I hadn’t meant to have a baby at all. I hadn’t meant not to have a baby either, by which I mean I always thought I’d have children one day. I just thought those children would grow up with me and their yet-to-materialise father in a lovely farmhouse, hugged by the hills, with an Aga and a dog and long, invigorating walks through the fields. This was not how I had grown up in Yorkshire, but it wasn’t a million miles from it either. It was an idealised version of home, and it lived somewhere vaguely in my future as an unspecified certainty.
Exactly how I thought La Vida Farmhouse was going to appear when I was, in fact, living in a one-bedroom rented apartment in West Hollywood in 2010 isn’t clear. My apartment was just behind the Sunset Strip part of Sunset Boulevard. The Strip is the glamorously cheesy bit, full of rooftop pools and famous people, and it was a place that encouraged in me a relationship with reality that could at best be described as negligible. I was working as a journalist, interviewing Hollywood celebrities for newspapers and magazines back home.
This was unreal life, where a friend offered me a free place on a health retreat on a ranch in Mexico, and I’d go to power yoga lessons where they told me and the wealthy Californians who surrounded me to feel the pain, and I felt the pain so much that I could barely manage the trip back to LA. By the time we got home I was unable to sit down. A day after that I was in the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Beverly Hills, which was the place where Paris Hilton and co would end up after paparazzi-induced car crashes and the Kardashians would give birth. It was, improbably, my local hospital.
It wasn’t clear to anyone quite where this agony was coming from, or if it had anything to do with the exercise at all. I spent a whole day being wheeled around to different tests, and having a cash machine wheeled right up to my face by a credit-cardiologist. Finally they told me that there was good news and bad news. The good news was that the MRI scan had revealed the main problem: I had something like a slipped disc. I would not need surgery and it would resolve itself naturally within a week or two if I was sensible and simply became addicted to industrial-strength painkillers instead. Something like that.
The bad news, however, was that while they were poking around, they had discovered some trouble in my ovaries. Oh, I know about that, I said, I was diagnosed as having polycystic ovary syndrome in my 20s, I’ve been told it’s probably fine. Well, it isn’t fine now, they said, it’s much worse, and coupled with your hormone levels and your age and – hang on a minute, I thought, your age? I was only just into my 30s – all right, I was 34 – but nobody had ever said your age to me in that tone of voice, suggesting that I had used a lot of my age up already, rather than not had enough of it yet. Regardless, the doctor continued, I had the best kind of infertility, because I could still carry a child in my own womb. It was just that I would not be able to conceive naturally.
In my life, it was as if I was the captain of a magnificent ship but was somehow always in a dinghy buffeted about in the ship’s wake, about to catch up with myself. Up ahead on the magnificent ship, I was organised and sober and slim and shiny-haired. This infertility news was the first thing to finally break through to me that the ship had sailed off without me. I went home, shut the door of my apartment and cried for a week.
What an idiot I had been, thinking that I could go back and make a family later, that I could work out how to have a relationship with a nice man later. I didn’t know any nice men. What I knew were exciting men, egotistical men, men who ran fast, whom you could sometimes run alongside, as long as you didn’t let out a single whisper of genuine need.
I told my friend Mal about this most awful diagnosis that had made me reconsider my whole life. And when my monologue ended, he smiled and said, “Sophie, all the doctors have said to you is that you can only get pregnant on purpose, not by accident. That’s it. Which is, as you would say, brilliant. So I think you should celebrate this amazing news by going out and fucking like it’s the 1970s.”
And that is the story of how I didn’t use a condom the next time I had sex, which would turn out to be the very next day, which turned into the story of how I became somebody’s mother for the rest of our lives, the end. Except it’s not the end, is it? It never is.
I remember feeling particularly hot that next night, as I left my apartment with Mal’s fantastically bad advice still ringing in my ears. I remember trying to walk confidently straight past the hotel reception desk, then stopping round the next corner to secretly check the text message again. Then I was beside the swimming pool, deserted but still floodlit. I remember hearing a noise and looking up and seeing him, a man I’ll call the Musician, grinning down at me.
