Walking down the high street earlier this week I got a surprise and glorious peek at a friend’s teeny tiny baby. A proper few day old newborn which made my Newborn seem enormous and his brother positively freakish. Very cute he was too, her lad, scrunched up and cross-eyed and basking in his parents’ blissed out fug of happiness.
His folks and I roared with laughter about the disparities between our expectations and our experience of birth and parenting. His mother, like me after my first, was of the view that positive pain was not everyone’s experience of a long and complicated labour. We agreed small babies, like many things, are better out than in. And she confessed she had wanted a boy and, happy as she was that he was safe and well and here, she was also pleased that she no longer had to pretend to be impartial in that regard.
Today I lunched with an expectant girlfriend who finds out tomorrow what her twin bump contains. Exciting news ahead for her and her husband. She asked me what I thought she was having? ‘Girls?’ I ventured, unsure of what she wanted to hear. My hesitation was not to do with thoughts about gender politics, though, but fall out from the ephemeral daydream world of our imaginary babies; the kids we thought we would or should or would never have. They live in a crowded nursery, alongside the children that others expected from us, the walls painted with the names we earmark as we bumble along to adulthood.
I have a family member with no children whose parents talk often of what a good father he’d be. I know friends and family who’ve lost pregnancies and the real and imagined/hoped for baby with them. Even pregnancies lost very early have left the ghost of a future lost for some.
I know the shock and sadness (and not very often talked about panic) which I’ve seen in the eyes of those who have had that cataclysmic news that they may not be able to have children, or just can’t. I wonder if that panic and loss reaches back in time to the expectations of youth, as well as forward to a wanted and expected everyday future that may not be.
I can’t write well about it as I can’t really imagine that pain, apart from the dallying in it that most people who actively try for a child indulge in in the middle of the night. If you are planning for parenting it is only natural that a tiny part of you shudders at the thought that maybe it won’t happen. But even that thought is enough to feel desperate for those souls who’ve heard they are infertile for real. What a dreadful thud to rock about your memory and your hopes, it must make you seasick with misery and fury and regret at a lost timeline which fucking well should be there, if a part of you always thought you’d be a parent.
These imaginary babies are potent and real, crawling around in the background, echoes of our toddler games, teenage pill panics, dollies, babysitting experiences, families. They are born of our sense of our self and others’ sense of us: I’ve heard many variations on ‘I can’t imagine X with a boy / She was always going to have girls’.
I always thought I’d have a girl. If I’m honest it was quite a specific thought as well as a wish. A girl, with ginger hair, called Matilda/Mathilde or Cate. A girl I was quite sure of, I realised when I did have boys, in that I could feel her presence humming (like insects in the background of a summer day) in the rhythm of my broader expectations for life. I am one of four girls: FOUR. I am used to girls. I’m the eldest too. I’ve dressed girls, and bathed them, changed them and winded them, hugged them and sucked splinters from their knees. I am a girl. And somehow my husband’s softness and kindness felt to me like he’d be the father of girls too.
In my About Me I talk with wry fondness about that novel I was going to write on my first maternity leave. There are far more embarrassing dreams and visions relating to motherhood that my naive pre-baby self harboured quite closely to her heart. But my firm conviction that I’d have a girl? Shit, I was sure that would happen.
What does it mean? Nothing, really. Did it make me sad, when I found out I was having boys? No, not exactly sad. But it was strange. And I had a very peculiar jolting sensation deep in my mythical stomach muscles when I heard my second was a boy. It wasn’t disappointment in him, I hadn’t met him yet after all. But it was one hell of a realisation that it was possible, likely even, probable that I would never hold my girl to my chest.
In a rare, for me, example of sensible thinking I moved beyond any longing for something that wasn’t happening quite fast. I went further and was excited, both times, about a properly unmapped future. A chance to move beyond my incessant inward looking and out to the real world. I still am, in fact, and I’m grateful as ever to my never expected boys for that. My mini tribe of lads offer a brilliant deviation to my roadmap, though they are so present ‘in my now’ as US psychs would say, that I rarely get to reflect on what I wanted ‘in my then’ any more.