a literary and visual arts journal
We Are Incomplete
She stops at the door. A one-handed lean so she can twirl an ankle, unclench some of the ten-hour ache in her feet. She re-ties her hair to straighten the scrunch on one side where she rested her head against the toilet cubicle for ten minutes. No break again today.
As she walks into the room a practised calm covers her. The first-timer on the bed doesn’t even look up. Too tethered to her pain.
This one shouldn’t have been induced. Another primip rattled with uncertainty – easy when they haven’t done this before. Community team probably asked her about foetal movement too many times. Can’t be sure until we get it out, they say. Probably for the best, they say. Never mind that their stats look better if it’s early and it drops the chance of risks and the knock-knocking of lawyers at the door.
Why would this woman think it was about anything but care? Every thread of her focus tied tight around the thing inside her. The sheen on her face, the sharp breaths, the irregular pulse of her muscles. Not ready to come out and resisting all efforts.
“I can’t do it. I can’t.” Shaking with it. She’s been here for more than a day.
“You’re doing great.” Important to say something positive. All they can do is turn the drip up and try to get it out as quickly as possible. Can’t keep even liquid down so she’s going to get too tired. Another C-section.
“How’s it going?” He’s been in and out the whole time. So much for birth partner. The mums are always better.
“Let’s get you sat down.” She walks him to the chair beside the bed. He’s not finding an excuse to get away this time. Phone calls, visitors, messages. Half your genes and none of the work so the least you can do is see it out.
“How long?” The question comes between gasps. She grabs his hand – white-pressure fingertips visible from this side of the bed.
“We’re coming along nicely.” Not even a full centimetre in three hours but there are ways to get the attention elsewhere. Soon she’ll have to accept an epidural, she can’t keep this up. “Let’s focus on that breathing. Did you bring some music?” They need something. Her panic is wrapped around the bump and squeezing it tight.
“I’ve got the playlist.” He gets his phone out. “I bet you didn’t have this trouble with yours.” He doesn’t even look up.
“Everyone is different.” She told the truth at first. All that training on how to build trusting relationships. Only it turned out they didn’t want the sharp knowledge of her childlessness in the room. One asked for a different midwife while she was stood next to her. She found online threads – women complaining how uncomfortable it made them. How could she possibly understand without having used her own uterus?
Years in the profession hardly make it appealing. The increase in caesareans, the home visits with tears and frustration that they can’t breastfeed. The single mums with two others hanging off their arms as they try to tell you they’re getting along fine, really. The most important job in the world but no-one gets paid.
“How are we getting on in here?” Dr Ingram with his charm turned on. A sure sign of impending surgery.
“All fine.” He’ll want to push the C-section earlier, so he can go home.
“Having a bit of trouble with this one, are we?” Sits down on the chair. Hoping for more stars under ‘bedside manner’ on the feedback form.
“Yes.” That flooded relief. A male face and a white coat never fails to produce this level of trust. He doesn’t even have a vagina.
“You ready?” Wanda is at the door.
“Pretty much.” She will be spared the slide into panic, the loss of control, the sense of failure this woman will undoubtedly feel.
It’s quiet in the staff room. It takes a while for her mind to catch up, remember it can stop. Would have been nice to see a baby. It’s been over a month now. Gathering up all that compassion, dousing them with it then leaving before they get to the end. They never thanked you unless the baby came out on your shift. Mum always said it was better to be selfless. Not expect a reward.
There’s a card on the table. It had to happen. Not a whisper of it but someone must have remembered from previous years. That awful first birthday after she started working at the hospital when they had a party. Celebrations for other people were fine. That level of attention turned around made her flinch. She puts the card in her bag. She’ll be working anyway.
In the car she gets an extra strong mint from the glove box and swigs out of the half-full can of Monster in the cup holder. Loosening her hair, she rubs the side of her head. There’s the beginning of a silvery streak where the headaches start. Each year there are less comments about how young she looks.
Mum still dyed her hair. Started wearing lipstick in her sixties. Looked more upset than defensive when she asked her about it. Felt like I was disappearing, she said. All the colour fading, she said. No-one like me on the telly and no-one looks at me anymore. A rare moment of self-reflection.
Volunteering at the charity shop, knitting hats for the premature babies on her ward. Draining to see someone empty themselves for others every day. Would she have to do that, if she had a child? The arrival of the following day will squash it. Not a question anymore. A missed opportunity.
