A Little Conversation Over Dinner...
‘It’s just,’ Greta took a sip of her wine, staring across the table at me with an intensity that made me want to jump right out of her 5th floor inner city apartment window to the peace and quiet of being splattered across the sidewalk. ‘It’s not all that natural is it?’
I felt James’ hand rest on my thigh underneath the table and squeeze gently. Leave it Yanna, just leave it.
‘I mean look at dear Theo.’
Theo, who was swaddled in organic muslin lay in a Moses basket atop two dining chairs side by side next to us. As if he could hear us speaking about him, he batted his cherubic little lashes and made an unpleasant squawking sound.
‘He’s just so beautiful. So natural.’
‘He’s hardly natural.’ I couldn’t help myself. Greta, at forty-three had decided she did in fact want to be a mother, despite her many years of spewing about how it ruined people’s lives, and she couldn’t bare to turn into one of those women who lost all sense of herself because she was so immersed in her child. She and Philip had endured round after round of IVF as modern medicine tried desperately to breathe some life into her desiccated eggs and find one live swimmer in amongst Philip’s ‘donation’. I wasn’t completely convinced the child was genetically Philip's or Greta’s in the end, but at round six they managed a pregnancy, and at forty-seven Greta had given birth to a healthy, if not slightly oversized, infant.
Greta’s glare narrowed. ‘IVF is very normal these days.’
‘It is. It’s very common,’ James chimed in, ever the diplomat.
‘As is EC,’ I said.
‘It’s hardly the same,’ Greta carried on.
‘It’s hardly different.’
Phillip, who had managed to remain silent for the bulk of the meal coughed loudly and began asking everyone if they needed top ups. ‘Wine, yes more wine is what we need I think.’ He clumsily sloshed the red liquid in the approximate direction of everyone’s wine glass.
Greta laughed. ‘I suppose you can drink as much as you like, can’t you Yanna?’
I smiled. ‘Yes, I suppose I can.’
‘Did anyone catch the debate that screened last night? Very interesting, so very interesting,’ Philip said to nobody in particular.
‘But it is different isn’t it?’ Greta continued, ignoring her husband’s attempt to steer the conversation back towards the socially acceptable direction of bland local election small talk.
‘You really want to talk about this don’t you Greta?’ I turned my body towards her. James stiffened beside me. These were his friends and I had promised to be mindful of our enduring relationships. He had reminded me three times before we’d left the house to watch myself. He knew how I got around Greta. How quickly she agitated me.
‘I’m just interested is all.’
I took a deep sip of wine. ‘It’s different yes,’ I agreed. ‘But in this day and age it’s not uncommon.’
‘Uncommon doesn’t mean it’s OK. It’s unnatural. If it can’t happen, maybe you just need to accept that.’
I laughed abruptly, spitting wine across the table. ‘Did you really just say that? That’s rich.’
‘Yanna,’ James warned.
I turned to him. ‘James,’ I said.
He coughed. ‘Children are something that Yanna and I have dreamed about for years,’ he said. ‘Not even dreamed. Just presumed. We got married, bought our home, and presumed we would have beautiful children to fill it up. That hasn’t eventuated, so this is our avenue towards having that. It’s not a big ask, we just want to be a mum and a dad.’
‘And that is something you both deserve to experience,’ Philip said kindly. ‘It is such a wonderful gift, holding your newborn child in your arms.’ Without meaning to Philip had just thrown gasoline all over the fire.
‘Newborn. Your child, if you can call it that, will never be one of those will they?’ Greta fired across the table.
‘OK,’ I worked to soften my tone. ‘Imagine you hadn’t been able to carry Theo. Imagine you’d had another miscarriage. Would you not have considered this as an option?’ I already knew the answer. No-one continued well into their forties trying to carry naturally if they felt EC was an option to them.
‘Of course not. I’m not cruel enough to do that to a child. Just imagine. What a way to come into this world.’
I wanted to slap her. Instead of getting up, storming across the table, and flaying her face with my fingernails I threw a word grenade at her. ‘No, instead you let five perfectly healthy foetuses die completely unnecessarily.’
Silence descended upon the table.
Even I knew I had gone too far.
