If you spotted Benita Bensch on the street, you wouldn't likely presume she'd had challenges conceiving. With her four beautiful boys, thriving careers (yes, that's multiple) and infectious smile in tow, she looks instead like a woman who life - and motherhood - may have come easily to.
But as always, there’s more to Benita than meets the eye. And having struggled for years with infertility, Benita has made it her mission to help other women who are experiencing the same levels of heartache.
This mother, writer, entrepreneur and Australian farmer says, “I believe in the power of vulnerability through storytelling to start and shape meaningful conversations.”
Which is just what she’s doing with her recently released book, The Art of Trying, which chronicles Benita’s intimate, authentic account of her journey to conceive, told over a seven-year period. The book goes deep into the dark and the light of what Benita experienced and learned – about infertility and treatments, loss, mental health, the strength of mind and body, and relationships – to receive the most precious gifts in life.
Having created this must-read for anyone struggling to fulfil their dreams of starting a family, as well as for the people who are supporting them, we knew we had to speak to Benita about her experience, her book and the community she’s created as a result. In doing so, we were reminded that wherever we are in our journeys, we are really never alone.
Find out more about Benita Bensch and The Art of Trying | Header image by Tempus Media, all other images by Hannah McNulty.
What did your life look like before children came along?
Before children I was very focused on my career. I worked in the beef industry for five years, then did a short stint in PR, before establishing Sunburnt Country Consulting – a boutique marketing agency for rural businesses – in Gunnedah NSW in 2008. Sunburnt Country grew to include a team of women, then I downsized it when Adam and I relocated to Back Creek in late 2011. My business continued to evolve through to its conclusion in 2016, by which time I was specialising in branding and coaching services, as well as working on select agricultural and regional communication/training projects.
Outside of work hours Adam and I both enjoyed sport and socialising at the rugby or races, and we have always been involved in our family farming businesses to varying degrees depending on our location.
Did you always know you wanted to be a mother?
Yes, there was no question in my mind that there would be children in my future and growing up I assumed I’d be finished having children by the time I was 30. Ha! Hilariously, I did go through a phase as a girl when I didn’t want to marry; I wanted to live happily ever after in a shed with my cattle, horses, dogs and guinea pigs. I’m thankful that I outgrew that phase!
Children were always on my radar but I wasn’t an overly maternal person. I was never the babysitter, or the first one to hold the new baby. I was the high achiever with big dreams and of my friends and family I was probably someone people thought may not have children, or at least not many.
Can you tell us a little about your journey with infertility?
My journey with infertility started a long time before I became aware of it, back as a teenager with painful heavy periods that I thought was the norm. After a string of different contraceptive pills, gynaecologist visits and eventually a laparoscopy and hysteroscopy in 2007, I was diagnosed with mild/moderate endometriosis at age 26.
I went off the pill (which helped suppress the build-up of scar tissue) as soon as Adam and I married in October 2010 and we started trying to conceive two months later. It was 32 months from our wedding to the conception of our first-born and during that time we went through a miscarriage, a cycle of Clomid, three cycles of ovulation induction and intrauterine insemination, another laparoscopy and hysteroscopy, and an IVF cycle. Two years later our twins were also conceived via IVF.
It was the female factor that contributed to infertility in our case. We presume my endometriosis had an impact but other than that it’s unexplained why we had a challenging time creating our family. That’s why I titled my book ‘The Art of Trying’ because becoming pregnant felt like a rare and complex art form to me. I still perceive creating a child and bringing it safely into the world as the most mystical, magical thing in the universe.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in trying to conceive your children?
My mental health was the biggest challenge for me, which I’ll elaborate on below.
The geographic isolation and lack of support was also a big issue for us. We lived in rural areas throughout the entire journey of conceiving, so any blood tests, ultrasound scans, doctor and fertility clinic visits involved many hours and kilometres of travel. Adam was with me for the major appointments and procedures, but the majority of the time I was alone. Probably the only person who knew the extent of what we were experiencing was my Mum.
During our assisted conception cycles there were also logistical challenges: getting drugs delivered to me before I needed them while keeping them chilled; the stressful process of having blood tests and scans and ensuring the results were received in time; and driving significant distances multiple times in a cycle.
It was also isolating in that during 2012 when things were at their worst for me I ran my business from a home office in the middle of an 8,000-acre wheat paddock. We were also in a new community, a long way from my family. Adam worked long hours and I spent an unhealthy amount of time on my own. I took myself off social media and there were times that I hid away so I didn’t have to face people’s comments and questions like: “come on you guys, you better hurry up” and “when are you going to have a baby?” Also, I’m not good at telling lies so I found I didn’t even want to answer simple questions like “what have you been up to lately?” How should or could I explain in a light-hearted brief encounter that I’d had a miscarriage, or I’d had another procedure the day before. So instead you smile and say, “oh not much, what about you?”
