There’s a message, somewhere in the depths of my gmail. I can’t delete it. Nor can I ever look at it again. So it sits, not waiting, exactly. Perhaps it is bearing witness. At any rate it is filed away, invisible, but there.
The magnificent Anne Enright wrote that before she had children, there were women and there were mothers, separated by what seemed like a glass wall. ‘It didn’t seem possible that I would ever move through the glass — I couldn’t even imagine what it was like in there. All I could see were scattered reflections of myself; while on the other side, real women moved with exaggerated slowness, like distantly sighted whales.’ When I first read those words, I thought, how apt (although I raised an eyebrow at ‘real women’). And then I came to realise that I hadn’t really seen the mothers at all.
I had noticed them, of course. Mothers blocking the pavements with their buggies. Mothers filling cafes with their shrieking offspring. Mothers who had replaced their profile pictures with those of their kids, as though announcing their own obsolescence. Bovine mothers, rhythmically pushing-soothing-shushing, trudging laps of the playground. Gazing into the middle distance from park benches as their babies waved at the sun.
If I thought of them at all, it was with mild irritation. Taking up so much space on the bus and why can’t they make their children shut up don’t they even know how annoying they’re being and who lets their kids run around like that anyway and how come they get to dictate meal times and holiday arrangements and oh but how smug they are, how proudly complacent, how self absorbed, the mothers.
We don’t like to discuss how we came to be here. For all the loud headlines a couple of weeks ago about mothers apparently poisoning one another with their hideous experiences of giving birth (shut up, women!) my experience has very much been that This Is Not Something We Talk About. Have a car crash and you’ll be going over it for years. Have a baby and no one ever need know anything beyond its weight and name.
When I had my son a few weeks ago, I felt as though he and I had ventured to the frozen ledge where life drops off into darkness. A routine C-section under bright lights, the operating theatre was cold, a deep chill that ran into my open abdomen and left my little boy blue. It was a cold that worked its way into my bones and hasn’t quite left.
My daughter’s birth four years ago was long and painful, and the inadequacy of those words in describing the experience still astonishes me. It took fifty-six hours, and every second of each contraction was infinite. What’s fifty-six multiplied by agony times eternity? If I had been able to walk, I would have thrown myself under a bus. When it was over, I had a healthy baby girl and I was a mother. Nothing had happened. Everything had happened.
Nothing bad had happened.
Two friends were due to give birth on the same day. Their boys were to be like brothers. Only one lived.
A friend had a baby that seemed normal, until at eight weeks, his development stalled. A few months later he was on the operating table, his brain filled with tumours.
A friend began telling me about her miscarriage with an apology.
A friend of a friend’s baby lived and died on the same day.
A friend spent the second half of her pregnancy in hospital, where she bled and bled and bled.
A friend of a friend was pregnant with twins. One died, one lived, and she carried them together until it was time to give birth.
The friends who want children and cannot have them and are asked when will you have them when will you have them WHEN WILL YOU HAVE THEM
The friends who do not want children and are asked when will you have them and if not why not why not WHY NOT
I cannot think my friends are especially different from yours.
My daughter was the first in our NCT group to be born. We sent an e-mail to our new friends, a few brief details, weight, name, Marianne’s doing well (a lie, and one in which I’d already become slyly adept) and a photo of our daughter, asleep. As the days and then weeks passed, other e-mails appeared, as one by one more babies came. A silence. And then, the final e-mail. Tragic news. And attached, a photo of the baby, with some teddies, wearing a hat I’d given her mother a few days before. Her lips were blue-black. She was dead. She was beautiful.
I ran into the mother a few times over the next year or so. She became pregnant again, and had another girl, and we pushed our buggies and chatted about this and that, trudging our laps of the park, invisible to everyone but ourselves. Eventually, I heard that she’d moved away.
I hope they are noisy with life and love and happiness. I hope they fill the café, scream on the bus, block the pavement with joy. I picture her sometimes, in another park. With her new baby, a child now, and perhaps, somehow, her first girl there too. Running together across the grass, bright and vivid in the sun.