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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Many people celebrate friends’ pregnancies – with no way of expressing their own longing for children

illustration by eva bee
Illustration by Eva Bee Illustration: eva bee/Eva Bee

I tried to look up baby fever, but all that came up is information about an infant’s vitals and how to take their temperature. It’s more of an American term, baby fever. In British English, we are more likely to say broody, which comes from hens, but there’s something benign and cosy-sounding about that word. A friend once asked me if I was clucking to mean “do you feel a desire to get pregnant?” I had never heard it before, but again, it was too nice for what I was feeling, which was at times dark and desperate and jealous and mean.

In my memoir, The Year of the Cat, which is published this month, I try to pinpoint that feeling of longing, because it seemed to me that literature had still not fully explored it, perhaps because it can feel so deep and primal and beyond words. In the end, I am forced to resort to Welsh to describe it. I use the word hiraeth, which means to feel longing for a place or a person or a time that feels like home but may never have existed except in your imagination.

That’s as close a description as I have been able to reach, and I think it goes some way to explaining that feeling of recognition that people describe when they meet their child for the first time, an “oh, it’s you”. In Laura Marling’s song For You, one of the few tracks I can think of that put these emotions into words, she sings that “I had called out for you / Almost every night” and “When you came into my life / It takes one to know one / And I saw you there / As I had seen you all my life”. That song is now on the baby’s playlist, and every time I listen to it, I think about the longing.

Of course, I have been lucky, because my wish came true. Perhaps that is why I am able to write about it now, though as I was writing my book I was not pregnant, so there was always a risk that it would be published and I’d be asked about these difficult emotions without them being resolved. Regardless of what happened in my own story, though, I wanted to write it for all the women – and men, because men can feel a strong longing for a child too – who are sitting with these often unspoken feelings who raise glasses of champagne to their friends’ happy announcements but cry on the way home and then feel guilty, because that knot of feeling is primal and complicated and sometimes ugly. It can be hard to say to people you love that you want what they have. Sometimes it’s easier to just leave the WhatsApp group or skive the baby shower.

When I did some research about the longing – of which, as with so many things to do with female reproduction, there is of course little written – most papers and studies suggested that the visceral physical and emotional feeling of wanting to have a baby is largely socialised as opposed to hormonal. A 2011 Kansas State University study named three factors: having positive interactions with babies, such as playing and cuddling; the extent of negative exposure to babies, which dampens the desire; and how someone views the “trade-offs” of parenthood. “Those with baby fever see only the positive impacts on their life,” a fertility expert said in one article about baby fever.

Far be it for me to argue with experts, but I know what I felt. I was acutely aware of the negative impact that having a baby could have on my life, and was for a long time in a sort of paralysis. But it didn’t change the visceral longing I felt, or which many others describe. Anecdotally, friends have said that their longing ebbs and flows with their cycles. Older women who felt it pre-menopause have also said that it wanes with time (though others have had to learn to live with it their entire lives). Some women, and again, men, have never felt it at all, and I’ve always wondered if there are evolutionary reasons for this, because to have every member of a tribe occupied with childcare is hardly going to help when trying to ward off predators. Are the women I know who have never wanted children simply immune to social pressure? Or is it something inherent? Perhaps we are all just socialised to blame our hormones. Whatever the reason, they are sick of being told that their feelings will change.

All I know is that, until we speak honestly about longing, at least within our families and friendship groups, it will continue to come out in ways that can be uncomfortable. When a friend said that her sister had ruined every single family occasion for this reason, I could see both sides. Fertility message-boards and support groups can offer some comfort to those going through the longing, but for many childless couples it remains a difficult thing to speak about. This is one of the few things in life that our capitalist economy cannot provide a failsafe solution for. You can try to spend your way out of the problem, but there are no guarantees. The whims of the female body remain mysterious and ungovernable. That’s why the longing is still so stigmatised. To want what you perhaps can’t have, the desperation of that feeling, it’s something many would rather not know about. Which is why I felt compelled to write about it.

What’s working

The baby’s door bouncer is really coming into its own now, as he’s desperate to be on the move but isn’t crawling (we tend to be bum shufflers in my family). When he’s in it he does a pleasing little Irish jig. Will the exercise tire him out enough to get him back to sleeping through the night? We can only hope.

What’s not

His BabyBjörn bouncer – pricey but a genuine lifesaver, and you can get them secondhand – is, however, at the end of its usefulness. How we will mourn its passing as a failsafe way to get the baby to sleep, and he loved rocking himself to music, most recently Anarchy in the UK. I can’t seem to find a decent toddler rocker that will give him the same thrill while also being suitable for a baby of his size.

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