A World Run by Mothers | Saba Sams | Granta

A World Run by Mothers

Saba Sams

I was twenty-two years old when I became a mother. I got pregnant on the coil, which I’d had inserted in Manchester, when I’d been living there as an undergraduate. In the clinic, Bridget Jones was playing on a small television suspended from the ceiling above the hospital bed, and the nurse advised me to watch it to distract myself. It was the scene where Bridget, in Thailand, eats a magic mushroom omelette and wades fully dressed into the sea. As the speculum was pushed inside me, I tried to imagine that I too was tripping, waist-deep in warm water. Still, the pain of the coil being inserted was extraordinary. I nearly passed out as I stood up to leave. The nurse pressed me into her swivel chair and brought me a plastic cup of water that tasted like coins.

For the next three months, my periods were so heavy that I stained all my favourite clothes. The pain and the stains seemed worth it because of the promise that I wouldn’t have to think about contraception, or get pregnant, for ten years. I remember thinking that ten years was a good amount of time. I was twenty then, and having a baby at thirty felt reasonable. I’d always known that I wanted to be a mother. In fact, I craved it. My sister Roxy is six years younger than me, and growing up I treated her like my baby. All of my parents’ friends had children more around Roxy’s age, and throughout my childhood you could often find me at parties surrounded by babies.

My mother worked as a breastfeeding consultant and a coordinator of weekend retreats for new mothers, on which I was often taken to help out. She has six unofficial godchildren and most of her friends are midwives, doulas or homeopaths. The house I grew up in is filled with leaflets on home birth and psychedelic posters of pregnant women. There’s a picture of me and my mother completely naked in the Welsh countryside – me aged five, her heavily pregnant with my sister – framed in the bathroom. My mother is the sort of woman to receive a postcard of a baby being birthed from a blooming chrysanthemum and un-ironically tack it to the fridge.

Growing up, my world was run by mothers. This is still true now. As I write this, my maternal grandmother is looking after my son. When she’s busy, I travel to Brighton to stay with my mother so that she can do the same. My aunt recently took in my paternal grandmother to care for her full-time. I couldn’t even begin to calculate the hours of unpaid labour that the women in my family have worked, the number of times they have given themselves up for someone else. From where I stood as a teenager, motherhood seemed the worthiest of positions, and building a family around myself appeared a safe bet to feel loved, to feel useful. Yet a part of me believed that I would be denied a chance at motherhood. I worried that I was too desperate; that fate – or love – would withhold it from me out of spite.

I spent my childhood shuttling between schools, each one its own compact world to navigate. At my infant school in Brighton I was popular, Tamagotchis threaded through my belt loops. At the hippie school I was sent to in Lewes, I was bullied out after a single year by the same girl who made a supply teacher run from our classroom crying. At an international school in Ibiza, my only friend – whose mother was an alcoholic – was suspended for two weeks for having nits. I asked to be suspended too, showing off the eggs in my hair, but the teachers told me mine weren’t bad enough. By the time I returned to the same Brighton primary school where I’d been popular all those years before, the playground hierarchy had shifted, and my place was at the bottom.

My experience of secondary school wasn’t much happier, and to distract myself I sank into fantasies of motherhood. I thought of having a baby as the occasion on which I would finally step into the life that I wanted. I kept a list of names in the notes app on my phone. I played The Sims 2 deep into the night, building Sim families that had six children: the maximum possible, and so many that often the game would crash. I knew a cheat to make each pregnancy into twins.

Still, I was always aware of the stigma of being a woman who wanted nothing but to become a mother. Young motherhood was presented as a choice that was somehow beneath my potential, a choice that was in fact not a choice at all, but an oppressive trap to be run from. I was a woman of a certain class and education; I was expected to dream of something other than wasting my life on a baby.

At eighteen I went to university and met two women who are still my best friends now. We formed a kind of unit, a foundation from which we could launch ourselves hard into what we conceived of as adulthood. We went clubbing a lot, we caught buses back to the damp bedrooms of boys we didn’t know, we stole booze from the big Sainsbury’s. There were lots of chest infections, trips to the sexual health clinic, mad scrambles to cobble together essays. I met Jacob in my first year. He was tender and perplexing, forever smoking rollies on his doorstep and not inviting me inside. We didn’t get together until halfway through our third year.

Eighteen months later, I was pregnant. I took the test in Brighton, in my school friend’s back garden. It was summer and the sky was denim blue. I pissed in a cup and carried it outside so that we could watch the results flash up together. It’s surreal to me now, the ceremony of that. If I’d known the test would be positive, I think I would have preferred to have taken it alone. I’d missed two periods by then, I felt nauseous a lot, and I had a new aversion to alcohol that I couldn’t explain. Still, I had a coil, the effectiveness of which is supposed to be over 99%. When the result surfaced, I burst into tears. On my walk home, I booked an abortion.

