trying harder

It was like I’d suddenly announced a newly sprouted penis, such was my brother’s whooping theatrical incredulity at the news. On revealing the pregnancy to him and his wife at our childhood home, they seemed shocked and surprised and pleased. Their children, aged 11 and 8 and also in the near vicinity, understandably seemed more indifferent.  “Weird” was the verdict of my niece.

I sensed that although my brother and his wife had never probed and would never concede it, they had more or less assumed this was off the agenda for us. It would not happen. Perhaps it was wonder enough that I found someone with whom to share my life after so many barren years in my 20s, a period when they appeared to smirkingly speculate about my sexuality from time to time.

And now we appeared to have our modest lifestyle sorted: our dog, nice enough house and our relatively low income. It was clear I was not earning much money. My other half was doing ok in her steady job though and we were getting by. Surely we would not upset that with a new human being. That would be silly.

But this pregnancy news presents a whole other dimension.

Later on, after the initial shock had subsided, a mile or so into a long walk with the dogs and kids, my brother said, “well if you sat down with a spreadsheet it wouldn’t work, but…”  While this was eventually followed by a more positive spin and ways it could work out with the help of our parents, those words stuck with me. They rang around my head for days because I knew they held a cold bleak truth.

I still scrap by month to month, sniffing out the next few hundred quid, and the next few hundred quid. I work hard but continue to exist with horrible insecurity. My mental landscape is defined by my bank balance, how achievable the next bankable few hundred quid will be, when it will arrive in my account, how much I will have to politely chase for it, what the next job will be.

How sustainable is that when your wife has to go on an all too brief maternity leave, when you are looked upon to provide more, to ‘man up’, to try harder? It is not all that sustainable, admirable, manly or generally good.

Waves of sickening nausea are not currently hers alone. Profound worry now skewers me regularly, deep in the pit of my stomach. Guilt for my slightly indulgent lifestyle which I often feel when closing a book and finishing a coffee at lunchtime. Are you working hard enough? What more could you be doing? Are you just in essence a massively idle prick? Sometimes I voice this and am severely rebuked by my wife. ‘This is not helpful to you or me.’ Of course she is right, but it’s a program I have difficulty overwriting.

There was a meltdown of sorts while walking the dog alone a couple of days after telling my brother, back home. Leaning against a gate at a favourite spot, watching the sun set over the rolling green hills the bigness of it all came crashing in, the life-changingness, the responsibility, the finances, the money, the insufficient funds, the emasculating inadequacy, the potential being who will ultimately hate me for their boring empty scrimping frugal childhood. Panic and despair and frustration and stupidity and an almost out-of-body sensation. My red face and tears confused the dog. That was weird.

Should I look for other work and another reliable income stream? Easier said than done perhaps, but I suppose I should try. How I despise the idea of a boss, authority, judgement, tediously mind-numbing work. How will we manage with the dog? She could go and stay with my parents and their dog and that would be fine. I would hate it though. I would painfully miss the creature, the only thing that reliably makes me smile most days. And I would trade it for probable misery and money? Would I? Please no, don’t let it come to that.

Plenty of people do this though. They take on more work when faced with greater responsibility, arguably the ultimate domestic responsibility. They unthinkingly make sacrifices because they would do anything for their kids. I am no different and should accept it, buckle up.

Adaptability is something I have traditionally considered myself good at.  I have moved a few times across a central belt of Britain, had a number of very different jobs, experienced no small amount of change. A few years ago now, for around eighteen months I wrenched myself into a recruitment consultancy largely populated by idiots. It was awful but it was regular reasonable money.

This impending phase of work appears the most formidable: a biblical swell of digits which I will heroically surf upon or drown beneath or thrash through.  I cling with dumb hope to ideas: being miraculously saved by a huge job, a new professional relationship bearing spectacular fruit, an old one coming back around, offering something solid and dependable, some random opportunity. Wishful thinking.

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first scan

Everything dissolves away when you see those wiggling pixels on that screen for the first time. All the cynicism, the fears and worry. It represents so much, that squirming shrimp-like shape, jiving around in its bat-cave, that tiny zone of distilled life where a pulsating beatbox can be seen jack-hammering away with absolute urgency. For a morbid moment you wonder about the entire working lifetime of that heart, where or when it will stop. Worst case scenario: weeks or months. Best case scenario: a century? That heart is the conductor, the boss. How little we think about our actual hearts, how much we unthinkingly bastardise the shape for emojis, the word to mean anything we have feelings about.

