I could feel the daylight intensifying outside; the summer heat baking the windows. I had to get up to go to my day job, a commute to a windowless grey cubicle a few blocks from the assault of tourists and neon in Times Square. But I couldn’t move. Any minute now, Dave would wake up. But something else was there in bed with us. I called it the Baby Want. Once the Baby Want had taken hold a year ago, it couldn’t be unwanted. It wouldn’t be dismissed. The Baby Want was a prickling and swelling along the nape of my neck, my hands, my breasts – as though my skin was unpeeling from my bones, straining to get at something that wasn’t there. It became stronger with each passing day, with each month as my last good eggs suicided.
My declining fertility had started out as a faint ringing in my ears in my twenties – a sound that would stop as soon as you tried to listen too closely. In my early thirties, it had become like those church bells across the street that woke you briefly on a hungover Sunday morning. At thirty-five, it was a honking car alarm that would jerk me out of sleep in the middle of the night while I pulled my pillow over my ears. Now, at thirty-seven, my fertility was a constant moan, like a grief-stricken whale. It said: You’re running out of time.
I secretly scrolled the internet to find out how and why my body had become possessed. I found a paper by a Finnish sociologist, Anna Rotkirch, who’d researched the longing for a baby by putting a call out in the national paper for women to write to her. She received more than one hundred letters describing what the Finnish called ‘baby fever’. They listed overwhelming symptoms: a ‘painful longing in my whole being’, being plagued with ‘anxiety or sorrow’ or feeling like ‘a mere empty shell of skin’. The baby fever, Rotkirch found, could be a long-held desire or strike suddenly and surprisingly, like lightning, and was caused by a number of things such as previous pregnancies, falling in love (tick), aging (tick) and seeing your friends get pregnant and have children (tick).
At the beginning I tried to talk myself out of it. What did it even mean to want a baby? It was just the dumb logic of my body. My body fiendishly wanted an Anne Geddes world filled with adorable beings who didn’t scream or cry or shit, who continuously napped in mushroom-shaped pillows and tree nooks, peaceful as lambs. What did it mean to want a baby? Surely, it was just about legacy or loneliness or narcissism? Or unfulfilled ambition?
This Baby Want had no place in my life, I reasoned. Some of my artist friends had started to have children and were trying to find a way to slot them into their lives. But New York was a constant churn, a place of unceasing ambition and punishing work schedules. A baby felt like a deviation from that spinning trajectory. Having it all was a bald-faced lie when you were an underpaid female artist. I would have to sacrifice some of my artistic ambitions if I became a mother. That’s why my longing felt as archaic and dangerous as being lobotomised – as though the section of my brain that dealt with reason and logic had been extracted.
The Baby Want held no truck with logic. It didn’t reason with obstacles – with raising a child in an impossibly designed metropolis where hauling a pram down subway steps was death defying, with my meagre savings or our third-floor walk-up apartment. The Baby Want was optimistic in the face of the planet’s climate emergency.
It didn’t care about the disparate domestic load for women versus their male partners after childbirth, or the staggering lack of maternity leave and government support for mothers in the US. It ignored the blow to women’s careers and the indifference to mothers held by artistic institutions.
The Baby Want didn’t give a shit about any of these obstacles. Most of all, the Baby Want would not be dislodged by the greatest obstacle of all: Dave. Anna Rotkirch had also found in her study that baby fever was exacerbated by obstacles to pregnancy, like fertility issues or a partner who didn’t want children (tick).
I’d tried to talk myself out of the Baby Want but I’d finally had to cede to it. It was spiritual in its intensity. A baby felt like pure meaning. A way to create something in the world that was beautiful and real and beloved. Flesh of my flesh. My body was hungry to multiply and make something between Dave and me that was ours alone.
For the last year, Dave and I had been having the same conversation on repeat. In bistros, in the park and, recently, as we walked from the fleapit cinema at the end of our street. As we made our way down the hill, I grabbed his hand.
‘You know, I think you’d make a great dad.’
Dave’s shoulders twitched.
‘Hm,’ he said in a tone that said, not this, again.
I hated myself for having to convince him, for sounding so desperate, but I couldn’t stop.
‘You really would.’
He turned to me, trying to keep his voice even.
‘Yeah, but where would we live if we had a baby? We don’t have any family in New York and it’s not exactly easy here, with a kid.’
‘We could go to Australia for a while?’
‘But I’ve built my whole career here … And I’d need to work full-time if we had a kid –’
‘There are theatres in Melbourne. It is possible to work there.’ Even as I said it, I knew it would be difficult, next to impossible, for Dave to survive financially in Australia. He had a steadily rising career working on theatre productions in New York and across the country. In Melbourne, the theatre scene was a microcosm of the US. But the Baby Want would say anything to get what it wanted.
‘I want to have kids, I do, just not yet,’ Dave said, in a way that he hoped would close the conversation.
But when is yet? I thought.