only child

Fertility Friday: The Power of One

This week’s Fertility Friday post is by Azette. I went to high school with her and her husband Mark and we reconnected via Facebook a few years ago. When I asked her to share her story, I had no idea of how Azette came to be the mother of an only child, and I feel incredibly privileged that she agreed to open up her heart here. Only child families are unusual, and in my experience often treated as incomplete, and met with either pity or contempt. But being a family of three is as special and as ordinary as any other family. And here’s why.

When Julie asked me to consider writing something for her “Fertility Friday” series, I was firstly honoured to be asked, as I have followed the stories of her other guest bloggers with interest.  But then I became nervous and unsure what to say, as I had not personally experienced any fertility issues. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t because of fertility reasons that I ended up a mother of “only one”.

My husband and I met when I was 16, starting dating a year later and were married five years after that.  From the moment we were married, and then periodically for the next eight and a half years we fended off the constant question from family and friends – “when are you having children?”

Over time the frequency of people asking did diminish, and I developed a few standard responses to diffuse the situation. My favourite was that I couldn’t keep the goldfish alive, so it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to be a parent.  In reality, life had been busy, we both worked long hours, travelled when we could get holidays and time slipped by.  The major factor was we’d just never sat down and had “that” conversation.  I wasn’t someone who had set a personal deadline for having children.  I hadn’t decided not to have kids, but I also hadn’t decided to make it happen either.

Shortly before our ninth wedding anniversary, we did have “that” conversation, which ended along the lines of “well, if we’re ever going to do it, we better do it now”. We were one of the lucky couples and within a relatively short period of time (six months or so) I fell pregnant, and it filled me with terror.  What had we done?  I didn’t know what to do with a baby, what if I was a terrible mother?  As I sat in the doctors surgery and she confirmed I was definitely pregnant, my first words were “Oh shit!”   My GP looked at me and said, “but I thought this was planned?” to which I replied, “yes, but now I can’t change my mind”.

It wasn’t just the fear of motherhood, but also the fear of getting my hopes up, the fear of falling in love with this baby and what if I miscarried, what if something went wrong.  I convinced myself not to get attached, don’t get too excited, not until we were sure everything was going to be OK. As we did start to tell people, the most common reaction was shock, and a few brave souls were truthful enough to admit that they thought we had been on IVF and that’s why it had taken so long for us to fall pregnant.  There seemed to be this unwritten law about when it was socially acceptable to have children, and because we had waited and not complied with this guideline, it must have meant there was something wrong.

One month short of our 10th wedding anniversary, our precious son arrived, not quite as we planned, but safely.  When people talk about preparing their birth plan, and which scented candles they’ll have and which music will be playing while their bundle of joy arrives, I strongly encourage them to have a Plan A, B, C, D and even E in mind.  I’d thought it would be lovely to have a water birth, with calming music, and as few drugs as possible, but ended up with a caesarean and lots of drugs, after all attempts to deliver naturally didn’t work out. Then the joy of breastfeeding … well that was a total disaster and after many days of pain, tears, screaming, hungry baby and mastitis that sent me back to hospital, we switched to formula and peace and tranquillity were restored.

Our personal circumstances dictated that I needed to go back to work when bubby was three months old.  Initially it was for only three days per week, but within a very short period of time I was back working full time.  However, I was lucky that a close friend had decided to start family day care, and so I was able to leave my son in a family home, with someone I trusted implicitly, and truth be told, would probably do a better job as she knew what she was doing after three kids of her own.  But even with these benefits it didn’t make the morning drop off any easier.  For the first two years of my son’s life I cried for the entire drive from my friend’s home to my work. Every day.  I wasn’t crying for my son, as I knew he was well looked after and well loved, I cried for me and what I was missing.

So inevitably, as our son neared two years old, the questions started again, “when are you having your next one?”, and we had to deflect this next round of questions.  My new standard response was that I couldn’t be so lucky twice.  I’d never get another baby that was so content and such a good sleeper, and that I wasn’t willing to tempt fate in case I had a devil child second time around.  The truth was, I wasn’t brave enough. Knowing how hard it was to leave my bubby to go to work, and the emotional toll it was taking on me, I didn’t have the emotional strength to do it again.  I believed it would be double the tears and double the pain leaving two children in someone else’s care, and decided I would rather be a good mum to one, than have more children and risk falling apart, or risk ruining our marriage and the precious family we currently had.

