Sometimes I think of a future without children and I feel exhilarated by the freedom. The skies widen, I see myself liberated from the hassle, mess, time, money, burden and responsibility parenthood brings. I can’t help but feel excited then about living on a canal boat with a cat, having quiet, luxurious coffees on a Sunday morning in gentle sunlight with beautiful music playing softly besides me as I think deep thoughts and craft my latest best-selling novel about serious subjects with literary value.
I imagine too all the good works I could do. I could train as a teacher or brain surgeon and travel to Tanzania to work with beautiful children and help change their lives.
My partner would, of course, wait patiently for me, uncomplainingly getting on with his life on his houseboat because we would be able to afford not to live together. I would return home to him after years of fantastic good works in the developing world and a leaving party in which all were in tears of joy for having known me and sadness at my parting. I would have helped parents become aware of the difference they can make for their children through educating them. Their own lives would be better and healthier. They would no longer insist on genital mutilation or other horrors for their daughters. I would feel a massive sense of achievement and joy for the work I had done, and it would all have been possible because I didn’t have my own child.
I think of the holidays I could have, the dresses I could buy, the freedom of lounging in my own space with friends who don’t have to get babysitters or tell me about their search for a new au pair, the arguments they have about whose turn it is to do bedtime and the stress of constantly juggling attempts to be able to go to the pub once in six months with holding down a job to pay for birthday parties and mortgages and looking after the fruit of your loins who screams and gets ill and wants to be driven to their latest social engagement and never says thank you enough for having totally changed your life, turned it upside down, and repeatedly and unashamedly crapped into what was left of it.
But mostly I feel a dull ache in a space which shouldn’t be there and which I wish I could fill and I am terrified I never will.
It’s hard to feel in control when you’re perched on the edge of a hospital trolley bed wearing nothing below the waist. It’s amazing how much multitasking you can do though, when the occasion demands it: I argued with the doctor about the treatment I was going to get, pulled down the paper towel to try and cover my genital area even though the doctor had just had his hand up there along with a probe which looked like a vibrator but without the fun parts and wondered whether I’d shaved my legs within the last calendar year.
I did remarkably well, in the circumstances.
One thing fertility treatment has taught me is that shame is overrated. Doctors have told me with grave faces and an air of professional detachment that our chances of conceiving are less than 5 per cent. If after that I am still bothered by irrelevant things like dignity, appearance, others opinion of me then I must be a very weak minded person.
And I am. Terribly.
Still, being given horrible news teaches you that nothing else could be worse so you should be less annoyed about other things. It helps me sometimes to remember that I don’t really care about the man who was rude to me in a meeting, the people who push in at bus stops or other small irritations of the day.
Terrible life events help you realise the more important things in life. Often though the minor irritations become major events in their own small moment. They pile one on top of the other, like wonky books until the whole lot comes crashing down and I find myself weeping amongst the wreckage. Generally in public. This can be quite frightening for others. Shop assistants, for example. It’s not enough they have a boring job dealing with often unpleasant customers and get paid a pittance for it, but also they must spend a lot of time dealing with people in the midst of a life crisis. We all go to shops at some time or another. “We’ve run out of cat food! I can’t take any more! My life is hopeless!” I wonder if they have a special room for distressed customers – “Ere Karen, we’ve got another one – can you get me the safe room key?”
I hope they have, and the room has a big comfy chair which I can tuck my legs into, a small fire with tea and coffee making facilities and a super sized box of Kleenex. Plus perhaps some whale music or chanting so I can have a quick snooze, blow my nose and then feel strong enough to cope with the bus journey home.
Fertility is a strange concept when you’re told you’re not going to have a child. There are lazy assumptions I have made all my life which I will have to rethink. I don’t know why I always assumed I would have children, but like most of us, I did. A biological imperative I suppose. Plus I have always enjoyed being kind to people. I felt nervous about it, and slightly awkward, being a shy person, but I enjoyed it all the same.
I know many women of my age and older who have not had children. But it’s not a subject you can easily raise. It’s not like asking after someone’s health, or family or latest holiday. So, tell me about why you don’t have children? How do you feel about it? Does it make you sad? How do you keep going from day to day? Were you ever pregnant? How did you lose your baby? Did you try again? Did you have any treatment? Where? What sort? How long did your miscarriage last for? Which hospital did you go to?
“May I examine your pain under a microscope? It might just help me feel better. Thanks awfully.”
