On 18 September, 2020 – a year of extraordinary vintage – took another turn for the worse. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the Notorious RBG, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States finally vacated her moderate seat, leaving the constitutional and legal balance swinging in the highest court of the land.
Quiet and extraordinarily talented, RBG had been a force for humanity. Staunch upholder of women’s reproductive rights and gender equality, RBG was the real life Jedi balancing the liberal and conservative force of the Supreme Court. She liked to explain that at the beginning of her law career she had “three strikes against her”: being Jewish, a wife and a mother. Her husband, the beloved and equally legally talented Marti, would often have to fetch her home physically for dinner. Their relationship and parenting was based on absolute, unadulterated, accommodating love. In their 20s, Marti battled cancer. RBG would take care of him, their child and work most of the night to graduate top of her class at Columbia law school. In turn, Marti supported her unequivocally when she started up the ACLU Women’ Rights Project and made it his life’s work to campaign for her to gain a seat on the Supreme Court. RBG left 2020, dictating to her granddaughter Clara shortly before she died, “my most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
On 20 September, 2019, just over a year earlier, Jessica Holmes, regulatory lawyer, criminal law barrister and so close a friend she was like my sister, passed over to somewhere better and more peaceful. Already reeling from Jess’ anniversary and a year living in a world where a most precious light had already gone out, RBG’s exit felt like everything had darkened once again. That familiar, sudden shock. The full realisation of the impact both had had on me and many others. The enormity of the loss. I don’t believe in a heaven per se but the thought of RBG sitting primly in her gloves and glasses laughing at something (il)legal a wildly smoking Jess said seemed to fit the bill. In many ways, both of them appeared too good for this world, and now the rest of us were going to need to draw a deep breath, honour their legacies and step the fuck up.
I had women on my mind (I’m sure the Notorious B.I.G felt me) and my mind on the women. I’ve been thinking for some time about the dichotomy between those of us inhabiting Maybehood, not childless by choice, and the mums in Motherhood, that almost far off, mythical place where cute baby and toddler photos appear to drop like dollar notes and mums think they look godawful but in fact look like they’ve just hooked up with Gaia goddess of the world incarnate. I’ve been thinking about my own evolution after losing Pumbaa, how I’ve related to and got involved with my mum friends, what I’ve learned from them; maybe, perhaps, what they’ve learned from me and us and the unfairness of everything we’ve gone through.
Sitting on this side of the fence, I’ve had first hand experience of the triggers that Maybehood brings: the instinctive, unwelcomed and unwanted but present nonetheless grief of knowing a friend is pregnant. The shameful mix of not wanting, or being able to engage with them in the way we would like after a good life dollop of miscarriage, infertility, the loss of our life dreams. The stripping back to emotional basics this entire fucking situation requires. The anger, sadness, bitterness that our path to parenthood is this bloody potholed. The need to survive. We can’t add any more to the emotional and mental plate and in the immediate short and medium term that is absolutely the wisest course of action. Some friendships hurt a lot more than others: my best IVF buddy finally hit gold on her fourth embryo transfer and has recently had an adorable little girl. When she told me I was in bits; happy for her yet devastated for us. How had we not managed this together? All those years of brunches and Whatsapp back up and becoming close friends; pregnancy and Covid, less than two months later was the closing of a chapter. She had quite rightly moved into another sphere, the motherhood I had always wanted for her, and her for me; for the time being, her sensitivity in a global pandemic and my quiet protection of my heart has meant our friendship has not been able to follow. Yet.
I’ve been wondering: taking a step back, does it need to be like this? We can see that the grass is not always greener. The holy grail of Motherhood, wonderful as it is, can and does come with its own traumas, challenges and grief. All mums and mums to be need support, love and care. Pregnancy is tough; it’s joyful, anxious, fearful, wonderful and everything in between. Pregnancy after loss is a sensitive, triggering, invisible tightrope between grief and gratitude, joy and fear. Birth is a bloody big deal. Some are straightforward (if early labour pains are anything to go by, I will demand every fucking drug going); some are emergency deliveries – I can only imagine – and some births are deeply traumatic, with the ramifications felt for a long time. Some mothers suffer antenatal and post-natal depression. Breast feeding is sometimes not the glow of motherhood advertising would have us believe. This year has seen rightful and long overdue focus on Black women who are five times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth in comparison with white women. There is a long overdue education for us all about the systemic racism that extends to our healthcare system. Doing all the above in the time of Covid-19? Christ on a bike and hats off to you.
Motherhood is a whole rainbow of people and life and experiences. Amidst the life affirming joy and love it’s – very much like Maybehood – an up and down life vibration of exhaustion, worry, fear and constant winging it. It ain’t easy being green, sang Kermit the Frog. It ain’t easy being a mum. It ain’t easy being in Maybehood. My mum friends have, amidst their children, worries and lives, been a rock solid support for me. They have shared the joy and frustration of their children with love and sensitivity and encouraged me to be Auntie Bel. I have never received so many drawings of our cat and cards from under 7 year olds for my recent birthdays. My neighbour said to me this week – unknowingly tapping into my thinking for this blog – that she thought my blog was wonderful. I was choked. She said she finds it difficult to know what to say and not say to Maybehooders about motherhood and her gorgeous son as she is so sensitive to what we may be thinking and feeling.
You know what I’m thinking?
Could we all channel our inner RGB and help bridge the gap between Maybehood and Motherhood, the two extremes in what feels like society’s supreme court? Where women from both parties come together to support and understand each other, appreciating that at times either side is not all it’s cracked up to be? Where the ultimate goal is to show that emotional empathy and flexibility? Even if you can’t find the words, maybe you can find a coffee?
