Elizabeth Day: The author, journalist and broadcaster’s How To Fail podcast is listened to by millions of people worldwide. Photograph: Jenny Smith
This year has been a ghost train ride for everyone, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who has experienced the dizzying dips and highs that Elizabeth Day has.
The author, journalist and broadcaster – whose How To Fail podcast, which regularly features celebrities and literary luminaries, is listened to by millions of people worldwide – has, by her own admission, had a lockdown “of two halves”.
Her parents both contracted Covid-19 at the end of March, at a time when few had any real clue as to the course or duration of the virus. They both recovered much to Day’s relief, yet worse was to come. During lockdown, and after moving in with her new fiance (whom she met on a dating app in 2018), Day also experienced a miscarriage.
There was no way I couldn’t not stare my sadness in the face
As Day’s ever-swelling following is keenly aware, it is her ongoing hope to become a mother.
In her first book, How To Fail, Day had written with stirring openness about her “failure” to conceive a child and later, to carry a child to term. (Day’s miscarriage was the inspiration for the shocking “get your hands off my miscarriage” toilet scene in Fleabag, “although mine was over brunch not dinner”.)
Her recent miscarriage “was my third and, as a medically induced one, was definitely the worst in many respects, as there were no outside distractions and I really had to sit with the process”, Day tells me, forthright to the last. “There was no way I couldn’t not stare my sadness in the face.
“This all comes with a caveat, by the way – I’m very privileged and my lockdown was certainly not as hard as for others,” Day adds. “And [lockdown] in a way was helpful for processing as I had to be in it. It really helped that my fiance and I were in it together.”
Talking with Technicolor candour about the vulnerable or difficult parts of her personal life is just another day at the office for Day. And it’s easy to see just why her following has grown exponentially, making her books bestsellers and her podcast one of the biggest in the UK.
Wearing her successes lightly, Day writes and talks with the cosy warmth of an old friend.
It was never part of the plan, but it’s slightly ironic that Day has become a poster child of sorts for failure. A successful journalist and bestselling author, Day is best friends with Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge and has a double-first from Cambridge University. Her How To Fail podcast now has an audience of millions across the globe. Waller-Bridge, Gloria Steinem, Dolly Alderton, Olivia Laing, Andrew Scott, Marian Keyes, Lily Allen, Alastair Campbell, David Nicholls and Sebastian Faulks have confided in her about their own experiences of failure and “weakness”.
To be fair, they’re hardly the most immediate candidates to speak about failing in life, but there has certainly been something compelling about this collection of interviews. Nicholls’ failure to make it as an actor, Alderton’s litany of shockingly bad lovers, Guardian journalist John Crace’s descent into heroin addiction. And so on.
The second half of lockdown, she says, was “weirdly, extremely productive”, resulting in the first draft of Day’s fifth novel.
I feel part of a community of women who aren’t defined by motherhood
Finding the silver lining is central to Day’s philosophy. Failure, she theorises, is a natural and unavoidable part of living, and should be learned from, accepted and, in some cases, celebrated. Some of the most transformative moments in our life, Day says, come from failure or crisis.
Her fertility journey, she notes, has even brought its own gifts: “I hope that men and women going through a difficult fertility journey don’t see this as a kind of betrayal, but I feel part of a community of women who aren’t defined by motherhood.”
I ask if any reader has taken exception to Day couching her telling of the fertility journey within the language of failure.
“No one has ever said to me you shouldn’t categorise that as failure, as it’s a biological thing, but what interested me is that women are made to feel like a failure in some respects,” Day responds.
“‘Failure to respond to drugs’; ‘incompetent cervix’; ‘inhospitable womb’. It’s often a quirk of biology, but the language is designed to make you feel like you’re failing. The way society treats women without children, and how the medical profession, in my experience, talks about infertility and miscarriage, made me feel like a failure.”
Day’s personal nadir came in the first two months of 2015. She had undergone two unsuccessful cycles of IVF. As she was coming to terms with not getting pregnant, she became pregnant naturally. She’d had her first miscarriage in October 2014, on what she has called “one of the most gruelling nights of my life”. By the end of that year, she had been pregnant and miscarried twice.
“I now realise my hormones were all over the place, and looking back I was probably mildly depressed,” she recalls. “I don’t think I understood anything other than feeling sad at that stage. I certainly wasn’t thinking this is a great learning opportunity at the time.”
With fans of her books and show crying out for yet more hard-won wisdom, Day has now released Failosophy, a companion of sorts to How To Fail. Dubbed a “handbook for when things go wrong”, Failosophy is threaded together with readers’ stories, interviews with celebrity guests from the How To Fail podcast, and lessons from her own life.
Born in 1978, Day’s family moved to Derry from England in 1982, when bombs and checkpoints were a daily reality. Her father, a surgeon, took a job at Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry. Later, the family moved to Belfast.
