"Opinions are like assh*les — everyone's got one," laughs a colleague in a particularly rowdy meeting.
"Not everyone," I grimace.
Now, I can laugh about it. But at the time, when specialists at University College London Hospital and Great Ormond Street Hospital sat my husband and me down to tell us that our son, languishing in blissful ignorance in my pregnant belly, would very likely be born with an imperforate anus, it was as far from humorous as it gets. The worry, the grief, and a distinct feeling of shame hit me like a truck. What had I done to him? What would I feel for him? How would everyone react to a baby who wasn't the "perfect," "normal," "healthy" baby? Believing that "perfection" was what was wanted, expected, what I should be producing, I felt I'd failed at motherhood before I'd even begun.
I wanted to help him but felt like I'd been failing him from day one.
My pregnancy came soon after the death of my mom, and I saw the blossoming new life within me as my way of saving us all from drowning in the grief; surely it would pull us out of the all-encompassing gray and into the optimism of baby blue. I felt entitled to a healthy baby, and I, like so many, took it for granted that I would have one. Looking back, I want to shake my former privileged, spoiled self.
To learn that the baby's birth would plunge us back into a world of more hospital visits, more "today on the ward" group texts to relatives floored me. I grieved all over again. Grieved the notion of a straightforward birth plan and sleep-deprived days of newborn nesting at home. Grieved the easy, comfortable childhood I'd so wanted for him. I sobbed as I shopped for baby grows, the only thing he would wear for a year because he would need to be fitted with a colostomy bag at birth, before an operation to hopefully correct the condition later in his childhood.
But I can't help but suspect, in hindsight, that the grief I felt could have been softened if the constructs around maternity and parenthood were pitched differently. The fact is, the words "normal" and "perfect" are thrown around with reckless abandon — at scans, at NCT meetings, at baby showers, on social media. Are we not, with this vernacular, setting up women to fail the minute something is "wrong"? We educate women about pain relief in birth and the importance of breastfeeding, but not what to do or feel if there is something that doesn't fit into the expected. As a result, thousands of women are left reeling when there's any kind of hiccup or disruption to the assumed narrative, left feeling like utter failures, ostracized from other moms, unable to connect to the dreamlike, photoshopped world of baby consumerism. We need to diversify the experience, make it understood that there is no standard, that the unexpected can — and does — occur.
Because my pregnancy was dominated by so-called "abnormalities," I hated every minute of it. I didn't glow, I raged. And when Wilf was born, with a gap in his esophagus (yet another shock postbirth), as well as a wall of flesh where his bum should have been, I didn't bond with him. I loved him, but he belonged to the nurses caring for him. I wanted to parent him, but instead I was treating him, monitoring his condition. He was a patient, not my son. I wanted to help him but felt like I'd been failing him from day one.
But slowly, and with a lot of time, counseling, and self-analysis, we may have found what is normal and forged a new version of perfect. Normal has nothing to do with physiology and everything to do with contentment, acceptance, and love. Perfect is being in total awe of a son who has defied all odds, has been through several operations, and is the loveliest little toddler we've ever had the privilege to meet. I am no longer full of shame but of awe, and I'm honored to be his mom. I am no longer raging but full of gratitude, for our glorious NHS, for the privilege of being a mother, for hospitals like Great Ormond Street, where I am constantly humbled and floored by the humanity and bravery I see. Blessed doesn't even cover it.
I am not a normal mother and certainly not a perfect one, but the love I feel for my son now exceeds anything I thought possible. And not because he now has a new (bespoke) bum-hole and throat, but because it's the imperfection of our experience that has made us the family we are today. So if you're expecting and things don't go as expected, know this: the child within you knows nothing of society's standards. All they'll ever want is love, and that, to them, is the very definition of perfection.