You don’t want to tell people what you’re going through because then they know you’re ‘trying’ and will probably tell someone else. Then you’re worried you’ll be judged, or you’ll have to handle another awkward conversation, or have them tiptoe around you. Then it’s also another person you feel you should keep updated. So instead you isolate yourself even further to avoid all of it. It’s such an intensely emotional, individual and private journey.
Another challenge is the physical side of assisted conception treatments – coping with the toll that the procedures and drugs take on your body and emotions. I had ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome with both IVF cycles and that was fairly taxing.
How did this impact your relationship?
It impacted us positively from a long term perspective, and negatively at the time.
Ultimately the journey to create our family has strengthened our relationship and solidified us as a team. The last 10 years has proven to us what we’re capable of conquering together. We’ve been stretched, and stretched some more, to what felt like breaking point at times, but our love for one another and vision for our future got us through it. Adam has endured a lot from me. He’s an incredible man; a pillar of quiet strength, calm and consistency when I have gone up and down like a yo-yo. He’s my voice of reason. I’m so privileged to walk with him through this life.
It was really tough while we were going through it. I became consumed by TTC, Adam was consumed by work, rugby and farming, and our relationship suffered as a result. I grew angry and resentful toward him that he could continue on with his normal life (or so I thought) while I was mentally, emotionally and physically dealing with the next thing we were doing to conceive. At times I was too self-absorbed to see the impact it had on him: coping with it himself (and never talking about it to anyone), handling me, the pressure/stigma of not letting it impact on his responsibilities, and continuing to bring in the $ when I cut back my workload.
What about your mental health?
My mental health suffered badly at certain points in the journey, particularly by the end of 2012 when I hit what I call the ‘black hole’, which for me is like a total breakdown. I’d been sliding down the slippery treacherous slope of mental illness for a long time and not addressing it, and eventually, it caught up with me. I was high functioning from the outside, but on the inside I was a mess – anxious, angry, in despair, confused and in a sort of state of paralysis.
I found it extremely difficult coping with the frustration and lack of control around TTC. What got to me is that everything else in my life that I’d wanted to achieve I’d been able to, but when it came to this one thing that I wanted more than anything, that should have come naturally, I couldn’t achieve it. Trying my best wasn’t good enough and I felt like a failure. I felt disconnected from my body, I stopped making plans and I’d given up other joys in my life because everything hinged on becoming pregnant. It eats away at you from the inside out month-after-month and all the while you’re contemplating “will this be the month?”
The more we tried, and the more intense the process got, it satisfied that need in me to want to be proactive and control it, but the fall felt further and harder when the pregnancy test was once again negative.
When I emerged from the black hole I had to learn new strategies to let go and release my vice-like grip on this thing that was beyond my control.
What role did your journal play in this time?
My journal was my companion and therapy. I have always found writing to be cathartic and a way of processing my thoughts, so journaling through our TTC journey became an important coping strategy. There’s something about seeing the words outside of yourself written on paper. Whether it was a conscious decision I’m not sure, but at some level I think I knew that it was an important story to capture.
You now have four boys - tell us about life with four!
Life with four boys is noisy, fun, increasingly chaotic and boy-ish! It’s a beautiful disaster really. I’m having to learn to let go and not hover over their every move which always seems like an accident waiting to happen! They will turn 6, 4 (twins) and 2 early in 2020 and we have just come into a new phase where the combination of their ages is like dynamite – there is a lot of physicality, noise, competing and pushing the boundaries. I don’t know if it’s a boy thing but there is also a lot of wanting Mum – to tell me everything, show me everything, ask me everything, usually all at once, which is so special but also can be challenging to manage, especially now they are all talkative. They are kind, affectionate boys so I do get a lot of cuddles though, which I love!
It’s not lost on me for a second how incredibly blessed we are to have four healthy children. I love my boys to bits. However, I want to be honest and say that it has been, and is, really hard at times. Just like TTC, motherhood takes you to your growth edge, and beyond. That will have to be the subject of another book!
What challenges do you think women (and men) face when they have a baby after experiencing infertility? Is there added pressure to enjoy every moment?
I don’t think the level of love for a child, or how precious they are to their parents, is any different for people who have experienced infertility vs those who haven’t, but perhaps the anxiety and fear may be greater for some. I didn’t feel pressure as such, more just a feeling I had to overcome of so desperately wanting things to go right after the long road we’d had to get to the point of holding a baby in our arms.
Going through infertility you gain an awareness that others may not have about what it’s like to accommodate the possibility of not having children, and feeling the deep pain of other people who are struggling, so you certainly feel like you should feel nothing but gratitude about having children. Perhaps there is a little pressure with that.
