Our extract this week is from Edel Coffey‘s debut novel, Breaking Point…
Susannah was almost three months into life without Louise now. She was still seeing Adam, the psychotherapist she’d been assigned by the hospital. They had talked about almost everything over the past months but this week they had come back to her desire to have children.[restrict]
‘Why do you think you only realised you wanted children so late in life,’ he asked.
She tried to shrug off the questions. ‘I was busy with work, building my career.’
‘Did you ever feel pressure to have children,’ he pushed her, ‘that you would have failed in some way if you didn’t have children?’
She thought about the question. She had definitely noticed that she was an exception amongst her peers, almost everyone seemed to have paired off and had children and she had not gotten the memo.
‘I had started to notice as I got older that people had started to shift their view of me. I went from being an admirable go-getter to a woman who wasn’t quite right. The older I got, the more I felt the lack of family had started to stack against me, like a black mark. I could be as successful as I wanted but these two personal achievements – motherhood and marriage – they still seemed to be the absolute metrics by which we measured female success.’
Adam made a sympathetic face. ‘Did that have any influence over your decision to get married and have a baby?’
She paused. Normally she would deny this. It just felt too self-serving, amoral even, to admit to.
‘I think I was tired of weathering that particular conversation.’ Every time someone made a comment about her lack of husband or children, a little piece of her crumbled away. ‘When I realised I wanted children, after Ralph and I had broken up, and then it turned out to be so difficult to conceive, it was just a really difficult time. Everyone I knew seemed to be getting pregnant, and I was struggling to do the same. Everyone seemed to be announcing their good news. I seemed to always be attending baby showers, and never having one of my own.’ She smiled at a memory. ‘The first baby shower I went to after I got pregnant with Emma was so different to the previous ones, I suddenly had a new perspective on the conversation and it was frightening.’
Caroline was a whole generation behind Susannah, a solid fifteen years younger than her, and everything was happening for her. Caroline was still in her twen- ties and she was already married a year and about to give birth to her first child.
After a few cocktails, mock-tails and canapés in a beautiful reception room at Caroline’s parents’ house, the party moved into the dining room, where conver- sation over lunch drifted towards maternity leave.
‘What are you thinking, Caroline, six weeks?’ asked Cordelia, a thirty-something mother of twins who Susannah knew for a fact had been IVF babies but who Cordelia insisted were a natural surprise and direct result of her feminine fecundity, the same way she claimed that sleep and lots of water were responsible for her line-free face.
Caroline laughed. ‘Oh, I don’t think I’ll last that long,’ she said. ‘I was thinking more like two weeks. My PhD starts in two months so I need to be back in the swing of things before that.’
Susannah had been thinking of taking eight weeks off if her pregnancy went to plan. She had waited so long for this . . .
‘I don’t have a finish date,’ Caroline was saying. ‘Do you know Helen from Gastroenterology? She worked up until two hours before the birth of her second child. She was in labour for her entire last shift and nobody knew except her.’
There were disbelieving laughs from around the table. The women murmured with awe. Caroline leaned in.
‘When her contractions began to get unbearable, she just clocked off, walked over to maternity and gave birth. Just like that. She was back at work five days later.’
A momentary silence fell over the table, like a blanket being put over a birdcage. It was broken by a hesitant admission by a woman called Naomi.
‘I-I’m thinking of taking three months off,’ she said.
Susannah remembered the expressions on the wom- en’s faces. They held their tongues.
‘Bob makes enough money at Amazon for both of us so we’re going to see where we are after the three months are up.’
The silence became uncomfortable.
‘It’s not that long anyway,’ Naomi said, defensively. ‘Jennifer took six months.’
‘That’s different, Naomi,’ Caroline said coolly. ‘Everyone knows Jennifer doesn’t care about . . . pro- gressing in her career. I mean, we’re always being told that pregnancy is not an illness. If we needed six months off after the birth of a child wouldn’t we have state maternity leave? I mean for goodness’ sake, this is not Scandinavia!’
‘Honestly, Adam,’ Susannah said now, remembering the comments with a shudder, ‘they could not have been more horrified had Naomi said she was going to eat her own placenta. But the truth is the message we had all received from med school onwards was that if you want to be respected, if you want to progress in your career, don’t talk about things like getting married or having children. And if you do have a family, don’t lose pace, schedule the birth for a Friday evening and make sure you’re back in work by Monday.’
Breaking Point by Edel
Coffey is published by
Sphere in Trade Paperback
and is out now.