At a time when all that most kids want to do is fit in, Day felt an outsider because of her English accent. She became a listener and a quiet observer – something she describes as a gift for her writing career. She soon found a creative outlet in the Derry Journal where, as a “precocious” 12-year-old, she wrote former editor Pat McArt a spec column about Kylie and Jason, and soon penned pieces on perms, not liking Cliff Richard and the overabundance of Australian soap stars in the charts.
“I’m so grateful they even paid me to do it,” Day laughs. “And yet, I was aware of constant conflict [in Northern Ireland]. It was scary, but at the same time there was a lot to comprehend. I think that I was aware of all this darkness going on, even in this very beautiful place to live. I knew very early on that life could be both light and dark.”
I’m extremely passionate about attacking stigma and shame around the female experience
Combining Day’s own life lessons with accounts from ordinary people, Failosophy lays bare the extraordinary community that has now grown around Day, mainly as a result of her own vulnerability.
“I get incredible messages on Instagram from people aged 17 to 70. The main thing I get is people in their 20s feeling particularly lost and hopeless,” says Day.
“I feel an enormous amount of comfort and solidarity when people share stories with me, and people respond to something I write,” says Day. “That brings meaning to something that runs the risk of being meaningless. Writing about it is a form of catharsis, and I’m extremely passionate about attacking stigma and shame around the female experience. I will talk about it forever for that reason.”
Though it may feel that all of Day’s life is open for public consumption, she does keep some elements private.
“There are things in life I don’t talk about, but if I feel comfortable, and if my partner is comfortable, I think it’s important to share things,” Day muses. “I don’t feel a responsibility or anything; I do it for my own reasons.”
Many people just feel overwhelmed by others’ seemingly perfect lives
There’s probably a good reason that Day’s podcast has lit the blue touch paper in a wider sense. In today’s hypersensitive times, we are more afraid of failure in society than ever before. Social media also means that there is no real safe space to make mistakes any more.
“My podcast is about counteracting that age of curated perfection,” Day offers. “It’s an antidote to Instagram where you feel less worthy because so many people are on a yacht, or eating healthily. I mean I love Instagram but we need to be more in control of it and our response to it. So many people just feel overwhelmed by others’ seemingly perfect lives. That’s why we needed to start a conversation about when things go wrong.”
As happens with most popular phenomena, the backlash came not long afterwards. Several commentators pointed to the “fetishisation of failure”, with American website Refinery29 positing: “Has failure just become another thing we need to succeed at?”
Day, naturally, is keenly aware of the rise of what some are calling “failure porn”.
“It’s interesting, isn’t it? And quite similar to the body positivity movement, in a way,” Day notes. “When something becomes part of a bigger conversation and reaches a ‘peak’ point, it starts to be a bit oppressive. Like when you log onto Instagram and it’s like I don’t feel great but I have to feel great and I have to embrace my curves… It’s the same with failure. We’re happy we can admit we’re not perfect all the time, but now I’ve got to feel great about everything I’ve failed at? It’s exhausting.
“Look, there’s no way to fail at failing,” Day affirms. “If you don’t want to fail well and would rather wallow in it, that’s fine, but I choose a different path. You can choose to learn and attach meaning to experiences should you want to. I’m not advocating going after failure, but it will happen to us all, and this is the way to remove its sting.”
I think I am an optimist about life
Day has boiled her received wisdom down to seven key philosophies. Among them are: You Are Not Your Worst Thoughts; There Is No Such Thing As A Future You; Almost Everyone Feels They’ve Failed At Their 20s; and Breakups Are Not A Tragedy.
“They are not,” Day laughs warmly of the latter. “All relationships teach you something, and when you’ve been taught that lesson, the relationship sometimes ends. As sad as that can be, it’s not a failure, and definitely not a tragedy. In my own life, the podcast came out of a breakup three weeks before my 39th birthday – my first relationship after my divorce. I was so shocked by that breakup and my life not going according to plan. I didn’t expect to be 40, single and without children. It did teach me the stuff I needed to do, rather than what I was telling myself I needed, and I’m in an amazing relationship with a fully realised grown-up now.”
Above all, Day remains hopeful, even amid a challenging and eventful year.
“I think I am an optimist about life,” she surmises. “I’ve seen the best of human nature. I’ve gained an enormous amount from terrible experience so I’m hopeful about the end, because I know that whatever I’ve been through, I’ll be okay. Should I not be a parent or have another miscarriage, it’ll be difficult, but I can withstand it. Hopefully I will be a parent. There are many different ways of being a parent, and I’m lucky enough to live in a time when options are available.
“It’s important for me to think hopefully on this,” she adds. “The universe is complicated and so beyond our comprehension, we just need to be ready for the thing we want to happen.”
Failosophy by Elizabeth Day is published by HarperCollins. Her How To Fail podcast is available here