Ready or not

by Patricia Tan

 

Hot tears are streaming down my red and puffy face. I wipe them away with trembling hands. My husband pleads with me to tell him what’s wrong. The words fly out of my mouth before I can stop them.

“I don’t want to have this baby!  Let’s get rid of it!” 

How can I think – let alone say – something like that? 

I succumb to another round of sobs and wails, wishing I wasn’t six weeks pregnant. My husband remains silent and stares blankly at the road as he drives us home from the supermarket. I’m grateful he doesn’t say what he’s been saying nearly every day since the pregnancy test displayed a positive result: “It’s just hormones. The moodiness will pass.” 

The question flows through my mind for the millionth time: why did I agree to have a baby? From TV and magazines, I’ve learned about fertility decreasing with age and greater chances for mothers over 35 of having gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, babies with genetic disorders, and other pregnancy complications.  Since I’m 31 and closer to the dreaded age of ‘women who put it off too long’ I felt that it was time to take action.

Who would have guessed that I’d conceive on our first try? 

Ever since I found out that I’m pregnant, every day starts with a sinking feeling in my stomach. By the afternoon, I usually burst into crying fits that can last for hours. Now I’ve progressed into lashing out at my husband, demanding that we terminate the pregnancy. Something tells me this runs deeper than just hormones. 

*

After spending my twenties rushing to meet deadlines, waking up early to beat peak hour traffic, sacrificing weekends to catch up on paperwork, and squirreling away money, I decided to take a short break from the rat race. 

Once I handed in my letter of resignation, I felt as free as a child dashing out of school at the start of summer holidays. I revelled in reading novels, taking naps and watching DVDs instead of being cooped up in an office.  When close friends saw my relaxed smile, they jokingly called me ‘a lady of leisure’.

My bubble burst when a former colleague—a single woman in her mid-thirties who still lives with her parents—called me something else.

“You must do a lot of housework,” she said when we bumped into each other at a mutual friend’s party.
“Excuse me?” I noted the smirk on her face.
“You’re just a housewife now, right?  It must be nice to rely on your husband. No one else takes care of me so I have to work.”
I reminded her that I’m taking time off; I’m not a housewife.
“Yes you are! Housewife! Housewife!” She narrowed her eyes and spat out the words with a huge grin. 

I walked away, telling myself that she was trying to undermine me to compensate for her own insecurities; to cover up the fact that her mother enforces a midnight curfew, cooks her meals, does her laundry and doesn’t even charge her rent. But being called a ‘housewife’ gnawed at me, stinging as badly as any curse word. 

Throughout my teenage years, I played Sisters are doing it for themselves by Aretha Franklin and the Eurythmics over and over again on a worn out tape recorder in my bedroom. It inspired my plans to stand on my own two feet. Marriage and children featured in there somewhere, but my main goal was to have a career.

It makes me beam with pride that my plans came to fruition. A frame on my living room wall displays my honours degree. I’ve worked abroad in the corporate world, held my own in meetings with general managers, attended international conventions, and occupied an office with a view of a big city. My investments, clothes and shoes were bought with my own cash and I pay for my share of the mortgage and household expenses.          

The thought of losing this identity as an independent career woman makes me break into a cold sweat. 

After a few months off work, I began scouring the recruitment pages, sending out my curriculum vitae and attending interviews. But, almost half a year later, there’s still no success.

It’s hard to sleep at night. What if I haven’t found a job before my belly starts to swell? Will potential employers reject me thinking that I’ll disappear on maternity leave soon after being hired? Will I feel powerless once my savings run out and my husband is our sole financial provider? 

The taunts of my former colleague haunt me. Will I become ‘just’ a housewife, ‘just’ a mother? Will I have a lower status in the social order? 

My imagination conjures up people at parties whose eyes glaze over when I tell them I’m a stay-at-home mum; they ignore my comments unless the conversation happens to turn to nappy changing techniques. A wardrobe of well cut business suits is replaced by t-shirts wet with baby drool and pants with elastic waist bands. Weekdays formerly packed with meetings, project targets and lunches in city restaurants are now dominated by a blur of smelly nappies, soothing a crying infant and breast feeding. Instead of chatting to colleagues around the water cooler, I’m tearing out my hair trying to reason with a toddler who won’t stop screaming unless I buy him lollies. 

That won’t happen to me! I’m not ready to say goodbye to that career woman! I’m not ready to have a child!   

*

It’s the middle of the afternoon and I’m exhausted from yet another bout of crying. I step into the shower and try to revive myself. As I hang my head and let a spray of warm water massage the back of my neck, I notice bright red fluid circling the drain. I can’t do anything except stare with wide eyes at the fresh blood trickling down my legs that, within minutes, flows more heavily than any menstrual period I’ve ever experienced. It strikes me as odd that there’s no cramping or pain. When a blood clot appears, I force myself to get out of the shower. The bath mat is covered with stains by the time I finish drying myself. 

Five minutes later, after calling my husband at work, the thick sanitary pad lining my underwear is already soaked. I sit on the toilet and wait, clasping a towel around me and letting out shrill little cries every time a clot falls into the bowl.

The bleeding has subsided an hour later when my husband tears into the bathroom. He hugs me, helps me dress and we head to our general practitioner’s office.

Our doctor can’t confirm what I know has happened—I’ve miscarried. She asks me to go to the antenatal clinic at the nearest hospital for an ultrasound. Since it’s Friday evening and the clinic isn’t open on weekends, I have to wait until Monday.    

Lots of questions go through my mind. Am I relieved? Didn’t I want to be free of the baby? Am I being punished for having negative feelings about the pregnancy? Do I wish I could have the baby back? Did I lose the chance to share my life with a wonderful person? Is this a blessing or a curse?

Monday morning finally arrives. I’m lying on a reclined leather chair in a dimly lit hospital room. My husband gives my hand a light squeeze as we watch the radiographer begin the ultrasound.

Suddenly, she exclaims, “Oh, there it is!” 

On the screen in front of us is a fuzzy image of something that looks like a kidney bean. It’s our eight-week-old baby, healthy and safe in my womb, with a strong heart beat that sounds like music. 

*

A mother wearing tracks pants and sneakers is taking her baby and two fox terriers for a walk on a sunny morning. An empty footpath stretches out in front of her. It’s too hard to resist. She breaks into a run, pushing the pram as fast as she can, the dogs keeping pace at her feet. A huge smile lights up her face. She’s still running when I turn around in the passenger seat of our car and glance back at her.

As I touch my tummy and feel the life inside me kick, I look forward to knowing what she knows: the simple joy of a walk with my newborn.

The sinking feeling that used to plague me in the morning disappeared the day after the ultrasound. Now when I get out of bed, I pull back my shoulders, lift my chin, and remind myself that the kidney bean I saw on the screen is actually a growing soul—someone who is depending on me to be the best person I can be. 

Whenever a letter of rejection arrives in the mail, I still feel sad, but nothing like the desperate, anxious, tear-ridden sadness that I felt before. I’m learning to be patient; a job will come when the time is right. I’ve let go of the childish taunts of my ex-colleague. Now I understand that my sense of self is not completely shaped by my profession. 

I look at my husband as he drives us to a baby store. We both grin as we list the things we need to buy—pram, cot, clothes, nappies, change mat, bath tub, toys—things to start building a life for our baby, whom we already love. 

I am ready to embrace the new role that awaits me.

 

© Patricia Tan

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

Share your thoughts

* Gloria Steinem