Some things should be so obvious they don’t need saying. But apparently this really did. A week or so ago, I wrote a newspaper piece about the creeping trend for manifestation and the law of attraction and why this is a particularly unhelpful train of thought when it comes to fertility. Until the article was published (and until I was trolled afterwards) I’m not sure I’d fully appreciated just how mainstream this idea had become though.
So, I repeat: You can’t ‘manifest’ a baby.
Manifesting or manifestation is the idea that by thinking, believing, and acting in a positive, aspirational way you can have anything and everything you want. Just like that.
Earlier this month, Cara Delevingne said in a magazine interview that she was ‘manifesting’ the child she one day hopes to have by buying clothes for them. ‘I buy children’s clothes for my future child who doesn’t exist,’ she told Harper’s Bazaar. ‘I went shopping the other day and I bought these tiny Air Jordans, which are purple and they have a lion on them, I’m manifesting…’
Reading those words, I felt like someone had taken hold of my heart and squeezed, hard. If only it were that simple. If only I’d known, five years ago, reeling from my first miscarriage – and with three more pregnancy losses soon to follow – that all I needed to do to make my dream of having a family come true was simply to fill my still-empty spare room with a cot, toys, and stacks of sleepsuits and tiny shoes. Silly me.
I’m sure Cara meant no harm. I’m sure it was intended as a lighthearted comment. I’m sure she would never dream of telling anyone going through infertility or recurrent miscarriage that they just need to really believe it will happen and their bodies will magically get the message. But this is precisely the problem with ‘manifesting’ and the pseudo-philosophy it stems from. It conveniently glosses over all manner of life’s realities and misfortunes, from not being able to have a baby, to serious illness and poverty.
Indeed, when I posted (rather crossly) on my Instagram page about #manifestation, I was shocked by the many, many messages I got from other women who are struggling to conceive or who have lost pregnancies, who have been encouraged to adopt this mindset in order to solve their fertility problems. Some had well-meaning friends tell them they were going to ‘manifest a baby for you’. Others had been told ‘you have to ask the universe for what you want’ in the wake of a miscarriage.
It’s a particularly insidious new age mutation of telling people who are trying to have a baby to ‘just relax’ or ‘you’ve got to think positively’. ‘Manifestation’ comes from a cod-scientific theory called ‘the law of attraction’. According to the law of attraction, everything – including our thoughts and emotions – ‘vibrates’ at a particular frequency. And, the theory goes, like ‘attracts’ like. This means thinking happy and positive thoughts will attract more positivity and happiness right back to you. Whereas thinking negative thoughts will only attract more negativity your way. If you want to be rich, you need to truly believe money is coming your way. More than that, you need to act and think like you are rich already. Buy the baby-grow and the baby will soon follow.
While it may be rapidly finding new audiences, the law of attraction is not a new idea. It’s been a mainstay of self-help books and new age spirituality for years. In 2006, The Secret by U.S. author Rhonda Byrne was a runaway bestseller, shifting more than 30 million copies around the world, and with numerous celebrity fans, from Paris Hilton to Will Smith. This month, Byrne is publishing a follow-up, The Secret To Love, Health, And Money: A Masterclass – just in time for anyone whose new year’s resolutions have fallen by the wayside. The contents of her new book are being kept strictly under wraps until publication, but Byrne has previously said that: ‘Illness cannot exist in a body that has harmonious thoughts’. And this, I think, is where things get dangerous – offensive, even.
Because while it might be tempting to see ‘manifesting’ as a harmless, if irrational, bit of fun – like playing the lottery, reading your horoscope, or investing in a bit of ‘hope in a bottle’ for your face – the logical conclusion of thinking this way gets seriously dark. Because what if things in life don’t work out exactly as you want them? Devotees of manifesting sometimes talk about stepping out of ‘victim mode’ or a ‘victim mindset’.
But taken to its extreme, this is a deeply hurtful idea – grotesque, in fact.
