By Sian Prior
Author Sian Prior tried to have a child for seven years before deciding it was “time to find out who I might be, if I’m not to be a mother”.Credit:Peter Tarasiuk. Hair and make-up by Rachel Walton
Some things stay in your memory forever.
Scene 1: I’m on a group trip to the snow. Lying on a bed in the mezzanine of the ski hut, I overhear two women below having a conversation. One of them has only recently met me, and she’s telling her friend she’s surprised to discover she likes me. “Childless women,” she says, “are usually so selfish.”
Scene 2: Outside a polling booth on election day, I’m handing out how-to-vote cards. A man I used to work with is standing nearby, handing out cards for a different party. He’s asking me about my current working life. “Of course,” he states confidently, “you’re obviously one of those women who chose to have a career rather than be a mother.”
Scene 3: At a lunch gathering with friends, a woman I’ve known for 20 years is quizzing me about my desire to have a child. “Maybe,” she says, “you only wanted to have children because society told you that you should.” Selfish Career Woman or Helpless Victim of Peer Pressure – which is it to be?
Former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard would be familiar with those stereotypes.
Quote 1: In 2006, Liberal senator Bill Heffernan said publicly that Julia Gillard was unfit for leadership because she was “deliberately barren”.
Quote 2: In 2010, Liberal senator George Brandis said Julia Gillard was “very much a one-dimensional person” who “doesn’t understand the way parents think about their children” because she “has chosen not to be a parent”.
Quote 3: In 2011, former Labor Party leader Mark Latham said prime minister Gillard lacked empathy and was “wooden” because of her decision to remain childless – a choice which inevitably meant “you haven’t got as much love in your life”.
Right, then. Let’s add Loveless Sociopath to the list of stereotypes, shall we?
In 2011, former Labor Party leader Mark Latham labelled Julia Gillard “wooden” because of her decision to remain childless.Credit:Andrew Meares
It’s the end of 2002. I’m 38 years old and I still want to have a child. Time to do something about it. I force myself to think clearly about my options. None of them is appealing.
Option 1: Leave Tom, a year into our relationship, try to find a partner who wants to have a child with me, and try to get pregnant. I can’t leave this relationship. It’s the best thing in my life right now. Scratch Option 1.
Option 2: Stay in the relationship but try to adopt a child as a single person.
Do I want to adopt someone else’s child? Through all these long years of trying to have a baby, my fantasies have always involved a baby who has something of me in them. But why? And what does “something of me” mean?
I study the way Tom’s features have reproduced themselves, slightly morphed, in his three children. The wide-set brown eyes of his younger daughter. The loose-limbed, athletic grace of his older daughter. His son’s uncanny ability to remember numbers. His older daughter’s love of stories. His younger daughter’s shyness. The quick reflexes of his son when he plays tennis. Their father is there, just under the skin, in all of them.
And my own father Glen, who drowned in 1964, aged 29, when I was only three months old. What is there of Glen lying under my skin? All I have learnt about him comes from some black-and-white photos and a few stories told by my mother. I know he was shy, like me. Tall and fair, like me. In love with music, like me. I have been told how very like him my brother is – tall, funny, gentle, sporty. Do I want a child who has something of my lost father in them?
One of the stories told and retold in our family is about the day my small, dark-haired mother went out walking with her three blonde children and was stopped by a stranger, who exclaimed, “What lovely children! Whose are they?” Sometimes I’m mistaken for being the mother of Tom’s daughters. In a café, a woman at the next table stares at the four of us, before leaning over and saying with a confident smile, “Well, they obviously take after their mother more than their father!” It’s a bittersweet compliment. But this much is undeniable: I want to be able to see myself in another. See my nose or my chin, my father’s nose and chin, replicated in my child. Is it narcissism, a craving for a miniature version of myself? Or is it just how parents are?
Option 3: Give up on the idea of having a child and try to be content with being Tom’s partner and an intermittent stepmother to his three children.
I don’t want to spend the rest of my life with Tom regretting the steps I’ve taken – or not taken – to be with him. This is not his fault.
