I want to tell you a story of something that happened to me the other day, on International Women’s Day.
I had to go to the Doctor’s with my son. It was for something and nothing, but as we were in the waiting room and Arthur was charging up and down another mum arrived with a huge double buggy. Arthur immediately went to say hello and inspect the buggy wheels, and I struck up a conversation with the woman.
She was Polish, I think, and had one little boy sat squirming on her lap. She indicated the buggy to point out her adorable three-month-old. Arthur, who had been causing trouble, was sat on my hip by this time and listening in.
“Your first?” Asked the mother with a smile. It’s a question I hate, but I smiled back and answered yes. “Ah, you will not be so worried about germs and dirt when you have two more! And next time you will have girl!” she laughed. I tried to smile and not to be too sad that she had mentioned that girl-baby that I know will never be. The one that has a name; two actually, as my husband calls her something different. I swerved and asked her if she had three children.
“Four!” she replied, brightly. “My oldest are 16 and 12, he is two and also the baby.”
“That’s wonderful,” I reply, meaning it with all my heart. All that love, all that homework, all those lives. Lovely. But I could feel it. My own story always demands to be told, no matter how much I suppress it, and I could feel it bubbling up now, as it always does. This woman, glowing with the pride of her brood, with eyes that were bright with love and exhaustion, was looking at me. It was my turn. I swallowed.
“I don’t think we can have another,” I said. “We tried for years and Arthur was conceived by IVF.”
I watched as those eyes widened in horror as she said “Oh, but you must! Just imagine if when he is older something happen to him” (here she made a noise and a sign against the evil eye) “what then? He need brothers and sisters!”
I had nothing. All I could do was clutch Arthur tightly to me and close my eyes for a minute. He was there, it was done, there was nothing to worry about. This sweet woman could have no way of knowing that she had just been the voice in my head at 3am, when I’m feeling most anxious and vulnerable. She didn’t know that. I tried again, weakly.
“ I can’t have another.”
There was a pause. “Well, perhaps not yet, heh?” smiled the woman kindly. At this point, thankfully, the health visitor came out to welcome her and I was alone with Arthur.
Later that day we ventured to the shops. I was still feeling pretty bruised after my encounter; despite the fact that we decided almost as soon as Arthur was born that we couldn’t go through IVF and HG again, it’s not a decision that rests there. I’ve been feeling it a little lately. We wandered into the local shop. I didn’t really need anything, we just needed to get out of the house. I was standing contemplating the baby shampoo when I heard a strong South East London accent say “Aw, he’s smiling and waving at me! Innee lovely! Look at those eyes!” I looked up to see a woman in her 70s smiling at Arthur. She asked me the usual questions; age, name, and then, with an urgency I recognised, she said “I couldn’t have ’em. Well, I had four but I lost ’em all. They said it was my womb couldn’t hold ’em in.” There was a beat while we looked at each other and I let that sad story, told so simply, sink in. “I’m so, so sorry,” I said. “We tried for four years and had to have IVF, so I understand a tiny bit of what you must have gone through.”
Her face lit up “And he’s here now!” She said, looking fondly at Arthur, reaching out a hand to him. “He’s here,” I said, realising how much that mattered. Here we both were in a corner shop in London, me and the baby who might never have been; who should never have been if it wasn’t for medical science and years and years of research. The mother with no children looked at him fondly again and said “And I bet you all make such a fuss of him!” Here she looked at me very seriously. “You do make a fuss of him, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I assured her. “He is very much loved.”
“Good,” she said, looking me straight in the eye. “I’m glad you had him, in the end.”
“Me, too,” I said, blinking back tears. “Oh, me, too.”
I saw her again the next day, telling her story to another woman with a pram. I thought how she must do this every day, so that someone else knows about her babies and knows they were real, that she carried them and carries them still. It did me good to meet both of those mothers; the lucky one with four children living and the one whose four children never were. We all have a story to tell, we all carry it with us. The miscarriages, stillbirths, the years lost to trying to conceive, or the years of childbearing and child-rearing and giving up ourselves for the children we love. None of it is easy, but I bet that if I asked either of those women they’d tell me they didn’t regret a day.
And neither do I.
To all the mothers and aunties of every stripe; Happy Mother’s Day.