Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Other people's children

I tend increasingly to make excuses not to see friends with children. As time has gone by, I find that we have less and less in common. Where they have progressed smoothly down the road to parenthood, we somehow took a wrong turn and found ourselves on the lonely and inhospitable path marked 'infertility'.

On Sunday, however, our friends Jonathan and Amanda came over for the day, bringing with them their son Richard, who will be three in April.

Luna and Pamela Jeanne have both recently written thoughtful posts on this very topic, in which they suggested that what is difficult isn't necessarily the children themselves, but rather their parents. Mr H has a tight knit circle of friends who I have labelled 'the smug fertiles'. Since the first couple announced they were expecting a child, there has been something of a domino effect amongst the smug fertiles - whenever we see them, someone else is either pregnant or has just recently had a baby. Last time round, it was Mr H's best friend and his wife who were expecting - after telling us the news, he actually said to us, 'don't worry, I'm sure you'll be next.' ('I'm sorry,' I replied acidly, 'I didn't realise that it was a race to the finish.') To some of the smug fertiles, our infertility has become the elephant in the room - they will go to any lengths to avoid mentioning it. To Mr H's best friend, on the other hand, it appears to be a source of some considerable fascination - he likes to ask detailed questions about our treatment plans, most particularly about their cost. Perhaps he is trying to show concern, but his questioning comes across as, at best, patronising, and, at worst, prurient.

Jonathan and Amanda, on the other hand, are different. Jonathan was left completely infertile after treatment for testicular cancer at the age of eighteen, and Richard was conceived on their fifth and final attempt at IUI using donor sperm. Unlike the smug fertiles, who appear to see parenthood as an automatic right, they take nothing for granted. On our walk into town, Amanda confided in me that she would never forget what they had to go through to build their family. And this is why I find it far easier to be around them, and to share in the joy they have in Richard. The last time I saw him, he was still a baby. Now, however, he is an excellent conversationalist, who asks questions ('why don't you have a playroom? where do you keep your toys?') and has decided opinions ('this isn't fizzy water; it tastes like it's from the tap').

Within five minutes of their arriving, the living room was strewn with toys. I tried not to wince as Postman Pat's van was crashed at high speed into my antique side table. After they had left, we scraped the mashed banana out of the carpet, cleaned the sticky hand prints off the TV screen and spent half an hour coaxing the cat down from on top of the wardrobe, whence she had fled in fright from Richard. Parenting a toddler was, we decided, a non-stop activity.

After a day in Richard's company, we were both struck by the enormity of how much our lives would change should we be lucky enough to have a child. We would surely learn to be less precious about the house. Time to ourselves, both individually and as a couple, would become a thing of the past. We would make sacrifices, and in return we would be rewarded by watching our child grow. Yet the moments of joy and unconditional love would doubtless be tempered by moments of boredom and frustration. And I could not help but wonder, am I ready to become a mother? I have spent the last seven years slogging away writing a PhD. I have just had my first piece of research published. How would I balance an academic career and a child? If I have a baby, would there perhaps come a moment when I longed to leave it to cry, to go into my study, shut the door and get on with my research?


Katarina Jelly Beana said...

It's hard. My best friend is a superfertile and, while she gets it more than others, she doesn't get it. I actually don't have any close friends in real life who have been down this road. Everyone in my world thinks "baby" and in 9 months it appears.

But after watching my dear friend Princess Perfect, it gets a little overwhelming to realize my 3 hour playdate would be my life. No calling in sick, no mental health day, no vacation from it. Just my new reality. But then she'll look up at me and tell me she loves me and then none of the boredom and frustration matters at all.

I go back and forth a lot more than I ever imagined I would. I don't always feel 100% invested in the babymaking process or the result. I love my life right now, as it is. Giving it up seems like a lot and while the moments of love and cuddling seem like a lot, the worry and fear and pain seem like more. Yet, I keep going.

Mrs.X said...

Sometimes I think this is a benefit of infertility - you have the time to really question these things and answer them honestly. Waiting for how every many years you have a lot of time to dwell on whether this is in fact the right choice.

Personally, I believe that diving in with a toddler is not the same as starting from scracth with an infant. By the time they are toddling around, you have had plenty of time to get used to them and work your day around.

At least, that's what I keep telling myself.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

If I have a baby, would there perhaps come a moment when I longed to leave it to cry, to go into my study, shut the door and get on with my research?

I think you would possibly be more odd if you DIDN'T ever feel that way. And there's nothing wrong in that (though you might possibly feel obliged to feel that you shouldn't actually shut the door....)

I also appreciated your acidity about the 'race' for parenthood. I can just hear you saying that.

I'm obviously writing from a very different perspective here to most of your readers as I'm an (ungracious and bonkers) aunty at most in my relations with children. Wanting to have a child of my own has never been a desire: indeed at the most me and mine talked about adopting/fostering a slightly older child (though acknowledgement of my inherent selfishness and disorder has logically prevented us pursueing even that). nevertheless, there have been several awkward conversations over the years as to why I haven't wanted to be a mother - and less so my partner to be a father. It does seem that the state of being a mother/parent is still an assumed default with all manner of frustrating attitudes coming out against those who either want but struggle to conceive or who actively choose to remain childless.

Mind, shallow that I am, my first thought on reading this was 'you've just had your first piece of research published?!' Well done!

Ms Heathen said...

Thank you all for your comments. Lisa - it's good to have you back, and to hear your perspective. As I acknowledged in a recent post, I think it's important that we as a community are able to embrace those who have remained childless - whether by choice or not. From your comments, it would seem that all too often motherhood is seen as the automatic path for a woman - not only does this deny the experiences of those who cannot have children, but also those who choose not to.

And thank you also for your congratulations on my first publication!

It is sometimes difficult to escape the feeling that the reason why I can't get pregnant is becuase, deep down, I don't want it badly enough. So thank you Mrs X and KJB, for making me realise that ambivalence plays an inevitable role in our feelings about having a child.

Mark Lyndon said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ms Heathen said...

I am not sure what led you to my blog, Mark, but I have deleted what I felt to be a tactless and hurtful comment. My feelings towards those who are fortunate enough to have children have absolutely no effect on my fertility levels. You appear in any event to have misread what I have written. I am neither 'bitter' not 'hostile' towards those with children; this post rather explores my feelings about their response to our infertility.

Mark Lyndon said...

I didn't misread what you wrote, but I think you may have misunderstood what I wrote if you thought it was tactless or hurtful. It certainly wasn't intended to sound like that, so I'm sorry if it did. I don't think that stress levels affect fertility btw, except that they can make people more likely to give up too soon.

It doesn't really matter what you think of me (and I won't post again), but I think you should cut your friends some slack. I'd love for you to become parents next cycle, and I think your friends want the same. I can almost guarantee they'll be thrilled if and when you have a baby, even more so than for another couple who have a baby within a year of getting married. You seem to have written off most of Mr H's friends as "smug fertiles" though.

When someone said "don't worry, I'm sure you'll be next", you could just have said "I sure hope so" instead of trying to make them feel bad. It's no wonder some people avoid the subject completely. If you find someone's questioning patronising, then you could just say "I'm sorry, but I don't want to talk about it right now".

Hang in there, and I hope you get lucky soon.