Some will say it was a selfish decision, but I’ve made peace with my choice that it was the best for our family.  We’ve raised a well-mannered, respectful, loving and compassionate young man.  Being an only child has meant he has had to learn to communicate with adults early on in his life, and often that he has been part of conversations that children are usually sheltered from.  I’m proud of our very close knit little family that can openly discuss topics that others may shy away from.  This was very evident when my mum was diagnosed with cancer and we needed to have some very heartbreaking conversations as each of us worked through our emotions and the impact her illness was having as it progressed.

My mum once commented about feeling pride that my son was “mine”, but I believe he is only on loan.  I will only have him for a short time, and the most important job I will ever have in my life, is to guide him to be the best he can be, before he will move onto his own life.

Looking back on it all, I describe myself as being “pro-choice” and a strong believer in doing what is right for you, not what everyone else may think you “should” do ….

If natural birth works – fantastic, if it doesn’t, be grateful for modern medicine and Caesarean births.

If breastfeeding works – great, if it doesn’t, say thanks to modern science for baby formula.

If you want to have kids, and you can – wonderful, if you choose not to, that’s OK too. (Although my heart breaks for those that desperately want and would love children, but are unable.)

If you want to have 10 kids, and you can, that’s awesome (just don’t bring them all to my place for a sleepover at the same time).

And if you choose to only have one, cherish them with all your heart.

Azette photo

Space on the Couch

The other night, my son was sitting next to me on the couch watching tv (it was I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here actually, please don’t judge me). Apropro of nothing, which is the way conversations often unfold when you have a 6-year-old, he pointed to the space on the couch next to him and said ‘a toddler would fit perfectly there’. Not understanding what he meant, I said ‘whose toddler?’ and immediately his eyes filled with tears and he said ‘our toddler, if I had a brother or sister’.

Right then and there, my heart, which has had its share of bruises and battering over the years and is generally pretty hard-wearing, broke into about a thousand pieces. Before I could stop my own tears, they were there, dripping down my face. That made Hugh cry more, and try to comfort me at the same time. ‘Mummy I know the other babies died and your tummy is broken, but I still wish I could be someone’s big brother’.

It would be impossible to express just how much I wish he could be someone’s big brother too. He doesn’t know that he also could have been someone’s little brother, and how much I wish he could have been a middle child, which is actually where he sits in the order of my pregnancies.

Miscarriage is still a taboo subject in our society (and many others). We generally don’t talk about it, or if we do it’s in hushed tones as if it’s something about which we should be ashamed. If I am completely honest, shame is the right word because each time my body let go of another pregnancy, I felt like an abject failure as a woman. Everyone else could do it, sustain a pregnancy 40 weeks and take home a healthy baby, but my body seemed to specialise in rejection.

My first pregnancy was a surprise – not because we were not trying to fall pregnant, but because it happened so quickly. I was 37, but got pregnant in the second month of trying. Because I wasn’t expecting to get pregnant so easily, I had no idea that I was and it was only after an epic, emotional meltdown after a stir-fry didn’t turn out how I expected, that I did a test and broke the wonderful news to Dave. In our naiveté, we decided to tell everyone, and the day after we’d phoned his parents to tell them, I started bleeding, and after five days of agonising cramps that left me breathless (what I later realised where contractions), I had the first of a series of surgeries because whilst my body couldn’t sustain the pregnancy, it couldn’t quite get rid of it either. Completely and utterly useless.

Three months later, and I was pregnant again. I so wanted to be happy, so wanted to think it would all be ok, but that was just not possible anymore. Or was it? I settled into the idea that my body might just do it this time, when again the blood … always the blood … Another surgery, another trip home from hospital with nothing to show but a more hardened heart, and a deepening sense of what was verging on hatred for my own body.

