Tucked away among the pile of duvet covers and blankets gathered over the years in my linen cupboard, there’s a baby-sized sheet with matching pillowcase. Sweetly appliquéd with sherbet-coloured giraffes, the set was a find during a charity shop trawl in my mid-thirties, destined for a child only then conceived in my mind.
But fate, it seems, had other ideas. At the age of 39, I went through a brutal early menopause. And now, at 47, it’s highly unlikely my own child will ever fall asleep with that miniature bedding set for comfort in their cot. Egg donation could still throw me a lifeline, but it’s not one I want to grab.
I’d made a promise to myself to gift the set to a friend who recently gave birth, but when it came to it, I simply couldn’t. Wrapping up these symbols of what could have been in shiny, happy paper and giving them away was just too final, somehow.
I’ve largely accepted this reality of my life. Though I fear the word ‘largely’ betrays the fact I’m still grasping the smallest grain of hope that I might yet experience this major life event in one way or another.
Ambivalence best describes my attitude to having children for the majority of my life. I spent my twenties in London, working hard as a journalist and playing hard, too. Apart from one serious relationship, it was a dizzying time filled with flings, fun and a ‘fuck it’ attitude.
I wasn’t in a rush to give up a life I’d worked so hard to get by having a baby. Besides, with advances in reproductive technology offering me a perceived safety net of egg freezing or IVF options, even when my thirties arrived, the ticking of my fertility clock was still barely audible. I just didn’t feel anywhere near ready to bring another human into being. But inevitably, as all of my close friends started to couple up and joyfully watch their pregnancy tests turn positive, I couldn’t shake a nagging fear that something was wrong with me. Scared I might regret letting this major part of life pass me by, I went to therapy to examine why I wasn’t crazed with the need for a child.
I came to realise that an early childhood spent in the care system and subsequent fostering experience had – no shit, Sherlock – left me with a fairly cynical view of family. My early role models didn’t exactly sell the idea of family as a positive life choice, so the real reason I wasn’t ready to be a mum was because I was still mothering myself; making up for what had been sorely lacking as a child.
That’s not to say I don’t have a huge maternal streak. I also genuinely love kids. I’ve experienced that soul-deep ache that can grip you when you visit a friend and her new baby: an ache only soothed by lling your arms with the comforting weight of the newborn and greedily inhaling their yummy, new-to-the-world smell. And yes, I’ve rushed home to sob afterwards, confused by the rush of maternal feelings mixed with ambivalence.
I researched sperm clinics in Copenhagen. I figured I may as well go for broke by sourcing the good stuff from the home of tall men blessed with bone structure to die for.
That’s when I discovered that the brain fog, daily crying episodes and low-level sadness I began to experience at 39 wasn’t depression, but the beginnings of early menopause (which I was later shocked to discover happens to 1 in 100 women under 40), bringing every emotion I had about motherhood into sharp focus.
With no potential father on the scene, I considered freezing my eggs, but was gently told my reserve was so low, there was hardly any point. The most brutal part was the day my periods simply stopped. There’d been no tapering off to prepare me. After years of them arriving like clockwork, it felt as if my womanhood had juddered to a cruel halt. Just as I was coming around to the idea of becoming a mother, my body had betrayed me. I went to some pretty dark places during that time, made worse by feeling isolated from my friends. Though supportive, they couldn’t really relate to what I was going through.
Over the past few years, I’ve made my peace with the fact that a biological baby won’t feature in my future. But as the saying goes, there are many ways to live a life and I choose to celebrate what I do have. Part of that is nurturing the many special children in my life. I’m surrounded by some pretty amazing kids and delight in playing the role of the favourite silly and fun aunt.
And what of the baby sheet and pillowcase? While one route to motherhood has been blocked, there may still be other possibilities. Perhaps I’ll meet someone who already has children – I understand better than most that you never know what might be around the corner. So for now, I’m hanging on to those little symbols of hope.