I’d be hard pressed to describe my childhood as anything less than perfect. I can’t recall a single occasion when there was any open conflict between my parents and I was always fully secure and confident in their love. Dad worked in a demanding role as a Head Teacher, but come the weekend we were always off on adventures to the park or the seaside, his energy boundless. Mum was a talented artist who put her career on the back-burner to raise me – she poured everything into making my life as magical as possible, while somehow making this appear effortless.
I was a joyful, assertive, if somewhat precocious child who played the violin and dreamed of being an “authoress”. Home was a spacious, welcoming house with a beautiful garden in an affluent village near Nottingham. Holidays were spent touring around Europe, which Dad documented extensively with his SLR camera. He was avid photographer, and I have treasured digital copies of all 30,000 pictures he took during my formative years. You might imagine that I look back on them through nostalgia-tinted spectacles, but the truth is that no filter is needed.
So, considering that I grew up as happiness personified, I was keen to embrace motherhood as soon as possible, replicate that contentment and raise a family of my own, right?
When I hit my twenties, my hormones went haywire. Not because I was broody but because … well, physiology, I guess. The week before my period was due, I would feel incorrigibly restless and anxious to the point where my body felt like it was riddled with ants scurrying about beneath my skin. My doctor prescribed the contraceptive pill and the prospect of coming off it and reboarding that hormonal rollercoaster was too much to contemplate.
Back then, the thought of becoming a mum was akin to dressing up in my elder sister’s clothes – a bad fit and faintly preposterous. Not that I had an elder sister, nor any siblings for that matter – I am an old child. Growing up, I was frequently alone, but never lonely, relishing uninterrupted hours basking in creativity, building worlds inside my head. As I got older, I fiercely guarded that headspace, as essential to my wellbeing as caffeine.
There was no room in my life for a small human – I was still learning how to become a fully-functioning individual myself. Instead of feeling a wrench of jealousy each time I heard of yet another school friend becoming a mum, I felt sorry for them – their freedom curtailed, burdens of responsibility clinging to their waists.
And so the third decade of my life saw me graduate with an English degree, qualify as a journalist and take my first forays into carving out a career besides Professional Hedonist. I spent my weekends playing violin in numerous bands and blew my money on nonsense, fortuitously becoming a homeowner just as the housing market was on the brink of skyrocketing.
I had a few stabs at long term relationships but for the most part they were tumultuous. My first love became brainwashed by a bunch of fundamentalist Christians, another battled with psychosis which led him to take his own life and a third, to put it kindly, had an “artistic temperament” and neglected to tell me that he preferred men. With hindsight, my thirst for drama over stability put motherhood on the back-burner – raising a child with any those partners would have been like trying to build foundations in quicksand. I told myself that having children was something I’d do one day, perhaps when I was thirty – the age my own mother was when gave birth to me.
But thirty came and went and I realised I felt no closer to assuming the identity of my imaginary elder sister. It just seemed too … well, restricting. Unable to withstand 9 to 5 monotony any longer, I walked away from the security of traditional employment and began freelancing as a journalist, copywriter and editor. Financially I took a hit, but the sanity I clawed back proved just about enough to sustain me.
I embarked on a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing, transporting myself into my stories, weaving plots and shaping my characters’ destinies. I decided to major in The Novel and the brilliant Professor Jane Rogers mentored me through the process of writing my first polished full-length work. Angel Hair and Baby’s Breath chartered an infertile woman’s journey to become a mother, but the yearning voiced by my protagonist Eva did not mirror my own – it was pure fiction.
When I was thirty-two I met a man who broke the mould, who I – not only was he witty, enormous fun and wildly eccentric, he was also grounded, emotionally intelligent and incredibly kind. In essence, he was my equilibrium. From our first meeting, I found it impossible to imagine anyone else by my side and by some colossal stroke of luck, he felt the same way. This in itself might sound like a fantastical narrative, but this time it was for real and I considered myself ridiculously fortunate.
We spoke about kids early on, those words “one day” cropping up again. There was so much we wanted to share first and step by step we passed those milestones – setting up home together, getting engaged, planning our woodland wedding. By the time we married I was thirty-six and still there wasn’t even the faintest sound of my biological clock winding into action.
And then it struck me – what if I wasn’t meant to be a mother? Perhaps I was never destined to grow into my elder sister’s clothes, to don the mum uniform which would swathe my identity? After all, I loved sleep with a ferociously guarded passion, abhorred routine, partied with my friends at a moment’s notice and regularly put the world on pause to absorb myself in twelve-hour writing sessions, sustained only by Marmite on toast. How could I ever be a mum without spreading myself too thinly or cutting out the ingredients that made me feel like me? Maybe I was just too damn selfish to sacrifice enough of myself to make someone else feel whole?
I knew there was no “one size fits all” and I felt no societal or familial pressure to become a mother. My parents weren’t the interfering type, pining for grandchildren, and my husband maintained that he was relaxed either way – while he loved kids, primarily he wanted the two of us to be together, whatever our future held.
The pressure came from within, tied to a perception of what I believed my more mature, grown-up self would want. I was thirty-seven before I finally figured out that I’d never stop growing – outwardly, inwardly, every which way. There was no line in time which I’d cross like a sprinter, fists pumping above her head, triumphantly crying, “I’m ready!”
But there was a line, a cut-off point, biologically at least. In January 2017, I realised that in two years’ time, I would be forty. If I didn’t make a choice about motherhood soon, it would be taken away from me. I thought how harmonious my marriage was and how I feared anything which might unsettle it, but then I considered how wonderful it would be to create a life that was half him and half me. I envisaged looking back on my time on earth and weighed up the exhaustion of child-rearing years with the satisfaction of knowing that it had all somehow been worth it. I was certain that my husband would make a brilliant father – a teacher in a primary school and the eldest of five siblings, he was a natural with kids. I felt, instinctively, that if we didn’t at least try for a baby, I would deeply regret it in the years to come.
It was time to face another hurdle – coming off the pill. I had no idea how badly this would affect me or long it would take us to conceive, especially given my age. For some reason, however, I was feeling cautiously optimistic about the prospect of becoming a mum before I turned forty.
If only I knew then what was to come.