The Childless Side of the Room

5 years ago

I write for three hours at a time, while my children, a toddler and a pre-schooler, play with their babysitter. Right now, I can hear the musical sound of their laughter drifting in from the front yard. Well, not really. Right now I can hear the musical sounds of their shrieks. They appear to be fighting over a leaf. Ah, now, they’ve resorted to violence. It’s obviously a very fine leaf. It’s autumn here in Australia. We have no shortage of leaves.

My children are such a huge, distracting part of my life, it’s sometimes hard to believe I ever doubted their future existence. In the same way that my son doesn’t really believe in my life before he was born, I can’t quite believe in it either.

And then other times I realize that all those memories are still lurking in my subconscious. Like when I see a character on TV having an ultrasound, and I realize I’m holding my breath. Or when I hear that someone is pregnant, and it still, weirdly, illogically hurts my feelings, like an old injury that plays up in bad weather.

Or like the other day, when this happened:

I was doing a gym class and the instructor, who had been up through the night with her unsettled baby, shouted “Everyone with kids on this side of the room!” So I went to the "parents" side of the room, facing the "non-parents." Quite a few were my age or older. I wondered if all those women were childless by choice.

As I dutifully did my push-ups, I thought about how just a few years back I would have been on the other side of the room. I thought about how I would have felt if I was just back at the gym after a miscarriage or an unsuccessful round of IVF. I thought about how when you’re trying to have a baby and failing, the world already feels like it’s split between those with and without children.

I decided I would gently suggest to the instructor that maybe separating parents and non-parents wasn’t such a good idea. I wouldn’t be too critical, or make too big a deal of it. I’d be cool and casual and to the point. So after the class I approached her, and said, “Look, I just wanted to say that when you ... ” And then I burst into tears. Sometimes I wish I were born a man with an authoritarian father who taught me from a young age to repress my feelings.

“What? What is it?” begged the poor sleep-deprived girl, wondering what in the world she’d done to upset this sweaty, middle-aged woman. (Too many push-ups?)

“Nothing! It’s truly nothing!” I sobbed, waving my arms about, before I finally managed to explain myself, and then she got teary, and apologized a hundred times, while I insisted that there was no need to apologize, and there we were in the middle of the gym, having this really intense, moving moment, while the muscly men grunted over their weights and stared, no doubt thanking their lucky stars for their authoritarian fathers. I sort of want to curl up and die remembering it.

But I’d do it again, because part of me will always be on the other side of the room, watching the mothers, desperate to be one.

There is a character in my novel What Alice Forgot, who has been battling infertility for seven years. She’s not the main character, but she’s important to the story. She’s not me, but she was definitely inspired by what I went through to bring my two beautiful children into the world. I’ve received so many lovely emails from women who related to Elisabeth’s fury and bitterness. “How did you know?” they sometimes say.

That’s how I know. You never actually forget.

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