In the Spring of 2019 I met my friend Hatty for a yoga class. We were in our mid thirties then and this is how we now socialised. When I’d first met Hatty, she had been about to move in with my then boyfriend, now husband, and she was a random woman off CraigsList. My then boyfriend, and his two male friends had an idea in their heads that a house needed balance and that the way to balance a house was to have a mix of vaginas and penises in it. In their view a harmonious house share was a mixed gender house. (This was a belief which I debated my then-boyfriend on. Gender was largely constructed, and what did they think a woman would bring anyway, a human brought something, a female or a male was neither here nor there?
My then boyfriend made some throw-away comment about his all male household at university, how filthy and squalid it had been. A comment onto which I latched. Were these men, these modern, metropolitan men, who knew of the Suffragettes, who supported abortion, and had watched that Adiche TED talk, secretly looking for a maid?) It didn’t matter anyway, they did not have any female friends who wanted to live with them.
And so after some months they put an ad out for one.
It did not occur to my then-boyfriend that I might just be the perfect candidate for desired household balance. I knew and liked all members of the prospective household. (Despite my fears that their views on gender were not quite as progressive as their bookshelves and friendship circle suggested.) Me and the then-boyfriend had been together a year and the relationship was going extremely well. I was ostensibly liked by his two friends, and above all I had a vagina. They continued to interview rounds of women from off the internet.
Interviews were casual, conducted in the local gastropub in Islington. The men were coming from their jobs and were variously suited and styled. I was often in attendance too, wanting to be in the constant presence of my then-boyfriend, (we were in the limerence phase), and also wanting to drink red wine in that cosy pub. It was a great line-up. One worked in set-design, another was a vegetarian, another was from New Zealand. I thought they were all magnificent. All three were rejected, too keen, strange vibes, would she party too much? Finally, the prettiest of the candidates was accepted. With fine, dark arched eyebrows, long, curved fingernails, cat eyes, and a high, chestnut- brown ponytail.
She was flirtatious and moral; stroking everyone’s arms and hoping to start her own NGO one day. All three of the men gave her the thumbs up. Woman found, they began the house-hunt. (As well as not having a suitable female, they did not yet have a suitable house to move into, either.)
Hatty and I bonded immediately; meaning we drank copious amounts of Proseco together. We were then in our late twenties and it seemed incredibly glamorous to drink anything with bubbles, especially with our bank balances so frequently, looking so scanty. One of the men, my then-boyfriend’s old friend, my newer friend, Ashley, began to fall in love with Hatty.
Thus, ruining The whole female hunt/house hunt thing. They could not move into a balanced house with her now. The obvious question and one which we all asked out loud, including Hatty herself, was had this been the plan along, was he interviewing for a girlfriend not a housemate? Ashley was a man inept at dating, hopeless at saying lines in bars, kind and handsome but slightly odd, (most days he wore a crocodile dundee style hat and hiking boots, though he lived in North London, not the Outback, and worked in a Prontaprint). Put simply: this man had no game. It didn’t matter, the ends justifies the means, eight years and on they are engaged, have a mortgage, a child together, another due (literally) any day now.
So the whole female and house hunt fell through. Me and my then-boyfriend did move in together, despite his clear terror at the thought. The other two men found a different female that would live with them and mine and Hatty’s friendship solidified. Hatty became my sometimes running partner, my occasional decaf, oat latte drinking- buddy, my regular sympathetic ear.
We were well through the Prosecco phase by the time we met for that baby yoga class in May 2019. Hatty had been warned by her doctor not to drink anymore acidic booze, her esophagus was totally inflamed, her gut flora completely out of balance. And I was finding that one night of heavy drinking could cause depression and jitters for up to a week. Hangovers had gone from being queasy jokes easily remedied with a sugary tea and hot shower, to full blown existential crises that left me frightened. And so these days instead we breathed and downward dogged and chanted together.