In the two-week wait for my appointment at the clinic, I flew to Croatia with my friends from university, a trip that was already planned. We drank cold white wine on the rocks and whistled as shirtless men dove from their yachts into the water. After the holiday was over, I found myself bleeding in Split airport. I was given an adult nappy to wear under my sundress by an on-site doctor, who told me not to board my flight and instead to get a taxi to the nearest hospital. Out of Croatian kuna, I ignored the instruction. I sat with my legs tightly crossed as the plane rose into the air, willing my baby to stay inside me.

If I sound detached in my recounting, that’s because I was. In those very early days after I found out that I was pregnant, I often had the sensation of being outside my own body, of floating just above my physical self. I thought a lot about fate, that thing which I had long suspected would spite me, and now appeared to be teasing me with the future that I most wanted. Was it on the plane that I first realised I wanted the baby? I had always wanted it. I had pushed away thoughts of motherhood, I had distracted myself, and still – despite contraception, despite a booked abortion – that need had worked its way back. Already, I could feel myself surrendering.

Back in the UK, I rushed to an early scan to check that the baby was still alive. After that I had to have my coil removed, a procedure which I was warned could cause a miscarriage. The coil came out clean, followed by a sharp, period-like pain that I was sure signalled that the baby was finally giving in. The doctor held my failed coil up to the light for a moment, before dropping it into the bin.

For days after that, I dreamed of blood. I’d get up four or five times a night to check the sheets. When morning finally arrived, I would begin anew the work of trying to persuade Jacob why we should keep our baby. He had all the rational arguments: time, money, where we would live, the Masters I was due to begin the following month. But I didn’t care for rationality. Motherhood, for me, had always been a dreamscape, a question of destiny. I told Jacob that if he asked me to, I would get an abortion. I told him that if he didn’t, I would have this baby, and he could be as involved as he chose. I meant these things when I said them, but as I said them I also knew what he would respond: we would keep our baby, and he would be there.

Jacob was my first boyfriend and we’re still together now. Someone told me recently that this part of my story is romantic, and I was so shocked that I laughed. I’d never associated my life with romance. In all the years I spent dreaming of motherhood, not once did I dream of men. If anything, I expected that romance would be my downfall. I would never achieve motherhood because in order to become a mother – or at least this was the impression I was given – you had to be loved by a man, you had to be wanted. This is why I took the opportunity to become a mother as soon as it was offered to me: when all the parts quite suddenly fell into place, I read it as such an anomaly that I could not turn it away.

After those tense early weeks of pregnancy, I felt used up. I didn’t take any photographs of my changing body, and I developed an irrational hatred of the Baby on Board badges that expectant people sometimes wear on the tube. On New Year’s Eve, I made my excuses and went to bed before midnight, too ambivalent to welcome the year in which I would become a mother. At that point, Jacob and I were renting a one bedroom flat in London, filled with houseplants and loose soil and dust. Mushrooms grew out of the ceiling and mice scrabbled in the walls.

When I was pregnant, a friend of my mother’s told me that I was living my life backwards: the baby first, then out partying in my forties. They were smiling when they said it, as if trying to console me. A lot of people were consoling when I told them I was pregnant. I worried, for a time, that everyone assumed I was pro-life and therefore felt obligated to keep the baby. No, I kept wanting to remind people: I chose this. The problem then was that I was twenty-two. How could I possibly know what it was that I wanted? Now, I think of my decision to go through with my pregnancy as my final true act of youth: it was rebellious, naïve, perhaps even spoiled. It transformed me into a mother, a person for whom decisions on this basis would no longer exist.

I don’t know whether this life I have is one of convention or not, whether I have fallen into an oppressive trap or grabbed hold of something that I had dared all my life to want. Some days it’s one, other days it’s the other. There is a corner of rebellion within me that is energised in knowing that when I kept my son I did something of the unexpected. At the same time, there’s a certain slackness to me now: my son is almost three and still I am tired a lot, the confines of my experience have moved further inwards, and I feel markedly less in control of my own life. But it irritates me that the narrative plots of women’s lives have been made to feel so concrete. Why must I weigh my choices up against the wall of conformity? Surely, there is no such thing as living backwards.

My due date was in early March. I travelled down to Brighton to give birth. It was unseasonably warm, one of those periods when the sense of apocalypse hangs heavy in the air. I tried for a home birth but ended up being rushed to hospital due to a small complication, already pushing in the ambulance. It was there that I concluded that I’d made a terrible mistake, that in fact I did not want this after all. Then came the surreal, over-bright morning when I emerged from twelve hours of labour to meet the stranger who had been living inside me, and found he was not a stranger at all but someone completely familiar. He smelled like the inside of my body: mulchy and sweet, a mushroom just pulled from the ground. He had the face of my sister.

