To breed or not to breed

I wake with a snort, roused by the clatter of a ballpoint pen hitting the floor. It spins idly to a halt, put there by the same peaches-and-cream striped paw now tapping one end of it. How easily the modern quill is reduced to a plaything! Blink, blink, blink.

The cursor on my computer screen winks expectantly. Above it, the line: To breed or not to breed … Blink, blink, blink.

“The best way to get over writer’s block,” a colleague espoused recently, “is to write yourself out of the hole.” Instead I fall asleep at my desk.

To breed or not to breed, I try again, this time self-medicating the anxiety with a hot cross bun. I scribble a mental note: add 20 minutes to cardio workout.

The cat eyeballs me from atop a pile of journal articles stacked up during the course of researching the latest book. Eventually yielding gently to gravity, they now lay scattered on the floor, collapsed in a ring of dust and neglect.

To breed or not to breed, I hammer out on an age-sticky keyboard, that, dear parents, is the question.

I have had this nagging thought slumped against the doorpost of my mind for some time now. In the past month I have shed a cumbersome workload and sent three manuscripts off to publishers. Suddenly the thought has stepped forward and coughed discretely into its hand. What can I do but give it a moment of my time?

Half way into my 35th year, I have not yet done what most women my age have: slipped beyond the shroud that separates maidenhood from that soft, baby-power-dusted world of motherhood. I pace back and forth on this side of it, viewing it anxiously as through a veil but knowing that unless I pull aside the curtain, I will never enter this hallowed place, never know the delight of bonding and breast feeding, the folds of podgy skin, the ferocity of maternal love.

I am something of a late starter. Before tripping accidentally into journalism, I spent several years mucking about: a bit of strawberry picking in Scotland, shovelling horse shit in Ireland (the job title was “horse groom” but there was less grooming, more shovelling), making tank parts on a factory production line (I didn’t know about the military industrial complex then), pulling pints behind a booze-sticky bar, squeezed into the mould of hotel receptionist, gallery assistant. What I learned through this time is that I am not terribly good at most things.

One decade and a few books later, and I realise this: now that I have worked so hard to find something I am vaguely competent at, do I really want to cash it all in to become a 24/7 wet nurse and minder to a feral thing with a two-minute attention span and the bawling vocabulary of the non-syllabic? Because let’s face it, beneath the uncontaminated loveliness of infancy, whose skin has not yet become hardened by the searing touch of the sun or scarified by life, lies a wild beast that must be tamed by any means still available to us in the civilised world. And doing so is a full-time, unpaid, utterly mundane job.

Consider my neighbour. A social worker with a Master’s degree, reduced to glassy-eyed fatigue by her double offspring.

She loves them, make no mistake, and she is a terrific mother. But her brain, she says, has turned to mush and she longs for a social circle where the conversation is broader than soiled nappies and cracked nipples.

Here I am, tapping playfully at the keyboard in my suburban study, while across the wall a smart and talented woman’s afternoon is consumed by a whining newborn, and a toddler who swings precariously between chuckling happiness and screeching, inconsolable misery.

Meanwhile my cat, having given up on the pen, is belly-up and twitching in his sleep, half slumped over a journal article that I am supposed to be reading. The other end of the article is anchored down by a mug of cooling Five Roses that has bled a ring of tea on to the page.

The mug’s graffiti’d watermark slashes contemptuously through the heading; twin droplets of the stuff adding a rakish umlaut to the author’s name.

So I ask you, dear parents: as I approach the threshold beyond which motherhood is no longer an option (I’m reminded repeatedly that every egg after 35 is one egg less out of a shrinking basket) do I really want to give all this up?

Or will I forever regret not having sipped from the cup of motherhood? Will I become the cliché that is the reclusive old cat lady in the moth-eaten cardigan?

Hell, I already am the reclusive cat lady. I just do not have the cardigan yet.

Leonie Joubert is a freelance science journalist and author of Scorched: South Africa’s Changing Climate and Boiling Point

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