I could feel James’ stomach sinking next to me. This is exactly what he had wanted to prevent. It was why we hadn’t dined with his oldest friend in almost a year. It was exactly the behaviour he had warned me against indulging in three times while I had been fussing with my hair in the mirror.
I watched a whiteness spread briefly over Greta’s face. Within moments she managed to collect herself. She sat up straight in her chair and placed her hands flat against the table top.
‘I gave Theo the most wonderful gift anyone can receive. Life. Given naturally. I carried him in my body, nurtured him within me, and I continue to nurture him now. I didn't let five foetuses die, I made one child live,’ her voice cracked slightly under the weight of her words.
I paused, considering her. I could see the pain of her experience. I could feel the scars it had left within her. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said gently. ‘I didn’t mean that the way it came out. I was being defensive, but I was also being cruel. I know that it was a hard journey for all of you, and I don’t begrudge you in the slightest your choices or the fact you have a beautiful son to show for it now.’
‘You’re right, it wasn’t easy.’ Philip said. His hand lay atop that of his wife's. ‘But for us, we had to persevere. EC wasn’t right for us. It didn’t feel right.’
‘Did you think about adoption?’ I asked.
‘Did you?’ Greta shot back.
‘We did,’ I said. ‘In fact we’re still on a waiting list, both here and in China. If that were to happen we would feel so privileged. Imagine, a family of four.’ I could feel my eyes glistening slightly. James noticed, and he stroked my back gently.
‘Yanna had always hoped for adopted children,’ he explained. ‘But the waiting lists are so long and there’s so much competition. It was me that pushed for EC. I didn’t want to wait any longer.’
‘We didn’t really consider it,’ Greta said. ‘We want our child to at least look like us, you know?’
Look like us. I gave James a look, trying to get my eyebrows to say, see, they did have to use donor DNA in the end.
‘Besides, you don’t really know their backgrounds do you? What they’ve seen, been exposed to, experienced. You don't even know what they’ve been fed,’ she said.
‘That’s true, but you do know what you can give them next. A loving home. Loving parents,’ I argued.
‘And that’s not to mention what happened during the pregnancy itself,’ she continued on as if I hadn't even opened my mouth - I needn’t have bothered, she was securely on course and no amount of muttering from me was about to dislodge her. ‘If the birth mother cares so little about the child that she’s willing to give it up, she surely doesn't care enough to stop smoking and drinking. What if she's done drugs?’
‘Jesus,’ I said. ‘Who are you to presume she doesn’t care? And even if some, or all of that stuff did happen to a child in utero, does it deserve a loving home any less?’
‘I’m just saying you don’t know what you’re buying is all.’
I scoffed. ‘Buying.’
‘Well it is,’ she said.
‘So is IVF. So is EC. Do you feel like you’ve brought Theo?’
‘Oh for goodness sake.’ Greta reached for the bottle and refilled her own glass.
‘I take it you’re not breastfeeding then?’
‘I am actually. Not that it’s any of your business. I’ll pump and dump after dinner. I’ve prepared some milk in advance,’ she said.
‘Well how very organised of you,’ I snapped.
Greta took a deep breath. ‘You wouldn’t try to carry through IVF? Not even once?’ Greta asked. Her tone seemed genuine. Interested. Perhaps even slightly beseeching.
I looked to James. We had discussed this at length, what to tell people when they questioned our choices. Everyone had an opinion and, as I had predicted when we had started researching conceptions methods, no one seemed particularly shy about sharing them.
‘We talked about it at the beginning of our journey, but it just doesn’t feel right for us,’ he said.
‘Can I ask why?’ Philip turned his attention to James, his hand lifted from Greta’s and he ran his fingers through what was left of his hair.
James swallowed hard. ‘Maybe let’s just agree we have different views but are all hoping for the same outcome. This time in seven months we’ll be sitting around this table, our little one in the basket, and Theo sitting up on one of our laps.’ He tried for a smile. No one took the bait.
‘I’m not judging,’ Philip persisted. ‘I’m wondering. Curious. We’ve known each other so many years, why put walls up now?’
‘It just seems,’ James looked to the ceiling as if a word might magically be spelled out for him across its surface. ‘Well, fair.’
‘Fair for who?’ Greta asked.