I had never been, never wanted to be, nor was I pregnant. I had seen the posters for the antenatal class the last time I’d been at that studio doing some fast-paced vinyasa and suggested it to Hatty who was, indeed, in full-blown gestation mode. She had a sizeable bump and a string of normal pregnant lady ailments. My then-husband was bewildered. Had strongly advised against me going to the class, had said in clear terms that I was being ridiculous, that it was not the place for me, that the act was simply crazy. I had explained to him how wrong he was. I was sure many women who were not pregnant attended pregnancy yoga classes. That it would be delightful, somewhere between yin and restorative, would probably involve a lot of pillows, bolsters, blankets, staying close to the ground. All the things I loved. Anyway, I was attending socially with a heavily pregnant friend in tow, it would be a lovely thing for us to do together before she potentially disappeared into Motherland for the next five to eighteen years.
I was running late. I would meet her inside. I was, like most young-ish people, (young-ish was how I saw myself at thirty-five), who lived in London, always running a little bit late. Only five minutes though. She was running early. Of the three yoga studios that I regularly attended, this one was the smallest. Space for a maximum of eight women, plus instructor at top, at capacity and during a more vigorous class, a head kick or elbow jab was not uncommon. Inside I removed my ethical versions of the classic, black Converse high-top, stripped off my pleather jacket and Choose Love jumper and greeted the women. Seven nooding, smiling faces, the faces of women ready to do something that they know will make them feel genuinely good. A series of beach balls, watermelons and mounds caught my eye. Of course I knew in theory this would be the case, in a does what it says-on-the-tin kind of way, but something about the visual reality of all those round bellies made me realise, in that split instant, my utter mistake. That what my husband had said was true. That my belly, rounded only marginally by a large bowl of pasta I’d eaten that lunch, had no place in this lavender scented room.
I greeted Hatty in the hushed tones appropriate to the space. She stroked my arm as always. It was now or never, there was still a chance this wan’t really such a bad idea. The class had not begun, the teacher, a Henna haired woman with an unplaceable accent, (Finnish, Czech, international school?), and wearing purple leggings was welcoming us all and chatting with the regulars.
‘Eurgh, I have to say, straight away, I’m here for the class but I’m not actually pregnant, I’m just with her, I thought it would be a nice class, gentle. Kind of zen.’ Even with all her years of training, even with all of the woo woo things she must have seen as a yoga teacher in South London, she could not mask this, perhaps most natural of all reactions, shock, it flashed and flickered on her usually serene yogini’s face. Daunted but too deep now I continued in my monologue. Aware of other ears pricked in the room.
‘I thought it would be a nice thing to do together, restorative. You know. My husband thought it was weird but…good to relax. Have you had other non-pregnant women coming with their pregnant friends before?’
It turned out I was the first. An original, an anomaly, an idiosyncratic empty wombed woman.
‘I was just er, thinking, lots of bolsters and pillows, blankets…’ I caught Hatty’s eye.
‘It’s lovely you’re here with me, for me,’ said Hatty. I had been the one who’d suggested the class, who’d pushed it, it was not as Hatty was helpfully trying to convince these stranger women, that Hatty wanted to attend prenatal yoga, did not have a suitably pregnant friend, had not wanted to go alone, had lassoed me into going. I had been the instigator, the organiser, the pusher of pregnancy yoga. The pusher who would not be pushing anything alive out of her anytime soon, or, (please God), ever.
‘Yes, yes, it’s lovely, coming with your friend to support her at this special time.’
I glanced at the wash of other women in the room, rolling out their rubber matts, pulling their hoodies over their heads, switching their phones to airplane mode, all doing an excellent job of pretending that there was not a weird imposter in their weekly haven of a class.
‘The thing is we do quite a lot of connecting with our babies, our bumps, so you can just connect with your self, inside’.
‘You can connect with mine,’ offered Hatty, stroking her hill-like stomach.
Was I Hatty’s husband? Was this a lamaze class?
‘Yes, yes, I’ll send the love over to…over to you bump.’
Perhaps I could just connect to my inner child, I thought. She was well developed; I still liked climbing trees, novelty items, Christmas, knew all the songs on The Lion King soundtrack, loved rolling down hills in the summer.
