A twenty-something you went to school with has just had a baby. You know because the digital age has rendered this kind of news inescapable. A woman posts a photo of her newborn on Instagram and WhatsApp chats light up across the country. My best friend (childless) and I (also childless) can be found exchanging vindictive messages like, She’s too young and Another one? I tell my mother, who gave birth to my older brother when she was 26, that so-and-so from a few roads down is pregnant again at 25, and she shakes her head, What a shame. The general consensus is that nowadays these women should be accumulating degrees, or career milestones, or Wordle streaks, instead of babies.
I’ve always been too quick and too eager to judge young mothers. I tell myself that I’m smarter than that. Someone too preoccupied with more meaningful challenges – a prestigious MFA, travelling on a measly writer’s income, maintaining a five-step skincare routine – to be derailed by the inconvenience of children.
When people ask, my response is a breezy and smug, “I have a lot to do first.” By that I mean that I’ve dodged the bear trap that is young motherhood whereas others have danced foolishly into its waiting, metal teeth. And surely, the thought continues, they must have done so by accident. Because how could these young, bright women be so unambitious as to intentionally waste their twenties on a baby?
If this sounds like a spiteful and contemptuous strain of misogyny, that’s because it is. It is easier to belittle young mothers than to admit that they make me feel envious and intimidated and as though I’m stumbling to catch up with them. The truth of it is banal. I’m a woman who wants children. I want them so badly that I think the universe will catch a whiff of my desperation and withhold motherhood from me as part of a cruel, cosmic joke.
Like many women, I’m convinced that I’m infertile despite having no evidence for it. My mother laughs when I tell her, mainly because my maternal grandmother had nine kids and my paternal grandmother had eleven. She has never given much thought to her own fertility beyond how to keep it in check (birth control and an abortion in her late twenties, about which she has always said, “I hold no sadness”). But by now I’ve fed the anxiety with so many Google searches over the years that it has grown to loom over me. Under its shadow I’m incapable of even getting myself tested, for fear that I’ll be proven right.
That is another thing. Young mothers are fearless, and I am not. No, as it turns out, I’m afraid of it all. Of getting pregnant, of failing to get pregnant, of getting pregnant then miscarrying, of giving birth and dying, of giving birth and surviving – only to then be tasked with keeping the tiny thing alive.
On the chance that I will ultimately conceive and be ushered into the ranks of women who are the best of us, women who not only work but are desirable and capable of nurture, I’ll be a pregnant woman with a (completely rational) phobia of pregnancy. It is undeniable that the vast majority of mothers survive their children. But maternal mortality rates in the UK are on the rise (229 women died from pregnancy-related causes in 2018-20, 19 per cent more than in 2017-19 when deaths from Covid-19 are excluded). And we simply don’t know the full breadth of complications that could arise from being pregnant.
My mother developed high blood pressure during her first trimester, which she still takes medication for thirty years later. On TikTok mothers share how getting pregnant caused their teeth to rot and fall out, or gave them “pregnancy nose”, which is where your nose flattens and widens like you’ve pressed it up against glass. Under videos like this the comments rally in a singular cry: “where is the girl with the list?” The List is a crowdsourced file of pros and cons of having children, where the cons – “#48: their tiny foot might get stuck in your ribs and you may crack a rib”, “#113: your clitoris might rip” – heavily outweigh the pros, “#26: tiny everything.”
Women are expected to accept that bodily pain is an unavoidable part of our existence. I got my first period when I was ten going on eleven, a few years after some of my friends had already learned to insert tampons without feeling sinful. So, by the time it came, gushing and clotted and liver purple, the whole bloody affair felt forgettable. Then the pain sprang up, unreachable behind my navel. It felt as if someone was pushing a long cocktail spoon up between my legs and carefully scraping out the pulpy sides of my womb. There is no mercy for squeamishness. We spend our lives growing accustomed to the sight of blood.
But suppose that I am one of the millions of women, like my mother and my mother’s mother, who is discharged from a hospital only moderately traumatised, and with a healthy baby in tow. What if I don’t feel a tremendous surge of love each time I see my child? One in ten new mothers in the UK have postnatal depression.
I agonise over the alternative as well: what if I do in fact feel that love, the one that my mother can only describe with a cryptic, “when you have your own, you’ll understand”? What if I am so awash with it that I lose myself? Do young mothers not worry about this too? Do they know that in becoming the mother of a child they are forfeiting the potential, the permission to dream, reserved for children of mothers?
The few photographs we have of my mother’s youth look to me like the snapshots of a stranger. The girl in them is someone I’ve never met called Mili. Mili, before she was my mother, wore a nose ring and climbed the mango trees by her house to giggle at boys walking below. The first time I caught a glimpse of Mili was when she made a joke at my expense, and her eyes gleamed with mischief. I thought, startled, “Has my mother always been this funny?” And of course, she has, but I’d mistaken her dedication to motherhood for the extent of her personality.
Up until then, I’d simply seen her as my mother, not a woman with her own set of philosophies, contradictions and desires that had nothing to do with her children. In my selfishness, I’d anchored her story to mine. I do it to young mothers too. I define them by their proximity to motherhood before they can do it to me. Perhaps this is how I am able to believe that with giving birth comes the end of my life as I know it. That once it happens, I will bow out to raucous applause, then linger side of stage as the show goes on without me.
The day I was born, Mili underwent an epidural and watched on curiously as the doctors rooted inside the six-inch gash in her womb. Outside the theatre, her brother and sister were on standby as blood donors in case she haemorrhaged. She didn’t, but her lower body was so numb that she wouldn’t have known until it was too late. When they pulled me out, small, plump and covered in her blood, they lifted me up above their heads to show her.
My mother thought, My God, why is she so red? then slipped into a deep sleep. When she woke up in the too-bright, alien ward, panic seized her at once. She hadn’t yet noticed me in the cot next to her bed, so she called out to one of the nurses and asked, demanded, “Where is my baby?”
[See also: Why I hate Mother’s Day]