My father came to visit us in hospital, bringing a jar of sauerkraut and a plastic fork. When I got into the lift to leave, I barely recognised myself in the mirrored wall. I’d given birth twelve hours before, and hadn’t yet showered. My pupils looked huge and crazed. There was a smear of blood across my left eyebrow. My mother drove the four of us back to her house, the first time I’d been in a car with both my parents since I was eleven years old. Jacob had walked back that afternoon, to try to get some sleep. In the car, I looked at the blocks of flats and the street lights and the grey sea, and I looked at my baby, who until so recently was part of my body, now out here, the deranged city flicking past in the windows. I felt for him, coming from the womb into this.

Back at my mother’s house, on a mattress on the floor, I breastfed my son until my nipples bled. For weeks, I poured red into fat sanitary towels. At some point I was driven back to London, where I sat in our flat and watched the baby physically changing. Other people saw it too. Jacob would go to work and come home to announce that our son was bigger. Strangers occasionally stopped me in the street to tell me it all goes so fast, that my baby would be grown up and gone in the blink of an eye. Outside of his physical growth, I did not see evidence of this. The days moved like treacle. My friends were busy being in their twenties, and I was lonely as I had been as a teenager.

I’d craved motherhood all my life, and now here it was. Not only was my baby changing himself at impressive rates; he was changing me. In fact he changed me so much and so quickly that for a time I lost touch with myself. I took my son on walks, I breastfed him on a park bench, I ate a cereal bar and picked the crumbs out of his fine fuzz of hair, and I felt for long stretches of time that I was absent. It was as if, when I’d pushed my son from my womb, I had also pushed out some integral part of my being. There was a gap within me, an echo that howled in the background of everything. Like he could hear it, my son howled too.

It’s not easy to write these things down. While they were happening, I was completely silent about them. Looking back, it’s clear to me how exhausted I was, how hormonal, how depressed. Now, to stop myself from deleting these words, I return to Audre Lorde’s essay “Man Child”, in which she writes: “The strongest lesson I can teach my son is the same lesson I teach my daughter: how to be who he wishes to be for himself. And the best way I can do this is to be who I am and hope that he will learn from this not how to be me, which is not possible, but how to be himself. And this means how to move to that voice from within himself, rather than to those raucous, persuasive, or threatening voices from outside, pressuring him to be what the world wants him to be. And that is hard enough.”

When I first sat down to write this I knew very little of what would come. I felt that my experience so far as a mother was too precarious and slippery to pin down into sentences. I worried that I would misremember the course of events or the ways that I felt about them, that I would come across harsh or soppy or somehow insincere. I was concerned that I would attempt to force a neat narrative that did not exist, as women have been forced to do in writing and in life for centuries. I told myself that I would let these fears into the words, that these fears are part of the process of writing something true, but I don’t know how to let the fears in without doing what I’m doing now, which is laying them out here very clearly. I do not want to give myself an excuse to hide. When my son became physically separate from me, I became separated from myself. I could not hear my voice from within, let alone move to it. Now I have set myself a task: to get at the truth and lay it bare, so that one day my son may choose to do the same.

The month my son turned one, the UK went into lockdown. After a year of adjusting my entire world around my baby, overnight everyone’s lives became smaller, everyone was cut off from their old realities. There was no normal, not really, or else normal became something else entirely. Jacob was furloughed and we moved to Brighton for three months to live with my mother, who has a garden. The baby learned to walk. We went to the deserted golf course and he toddled around on the smooth, green grass, laughing. All across the country, people bought puppies to get themselves through the day. We didn’t need a puppy.

I don’t know if I learned to feel more at ease in myself during lockdown because I was no longer missing out on a life that couldn’t have existed anyway, or if it was simply due to the natural progression of time. Either way, change was at the crux of it. Some days I still feel that motherhood is a coat I saved up for only to find it doesn’t fit, but it helps to think of myself as what I am, which is a changing organism in a changing world. Soon, my son will come home and announce a word I’ve never heard him say before. Last week, we had his feet measured. My own growth is slower, less noticeable, and not always linear. But as my son is learning how to be himself, I am learning too.


Image © Marco Verch 

Saba Sams

Saba Sams is a writer based in London. Her story ‘Blue 4eva’ won the 2022 BBC National Short Story Award. Send Nudes, her debut collection, won the 2022 Edge Hill Prize. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Granta, the Stinging Fly and the White Review, among other publications.

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