Photo: Getty


Is it possible to have a happy, healthy relationship with a contraceptive?

Photo: Getty

After three decades, Sali Hughes thought she’d finally found the contraception Holy Grail. And then she experienced an unexpected side effect…

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By Sali Hughes on

In an effort to retain something as sacred, I’ve always been determined not to be a columnist that writes about her fanny and yet here we are. But the truth is, mine has undergone such a life-changing and seismic shift in the past two months that I’ve barely been able to think or talk about much else.

For the first time in decades, I’m in a happy, healthy relationship with a contraceptive. I’ve paid my dues. There were the many pill years; a happy, free, wonderful time of enjoying the world’s greatest invention, where I could skip a period like double maths. Sadly, while it prevented pregnancies, it also left me carrying a carb baby so big that Tube passengers gave up their seats nonetheless. Post-babies, there was the NuvaRing era, which initially felt like the best thing to happen to my vagina since I discovered the grease pole at the local playground and sent me fully evangelical (seriously, they should have had me on commission), until terrifying stories of its allegedly life-ending risks called time on the party. Throughout it all, I was the woman who had two-day periods and no real idea what friends were referring to when they talked about a week of crying for no reason and fantasising about stabbing their boyfriend for having the temerity to offer them a cuppa.

These phases, though the default, were admittedly punctuated by unsatisfactory “natural” methods: the withdrawal years culminating in the inevitable pregnancy and grim abortion; the safe, casual-sex era (fun, necessary, but like a diet of hotdogs and popcorn, ultimately unsatisfying and untenable). Then there was the diaphragm, which, if I’m entirely honest, was acquired because it made me feel like a fabulous 1970s Spare Rib feminist, then used only twice because who the hell has time to plan yet another task in advance? Then, of course, there was the advent of the digital age, where an iPhone app, between wistfully quacking on about the “magic” of womanhood, told me when I couldn’t have sex, almost invariably on the very days when I would cheerfully have shagged any living organism that happened to pass my bedroom window. Later, there were the condom-only years – almost risk-free, hormone-free, mess-free, spontaneity-free (ever experienced the mood-killing solemnity of realising that, while your pants are on the kitchen floor, the condoms are a whole flight of stairs away, hidden behind a pile of junk because your children are utterly appalled by the sight of them?) that tested my patience to the limit. Whatever the methods, none stayed the course. Contraception felt perennially like being in a job you love, only to be told every few months that your contract had been terminated and you were back on the temping circuit. When my relationships, friendships and career were in such good shape, why couldn’t I nail the art of enjoying sex without a baby as penance?

Sadly, while the pill prevented pregnancies, it also left me carrying a carb baby so big that Tube passengers gave up their seats

The only thing I hadn’t tried in almost three decades of sexual adventure was a coil. I discounted the Mirena, so adored by my friends, on account of it being hormone-releasing, and I’d vetoed the copper coil because I remember it looking like a medieval torture instrument or something you’d use to assemble an Ikea bookcase. No way was some spiky piece of metal going near my cervix, like barbed wire fencing off intruders. There were so many alternatives! Until there weren’t. After years of copper avoidance, I had nowhere better to go and decided to take a punt on the possible side effects (heavier periods, mood swings, a small but real chance of infection and ectopic pregnancy) and made an appointment, which turned out to be about as painful as a smear test (if a little embarrassing when a lovely GUM nurse, finger up my fronty, asked me to recommend a good daytime foundation). Five grim days of sanitary towels seemed a fair trade for heaps of the best, almost entirely risk-free sex I’d enjoyed in years. “Everyone should get a coil!” I thought, in a post-coital delirium. But, gradually, one side effect did materialise – and one I hadn’t been banking on.

At first, I thought I was finally experiencing naturally occurring hormonal rushes. My dreams became cinematic epics of neurosis and anxiety. I turned on the telly and saw a woman give birth – something in which I’ve had zero interest since I popped out my last baby – and wept uncontrollably. Never before a jealous type, I felt suddenly heartbroken when my generally polite-to-a-fault boyfriend said someone on the telly had a saggy arse. We all decided it was best I went to bed with a hot-water bottle and a podcast until my period came and took the angst with it. I assumed I was merely recalibrating my hormones, getting in touch with my body, at last. But, gradually, I realised there was more to it. I was also experiencing the side effect no one warns you about – the period of acute mourning for a stage in my life that, even at 42, I’d deludedly imagined was indefinite.

I was experiencing the side effect no one warns you about – the period of acute mourning for a stage in my life that, even at 42, I’d deludedly imagined was indefinite

What had lit my emotional touch paper wasn’t the unleashing of hormones, but the unavoidable knowledge that my childbearing days are over. I am effectively leapfrogging the fallow period between babies and menopause, with no time to come to terms with the transition. In 10 years, when my coil is removed, there’ll be no need to replace it. I will never again need the breastfeeding T-shirts in the bag in the loft. The boxes of tiny, jolly, stripy onesies are now souvenirs, not contingency supplies. The tricycles and travel cots are nothing more than a physical blockage to my fantasy loft conversion. I’ll never again feel a kick or a hiccup in my belly, or look at an ultrasound screen and know I’m baking life’s most delicious cake. I’ll never wrap another pass-the-parcel, or make another pirate costume, or feel the blissful weight of my snoozing baby, sweating sweetly on my chest, or inhale the milky, nutty smell of his scalp.

I know it’s greedy, illogical, perhaps silly and, in relative terms, a lovely problem to have. I consider myself almost obscenely fortunate and privileged in having two healthy, kind sons who’ve grown big enough to watch Blackadder, make their own breakfast and teach me how to fix the printer. And I never did – and still don’t – want a third. I’ve no desire to take an hour to leave the house, laden with baby kit, only to turn around again as crap leaks from a Pampers. I’ve no energy to be a full-time drinks machine again, or to stare at a gently flickering baby monitor as though it were life support, no appetite to wean, potty train or wipe pee from my stinging eye. I’ve no inclination to watch every penny because I physically don’t have time to work, or go days without a proper conversation because my partner and I are dead on our feet. I tell myself this constantly, what I already know to be true. But the knowledge that one, surprisingly tiny, soft and flexible bit of copper has permanently closed my uterus for business, putting the full stop on the open-ended paragraph of our family, has caused me to mourn the baby and toddler years, in all their boring, infuriating, hilarious, comforting, inspiring and ultimately, deeply gratifying glory. I am allowing myself time to grieve them and forcing myself celebrate this new exciting, if occasionally bittersweet, chapter. And what better way, I suppose, than with plenty of healing sex?


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