If I sacrifice my desire to have a child for the sake of staying in the relationship, I might always wonder if the sacrifice was worth it. And if we break up, maybe part of me will blame Tom for my childlessness. One of the fairy tales I read as a child was called The Little Mermaid. This is what I remember: the mermaid falls in love with a human and is offered the chance to stay with him, leaving the sea and making her home on land. But there’s a catch: she must give up her mermaid tail in exchange for human feet. Every step she takes will feel like walking on broken glass.
I don’t want to spend the rest of my life with Tom regretting the steps I’ve taken – or not taken – to be with him. This is not his fault. He has a right to his freedom. Our timing is off. If we’d met 10 years earlier, perhaps we could’ve tried to have that child together. But he doesn’t want another one, and the last thing any child needs is a father who never wanted them to exist. Scratch Option 3.
Option 4: Stay in the relationship but look for a friend or acquaintance who will donate sperm so I can try to have a child.
Is this my best option – find a willing sperm donor? Someone I like, someone who likes me, who would be happy to help? I have a friend, a single man, who’s confided to me in the past that he hopes to have children one day. I invite him to come for a walk along the beach path, and as we wander past the rollerbladers and the dog-walkers I explain my dilemma to him. When I get to the part about trying to find a friend who might help me have a child, he goes quiet. We walk in near silence back towards my flat. In the driveway, I grit my teeth and ask the question.
He grimaces and makes an awkward joke about what a terrible father he’d be. When I reassure him he wouldn’t have to be an active father, he makes another joke and farewells me, then dashes off up the street. I feel like a beggar.
Not long afterwards I describe this scene to another old friend, a married man with three sons. There’s no hidden agenda. I’ve never considered asking him. Without prompting, though, he immediately offers to be a sperm donor for me. I thank him and tell him I’ll need some time to consider his generous offer.
If I did have a child with the help of his “donation”, what would that mean for his wife?
Over the coming days I try to imagine what it would be like – for me, for the child, for my friend – and for his wife. She’s kind and empathetic. It could be hard for her to express any misgivings about her husband’s offer. If I did have a child with the help of his “donation”, what would that mean for her, and for their sons? Would we be a kind of family, a sprawling thing like Tom’s entourage of ex-wives, children and their half-siblings? Or would I be an awkward addendum to my friend’s neat nuclear unit? What responsibilities would we all have for each other – and for the children? The more I think about it, the more complicated it seems. I reluctantly decline my friend’s offer. Scratch Option 4.
Option 5: Stay with Tom and try to have a child as a solo parent using IVF and anonymous donor sperm. This is my last, and my least worst, option. It will cost a lot of money. The system is unfair. Many people can’t afford it. I’m not wealthy, but I have some savings that could at least get me started. I call my gynaecologist.
I was never good at science. In high school, I memorised the table of elements because it sounded like a poem to me – hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium – but never understood how the elements fitted together. Even biology was hard. How cells behaved, how anatomical parts interacted, how genes transmitted information: none of this information would stick to my brain.
In 2003, embarking on the IVF program feels like a return to this state of anxious ignorance. When the gynaecologist explains to me what will happen, she draws little pictures on a notepad to give me visual images of the process.
An hour later I’ve forgotten the details. There will be lots of appointments and procedures, that much I gather. Appointments I can do. I keep a detailed diary, turn up for things on time. Remembering exactly what I’ll be turning up for will be harder.
And there will be needles. Before the IVF specialists can start matchmaking my eggs with the donor sperm, they need to make sure I have a good supply of healthy ones. My egg production will be boosted with hormone injections, and it will be up to me to self-inject the magic fluids. I’m given a miniature suitcase containing vials of pharmaceuticals and plastic-wrapped syringes and told to make sure the drugs are refrigerated.
The first time I inject myself in the belly, my hands are shaking. Will it hurt? Have I got the right spot? What if there’s an air bubble in the hypodermic? Air bubbles are dangerous, I know that much, and I spend a long time studying the syringe to make sure it doesn’t look like a spirit level. Then I pinch my belly skin and push the needle into the soft flesh. When the pain comes, it’s surprisingly mild. Nothing like my memories of childhood vaccinations. Nothing that warrants a consoling lollipop. My pain threshold has clearly skyrocketed over the past few years. After three miscarriages, a prolapsed disc and back surgery, needles are easy-peasy.