What prompted you to put pen to paper to tell your story?
- Knowing that my story and journal entries were what I wanted to read when we were TTC, and a strong gut feeling that it could help other women who are where I once was. I had to overcome many doubts and fears to get it written but the nagging feeling that it was something I needed to do wouldn’t go away.
- Because I wanted to document the story, pull together my journal entries, medical records and photographs, so that our children would know how desperately we wanted them and how they were created.
- For my own healing.
- To demonstrate to our boys that you can achieve whatever you decide to, and encourage others to share their stories.
As well as your book, you have built a supportive community for women experiencing challenges with fertility. What motivated you to do this?
The Art of Trying brings up some painful but common issues encountered on the road to motherhood, and I suspected it would bring forward those who could benefit from connecting with others around these issues. The Art of Trying private Facebook community is a safe space for women to find support in a closed forum environment. My motivation all comes from a desire to help others.
What tips do you have for women who are struggling to conceive?
- Focus on what you can control, primarily the health of your mind and body.
- Listen to your body and your inner voice. If you feel like something is wrong, or you want to seek a second opinion, don’t hesitate to go do it! Don’t let anyone tell you differently to what you know to be true about your body.
- The greatest power we have at our disposal is our magnificent mind. Granted, our mind alone will not create a pregnancy, but the mind-body connection is so strong and regardless of the circumstances we can have control from within.
- One of the best things you can do to support yourself in falling pregnant and experiencing a healthy pregnancy is to develop a positive mental attitude. I don’t mean simply telling yourself ‘stay positive’; what I’m referring to is deliberately choosing thoughts, feelings and actions that are in harmony with what you want (e.g. a healthy pregnancy and baby), rather than the present circumstances (i.e. struggling to conceive). Daily use of gratitude, and the proper use of your imagination to form and hold the picture of what you want, are powerful practices to support you on your journey. Chapter 13 of my book covers this in depth. Repetition of affirmations can also have a profound effect on our subconscious, which is why I have developed 31 affirmations for women trying to conceive. These are included in Chapter 14 of The Art of Trying, and from them I’ve created a set of beautiful individually designed affirmation cards. I wish I had this knowledge and these tools at my disposal when we were TTC, as I could have been far more effective with the use of my mind to focus on what I did want, not so much on what I didn’t want or have.
- It’s okay to not be okay in some moments, and days. Remaining positive is the ideal scenario for sure, but you can allow yourself to sit with the negativity, the pain and the sorrow for a time if you need to, and trust that you will move through it soon.
If we have a friend who is experiencing infertility or pregnancy loss, what tips do you have?
Both are such difficult topics that people avoid, not because they are callous but because they don’t know what to say.
If you are supporting someone experiencing infertility, please seek to understand first. Increase your awareness on the topic and be compassionately curious. If they give you an opening to explore the topic, be sure to ask questions, to listen to understand, not listen to reply. Really listen, let them talk. Some simple open-ended questions to get started may be:
- How are you?
- How can I support you?
- What can I do to help?
- Would you like to talk more about it?
Whatever you do, keep any judgement and sweeping comments to yourself. Resist the good old clichés like “stay positive.” You don’t need to have any answers or stories, there is no ‘right’ thing to say. The greatest gift you can give them is to listen and have an open heart.
If a friend opens up to you about pregnancy loss, say “I’m so sorry for your loss” and give them a hug (if you feel comfortable to do so). That’s it, no other comments or suggestions are needed. Again, be available to listen.
Can you tell us about your life now, with your work, your children and the farm?
How to describe my life? I would say rich, and full. I spread my time between my family, our family grain and beef cattle farming business, getting The Art of Trying into the hands of the people who need it, our local community, and also personal development under my coach/Mentor Karen Brook.
Because we still have three children under school age and live too far from a town to access daycare, we engage an In-Home Care Educator during the day four days per week, which enables me to do all of the above. It means I can step away from the day-to-day routine to have space to work, think, create, write, get down the paddock and check the cattle, or attend appointments without children. What I love about In-Home Care is that I still get to see the boys throughout the day so I don’t miss out on too much.
We have also just started to engage a cleaner fortnightly, which is fast becoming the best thing in my entire life! I’ve become much clearer this year on how my time should be spent to best serve myself and others. I came to the realisation (and gave myself permission) that I can still be a good Mum without cutting up every apple and wiping every bottom. Recently I’ve been focusing on what I can automate, systemise and delegate. Everything is a work in progress, it’s all new territory, and I’m following my intuition as I go. I suspect I may need more help with admin and bookkeeping in time.
The drought has really taken a hold from a farming perspective but we are trying to get through it and stay positive. Adam and I are continuing to set goals for the long term and focus on what we can do better. We are also looking at developing further off-farm income sources to help us ride the ups and downs of agriculture.