‘OK. So we like to begin each class by saying how we are feeling this week, how our bump is feeling, any new symptoms in our body, how many weeks we are, any new developments, challenges and changes.’
For the next twenty minutes I learned more than I had ever wished to know about pelvic leaking, night sweats, sciatica, dyspepsia and a condition one lady had coined ‘vaginal lightning’. My turn in the circle came.
‘As mentioned I’m not pregnant, so all good here.’
‘Feel free to say anything your body is going through, any aches or pains. Feelings.’
‘Oh no I’m good, thank you, feeling good.’ How could I sit there and tell them my shoulders and neck were a bit stiff from typing so much on my laptop, that I was feeling tired owing to my work as a teacher. They were all working while pregnant. One was carrying twins, one had felt continuously bilious from week four to month five, one had barely slept for days.
‘Yes, isn’t the body so clever,’ said the yogini ‘she knows you will not be sleeping much as soon as the little one is out so she is preparing you for this. Natural body intelligence is just amazing.’
This did and didn’t make sense to me, surely your body letting you rest while you still could would be wiser than making you tired in preparation for doing a really tiring thing.
Then you wouldn’t already be feeling cranky and depleted prior to giving birth, having to bear a child, an act that would surely drain the last dregs of one’s remaining energy, to then leave you to care for said helpless infant, while running on below zero.
The show and tell over we began the physical class. Physical, was perhaps an overstatement. Somatics fitted best, the mind going into the body, rooting around those organs, feeling our innards with our minds, microscopic movements or gentle, bigger flowy ones. I had not wanted or expected to become out of breath but I had thought I might stretch a little more deeply.
Standing upright wide legged we did some sort of sway, it was not any of the warrior poses I knew, one, two, or three, but perhaps a version of them, warrior light. Of all the women in attendance I was going furthest into the moves, meeting my edge, diving down, but how I could feel proud of this? I felt bad, I was basically showing off. Yoga was not a competitive sport anyway and lest I forget all of these women had swallowed that watermelon seed, had a bun in the oven, were in the pudding. As we tipped back and forth and gently, gently forward, we were instructed to say ‘hello’ to our babies, to smile ‘at our bumps’, to ‘greet baby’ in any way we liked, to try out a formal, Jane Austen-like ‘how do you do’, or a colloquial, teenage ‘alright ’ or like Andree 3000 ‘heeeya!’
I attempted to send my best wishes, and kind regards and ‘ahoy theres’ over to Hatty’s rotund middle.
She had always known that she’d wanted it. Being a mother was a true desire for her. It had occurred to me that the women in this class no doubt pitied me. Were probably certain that I was desperate for a child, perhaps denied one by my husband, perhaps denied one by my biology, leeching off the maternal bloom of my friend, trying to suck up bebe juju by turning up in places high in estrogen, hoping via some sort of voodoo osmosis to obtain some of my own hormonal goodies. Some sort of of flat, empty, maternal vampire.
Just once I had been on a busy overground and had been offered a seat by a man. It was mid-morning and I was en route to Gloucester Road, there were plenty of other people standing, including other women, both older and younger than me, but he had offered the seat to me and no one else. Did I seem extra tired? I was often fatigued, dark, purple-blue semi-circles formed under my eyes, but that was normal for a person living in London.
Was this a way to hit on me? He was middle-aged, maybe fifteen years older, was wearing a gold band on his ring finger, and after offering me the seat and accepting my thanks did not seem to be giving me the eye, was in fact engrossed in his Bill Bryson book. I alighted, walked up the Kensington road, all shiny black railings, enormous houses, wisteria tumbling down, women wearing either Sweaty Betty or furs, I arrived at my place of work for that season. The concierge greeted me, it was the third time I’d seen him this week, guarding over those expensive apartments, making chit-chat with the various forms of help those Russian multi-millionaires employed, the cleaners, PA’s, private tutors, music teachers, personal shoppers. I was teaching the mother intermediate ESOL and the teenage son GCSE Steinbeck. We discussed the weather and he called the elevator for me.