It’s just another day. The lines between them are smudged, now she does night shifts. It used to be a clean break. Close your eyes and when you open them there was something new. Now she could be in the middle of checking obs, look at her watch and it’s already there. The world shifted without her noticing.
Back home there’s three missed calls and a voicemail from when she was driving. Mum, of course. Lila and Dev were under strict instructions not to call her until afterwards.
She’s too tired to sleep. A slosh of wine to help, maybe a book. Finger-taping over the spines and she pulls out the Baby Names Book – an idle handover from her sister. Because she would, one day. It didn’t need to be said. What else could she do with her life that was so important that she wouldn’t have children?
She’d picked this book because it was the heaviest. Put the apple peel in when Frankie moved away. It was a brown lump now. Five years of pressing and it wasn’t exactly the fruit equivalent of a desiccated flower.
Every Saturday they’d go to the farmer’s market. Swamped by families with overpriced pushchairs and sticky-fingered toddlers. They’d get apples to soothe their hangovers. Philosophical in their post-drunk state. Blood sugar slumps lead to strange choices like polystyrene trays of spicy chicken and rice at 10:30am.
If both of them were single at this age they were going to escape to Cuba and open a rum bar. Until Frankie met Lily. The sort of flustered romance you don’t expect in your thirties. Of course they couldn’t turn down the opportunity to move to Frankfurt. On their last market morning she’d put the apple peel in her pocket.
At first there were postcards and trips. Then they adopted and it wound down to messages, the occasional video chat. Now she gets a card from them at Christmas. The last one had their daughter dressed up as a sheep with ‘All I Want For Christmas Is Ewe!’ picked out in fairy lights.
Would she remember? She’d been more attentive than any boyfriend. For her thirtieth, a bottle of fizz a week after the date, so it wasn’t expected. Two years later a giant Toblerone saved from a holiday three months before. She finds her number. Checks the time, works out the difference, remembers that they will already be in bed – a toddler requires adequate sleep and regular hours. Maybe another time.
She could go out again. In recent months she’s actually been leading the wild life her friends and family think she has. It must be great to have no responsibilities! they gush. As if her career and home were minor interests until she gained the genuine weight of a partner, a family.
Twenty minutes later she’s on the bus, a tingle in her head from the quick vodka and coke she downed while assembling her face in the mirror. A quick message to two men on the site, just in case one of them isn’t interested. But this time, a change. She gets off at the same stop, the same bar she used to go to with Frankie.
It’s heaving inside. Is it Friday? The shifts mean her days get tangled. A couple of times she’s turned up at her sister’s on a Monday afternoon, expecting dinner.
Her phone confirms it’s only Thursday. Bodies are packed up against the bar, people clustered around tables. A couple sitting at their spot – the one by the door where they could inspect everyone that came in. Buying a double and finding a space at the bar, she shoves her coat between her legs and checks to see if she’s waiting for someone.
There have been five in the last month. A bar, an invite. They come back to hers and she kicks them out after a suitable period of cuddling. She knows it’s impossible. Even with the coil fitted, it feels like she’s giving her body a last chance to do something about it, before her fate is sealed.
Tonight’s is quick to respond. She tells the other one her plans have changed. ManForYou45 is wearing a striped shirt and inadvisably tight trousers. He is clearly not forty-five.
“Hello.” She smiles. Not the most unattractive of her recent ‘dates.’ It hasn’t mattered what they look like. That’s not what they’re for.
“Hi there.” He bends close. Flecks of hair gel next to his ear. “What can I get you?”
“Nothing, thanks.” She likes to watch this – an attempt at courtship despite knowing it’s unnecessary.
“You look familiar.” He leans back, appraises. Please don’t let him be one of the da“Have you been on TV?”
“No.” He’s going for that route. She finishes her drink and orders another. Watches him.
“Do you want to get out of here?” He downs half his gin in one go. Maybe he’s nervous.
“Not yet.” She turns away. He’ll stay there for now.
It wouldn’t be a bad way to end the night. Another face looking up at her while she tries to release this unspent pressure inside. A door-click as she falls asleep afterwards. Frankie would have made a spreadsheet with a ranking system. A podium once she’d reached the end of her experiment. It’s far simpler this way. No dragging pretence at getting to know them and she can’t be sure she’ll get attention if she wants it these days.
