‘Shit,’ I said to P the other night. ‘I actually can’t have children now, can I? Like, physically. It’s not won’t any more; it’s can’t.’
‘Um, well, no. You can’t,’ he admitted. ‘But you knew that, right?’
‘Yeah, course. I just don’t know how I’m meant to feel about it, is all.’
‘Well how do you feel?’
‘How do you feel?’ I deflected.
‘Happy. I only care about the fact that you’ve reduced your chance of recurrence. Anyway I was asking about you; how do you feel?’
‘Dunno really. Like I should be upset about it.’
‘And are you?’
‘I probably should be.’
‘But are you upset?’
‘Well… no,’ I confessed, cautiously. ‘Not upset, exactly. I suppose it’s just hit me that that’s it, you know. The genes end here.’
In a nutshell, then: yes, I’ve lost my ability to have children. But the desire? Well, that wasn’t exactly there to lose. Allow me to explain.
In choosing to have my ovaries removed to help reduce my risk of a cancer recurrence (breast or ovarian), I haven’t lost anything other than my ovaries themselves. I don’t mean to sound glib by saying this (I do appreciate that, for most people, choosing to go ahead with this kind of prophylactic surgery is an enormous deal) but for me there was no decision to make. I’d already had a grade-three cancer at 28, I’d just discovered the presence of a gene which made its return extremely likely – and, anyway, I’d long since given up on the idea of my almost-certainly-menopausal ovaries producing anything other than trouble. Hence, my ovaries are now over-ies.
See, after discovering the alarmingly oestrogen-receptive nature of my original diagnosis, P and I immediately resolved that we’d rather not risk ramping up my hormone levels by getting pregnant (again), and that was that. And, as I’ve recounted both in this blog and in my book, it wasn’t the tragic, complicated, heartbreaking decision it might have been. Instead, we were surprised to discover that, actually, it was exceptionally simple. If becoming pregnant created even as little as a 0.01% chance of producing the kind of oestrogen that caused my original tumour, then it simply wasn’t a risk (or even a non-risk) we were willing to take. What was even more surprising, however, was that choosing not to have children didn’t affect either of us in the way we expected.
‘The thing is,’ I once said to Mr Marbles when he queried my calm reaction, ‘If it came down to it, there are other ways...’
‘Precisely,’ he said. ‘Adoption, surrogacy…’
‘…but, to be honest, I really don’t think we’re bothered.’
(This is everyone’s immediate reaction – well, everyone except for the most senior doctors, I find – however well they think they’ve disguised it. The kind of startled ‘oh’ that my paranoia interprets as a judgement that without becoming parents, mine and P’s lives are suddenly rendered meaningless. Paranoia aside, however, I can’t really condemn the ‘oh’, since I’m as surprised by my conviction as anyone.)
‘See, all of this has made us question whether we were originally trying for a baby because we really longed for one, or just because we felt it was what we ought to do… And we can’t help but think it was the latter.’
‘That’s very candid,’ he said.
‘It’s the truth,’ I said.
I don’t doubt that some people put that response down to the shock of our original diagnosis, and the emotional impact of potentially losing one half of our couple. And while there might be something in that (admittedly, we often trot out the ‘after you’ve been through what we’ve been through, you’re happy just to have one another’ line), it’s nonetheless impossible to make a judgement call on this kind of stuff from the outside. Countless people have said ‘wait and see’ and ‘you might feel different a few years down the line’, and you know what? They might be right. But for now – and for the foreseeable future – me and P are fine as just me and P. Better than fine: perfect. Kid A has become Plan B, and that’s fine by us.
I’m annoyed with myself for continually justifying our reasons for not having children (mind you, I expect ‘we’re unable to’ provides a far more acceptable answer than ‘we’re not interested’ – not that I should give a shit) but, hey, that’s the self-doubting society in which we live. Besides, the backstory is necessary here given that my intention with this post was not merely to restate my case on the no-kids clause, but to accept – once and for all – the can’t rather than the won’t.
