Sometimes I wish somebody would ask me…
What does it feel like to be me? How do I manage to get out of bed in the morning; how do I find a good enough reason to bother? How do I keep doing it day after day, when sometimes it feels like there is nothing stretching out ahead of me in my life but a succession of further losses and then death.
I wish they would ask me what I have to look forward to, what my dreams are, what my hopes are. Ask me to explain what it feels like when all hope has gone, when your reason for being, your identity, and your sense of who you are in this world has shattered. What is left?
I wish they would ask me how I motivate myself to go to work – who am I earning my money for? What is the point of doing it, day in, day out? Ask me why I continue to keep in touch with friends, with family, when their conversation, their presence, the circumstances of their lives can bring so much pain.
Ask me how I manage to leave my house anymore, when all around me I feel bombarded with the sight of people who have achieved my dearest wish, seemingly effortlessly. Ask how it feels when it seems like the universe is rubbing my nose in it, delighting in shoving things in front of me that just emphasise what I cannot have. How do I survive it? How do I not howl and scream when I finally pluck up the courage to venture out of the house and maybe go and sit in a café, only to find a couple with a newborn baby come and sit at the next table. Or how it feels to settle in for a long train journey, looking forward to some peace, and then the elderly women behind me spend hours talking of nothing but the joys of motherhood and how lucky they are to be grandmothers and how amazing their grandchildren are and what a precious and important job being a mum is. What does it feel like to be trapped by the ‘normal’ world in that way? What is that like – the feeling that there is no escape, no safe place in this world anymore? Ask me what it is like to feel tortured in my own home when new neighbours move in next door, and they have a baby and another on the way, and the walls are thin so I hear crying in the night, and when the sun shines I hear laughing and playing in the street, and all I want to do is close my window and shut the curtains and pretend that I am not here. What is it like to run away from my own home because it no longer feels like the only safe place I have in the world?
Ask me how it is that my eyes cannot rest on a baby or a child or a pregnant woman anymore – they seem to just slide over her or him and then I have no choice but to look the other way. Or why I can’t enjoy watching tv anymore or films, or reading novels, or joining in conversations. Ask me how it feels to walk down the street and feel like I am tiptoeing through a minefield – because at any moment an unexpected blast of pain could assault me.
I wish somebody would ask me how it feels when I’m at a party, or a conference, or on the bus and somebody says, ‘do you have children?’, or, ‘do you have a family?’, or, ‘how many kids do you have?’, or some such ‘innocuous’ question, and I have no good way to answer without killing the burgeoning conversation, or making up some lie, or revealing my deepest heartbreak to a stranger.
Ask me what people say when they learn I am childless. Does it make me feel better when people say ‘have you considered adoption’, or, ‘lucky you – mine are nothing but trouble’, or ‘if you want it enough, you will find a way’, or ‘there’s always hope’, or ‘you can have mine if you like’? Does it help when friends say, ‘I don’t understand why you are still grieving this’, or when a family member says, ‘I do wish you’d make an effort to be cheerful – you’re bringing everybody down’?
Ask me whether it hurts me when all of my colleagues in the office joke or complain about something their kids got up to, or the fact that they have to attend yet another tedious nativity play, or how tired they are because their baby is teething; or when they coo over the latest photo or talk about maternity leave or due dates or birth plans or Mother’s day or stretch marks or morning sickness or labour pains or childhood illnesses or birthday parties or the naughty step or reading progress or SATs or homework or detention or being a taxi service or Christmas shopping or falls and scrapes or funny behaviour or frustrating behaviour or irritating behaviour or babysitting or the good schools or school holidays or…or…or…
Ask me what my dreams are now, ask me whether I mind that I’ll never be a grandparent, ask me whether I wonder what my children would have looked like, whether they would have inherited my straight hair and my sense of humour, or their father’s whatever. Ask me whether I miss the cuddles, the tantrums, the exhaustion, and the pain. The feel of them in my arms and the smell of their hair and the sight of their tiny fingers and toes.
Ask me what their names would have been.
Ask me whether I am frightened of dying alone, or living alone, or being ill, or having dementia, or falling and having nobody there. Am I frightened of having nobody to advocate for me when I cannot do it for myself?
Ask me whether I mind not becoming somebody’s ancestor, or not having anyone to leave my legacy to. Does it matter that my precious possessions will probably not be valued or kept by anyone when I’m gone, or that nobody is likely to visit my grave? Ask me if it matters that my surname dies out with me.
Ask me what it felt like when my hopes were dripping slowly through my fingers, month by month, year by year, inescapably. Ask which is worse: the last desperate hope or the grief that sits alongside it. Ask me whether it was a relief to finally put hope away and pick up grief fully, which had been making itself comfortable within my house for years, anyway.
Ask me if carrying this grief around, invisibly, is exhausting. If sometimes I’m just too tired to get up and pretend that everything is ok. If I sometimes retreat to the nearest toilet cubicle to cry over that thoughtless comment, that shared photo, that pregnancy announcement, that unempathetic response, that intrusive question, that assumption about my life. Ask me whether I am still the same person that I was before this happened (or rather didn’t happen). Ask me if I think I will ever ‘get over’ this, or whether the changes that this grief has wrought are permanent scars that I will always carry.
Ask me if I mind suddenly being ‘other’, suddenly becoming a minority, an oddity, somebody who doesn’t ‘fit’.
Ask me whether I mind never seeing somebody like me in an advert or as the hero in a story.
Ask me how it feels when somebody says, “As a mother…”, as if they have the monopoly on empathy; or when a politician talks about ‘hard-working families’, or when somebody jokes about how easy it must be to be childless during lockdown, or assumes that we must all be dripping with spare cash and sleeping peacefully every night, after spending our days enjoying ourselves sipping cocktails with hordes of carefree friends.
Ask me whether I sometimes feel shame and shamed, whether I get judged by other people for having failed at being a proper adult, for having nothing to show for my life. Do I feel that? Do I blame myself? How have I found ways to forgive myself and recognise that sometimes it is just down to luck and that I have been unlucky when others, seemingly less worthy, have been lucky? Do I sometimes rage at god, at the universe, at my luck, at my past boyfriends, and my parents, and my upbringing, and myself?
I wish someone would ask who in my life understands and supports me, and who does not. Ask me how many friendships have fallen by the wayside in this grief. How many new friends have I found through my grief? Have I managed to make friends with myself?
Ask me how I have survived.
Ask me what I have done to grieve my griefs, and what this has taught me, and how I have grown and thrived. What strength have I found within myself to get through this? What can I do now that I could not do before, and what new skills have I learnt, whether I wanted to or not? What other emotions come in the wake of grief – do I find myself more receptive to joy now, having been broken open by grief? Ask me what are the gifts in my grief.
Ask me if I would swap these gifts for a chance to become a mother.