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?