See, as much as I’ve made my peace with the fact that I’ll never genetically be anyone’s mum, the finality of my oophorectomy has nonetheless had me thinking about the reality of what having no ovaries means. Not in a longing or regrettable way – more simply auditing the facts as they stand. Just as accepting the loss of my remaining natural tit has called a halt to a low-cut autumn/winter wardrobe, experiencing any feeling in my nipples or going topless inside Zoo magazine (which, would you believe, was right on the cards before all this Bullshit bullshit); so has the removal of my ovaries brought about the acceptance of a definitive menopause, the end of my genetic lineage, and the reality that I’ll never be a biological mother.
I keep expecting to feel a stinging pang of remorse whenever I write that sentence, but it still doesn’t affect me any more than realising that I’ll never play in an FA Cup final or fit into a size 10 or spend a night with Dave Grohl. It’s not that I think I’d have been a crap mother – on the contrary, I actually think I’d have been pretty bloody awesome. Not only would I have had the benefit of following the lead of the World’s Best Example (or ‘Mum’ for short), but I’m a dab-hand with homework projects, make a mean child-friendly playlist and can teach a kid the rules of apostrophes in the time it’d take them to watch an episode of In The Night Garden. Put it this way: if being a mother were a role you had to apply for, I definitely think I’d at least make the interview round.
‘So what qualities do you think you could bring to the role of mother?’ the Sralan of Parenting might ask.
‘Well, I think I’m responsible, I’m nurturing and I think I’m caring, too,’ I’d say, straightening my power-shouldered blazer. ‘I give 120% and I get results.’
‘I’m not interested in what you think you are; give me concrete bladdy examples,’ he’d sneer, staring down at me from his booster chair.
‘Sorry Sralan. Okay, well recently, my cat had a dodgy few days after a scrap with a fox that left her scratched and frightened, and I proved I could be nurturing by giving her all the right medicines and nursing her back to full fitness.’
‘Are you really coming in my boardroom and telling me about your bladdy cat? I don’t give a shit about your cat.’
‘Sorry Sralan. Well I’m caring, as well. When my mum was worrying about her pre-surgery scans recently, I coached her through what to expect and tried to give her the benefit of my experience with cancer-preventing operations.’
‘I’m not your bladdy therapist, young lady. And don’t tell your sob stories in here, this isn’t The X Factor.’
‘Sorry Sralan. In that case I think the most important thing to tell you is that I’m responsible. And other people think I’m responsible, too. My friend Tills recently asked if I’d be guardian to her daughter Bea, and I don’t think she’d have done that if I wasn’t both responsible, trustworthy and…’
‘…and what about your ovaries?’ he’d ask. ‘They working okay?’
Cue black cab, and a drive along the Embankment with ‘you’re wasting my bladdy time’ ringing in my ears.
When I was 14, the school careers advisor told me I had all the necessary attributes to be a brilliant librarian. But of course I didn’t want to be a librarian. And again, I suppose you could say that I’ve got the CV to back up another role I don’t really want. But then, of course, it’s not always the best qualified person who gets the job – sometimes it deservedly goes to the person who wants it most. And, ovaries or no ovaries, I ain’t that apprentice.
I stand by the attributes I’d have preached to Sralan, mind you. I’m not saying for definite that I’ll never fancy being a parent (nor am I saying for definite that I’ll never fancy being a librarian) but that doesn’t render any of my relevant skills useless. After all, homework-completion, playlist-making and apostrophe-instruction aren’t reliant on genetics… and my mates with kids know exactly where to find me for any of the above (see also: Beatles lyrics, offside rule, first gig, swearing in context). So, yes, losing my ovaries has ensured that my ability to be a biological mother is now a can’t – but as for losing my desire to be motherly? That’s a big bladdy won’t. Because, y’see, I think it’s possible to occasionally do the parent thing without actually wanting to be one.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month.
There’s little more I need to say here. Everything I know (and will continue to learn) about the reality of breast cancer remains (and will continue to be written) on this blog. So if you’ve ever read Alright Tit and had even the tiniest pang of wanting to do something helpful, now’s your chance. I shan’t repeat my reasons for wanting to direct donations to Breast Cancer Care (though I urge you to read them here); I’ll just leave you to click this button and say thanks.