A couple of months after that, and yet again I was pregnant. We were nothing if not fertile. This time both Dave and I only talked of the pregnancy in an almost clinical way, waiting for the seemingly inevitable failure. The blood came, very early this time when I was only six weeks along, so we trundled off to the obstetrician’s office (again) for an ultrasound (again) to confirm that the pregnancy was lost (again). But then the glorious sound, a weird echoing sound like a wet drum being beaten, and the pulsating embryo on the screen. A heartbeat, not dead, and apparently not dying! We were incredulous, fearful, maybe even a tiny bit hopeful. I continued to bleed on and off for the next seven weeks, the fear and loathing of my body growing by the day, but each and every visit to the obstetrician, with his dreaded dildo cam, showed a healthy foetus, growing strong. The bleeding stopped at 13 weeks gestation, and whilst there was some sense of relief, the inspection of the underpants for tell-tale signs, and the sense of dread and foreboding, continued right up until my beautiful, big, healthy boy was delivered alive and kicking at 38 weeks and 5 days gestation. My body, it was a wonder! An amazing, fantastic thing, a joy! It had produced the most divine creature, it was redeemed.

Once the shock and awe of having a new baby settled down, we decided to try for a sibling for our gorgeous boy. He’d never be a little brother, but he could be a big one. Getting pregnant = easy. Done. The day I returned to work from maternity leave I was already pregnant again. I was in love with my body; it had given us Hugh and now it would give us his sibling. Then, the blood. Again. All over. Again. At least this time my body seemed to have worked out how to complete the miscarriage, so no surgery. Bad luck comes in threes, right? So that’s our three things, three miscarriages, next time will be fine.

Next time? Houston, we have a problem. Getting pregnant = hard. We went from taking 1-2 cycles to fall pregnant to 12 months with no success. We moved to fertility drugs, which send me batshit crazy. I remember contemplating physically hurting Dave for leaving some clean towels unfolded. Those drugs did nothing, except make me homicidal and therefore trying to get pregnant a terrible chore, but we were determined and moved onto IVF, which involved a four-hour return drive each time we need to see the specialist. More drugs, this time hard-core, injected by Dave into my stomach multiple times each day, causing bruises as big as dinner plates all over me. Because my body is once again useless, it does not respond at all to the drugs, despite me being given the highest legal dose, and it’s all over. No more babies. Ever.

Two years later, and we had come to terms with our only child. He is a blessing; adorable, loving, bright and healthy. I’ve had counselling, I have accepted the situation and finally I don’t hate my body any more. Life is good. And then I start feeling so shit, so tired, so over everything and it is all hauntingly familiar, so I find an expired pregnancy test in the back of the cupboard and as soon as I pee on it, it’s positive. I’m 42 years old, we’ve both been sick with the flu for weeks, I have been declared infertile by the best-known specialist in the state, and I’m six weeks pregnant.

Blood tests and scans are hastily done, and although it’s early it all looks good. My body, wow, my 42-year-old body, I am amazed by it. My mind takes a while to catch up, and I lie awake at 3am every night worrying how everything will work out. I am so old! I gave away all the baby clothes! I don’t have any good names picked out! But then, gradually, I get used to the idea, and during the day Dave and I email back and forth about baby names. I think I almost have him convinced on my favourite boy’s name (Arlo), when I stand up one day in my office and feel a weird pop, like I’ve wet myself. I make my way to the toilets, where I miscarry for the fourth time. Oh, my body, you have really done me over this time. I drive myself home, silent and stony faced, and am taken to the hospital from there, wheeled through the corridors and asked by a nurse why I’m not crying.

That baby, who might have been a boy who might have been called Arlo, would have been only a month or two old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Or quite possibly, I would not have been diagnosed with breast cancer because I would have been breastfeeding that baby, and thought the lump was a gland or mastitis or more likely I would not even noticed the lump because I would have been too tired and too frazzled to shave my legs, let alone do a breast self-examination. Maybe losing that last baby gave a boy a chance to keep his mum, whilst taking away his last chance to be a big brother.

Hugh knows that I had other babies in my tummy but they died, and that now my tummy can’t make any more babies. He knows it, but it doesn’t mean he has to like it. He’s the only child in his class who doesn’t have a sibling, the only one who has playdates organised for him most weekends to ensure he doesn’t spend all his time with adults, the only one who calls close family friends cousins so that he feels like he has something akin to a brother and a sister. He’s the only child.

As for me and my body, well the hate is gone. It may have produced a giant cancer that nearly killed me, and I did wonder how it could betray me again, and so deeply, but having marvelled at the way it withstood all the cutting and the poisoning and radiation, and how it soldiers on despite the legacy those treatments have left behind, I cannot despise it.

One day, when my boy is old enough, I will tell him about how my body gave me a son, and then gave my son his mother, and we will both see, that despite the pain of circumstance, those are our gifts.