There was one time she got hassled in this bar. A big group of lads, undoubtedly thinking they were cool for going to a gay bar. They’d piled onto the makeshift dance floor, arms waving, rubbing up against some of the women – a smile and a wave that passed for consent.
At one time she’d feasted on that kind of attention, in too-small skirts that failed to cover her insecurities. She collected the number of tongues in her mouth one night and shared it with her friends on the way home as proof of attractiveness.
In the bar she’d sidestepped, said, “don’t touch me, please.” Nothing malicious in her tone.
He sought her out before they left. Kept repeating the same phrases over and over. “You look old, I don’t want to have sex with you, you’re really old, no-one wants to have sex with you, you look 40.”
He didn’t leave a space for her response. It had grated for the rest of the week. The idea that the most upsetting thing for a woman was to be old and unfuckable.
And here it is. One more day to go. Thereafter she will be permanently unsexy and unwanted, according to Random Pub Guy. It was like that skit on Amy Poehler where they celebrated the shift from playing the love interest to the mum. She’d probably already passed her last fuckable day. Winona Ryder was 36 when she played Spock’s mum in Star Trek. She sits back, finishes her drink and watches other people enjoying themselves.
“I’m going home.”
“I’ll get us an Uber.”
“No thanks.” She walks away from him. It’s not necessary to give him reasons, an ego cushion. She won’t see him again. That’s one thing that has ripened over the years – her indifference to other people’s opinions.
She stays up until the sky starts to lose its darkness. Then off to daysleep before the night shift that will take her from one stage of her life into another.
Scrubs on and straight into it with a Polish multip – her second. Well on the way, pool filling up. Walking up and down the room with her husband following.
“Hello.” She looks calm. Must have been a reasonable first one.
“How are you getting on?”
“My mum’s with Filip, so I can relax.” She breathes, grips his hand. “I think she wants to come.”
“How are the contractions?” Dilation is already six centimetres so they’ll need to get her in the pool.
“Every four minutes, last one was two minutes.” He waves his watch at her. “Soon my princess will be here.” One of those. Poor kid will be in a Disney gown before it can crawl.
“You be quiet.” She waves him away. “And you.” Her pale face turns. “Do you have children?” Intent, she really wants to know.
“No, I don’t.” It’s been so long since she gave this response.
“You’ve still got time.” She leans on her, breathing through a contraction. Looks over at the straggly man who probably doesn’t help enough at home and will insist they have a third.
“I don’t want children.” In the saying it becomes true. The wait for the tick of this binary – with/without – doesn’t have to weigh her down. She would be fine, either way. The need is not so keen that she needs to respond to it.
They are watching her. This twenty-five-year-old with a ring on her left hand. “I mean. I don’t need to have my own. I get to share them with others.” That’s better. The woman turns back to her labour, is helped into the pool and gets lost in the rhythm of her body.
When the transition happens she tries to climb out. It’s always when they think they can’t carry on that they’re almost there. Checks on the pulse are more frequent, the mirror angled to see progress. More monitoring, quick scribble of paperwork so there isn’t too much later. Somewhere in the middle of it she looks at her watch and the hands have slipped past 1am.
The baby is finally born and the room, and everyone in it, changes.
She’s held many of them. Even squashed and red they are luminous. Tight coils of possibility wound into every part of them.
The checks are almost automatic and unless she’s missed something there aren’t going to be any problems. As she peers up the nose to check for obstructions she measures the weight of it. Is there something different, now that the hands that hold this child are forty? That they won’t hold one that has come from her body?
There’s remorse, but blunted by her sister’s moaning at how tired she is, how annoying the kids are. Is that sadness that surfaces as the mouth opens a little, so pink and small? More like nostalgia – a memory of something she’s never had.
She places the tiny body on her mother’s skin. There are tears and touch and tiny words. Too soon she has to leave, letting them discover each other.
Of course, not even that moment lasts. The feeding, the waking, the changing, the guilt, the fear – one day she will wail her frustrations at someone close to her and say that she wishes she’d never had children. Even if it is never spoken it will live in her skin when she is overwhelmed.
She fills in their names. The word ‘mother’ is not for her. Completeness is not a human state.