The detail is phenomenal. The arc of its head, the blimp of its nose, feet, toes. You will get photos printed, and accidentally avoid having to pay for them. Photos will be taken of those photos to email people. Your mum is desperate for you to tell your brother now, but you want to be able to see his face when you do. Not so easy.

Later that night you beat yourself up for not thinking to take a video on your phone.

Earlier that morning, while walking the dog, you had pondered again the whole ‘living in fear’ subject. It’s constantly hard for you to avoid, in large part due to your unpredictably sporadic work and finances. But you remind yourself this baby thing is no different to big relationship commitment. Never committing might often seem like the easiest option if you’ve been badly burnt or consistently suffer rejection, as I did for roughly a decade. There is no risk because there is no chance of being hurt, destroyed, or just as painful, having a relationship slowly and sadly fade out. Risk can be eliminated if you choose not to invest, not to work. A big part of boringly conventional life and love involves taking a deep breath and hopefully, cluelessly leaping into the unknown. It’s almost universally terrifying.

You squeeze her hand in the darkened room. The cheerful, likeable young Welshman, angles the screen towards her. You see tears glisten in her eyes and manage to contain your own.

pregnancy test

From that moment, life is subliminally changed, shifted, promoted. It is injected with a profound undercurrent of hope, anticipation, expectation, fear and deepest concern.

You exchanged gifts in the living room to a carelessly selected Spotify playlist of Christmas songs. You weren’t pleased or proud with the gifts you’d given her, although neither of yours was especially inspired or imaginative. You had agreed not to ‘go to town’ with them this year.

You’d been heartened by a chunky workflow in October and November which made you think Christmas would be less riven with financial angst than usual. But the jobs tailed off abruptly in December, one or two had failed to transpire. Did that client go elsewhere? On top of which was the annual mystery of January. Would that be totally barren? How careful did you have to be?

So when it came to the exchange of gifts, you were disappointed with your offering. She kindly seemed not to care that much. You’d like to think she didn’t, but there were other things on your minds.

She went upstairs to the bathroom, peed into a cup, dipped the plastic test thing in it, waited. You followed up shortly, confirmed the instructions on the packet. Fairytale of New York wafted up the stairs from Alexa as you took a deep breath and inspected the thing and saw the line indicating yes, she was pregnant, you cheap lousy faggot. She looked up at you as you held her, her face all creased up like when you proposed. You marked the moment with confidential silly selfies.

Even in the thinking about it, during the trying to conceive, you see all the stuff: all the terrible bad things that can happen, you are hyper-sensitised. Headlines, tweets, television documentaries, news articles, radio phone-ins you happen upon in the car. Illnesses, disabilities, behavioural issues.  You know the high statistics around the likelihood of miscarriage: the biggest and most real fear. A cheap bestseller you happen to start reading concentrates on a midwife and her experiences of all the terrible things that can happen during labour. Because you feel barraged by this, and because it is still so early in the grand, hopefully 9-month odyssey (you preface everything with caveat words like ‘hopefully’ and ‘all being well’ so as not to tempt fate) you suspend yourself, never quite giving permission to enjoy it, to be excited. Does that permission come later perhaps, much further down the line?

You took a dizzying circuit of Ikea in the week, ostensibly looking at rugs. In the clearance section an eye grazed over baby cots and your belly lurched with the potential new dimension of reality.

Right now caution and fear underwrites everything. She is something of a hypochondriac at the best of times, sensitive to all health issues after losing both her parents before she was out of her twenties, bearing a burden of care for her dying father, having a thyroid condition requiring constant medication. You know you have always been a more glass half empty sort of person, a realist, you like to think.

Life has ticked on a few weeks. She has told more people than you – close friends and family. You told your parents later on Christmas Day – partly to embellish more underwhelming Christmas presents, partly so you could take a rare photograph of your father smiling. That’s all for you, until now. Last weekend a dinner at your best friend’s, planned for a few months, was cancelled when you sent a text message checking all was well a few days beforehand. His socialite wife had double booked them, really sorry. Having few friends, you had been looking forward to it for a while, but it seemed a forgettable fleck in their busy calendar. It picked a neurotic scab, the suppressed knowledge that you are not your best friend’s best friend. He is yours but you are not his. You rarely feature on his dozy radar.

You have long understood though, that people your age with a reasonable real-life social network are usually connected by their children, by being parents.

For now life remains suspended, anticipated, hoped for. An incomprehensible amount of stuff could change in the foreseeable future. Or it might not.