Inside the gilt and mirrored lift, that opened onto the family’s luxury apartment, all became clear. I saw myself in the mirror. I am so far, a slim person, some genetics, some veganism, some moderate exercise has kept me this way. But there it was. My oversized, voluminous, peach coloured, vegan wool Asos jumper had billowed out of the tight pleather jacket I wore over the top to form a large protruding bump at my centre. Front on, side on, I looked thoroughly, absolutely, pregnant. I laughed alone on all three floors up and flattened my air-baby before arriving at the lesson.
I had always liked the idea of having a massive bump, of holding my sacrum and easing back into chair going ‘oooooo’. I truly did not fantasize about any other pregnancy related aspects of life, nor of having a baby out in the world and connected to me. There was just something slightly comedic and TV-like about easing into a chair, and gripping ones back, with a big, old belly. My only other thought related to gestation had been that maybe it would make me healthier, I’d eat better and drink less if I was caring for someone other than me. Also wouldn’t it mean I could stay at home more, not have to work, and therefore get more writing done. My mother laughed her head off, when I told her this theory, ‘you would not get a word written. ALL your attention, all your energy would go on the baby.’ My mother clarified: ‘A baby is a job,’
It was a thing others spoke about when you got to a certain age, and especially if you were in a long-term relationship, but if it had not been a thing people spoke about it would have barely crawled across my mind. It was not some Feminist statement, it was not that I hated children, it was not that I believed my cat to be a child, (even though I did call him baby cat, loved to sniff his sweet, furry head, and to spoon him).
It was one thing and one thing only: I was indifferent to having a child of my own, it was not something I craved, it was not particularly interesting to me. The lady doth protest too much? No, the lady protests the exact right amount, considering how many times the lady hath been asked, unsolicited, apropos of nothing, if and when she will be having a baby. Why weren’t the friends, the colleagues, the public, asking me if I wanted to live abroad, (yes please, one of the Greek islands, and New York), why were they not asking me if I wanted to climb a mountain (yes, one day, which one TBD), if I planned to own my own business (an art gallery, actually), and so on?
From what I’d heard a baby was a painful, time-consuming and a lifelong process, one that apparently brought a big heap of joy too, but I had a lot of joy already, and why should I convince myself I should care about something I just didn’t. It made sense to try and make oneself care about some things that one might not already, the plight of refugees, the rise in homelessness, planetary devastation, if one had no interest in those things it could actually do some damage. Years before I had read a Massive Attack interview in which one of the band members had stated that ‘Apathy was a weapon of mass destruction’. I thoroughly agreed. Not caring about a non-existent being, however, created no damage.
But the biological pull? True, it had kept us alive and here for a long time, but we were now utterly overpopulated so maybe nature had adjusted, maybe the next stage of evolution was to make some of us nonplussed about babies, for the sake of those who really did want to fill the planet with tiny, adorable polluters. I had been forced in a sense to navel-gaze, no pun intended, on all of this owing to well-wishers, probers and bored people’s questions, left to my own devices I estimate I would have spent fifteen minutes meditation on the subject of uterus-filling and moved on.
The seventy five minutes was almost up. It was now dark beyond the soft glow of the studio. The sound of teenage boys filtered past the window. We were down on the floor, inhaling and exhaling.
‘Let your baby kiss the earth’. In and out, the sound of one great cosmic ocean of fertile, filled up women and me, the empty vessel. I felt extremely relaxed and very hungry. Our boyfriends were back at Hatty and Ashley’s flat making risotto for after the class. I inched my arms further forward.
‘Let your baby ground and melt downwards to Mother Earth’. I heard the tick of the clock, the rumbling of a train in the distance. The ground quivering slightly.
‘Are you okay Hatty?’ the teacher asked, concerned.
‘…fine, thank you…just, just getting comfortable.’ A stifled muffled sound bubbled up.
I peeked to my left from my position on the floor, our legs as wide as the mat, our toes touching, our bodies folded forward in extended child’s pose. I could see Hatty shaking. Her back, her arms, her round belly, her whole body quaking with uncontrollable, uncontrolled laughter.