‘For all of us.’
Greta raised her eyebrows.
‘In this modern age there’s no reason for us to let something as simple as biology dictate our lives and our bodies,’ James said.
Greta made an ugly sound in her throat. ‘I’ve heard all the feminist rants on the TV,’ she said. ‘Why do I have to let my body turn to shit just to have a baby? It’s so unfair. Poor me and my stretched out stomach and vagina. It’s pretty selfish if you ask me.’
‘No one asked you,’ I reminded her. ‘And your vagina, as far as I’m aware, remains unstretched.’ It was no secret she had opted for a caesarian. A wise decision in the end as Theo had come out at a whopping ten and a half pounds, but she’d locked the date in on month three, and had never had any intention of compromising the elasticity of her nether regions.
‘Besides,’ James ignored me. ‘It’s not just that it’s unfair that Yanna should have to carry the baby to term and have her body impacted, and that’s not to mention all the risks to both her and the infant during pregnancy and childbirth, but why should I miss out on that bonding time and only Yanna get it?’
‘So you’re having a pod baby because you’re worried that Yanna will be closer to the kid than you if you if she were to carry it?’ Philip asked.
‘No. But it’s a small part of it. We want our child to feel equally connected to both of us.’
‘Or disconnected from both of you,’ Greta interjected.
James shrugged. ‘They say it’s very comfortable for the child,’ he continued. ‘And it’s quite special for us, getting to see him grow and develop. You can have the pods at home now you know.’
‘You have it at home?’ Philip asked.
‘Yes, why wouldn’t we? It means he’s close to us. He hears us bustling about him, he hears his dog, our music, our life,’ I said.
‘And what if something goes wrong?’ Philip looked aghast, as if this whole thing was completely foreign to him, as if we were the first horrendous people on the planet to consider an external conception and carrying.
‘He’s got an alarm,’ James said simply. ‘The specialist is alerted if anything seems awry.’
Philip nodded. ‘And when he’s fully cooked?’
James smiled. ‘On the due date, we take the pod back into the hospital, he's born, and we come home with him in a car seat.’
‘It’s bizarre,’ Greta said.
‘It’s wonderful,’ James replied.
Philip gave a chortle. ‘It’s both.’
‘There’s even an app,’ James added.
Philip laughed. ‘Of course there’s a bloody app.’
‘No, it’s really quite amazing, right Yanna?’
I nodded. ‘It is pretty cool.’
‘It lets you see his vitals, takes you through all the things that he’s developing, describes all his senses and what his experience might be.’
‘They have that for a normal pregnancy too you know,’ Greta said. ‘Only you’re not staring at it while it’s all alien like.’
‘Normal pregnancy, is that the term we’re going to use?’ I couldn’t help myself. I hated the woman. She epitomised everything that is awful about the human race, and seemed to have no shame over her levels of awfulness, if anything, she seemed rather proud of her elitist asshole stance on life.
‘I forgot about that part,’ Philip took James’ lead and ignored my additions to the conversation. ‘You can see him. How odd. What does he look like?’
‘Like a tiny alien mass of cells,’ James laughed. ‘A beautiful tiny alien mass of cells,’ he squeezed my shoulder. I’d gotten defensive a few nights back when he’d dared call our son weird looking. I was probably overreacting, he does look rather like an organic egg straight from the farm that you crack open onto your frying pan only to see a dead half formed chick and tip into the trash. But he’s our son. And they have his pod all connected up to all these microphones so he gets as much audio stimulation during the EC process as possible, so negative language is not something I want in the house.
‘Can you tell that he’s a boy? Does he have,’ Philip paused, searching for the word. ‘You know, junk?’
James laughed. ‘He doesn’t really have any junk yet. We only know he’s a boy because of the app.’
‘We knew Theo was a boy on implantation,’ Greta said. ‘Not that we selected for male. They just asked us if we wanted to know, and, well I thought maybe it would helped to maintain the pregnancy if I felt more connected. If I knew my baby. Does that make sense?’
‘That makes perfect sense,’ I said softly.
‘We would have been happy with anything,’ Philip said. ‘Boy, girl, or anything in between. We just wanted to hold our child and watch it grow.’
James smiled. ‘That’s all we want too.’