Laughing, I took a big gulp of whisky and said we didn’t need to use anything as I definitely couldn’t get pregnant
We had known each other for about seven years by this point, ever since a mutual friend had introduced us backstage after one of his shows and our eyes had locked. Once again, we were now wrapped around each other like we had something to prove, and I suppose we did, even though I would spend many years afterwards wondering what it was. I took a big gulp of the whisky that was on my side of the bed while I laughed and said that we didn’t need to use anything, because I definitely couldn’t get pregnant.
The next day, when I got home, I sat down at my computer, opened a blank document and typed a paragraph that began with these words: “And one day I will tell you all about how you were conceived in a hotel room in Hollywood.” My hands seemed to be typing by themselves. A wave of anger rushed over me. It felt as if something beyond me had written it. I didn’t like it. Hadn’t I been told, just 10 days previously, that I would never conceive a child naturally? Was I taunting myself with a child who had already turned out to be a ghost?
I slammed the laptop shut and got on with my day.
Christmas and New Year came and went, and I found I didn’t like the taste of alcohol any more. I pretended to be doing Dry January, hiding the very confusing, nagging feeling that eventually led to me taking a pregnancy test.
A couple of days after the test, I had to tell him. I had to summon up all of the strength inside me to break it to the Musician that he was going to be a father. I didn’t know if we were starting a family or starting a war. My best news – and it was, truly, starting to feel like my best news – could be his worst. The terrifying thing was that I had to tell him over the phone because sending a text saying “We’re having a baby” seemed a little informal.
The loneliness of the long-distance runner has nothing on that of the single person in an antenatal class
He was thousands of miles away and not expecting to hear from me. In fact, I talked so fast when he answered that he couldn’t hear what I said, which meant I had to take a deep breath and deliver my big news all over again. These phone conversations continued, over the weeks, turning into a big old argument: disbelief, terror and sometimes tenderness, too. And every time I would put my hands to my belly, where barely anything existed beyond a particle theory of cells. I knew the miraculous accident was here to stay.
Later that week I spent hours in my local bookshop, nervously scanning the shelves for a guide to show me the way. All I could find were books called things like What To Expect When You’re Expecting, full of advice on folic acid and how your husband should give you a back rub to ease the tension of growing another person inside your person.
What I longed for was a book called What To Expect When You Weren’t Even Fucking Expecting To Be Expecting, which would tell you what to do when you found yourself standing on Santa Monica pier holding your phone in your trembling hand, desperate to hurl it into the Pacific Ocean so the thoughts of a scared man couldn’t buzz through it any more. We had to stay in regular communication, and sometimes it could be sweet, even, on a very good day, to the point of us discussing potential baby names we liked. We weren’t going to become a couple, but there were moments when we could be friends. But mostly it was a battle.
I tried to find a bigger apartment in LA, one more suited to babies and less to parties. Nobody would rent one to me, not once they’d taken a look at my rapidly growing bump and my rapidly shrinking income. With my tail between my legs, I moved back to London and began attending antenatal classes, where the husbands and boyfriends were taught all the helpful things they could do. I experienced the class solely as a guide to heteronormative marriage practices, with me the only single person there, feeling like the extra prick at a wedding.
Of course, this shouldn’t have been a thing in open-minded London in the 21st century. I was hardly being forced into a home for unmarried mothers and having my baby adopted against my will. Technically, I had nothing to feel ashamed of, but shame is tidal; at certain times it wells up and surges on to the land. The loneliness of the long-distance runner has nothing on the loneliness of the single person in an antenatal class.
So imagine my delight when, about halfway through the course, one of the dads took offence at being told he should probably give up smoking, and he left. The numbers balanced out fine after that.
I find it odd when people say that giving birth was the single best day of their life. I can safely say that giving birth was the single worst day of my life. All right, the single worst two days of my life. I was 18 days overdue when I finally let them induce me, and it was 48 hours after that when they cut the baby out of my womb. My daughter is the best thing in my existence, but I can quite clearly separate loving my daughter from not enjoying 10 different doctors waggling their poky things up my chuff.
