Since Edward was born, I find myself thinking in ways I promised myself I never would. It started with: Slow down. Stop growing! (Words that used to pierce like flint before, when I’d see other mums write them on social media, never for a second considering what it’s like when your baby does literally stop growing). Now, after a good six months of being locked down, with almost no childcare, no nights off, and no where to escape to, I catch myself yearning to have the house to myself, or to sit in a coffee shop…by myself. Almost as soon as I catch myself thinking this way, I remember – guiltily – how being alone in my quiet, tidy house used to feel like a rebuke; how I’d come to hate the luxury of spare time and weekend lie-ins. It all underscored how pointless and static being unable to have a baby made me feel. Back then, when I sat in a coffee shop by myself all I could see were the groups of mum friends, feeling flimsy and insignificant next to their prams and changing-bag clobber.
On the internet, I’m increasingly shown adverts for slogan mugs and tote bags that say things like ‘No Rest For The With Kid’ and ‘Just Another Manic Mum-day’. Every time I see them, I bristle, like a reflex. After all, it once took a lot of time and energy trying to convince the algorithms not to show me these sorts of things. Then I remember it’s fine. The ads have correctly identified their target this time. I am a mum. I buy baby stuff online and I search for weaning recipes and sleep solutions.
More confusing, though, are the twinges of recognition that sometimes follow when I’m shown this kind of mum-merch – once the muscle-memory of indignation has faded. The slogans and jokes are starting to speak to me. I am tired (so tired). I am winging it. I am 90 per cent coffee and 10 per cent dry shampoo. I do sometimes (quite often, actually) wonder if it’s gin o’clock yet. In internet-speak, I feel seen. And I’m not always sure that I like it. (I mean, what’s next? Am I just a meme away from being the kind of person who blurts out ‘you can have MY kids if you want – hahahaaa’ to someone still deep in the trenches of fertility treatment?)
When I got to bring Edward home, at long last, I knew my writing here would have to shift gears. I was mindful that I’d have to be mindful of my new status. But in truth, I think I’d assumed this would be a largely academic exercise, involving remembering to acknowledge the lucky turn I’ve finally had in this great fertility game; to check my parenthood privilege. What I did not expect was that this transition from person-trying-to-have-a-baby to person-with-a-baby would shake me down to my core – that it would play out so deeply and personally, throwing up questions about where I belong, how I make sense of myself, and how to proceed from here.
I’ve found the transition surprisingly difficult and discomfiting – and, sometimes, brazenly painful. It’s uncomfortable, I think, because you find yourself empathizing with all angles, all at once. You do not forget the sting of pregnancy announcements or other online ambushes such as bloody World Book Day. You remember all too closely how lonely and draining Mother’s Day feels when you are desperate to be one. The curdling mix of emotions prompted by bumps and scan photos. The prickle of secondhand anxiety when someone close to you is pregnant. None of that goes away.
At the same time, you’re mired in the muck (often literal muck) of early motherhood. The sub-aquatic half-life you lead when you’ve not had more than three hours of consecutive sleep for weeks. The treacly way your brain and limbs seem to work – or rather, don’t work. How lonely and draining days with no one but a teething, constipated baby for company can be. The constant torn-in-two feeling of craving time away from them during the day (time to yourself) only to miss them once they are finally asleep, desperate to curl your body around theirs, hungry for the feel of their warm skin. It is a ferocious, exhausting, animal kind of love. It’s harder than I could possibly have dared to imagine. And yet on difficult days Dan and I often remind each other how much colder and harder this pandemic year would have been if we’d had a miscarriage instead of a baby. We are, we know, so so lucky.
This is where the discomfort comes from, I think, this constant reflex to see everything from both sides; to feel everything from both sides. And after a while, it starts to mess with your head. It’s not something we’re naturally very good at, as a species. We’re terrible at accepting that many things can be hard, sometimes things that are in diametric opposition to each other. Instead, we constantly seem to want to rank things in order, as if there were an objective scale of Shit And Difficult Things.
This pandemic year has demonstrated this with crystalline clarity. Over the course of three lockdowns, I’ve seen people told off for expressing how hard it’s been to have their kids at home all the time as it’s insensitive to those who desperately want children. I’ve also seen people shut down when they express frustration at fertility treatment being cancelled because…don’t they realise the insane burden that’s being placed on working mothers right now? And I know people trying to conceive who’ve been brushed off with a ‘well, you wouldn’t want to get pregnant now, anyway’ given how maternity care has been fractured under covid.
We’re seemingly always trying to avoid the discomfort of having our empathy and attention tugged in different directions. It feels almost instinctive. It’s there in the ways we self-censor the small sadnesses of our locked down lives because we know ‘it could be worse’. And, on a grander scale (alongside a big ol’ helping of gender politics) it’s there when women trying to talk about how they feel unsafe on the streets are told that, actually, men are far more likely to be murdered.
Back when I was between miscarriages and short on optimism and answers, there was a special, secret corner of my jealousy and anger reserved for people who I’d connected with over struggling to have a baby, who then seemed to dive headfirst into post-baby bliss without so much as a backward glance. They’d post nothing but nursery #inspo and tiny outfits of the day. Or they’d get really into baby-led weaning. And, every time, I’d feel spasms of rage and betrayal. Now, though, now I’m the one on the other side – finally parenting – and I’m starting to understand why you might choose to go that way. There is, at least, a narrative neatness to it. I can see how it might make the transition to parenthood feel superficially less painful than trying to reconcile all the different sides of yourself; all the difficult bits, both past and present. Just enjoy the thing you yearned for. Never complain, never explain.
My brain doesn’t seem to want to work like that, though. Although I do think I am going to have to push myself to move on, just a little. In a recent episode of the How To Fail podcast (this one, here), the radio presenter Emma Barnett said something that stopped me in my tracks: ‘Fertile people cannot comfort infertile people’.
It stopped me in my tracks, because it was so succinctly, bluntly obvious – and because hearing it felt like a penny finally dropped. I think until then I’d been labouring under a delusion that because of our reproductive history, I would always be able to empathise perfectly and completely with others who are where we were two or three years ago. But of course I can’t. Not any more.
While there are many, many things I will probably never forget about our path to parenthood and there are things I struggle with as a parent precisely because of our history, there are also a lot of things I was carrying before that have simply fallen away now that Edward is here. I no longer live with the weight of uncertainty as to whether my body can carry a pregnancy to term. The wondering how that would feel, how I would look, whether I would get to experience labour, breastfeeding…all of that aching curiosity has been satisfied. I know what our child looks like, after years of imagining. I don’t think I realised just how heavily all of that presses on your mind, until it wasn’t there any more. Like taking off a backpack you’ve been wearing all day and appreciating how much it had been weighing you down. But, of course, in the blur of early motherhood I hadn’t noticed that particular sack of stones slipping from my shoulders. I hadn’t stopped to think about it, until it was spelled it out for me on a podcast, which I listened to as I hung out sleepsuits and muslins.
And something about this reminder has helped. Somehow, while I may always feel caught between two sides of a story to a certain extent, remembering the things I have left behind makes it feel a little easier to move forwards.
- If you have had a baby after pregnancy loss and/or infertility, what surprised you most about the shift? What did you find hardest or that other people didn’t understand? Please do feel free to tell me in the comments…