You Can't Have Both...right?

You Can't Have Both! Or can you?rosie the riveter personalized posters-r7eaefcb4079c4cc5b54933ec0b1bf495 ishs 400

Note: This post is also running, in a more tightly edited version, on the fine website writing.ie. If you'd like to leave a comment, please do so here. I might write a follow-up piece, so any wise words would be greatly appreciated.

The year I turned 40, I realised that I'd have to resolve a few long-term dilemmas in my life, if only to keep from getting too depressed when that birthday rolled around. One area I needed to deal with was my writing – I finally got the nerve to treat it as more than a hobby, started applying to graduate level programmes in creative writing and settled down to work on my first novel.

The other worry that had been hanging over me was fertility.

I'd had a few tests and doctor's visits over the past five years and nothing seemed to be wrong, but then nothing was happening either. Still, I continued to tell myself there was no need to panic, that women in their late thirties could get pregnant easily enough, that there was no 'deadline'. And friends always seemed to be there with anecdotes to back this up, which is understandable - people want to reassure each other. Then every time I turned around I'd see a post-forty celebrity smiling at me and proudly holding a baby, or two of them, gazing up from the covers of supermarket weeklies and entertainment pull-outs. All of this made it easy to stay in denial.

Until I had my first appointment at a fertility clinic and was told that I'd left it far too late, and IVF was my only viable option. I'd have to start as soon as possible, the doctor said. I'd been accepted to a Master's in creative writing programme and was still teaching part time, but I had no choice: I'd have to fit this in as well. (The pregnancy and IVF deadline also put a fire under me in terms of finishing the novel, but I can think of less expensive ways to get motivated.) I started school in September. The first course of injections and pills began a month later.

It was around this time that my grad school had a guest lecturer for a week, a global literary superstar. We hung on his every word. He announced that he had office hours in the afternoon, and sternly added that there was no way he wanted to sit in there by himself because people were too shy or unmotivated to come and see him. So, despite knowing next to nothing about his work, I decided to make an appointment along with everyone else.

Alice pig and pepperBig mistake! We stared at each other for a while. We exchanged bland comments about real estate in Nova Scotia. He asked me a few questions, including whether or not I had children. Then, several minutes into this marathon of embarrassment, we had the following exchange (transcribed from memory):

Visiting Eminence : You said that you haven't had kids yet. Now, what does that mean?

Me: Oh, well, I'm starting IVF treatments soon...

VE: Isn't that nice! You'll have a book finished, and you'll have a little baby too. (long pause) Although...let me tell you, you can't have both.

Me: Wha?

VE: You can be a mother and have this wonderful rosy glow and be surrounded by your beautiful family. Or you can a solitary writing creature. But not the two together. Writing takes everything. So you're gonna have to make a choice.

(Awkward silence. The Eminence is unfazed.)

Me: So...you really think I can't have both?

VE: That's right. You gotta choose. (smiling) Pick whichever one you're terrible at, and get ridda that!

Me: (brittle laughter)

Then we went back to making vague noises about real estate.

When I was calmer, I realised that the Visiting Eminence had done me a favour. He was honest about something most people tend to sidestep. Can you be a mother of small children and a writer as well? Or pursue any occupation that requires long hours and full, exhausting concentration?

Of course you can. Women can do anything, right? That's what I was educated to believe. (Although in many ways this is a cop-out: taken to its logical extreme it means that men don't have to worry about housework and childcare because they're partnered with an omnipotent being who can juggle two or three different existences effortlessly and may not even require sleep. But that's a whole other story.)ivf-after-40

I started asking people what they really thought about this question – being a writer and a first-time mother at once: was it possible? I used the conversation with the Visiting Eminence as a jumping-off point. Some people were appalled at VE, told me there were plenty of respected female authors with children. But others listened to my story and wearily said, 'There's some truth in that.' Or even, 'He's dead right.'

Funnily enough, the people who most often disagreed with the eminence tended to be men. The people who agreed with him? Women who'd had children. I tried making a quick list of all the successful writing mothers that I knew. They all seemed to be people with reserves of energy I couldn't begin to imagine having myself, or they were women who'd started publishing in their late thirties and forties, at an age when their kids might on their way to graduating from high school. As for me, I'm forty-three and only beginning to make some progress. Would having a baby mean the end of it – for a year, for five, forever?

As it happened, this wasn't a question I had to answer just then: the first round of IVF was a failure. I found out on Stephen's Day 2010, and the first thing I did to take my mind off the crippling disappointment was to turn on the laptop and start working on the novel. It happened that I was writing a chapter about a parent rejecting his child and saying goodbye, but I ignored the irony, set my teeth and ploughed forward. There were two more IVF attempts, each one starting with high hopes and ending with depression, and every time I got more bad news, I'd bury myself in the book. 'Going to spend some time with my fictional son,' I joked to a friend at the end of another round.

Is it over? Yes, and no. After the last attempt, I was told that I had only a 15% chance of success using my own eggs. So I've had to accept that I will most likely never meet my own child. This person will not exist. However, with the possibility of donor eggs or adoption, time is no longer the factor that it was when I was turning 40. I could put it off for another six months, a year, longer. And I have.

Now I'm not sure what to do. I've been waiting to make a decision until get the second book in shape, anticipating that a baby will bring an end to the writing, either temporarily or otherwise. And this 'otherwise' is frightening. How can I give up writing when I've struggled for most of my life just to get to this point? But then, suppose I say no to kids, and find that I don't have another book in me. Imagine the pressure I'd feel to write something good enough to justify losing a family. Imagine the resentment I'd feel towards my family for causing me to give up the best part of myself. Either way, it seems a cruel choice, and not one I could imagine anyone asking a man to make.

So, what's the answer? Can you have both?

 

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