There’s another bit of labour I find hard to write about. The bit where the Musician, who had been going to come, and then not going to come, then did come, somewhere around midnight, when I’d gone deep into an animal state. Or so I thought. The bit where he’d sat at the far end of the bed, too far away, and he finally stood up and I thought he was coming towards me so I reached out my arms to touch him. I needed that contact. But I had misread the movement and he was in fact standing up to leave the room. A cheery goodbye came from him as I lay there, contracting, the midwives and doctors looking at me as my arms tried to find a place to fold themselves back into. I was no longer an animal. I was shame.
But then I was made into two. In the operating theatre, a baby was passed over the white curtain to me and she was my daughter, she was a broken star, a bloodied astronaut, a bloodied moon. She was a missile coming straight for me; an answer to the question that my body asked without me knowing. She was the smallest person I had ever held and the biggest thing I had ever seen. An alien who clearly knew everything about everything. I cried involuntarily. It came from me like a bark.
The baby’s face was lopsided, one eye more closed than the other, a big red mark across her forehead, and I didn’t know how to ask if that was how she was always going to look, if I would reveal a lack of love by already wanting her to be different at 28 seconds old. Some time later, we were wheeled along the corridor to meet her father, and as we arrived I felt an acute sense of embarrassment. I felt an even more acute sense that this was not how it is supposed to feel when you present a man with his baby.
Three months later, and a live human male person was actually chatting me up at a party. For the first time in a year, I did not have a baby inside my womb, or hanging from my breast, or snoring beside me in a pram.
Of course, most new mothers go out to have some respite from the four walls that surround them, and the feeling of being needed at every second of every day, and while those were my goals, too, I also had another motive. I had come out on the pull.
Pregnancy is not an ideal time to meet someone, but I’d got through that, and was now in the afterwards stage where you’re merely leaking milk from your breasts. So that was fine. In fact, it was more than fine – because said milk was making them enormous.
A single parent is both structure and playground, walls and soft landing, good cop and bad cop
The man trying to talk to me was a real grownup in a suit jacket. When he introduced himself, I immediately felt the whooshing rush to my heart that could only mean one thing: total inadequacy.
“What do you do?” he asked.
I told him I was a journalist: “But… I’m not really working at the moment.” Oh God, quick, Sophie, salvage it.
“Because I’ve just had a baby!” I added, hurriedly.
Looking into his confused eyes, I realised my mistake.
“But I’ve already split up with the dad!” I barked, solving everything.
My brain helpfully nipped back in for one killer finale.
“In fact, I actually had the baby on my own.”
I didn’t get to find out what he thought, because, oh my God, he turned around to talk to someone else. I went and sat at a table with some people I vaguely knew, and was still laughing to myself, wheezing with relief that I would never again have to experience The First Time A Man Chats Me Up After Having A Baby On My Own.
The private clinic was as white as the “here comes the science part” of a L’Oréal advert. We gave our names at the desk and waited to be called. There wasn’t much small talk between the two of us adults. The baby slept. We went into the private room. The doctor seemed highly intelligent, talking us through the clinical procedure before explaining that she was legally obliged to ask us why we were having it. I decided to sit this one out. And so we waited, the doctor and I, both turning to look at the Musician. I think I may, for a nanosecond, have even enjoyed the look on his face.
“We just, we just want to be sure,” he stuttered. It was an innovative usage of the first person plural, seeing as I was perfectly sure already. “Just, you know, just for the avoidance of doubt,” he added, nodding as if everyone was already agreeing with him. The doctor and I both knew that nobody in that room was agreeing with him.
Even though the doctor said the baby was his, I knew it wasn’t true. That baby wasn’t his at all. She was mine
“The baby doesn’t have to be woken for the procedure,” she explained, “as we can swab her mouth for the saliva sample while she’s asleep in her pram. You won’t even need to take the covers off.” My relief was marred only by my disappointment that nobody would now get to see what I had dressed my four-month-old in – a grey babygrow that had one word lovingly stitched across it: Daddy.