We won’t always get it right, granted, but female friendships are important – and that one time you’re able to go beyond your comfort zone to help out someone else with a kind conversation, a supportive gesture, could mean the difference between someone able to keep their shit together and move forwards in a vaguely sane way that day or not. We’re all modern women and men. We understand how important the on-going conversation around mental health is and always will be, for whatever life stage you’re at. Could we at least give it a try? The mums who see so clearly our grief; who understand our longing for a child instinctively. The Maybehooders who are suffering so badly, who do not understand how their life direction has gone this awry but who know they must do their best to meet this Plan B; I think we see life is not easy at times for our mum friends either.
I know it can be done. I know because one of my closest supports, an extraordinarily empathetic, vivacious, witty and wonderful friend and I have done it. We’re doing it, we keep doing it and in fact, we bloody love it. I couldn’t imagine my Maybehood without her. Katie is the Bubbles to my Desiree “hello DAHHHLING”, the gin to my tonic, the prosecco to my glass. From the moment Katie told me at work in a whisper she was also pregnant and due two weeks after me, that was it. Both only children who longed to be mums, we spent our first trimester (when I eventually returned to work) eating together, quoting Little Britain and other wildly inappropriate comedy shows together and inadvertently going to the same set of work loos, at the same time – yes you’ve guessed it – together. We imagined a south east London life of babies, mat leave and bubbles. The timing seemed beyond fortuitous. Then came my 12 week scan. I remember seeing Katie when I returned to work four weeks later and I don’t know who was more shell shocked. Her bump was showing then and in my shock and disconnect from the world, I knew one thing: I willed her on. One of us had to get our baby, to get to the finish line – and hopefully I would be back in the race (and other painful, completely shit metaphors) soon.
At six and a half months pregnant, Katie gave birth to her beautiful son William. Her placenta ruptured and after an emergency caesarean William was welcomed to the world. The photo she sent to me was the most precious capture of first time motherhood I have ever seen: Katie looking wondrously at the camera, Laura Mercier lippie on as she cradled her baby son on her shoulder. The days that followed were unspeakable, a flurry of messages where Katie and her husband were going back and forth to the hospital, her anguish and hormones obvious through the pixelated words on my screen.
Ten days later, William passed away. Losing her darling son plunged Katie, her husband and her family into the cruellest of Maybehoods, a vast, empty chasm where words do little justice to the emotions, where grief is all consuming and where lives and dreams have changed beyond all recognition. I felt Katie’s anger, her pain, the bottom falling out of her world. My job was to back her, be there for her, to listen, to understand. My admiration for her reached new heights as I watched her navigate a life without William.
Her loss remains incalculable. Our babies had lived and died together. I will always feel a bond with Katie that I have with no other person, not even my husband. She understands me implicitly. She is one of my closest friends and within that my confidante, advisor, the person I go to when I feel unsure whether my reaction is disproportionate to the situation, babyloss or otherwise. That she has continued to support me throughout her next two pregnancies after loss is extraordinary. One of my most precious and poignant moments in our friendship was us Whatsapping each other as Katie was about to go into theatre to have her daughter Isobel. I sat on my bed clutching my phone crying, so proud of her, bricking it for the next two and a half hours until I received the message that Isobel had been born safely and mum and baby were doing well. I remember my husband in a very rare show of outward emotion popping his head round the door, looking anxious: “Any news from Katie and Shaun?” A week later, I had the honour of being one of the very first to meet Isobel. Holding her, seeing Katie hold her daughter, was a defining and wonderful moment for us both. My heart could not have been fuller.
Katie has never stopped reassuring and supporting me, convinced that one day, this will be me. She is backing me all the way to whatever my Maybehood turns out to be. Only Katie could have encouraged an absolute shagfest during lockdown; only Katie could have invited me over to her beautiful garden for a belated 40th birthday lunch complete with bubbles and her infamous cherry bakewell as soon as lockdown eased. Only Katie could have known without a single syllable from me the thoughts and feelings swirling around my head, my heart, about reaching this milestone in Maybehood. I can only hope that my support, my backing and friendship has had the effect on her as she has had on me. Now with two young children, she brings me joy in the way she includes me as “Aunt Bannabel”. There is no sugar coating either side and we continue to support and back each other. We’ve both known Maybehood and now that it’s mixed with Motherhood, it seems like the natural order of things. The way it’s meant to be.
I am approaching the fourth anniversary of my due date, the 12 October. It’s almost a year since our last fertility treatment. Maybe, four years on, pondering our next steps, I’m now at a clearer point where I can see what I’ve gained from staying in close touch with my mum friends even at times when seeing their babies and children broke my heart.
“Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time,” said the Notorious RBG. With the world now irrevocably changed and society in serious need of redrawing and redefining how we all human the world together, is it time for a Maybehood manifesto? That everyone in Maybehood, in their own time, when they feel able, and everyone in Motherhood, in their own time, when they feel able, make the effort to come together? It can be a text, a conversation, a sit down over coffee, a walk in the park, a raucous night out, a wine bottle dropped outside the front door. It can be approaching someone and not knowing quite what to say but figuring that a smile (or crinkles around the eyes, we are living in a global pandemic) and a muffled conversation, even if you don’t know quite what to say, is better than nothing.
Because I think for both parties it can be. I know from my experience that for both parties it is.
For more information on raising awareness of maternal disparities for Black women in the UK, please go to @fivexmore on Instagram and support their #fivexmoreAW20 campaign.
I wrote this for Katie and thinking of all the wonderful women in my life. You know who you are.
In honour of Jess. I know you’re seeing all of this darling.