Image: Barney Beech

This piece originally appeared in The Guardian

never got to ponder the question “Am I ready to have a baby?” before the event. Had it ever occurred to me to think about it around the time that I first became pregnant, at the age of 26, the answer would have been instant: “Not on yer nelly.”

I was far too busy having fun, working round-the-clock, building my career as a writer and editor on the Saturday magazine of a national newspaper. Daytime was for cramming as much work as humanly possible into office hours, in a frenzied attempt to hold on to a job I knew thousands of others would bite my hand off for, while getting paid just about enough to cover lunch in the canteen. Evenings were for exploiting the invitations meant for older, more senior, colleagues, reluctantly handed down to me when they realised the date of the latest premiere/holiday/boozy dinner clashed with yet another parents’ evening or slumber party… then it was home to the room my then-boyfriend and I shared at my mum’s house.

Despite my friends’ initial bemusement, they too could see how quickly I’d embraced this new path – even if my partner had yet to follow suit

It was there that I first found out I was pregnant. My mum, a primary school teacher, was tutoring in the living room; one of her many lodgers – a Buddhist private detective – was in the room next door to mine as I watched the sludgy blue cross emerge, menacingly, across the pregnancy test. My first reaction was to light a cigarette and pour a gin and orange squash (I wasn’t grown up enough to stock tonic water, or enjoy neat spirits). The sound of my wailing soon prompted the Buddhist to step in from the room next door, where he was met by an avalanche of tears, punctuated by reasons why this was the worst thing to ever have happened.

Recently separated, with two young children himself, my housemate was an incredibly kind, reassuring, and possibly quite stoned voice of reason, suggesting that actually this might be the best thing that ever happened, and that he, like most of his friends, hadn’t felt they were ready for kids until they actually had them. His words, compounded by a powerful rush of hormones, meant that by the time my boyfriend returned home from work that evening, I felt buoyed – excited even – by this unexpected turn in our lives.

Despite my friends’ initial bemusement, they too could see how quickly I’d embraced this new path – even if my partner had yet to follow suit. So when, walking home with my mum from the tube station with bags full of maternity clothes a few weeks later, I felt a gush of liquid pouring down my leg, I instinctively knew it was something terrible. It felt like a cruel trick. There was also the feeling of guilt that so often accompanies miscarriage. Worsened somehow by knowing that, at least for an hour, this baby had been unwanted.

Selfish, hedonistic, disorganised, work-obsessed, impatient… the list of reasons why I was not ready to be a great parent was seemingly endless

“Everything happens for a reason,” I heard a million times in the following weeks, after a scan confirmed the tiny heart inside my belly had stopped beating, and the subsequent operation scraped away any trace of its life. In our case, that might explain a certain lack of vigilance as less than a year later, I felt the familiar bloating and fatigue… While I was thrilled with the news, once confirmed, I was also scared stiff. What the hell did I know about raising babies, let alone children? None of my friends had them. I’m an only child. The closest I’d ever been to interacting with kids was a drunken chat in the beer garden of our local pub on a Sunday afternoon.

Not just that, I didn’t have the right personality. Selfish, hedonistic, disorganised, work-obsessed, incapable of imposing discipline, lacking in any form of patience… the list of reasons why I was not ready to be a great parent were seemingly endless. Besides, I hadn’t lived my life yet! I’d never lived abroad (I’d barely even left London), had never written a novel, learned another language: how could I possibly be ready to give my life up before it had properly started? It was only when I had a frank conversation with one of the other parents-to-be at our antenatal classes, a man of 40 who, green with panic after a particularly gruelling nappy-changing demonstration, confided “I’m just not ready!” that I realised the world is filled with parents who, for whatever reason, just weren’t ready.You don’t need to be ready to be in the right place to have a baby. In fact, more fool those who believe they are.

Each birth, each child, each relationship – and its impact on your life – is chaotic, unexpected, disconcerting, brilliant, terrifying and utterly unlike any experience you could ever know until it’s happened

Turns out, you don’t need to be ready to be in the right place to have a baby. In fact, more fool those who believe they are. Now with three kids under five, if there’s one thing I know it’s that having a baby is not something you can exactly prepare for, or neatly schedule into your 10-year plan. Each birth, each child, each relationship – and its impact on your life – is chaotic, unexpected, disconcerting, brilliant, terrifying and utterly unlike any experience you could ever know until it’s happened. And each one will be their own person, do things at their own time, no matter how many times you frantically Google “when will my baby sleep through the night?”

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