If I remain childless I would like to think I’ll try and talk about it whenever I can so people lose their fear of it. But I probably won’t. It’s like the ectopic pregnancy. No one ever talks about them, or miscarriages. But lots of people have them, suffer quietly and feel like the world’s caved in. Then they get better and never mention it again. Of course that makes perfect sense – why go over something which is so painful? But aren’t we letting ourselves and other people down? Aren’t we denying the truth of our human existence which is that it is nasty, brutish and short and filled with days of angst and despair as well as days of skipping and pay rises and fluffy clouds in blue skies that go on forever?
We all wander around pretending to ourselves and each other that this great well of humanity and pain we carry with us, just isn’t there. We are easily superficial “Oh let’s not talk about anything horrid….If we pretend it isn’t there it will go away.” A sure fire recipe for anger problems, depression and an ulcer.
Part of the beauty of the ectopic pregnancy was it’s purity. There was a tiny life. And then it was gone. Before it had really even started to be anything other than a dazzling idea of something. Off it went like a seed floating on the breeze. So light and delicate I can hardly see it.
The emotional pain afterwards was tangible for me. That was a purifying fire. None of your “a bit bored of life at the moment so having a crisis” type situation. This was a full-blown tragedy, even if the life we had made was the size of an apple pip when it gave up the ghost. Grief was appropriate and expected and I was grieving. I could feel it and still can. There are not many times in life where I am absolutely sure what I’m feeling but this was one of them and I am very glad for it. The certainty of feeling is reassuring in a way.
I went on retreat shortly after the operation and had a discussion about grief. Someone said that in grieving you could be thankful for having known that person. That hit me like a truck, because how, I wondered, is it possible to grieve so much for someone you have never known and who has hardly been alive at all? A few cells for a few days. Barely even here really. And yet so real.
I named her “hidey” because the doctors couldn’t see anything when they gave me any one of the myriad scans. My partner said she was like him and didn’t want to come out, which is why no one could spot her.
When I did the pregnancy test that came up positive I carried it around with me for weeks. After the miscarriage I found it there one day in a side pocket of my handbag. Obviously – not very hygienic but I was past caring. Before the miscarriage I’d carryied it around in case the doctors didn’t believe me. I was so used to them telling me how small a prospect I had of getting pregnant I believed they’d think I was making it up. So I carried a wee covered plastic stick in my Radley handbag for six weeks.
Some doctors were nice, others were grim. The woman doctor who asked me how I could have gone to work when I was in such pain was particularly special. This was before they’d established it was an ectopic pregnancy rather than a simple miscarriage. I was crying tears of pain and she was giving me a hard time. I took some pleasure in telling her I was a barrister and had to do my job. That shut her up. Telling people you’re a lawyer frightens them. Especially doctors, who aren’t accustomed to anyone being as clever as they are.
Friends don’t know what to say or do. Some of them have been great, others not so. It’s hard for them, especially the ones with young children of their own. What they have is what I want and always thought I would have. Now I can look at it like a zoo visitor. It’s part of the same space that I inhabit, but separated by an invisible partition and I will never be on their side
In my darker more paranoid moments I think my friends don’t want to associate with a biological outcast. That I am a genetic loser who spends all her time trying not to cry (true some days) and I’ve turned into just an object of pity for them. People don’t want friends who are objects of pity. That’s not friendship. That’s the Samaritans.
It’s a year since I had the operation to remove what was left of her and my right fallopian tube. I don’t know whether I’m over it yet. But I’m better than I was. I think; on an Ultrasound scan the inside of the womb / ovaries looks like the surface of Mars or the Moon. Interesting.
I think too of all the contradictory advice I’ve been given. The doctors say “It’s hopeless but we’ll give it a go.” The books on fertility say “You MUST think positive. This will help you conceive”.
Is that true? Women in war torn areas who are used as military collateral and raped as part of the attempts by one side or the other to dominate and then conceive are not feeling positive presumably? And yet somehow it’s going to make a massive difference to my rusty old eggs if I think happy thoughts, rather than listen to the doctors’ advice and their assessment of chances of successfully conceiving.
I also don’t understand why if the doctors are so negative about it they give me the treatment anyway. And why so many of them are so often humourless, unsympathetic, cold, heartless robots. Couldn’t they have chosen a different strand of medicine where they didn’t have to talk all day to distressed tearful 30 and 40 something women in the midst of a major crisis? Surely they must have known they would need some vestige of sympathy and humanity to do their job? What was their career adviser thinking?
Ultimately though it’s a choice isn’t it? We can choose how we react to life’s events and the ups and downs of our existence. We choose every day how we will use the time we have. For my first course of fertility treatment I felt negative and hopeless because I was trying to protect myself from how I would feel if it didn’t work. Then I decided I was going to feel awful anyway whether I felt desperate or happy during the treatment, so I may as well think positive. And, yes, in those moments I did
I’ll try it again for the next course of treatment.