The side effects of the hormones are harder to endure. My belly is bloated, my head aches and I feel tired all the time. Worst are the impacts on my mood. I’ve always suffered from PMT, becoming teary and anxious each month before I bleed. The hormones I’m taking seem to double the dread.
Tom is busy with work. In his absence, my mother steps into the breach. Month after month she picks me up from the appointments, takes me to a café and hands me tissues as I ride the waves of hope and fear that accompany each egg-harvesting procedure, each embryo implant. The news from my gynaecologist is not good. I’m producing fewer eggs than they’d like, and those I do produce are not in great shape. A couple of times the fertilised embryo manages to cling to my uterus for a few days after my period is due, and I hold my breath, willing it to hang in there. I try not to move too suddenly in case I dislodge it – even though I know this is ridiculous. But then the bleeding begins again, and the whole complicated round of interventions has been in vain.
Meanwhile my freelance work rolls on. I try to distract myself by focusing on my stories and reviews for newspapers, and the new songs I’m learning – a classically trained soprano, I’m doing a lot of concerts and recitals. I’ve recently relinquished my position on the council of the Australian Conservation Foundation. On top of the gruelling IVF experience, the relentless bad news about species extinction and climate change has become unendurable. My brain has simply given up trying to assimilate the grim statistics of slow-motion ecocide.
I’m on a bunch of arts boards and committees and there’s always an agenda to look at, a meeting to attend, grants to be awarded. Unlike climate science, the arts make me feel optimistic about humanity. But much of this activity is unpaid, and as the IVF bills flood in, the savings in my bank account slowly drain away. There’s a limit to how long I can keep doing this, both financially and emotionally. I plough on. I’ll be 39 soon. This could be my last chance.
There are babies everywhere. So many births, so many babies, and none of them mine.
I find myself wondering again about Glen, my dead father. There’s so much I don’t know about him. Did he dream of concert halls filled with applause? Did he wake in the night, as I often do, to wonder and worry? If I do manage to have a child with the help of the anonymous sperm donor, what questions might my child have when they realise there is no flesh-and-blood father in their life? Will they feel that something is missing, a physical presence or a mirror image? What right do I have to deny my child half their genetic inheritance? I tell myself that I haven’t suffered from the absence of a biological father. My stepfather John, the only father I’ve really known, is a kind, loyal, loving man whom I adore. But the questions linger.
Meanwhile, the IVF process grinds on. In November, my gynaecologist tells me I have one stored embryo left. She’s going on extended holidays over Christmas so if the next implant doesn’t stick, we’ll have to put things on hold for a few months. We’re both baffled by my failure to produce good eggs. Could I have a mysterious condition that hasn’t yet been diagnosed? What had caused those three miscarriages – interspersed with long periods of apparent infertility – in my last relationship? She can’t give me an answer.
I don’t know if I can keep going with this. Keep duelling with hope, month after month, picking myself back up every time. It’s been seven years since I first started trying to have a child, back with my partner before Tom: nearly a fifth of my life. I’ve been looking at the statistics on childbirth. Last year, in 2002, there were 250,000 babies born in Australia. There are babies everywhere, being pushed in prams along the streets of my suburb, being spoon-fed in highchairs in my local café, smiling at me from posters on the sides of buses, bouncing up and down on television ads for toilet paper, being dandled above the shallows at my local beach. So many births, so many babies, and none of them mine.
“I’m not alone in feeling alone,” says Prior. “But how can I find a way to feel safe with my solitude?”Credit:Peter Tarasiuk
The last embryo doesn’t stick. I call my mother, and we meet at a café near her work. Sitting in an alcove away from the other customers, I weep into a paper napkin. “I’m so tired,” I tell her. “I want to get away. But when I try to work out what I want to get away from, I realise – it’s me.”
My mother is silent, at a loss. She can listen to me, hold my hand, but there is nothing she can do to fix this.
“I need to stop now.” The decision has been made. The part of me I want to get away from has had enough. It’s time to find out who I might be, if I’m not to be a mother.
