My husband is having the snip, so I’m thinking of getting a tortoise. Perhaps I should back up a bit?
So, my husband has booked in for a vasectomy, and despite being very much a part of this decision I am having a LOT of feelings about it. He’s doing it because more kids is probably not a great idea (for reasons I’ll get into), and because I’ve yet to meet a method of birth control that doesn’t fuck with me in creatively cruel ways. Essentially, he’s doing a kind and sensible thing for Very Good Reasons and yet still: the feelings.
When the having of babies was all in front of me and not in my rearview, I assumed that I would know, definitively, when I was done having kids; as though one baby would slot into the last gap in my family jigsaw and render it irrefutably complete. But there is no reassuring certainty of feeling as it turns out, only a series of practical and biological considerations to weigh up coldly, like an accountant.
While ‘having to get a bigger car’ makes its case solidly because the expense and admin involved are tangible, the items in the pro-baby column are harder to quantify and, so, far easier to dismiss. ‘Those snuffly noises they make when they’re feeding’ is one of the most delicious and vital things about the baby experience for me – so much so that I have recordings of them on my phone that I listen to, still – but it’s hard to argue for them as an essential against puffed up items like ‘history of pregnancy complications’.
Decisions and dilemmas
I was so certain, in the twelve months after my youngest was born, that I wasn’t up for any more kids. I’d had complications in my first pregnancy which were topped off by a major post-partum haemorrhage, and my second pregnancy was plagued by hyperemesis and the high probability of further health risks. I was chuffed to be having another baby but the pregnancy was largely anxious, vommy, and something I said I couldn’t go through again.
They say that the body makes you forget the pain of labour (which is bollocks, by the way, I can recall the vibration of skull against pelvis in my marrow to this day), but in my experience, the body does make you forget the discomforts of pregnancy. So, when I see a baby pat its mum’s face with a little pudgy starfish hand, I feel like I’d happily gestate a bowling ball of shattered glass if it meant I could experience that joy one more time.
My husband, who’s seen me burst like a bloody water balloon on a visitor-filled maternity ward, is unsurprisingly in no hurry to spend another nine months in fear for my life. He also tends to handle big feelings and decisions with the pragmatic calm of a bomb disposal expert, and his cool assessment of the third child question mark is that it’s high risk, too disruptive, and we’d have to get a van, so no.
I envy him the clarity of his feelings, his ability to filter out the unhelpful emotions that can cloud hard decisions. I’m sure he’ll feel only relief when the deed is done and the swelling has subsided.
A lot of these feelings aren’t even about whether I want another baby, I realise, but about officially ending a chapter of my life that has been seismic, terrifying and wonderful. Spending nearly ten months growing a person inside me, pushing them out and then keeping the helpless dote alive and content while fighting exhaustion and rebuilding my pelvic floor is hardly a unique experience, but it’s still one I’m proud of. And it’s one that, for a time, defined me.
All first-time expectant mothers announce that motherhood won’t change them, and then motherhood gleefully shows us all who’s really in charge here. There just isn’t time for maintaining a sense of self when you’re busy washing 20 muslins a day, googling green poo and wondering if you’ll ever stop peeing to the left.
It’s colic and baby groups and never eating hot food and sitting in a dark room at 4am stroking a velvet cheek. Early motherhood engulfs us, tests us, forges us anew, but just as we start to feel like we’re getting the hang of it, it’s over.
Now my youngest is at pre-school, the bedside crib long donated, and I feel overwhelmed by both the task ahead of me and by nostalgia for the relatively simple new motherhood era I’m now permanently leaving behind. A new mum gets a pass on forgetting to pack the wipes or not washing her hair because she’s knackered and doing her best to learn the ropes – but the end of new motherhood brings with it a much stricter set of expectations. In short: school mums are supposed to have their shit together.
As our kids become increasingly part of the world, we have to facilitate their progress, shapeshifting on a dime into nutritionists, teachers, events coordinators and counsellors, all while holding down a household, relationships and, more often than not, a job. The elasticity now required of me is sometimes just too much, and so the relative calm of the baby days hovers enticingly in my mind’s eye, a maternal mirage.
At three and six, my kids will now play together for short periods before things get fraught and I have to referee. My oldest can read and my youngest is trying to write her name. They can open the fridge and pour themselves a glass of milk, they explain the solar system to me (incorrectly), and these daily developments wind me with pride and a premature sense of loss.
They’re not exactly filling in their UCAS forms yet, sure, but the speed with which they’re gaining independence makes me realise that all those old ladies on the bus who’d coo over the pram and tell me to “enjoy it – it goes so fast” knew what’s up. At the time I was only capable of nodding at them catatonically, but now I wish I’d asked them “How did you do it? How do you just let them grow up? It’s so painful!”
Obviously, I’m insane – they’re still so small and they’ll need me for a long time yet. But I can already see some of our old habits slipping out of use. At my son’s school, the kids just a year or so older than him run ahead of their trailing parents, held-out hands ignored or looked at with unconcealed mortification. They disappear into their classrooms without a backward glance, and I see that, objectively, this is good. Good for the kids that they feel ready to take on one small corner of the world without constant reassurance; good for their parents that they’ve built this confidence into their growing offspring. Well done everyone, but all the same: ouch.
This distancing is healthy and inevitable, but in the dwindling meantime I’m going to take every sticky hand-hold and goodbye cuddle I can get. I have to trust that I’ll be able to let my children grow up with a bit of grace about me. I don’t want to be a buzzing helicopter mum who makes them incapable of handling life on their own and who harshes on their good times; that is not the gig.
But as the vasectomy nears I’m increasingly sensitive to the velocity of their childhoods, and the linear nature of time has started to feel like a personal attack. The bus ladies were right: the days are long, the years are short, and I am freaking the fuck out.
It is in this state that I find myself googling tortoise sanctuaries. If I can’t keep my family in suspended animation then I’ll do the next best thing and adopt a pet that is basically immortal. Tortoises can live for 100 years, and the certainty that another living being will rely on my daily care for the rest of my life is exactly what I need right now.
I could get a series of cuddlier pets with shorter lifespans, sure, but I already have an elderly cat and I’m not looking to bring the agony of a pet’s death into our lives with any greater regularity. With kids change is constant: milestones, baby teeth, starting school, starting periods, leaving home… I just want something permanent.
A tortoise’s wants remain largely the same throughout their lives, there are no tricky teenage detachment periods, no gap years in Australia when they don’t phone home often enough. Just veg, and a cozy box to hibernate in. They look ancient from birth, so its wrinkly little face won’t throw me into existential panic, and while I’ll be committing for the long haul, the tortoise will only ever need me in a chill, benign way that will provide a counterpoint to the frenetic demands of my actual children.
What’s more, the tortoise will function as both pet and heirloom. A school friend of mine had a tortoise that her dad swapped for a dartboard when he was nine, and you can call me weird but I’ve always thought there was something romantic about that. So, while some people may inherit their mother’s jewellery or book collection, my kids will have to come to a custody arrangement over Wilbert.
I haven’t shared these plans with my family yet but as you can see, it’s all pretty sensible and straightforward. And I’m sure that, on the careful drive home from the hospital post-snip, my husband will understand why we need to make a quick stop at the animal shelter…