Imagine telling someone who is wondering how on earth they’re going to pay their fuel bill this year that all they need to do is ‘to trust in the abundance that the universe has to offer’. And what about the victims of war – the women and children currently starving in Afghanistan, for example? Can they manifest away their suffering? Often, these sorts of inconvenient questions are side-stepped by manifestation ‘experts’. But not always. In the past, some who preach the law of attraction have stated explicitly that famine victims are indeed culpable for their own fate.
As for me, did I ‘attract’ my miscarriages? Was it because I wasn’t vibrating at the right level for the universe to send me a baby? Hardly. Not least because, the first time I was pregnant, miscarriage couldn’t have been further from my mind. I truly believed I was going to be a mother. I pictured myself heavily pregnant. I had thought about which pregnancy books I was going to buy. I had bought a maternity coat in the sale. I had mapped out a whole new life for me, my husband, and our baby. I trusted in this vision of our future with every fibre of my being. Not only did this not protect me, it was the loss of this imagined future that caused so much pain when I miscarried.
Of course, what the manifestation ‘experts’ will tell you is that if things don’t go your way, if the technique doesn’t work for you, the problem is that you didn’t really believe it. You were, they’ll say, ‘blocked’ by your own subconscious or self-limiting beliefs. It’s a bit like the deal with fad diet books – if it doesn’t work, it’s because you didn’t follow the regimen properly, not because it was always bound to fail. (It’s perhaps unsurprising that this is a trend that seems to be aimed at and driven largely by women. We are, after all, used to being made to feel things must be our fault or that there’s something wrong with us.)
It’s also surely not a coincidence that we’re seeing a resurgence of interest in the law of attraction now, in the wake of a global pandemic. It’s a comforting illusion after what has felt like years of chaos. (And it must be very comforting indeed, to tell yourself amidst so much loss and bad luck, that your own good fortune is down to your mindset and vibrating at the ‘right frequency’, rather than a more disquieting combination of chance and the leg-up of unearned privilege.)
Perinatal psychologist Julianne Boutaleb, who specialise in services for parents and parents-to-be (www.parenthoodinmind.co.uk), agrees. ‘Manifestation lets people believe they’re in control – it gives you that illusion,’ she says. ‘The shadow side of it is that it leads to blame when the manifesting doesn’t “work”.’ There are, she points out, aspects of the practice – such as repeating positive affirmations and visualization techniques that can be useful in specific contexts. For example, in her own work with people struggling with infertility treatment or after miscarriage, she sometimes uses affirmations to help people manage stress and anxiety in certain situations, such as an upcoming scan. (Personally, I’ve resorted to repeating things like ‘different pregnancy, different outcome’ or ‘my body is capable of staying pregnant’ in the past.) But the wider philosophy and practice of manifestation does concern her. ‘It can be really unhelpful, as it puts too much responsibility on the person using these techniques – as if maybe you didn’t want it enough, or maybe you weren’t focused enough,’ Julianne tells me. ‘We already know that, with miscarriage and infertility especially, women often focus or ruminate on what they have or haven’t done – and may hold on to beliefs that they were perhaps responsible.’
During my fifth pregnancy – which finally gave me my son – I worried every day that something would go wrong; that I would lose him. I worried right up until the moment he was placed on my chest after his birth. My mindset was the exact opposite of the one manifestation coaches insist is the way to get what you want from life. As it was, I struggled with intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and all sorts of lurid imaginings of the ways my pregnancy might come to harm. In this context, the idea – often thrown around ever so casually by those dabbling in mindset ‘work’ and manifestation – that ‘your thoughts become your reality’ or that you ‘create what you imagine’ is so deeply unhelpful. It is the precise opposite, in fact, of what a lot of us work very hard, every day, to remind ourselves in order to stay sane: that just because you think something doesn’t mean it will happen, that having bad thoughts does not make you a bad person.
By all means make a ‘vision board’, recite positive affirmations, or write yourself a million-pound cheque from the universe, if it makes you feel better. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes good things happen to bad people. And sometimes, as in my case, good things happen long after you stopped believing they would.
- A version of this piece was originally published by Femail.