The doctor swabbed each of our mouths with a separate sterile bud, which then went into sealed plastic bags. When it was all done, the credit card handed over and the receipt signed with my blood – I mean his pen – he and I stood outside on the street and looked all around us. It was preferable to looking at each other.
And then the Musician and I tried to talk, but only revolting angry words came out. I began to walk away, pushing the pram down the street. The shouting carried on at my back. I pushed the baby to the end of the street, and then round the corner to the end of another street, and then suddenly I was free.
The clinic phoned a week later. The baby was his, they told me: even though the technology didn’t yet exist to prove it 100%, they could give us a 99% likelihood. It was the same doctor on the phone, and I could hear her hesitation, where professional boundaries seemed to be preventing her from asking if I was all right. I wasn’t, as it happened. But what did it matter, because even though she said the baby was his, I now knew it wasn’t true. That baby wasn’t his at all. She was mine.
Still, the child maintenance payments continued to arrive. Sometimes they felt like a mockery. Sometimes they felt like an apology. Sometimes they just felt like a great big help and it was a relief. The months passed into years, and the anger turned into pain, and the pain turned into a ghost that sat on my shoulder for many years and flicked my nerves while allowing me to live. But life takes its snaking turns around unexpected corners, and we are on better terms now and beyond. Family life has changed again. I was always grateful for my best ever present, one given to me in a curious pocket of magic that we had somehow slipped into in the California moonlight, and if I think about what my life would have been without her – my diminutive partner in crime, and in beauty, and in fart jokes – I almost can’t breathe again. She has his sense of humour. It’s a very good one.
We are a small republic of two, my daughter and I. We sit at the breakfast table every morning, staring across at each other like Frost and Nixon. And every day she says, “Mummy, look at my sad face.” And I say, “That’s not very sad, look at my sad face” and I do a mournful expression the same as hers, only I let my jaw hang down and let one of my eyes tilt to the side, as if I am dying, and she giggles and says, “No, Mummy, look at my sad face” and she copies all of mine but adds an enormous sigh to it, a sigh that knocks her head practically off her neck, and so I say, “Look at my sad face” and I do everything she did but I also fall off my chair on purpose and collapse on to the kitchen floor at some personal discomfort and start to cry out, rending my garments, “I am so sad, oh Lord why hast thou forsaken me” and then my daughter is almost hysterical with rancid delight and joins me on the floor, crying out, “Oh Lord, why have shaking” because that’s what she thinks I’ve said, and then we remember that it’s 8.42am on a school day and I have to get her hair into two French plaits that I learned by watching a YouTube instructional video 11 times.
We grab our coats and run along the street and get there before they close the gates at 9am. We always make it just in the nick of time, and we hug each other goodbye, and she goes up the stairs to her classroom, but stops at the big landing window and waves down at me again. We both bump a fist on to our hearts to show that we will carry each other in there all day.
Some might think a romance between a parent and child is not healthy. What would they think if it came from a father who wanted his little girl to know that she was beautiful? I have had to provide both things, the romance and the rules. A single parent is both structure and playground, walls and soft landing, good cop and bad cop. You don’t ready someone to travel into a famine zone by starving them, so I have prepared my child for an ugly world by fattening her with love, like a foie gras goose. And when we are sad, we sit there being sad, crying, accepting, until we can laugh again.
As a child, I learned that sadness makes people uncomfortable, and it still makes me uncomfortable, if I’m honest. But what I know now is that it doesn’t always want to be fixed – rather it wants to be heard. In our house, I have made room for it, so it can come and go like familiar visitors do. It makes the happiness less frantic. I tried a lot of cures for existential angst, but becoming this person’s mother was definitely the one. She gives me somewhere to put all that love I’d been wasting on my fears. I want to be the safe place my daughter turns to at night, and wakes up to in the morning. The safe harbour. Unconditional. Not everybody gets one of those.
• The Hungover Games by Sophie Heawood is published by Jonathan Cape on 16 July at £14.99. To order a copy for £12.89 go to guardianbookshop.com.