A decade later, I’m Googling synonyms for regret, looking for the right word. Trying to work out if it is my fault, this situation I’ve found myself in – childless, grandchild-less and, since Tom ended our relationship, living alone. Contrition? No. Shame? Perhaps. So many decisions, small and large, led me to this place. So many needs I was desperate to fulfil. Others saw the end of my relationship with Tom coming long before it arrived. If they’d tried to warn me, I wouldn’t have listened.
Perhaps I am guilty of hubris, of believing over and over again that I would be the exception rather than the rule. The one whose medical mystery was solved before it was too late. The one who beat the odds with IVF. The one who found enduring romantic love. The one who wrestled grief into submission. Yes, yes, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but sometimes it’s also cold comfort.
In 2014, the year I turn 50, I sell my old car and buy a small delivery van. My stepfather John has offered to convert it into a mini campervan for me. He’s made and sold at least five campervans over the decades, and my parents have crisscrossed the continent many times in their houses-on-wheels. My van is not just a new toy. It’s the outcome of a conversation I’ve been having with myself – about loss, safety and solitude.
Having a child would have given me lifelong connection and communion – this is what I believed. Someone in whose mind I would be ever-present. Someone who would be ever-present in my mind. A tethering, a tugging back to the world. Without that child, I feel untethered, a balloon let go by a careless hand. Sometimes this feeling is assuaged by a singing rehearsal, a meal with a friend, a night with a lover. Sometimes I can tether myself to nature, sitting quietly beside a creek or bobbing with seagulls in the ocean. But a wintry wind is always coming, ready to blow me back into that cold, high place.
I’m trying to persuade myself that this is not a childlessness thing – it’s a human thing. I’m not alone in feeling alone. But how can I find a way to feel safe with my solitude? How can I convert my freedom into something positive? What choices do I have because of not getting what I most wanted?
Right now, all my work – teaching, writing, mentoring, singing – is freelance and flexible. Much of it is also portable. I have no dependants, and my home can be rented out to cover the mortgage. Most of my friends are raising teenagers now, busily nurturing their human legacy. Perhaps this freedom is the consolation prize for all that I’ve lost. The campervan will allow me to be near the sea whenever I want, with countless fathoms of ocean to swim in.
I’ve driven the van to the Murray River to attend a writers’ festival in Mildura. One of the guest speakers is an American poet who recently lost his wife of four decades. It’s an odd word, “lost”. A word that shrinks and expands depending on what’d been lost. Lost like a backpacker in a rainforest? Lost like an embryo that won’t stick? Lost like hope? The poet has written a collection of ghazals for his dead wife. Perhaps he would understand why I’m telling this story. I discover an interview online with the poet. He tells the interviewer: “The great danger of grief is that it overflows and takes you with it – there is a constant need to hold together – the writing form helps.”
He talks about the difference between knowing and understanding. Poetry is concerned with knowing, he says, while scholarship is about understanding.
There are things I want you to do – those of you who have children. I want you to care for the ones you have not yet lost. Keep them safe, in their bodies and minds.
Poems are ways of conveying an experience of the world. A sort of transference. Understanding is more analytical, he says, a way of placing experience in context and coming to terms with it cognitively. Do I write to know why I am childless? To know what I have done with my childlessness, and why? Or to understand those things? I want to do both. Maybe understanding can protect me from the pain of knowing. But I want you to understand, too, so you don’t jump to conclusions about people like me. And what do I mean when I say “people like me” anyway? People who’ve lost something they cared about? We are legion.
Knowing and understanding are both useful, but surely it is doing that counts – what you do with all that knowing, all that understanding.
There are things I want you to do – those of you who have children. I want you to care for the ones you have not yet lost. Keep them safe, in their bodies and minds. Believe them when they tell you there is a crocodile under the bed, and if there is, banish it. I want you to care for the world they will occupy after they have lost you.
Care: another strange word. A word that shrinks and expands depending on what you care about. I don’t care for oysters. Take care crossing the road. Care for this spinning blue planet so that the world – their world – is not lost.
This is an edited extract from Sian Prior’s Childless: A Story of Freedom and Longing (Text, $35), out March 29.
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