It began when I fell in love for the first time; heavily, painfully and inelegantly. He was much older; I still had braces on my teeth. We were together for a year in Edinburgh before I had to leave for Oxford and start the betwixt and between of long-distance longing. But however willfully I battled in academia’s arena, maternal yearnings would lure me from my student lens and I’d find myself ogling pregnant women and their growing orbs of life, feeling the hot piercings of envy and the dull ache of grief.
I felt the urge to have children in the same way I felt hunger, thirst or tiredness; an unyielding compulsion of body and mind that couldn’t be soothed by distraction.
Looking back, it wasn’t the reality of parenthood that I craved. I pined for pregnancy itself; the bloom of promise and renewal within its expansive maternal bulb. I wanted the fierce metamorphosis of childbirth – all the pain, glory and gore of it – and I hungered for those early days holding raw, unblemished new life to my chest. The heart-swelling treasure of a tiny, helpless fledgling in all its feeble-bleated vulnerability.
I wanted a baby so much I could already feel the unbearable softness of its hair against my cheek and inhale its milky aroma. And I experienced that lack as a palpable grief: the absence of something I had already felt and known, and somehow lost.
Even a year as an Au-Pair for two little ones couldn’t cure me of my malaise. And a malaise was how it felt, wedged into a generation of emancipated career women astride ambitious chariots of sharp-edged CV’s. I was a sentimental bumbler among glittering gladiators and seemed somehow to have lost my way.
Hormones certainly played their part. But so, too, did an unwitting dodge of my inner cellar. I didn’t know myself; hadn’t even begun to scratch the lottery card of who I truly was. Instead, my authentic self lay gagged and hog-tied under the shadowy floor of my subconscious, bound with the invisible rope that childhood and society had so discreetly tied. What I was craving, I suppose, was my own rebirth, not that of another. But without the skills or awareness to go about it, I ached instead to be a vessel of fresh hope.
And there is something so primal, so irresistibly consoling, about leaping onto the hopeful hamster-wheel of reproduction. When you’re grasping at existential saplings, it promises a gratifyingly sturdy trunk – the most basic, elemental solution to our restless metaphysical angst. What better way to find purpose in life than to grow it afresh in all its beautiful, unblemished glory?
It was only in my early thirties that I began to realise how little of early parenthood is about finding your self, and how much about temporarily surrendering it instead – to the all-consuming helplessness of a child too young to understand you exist separately from its needs. The rewards are rich and endless, but it’s a voyage best embarked on from shores of love and trust in ourselves rather than a groping search for meaning.
Airlines tell us again and again that in the event of loss of cabin pressure we must don our own oxygen masks before trying to assist any children with theirs. We can be no help to others without a firm anchor to ourselves. And yet there I was in my twenties, desperate to grapple an oxygen mask onto a child who didn’t even exist yet, while I myself was gasping, flailing and suffocating. Did I really think a baby would save me? Yes, I think I did.
I still dissolve a little when I see them; some inner pendulum stops mid-swing and gazes in breathless wonder. Their simple joys shed the scales of our mind and reconnect us to the enchanted fascination of a world seen through untainted eyes. The marvel of a door handle, the slippy hilarity of a bar of soap…
Yet I know, too, that I’m only just getting to grips with my own oxygen mask.
For better or worse my time hasn’t come yet, and likely never will.
But on this particular journey, I’ve found my peace.
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