The art studio is in an upscale neighbourhood near the university. E’s little friend C is having a birthday party, and E and I arrive a few minutes late. I see the baby right away: just over a month old, the little brother of another of E’s friends. The mother is beaming and soaking up the attention of every other parent there. After an initial surge of dread, I think I feel okay and I smile and ask her how she is doing, is she getting any sleep, what does J think of being a big sister? Young women, probably university students, walk by on the street, glance in at the huddle of preschoolers around the art table, us parents in clusters, chatting about the housing market, jobs, the lack of a hockey season. At that age, I would’ve scoffed a bit, basked in my freedom, believing I didn’t want kids, would never be tied down by birthday parties and jobs and adulthood in general. Rain starts to fall again and the autumn leaves shine bright orange, yellow and red on the black of the wet sidewalk.
I turn my attention back to the party, where conversation has focused on two other new pregnancies, on labour and delivery stories, on the ideal spacing between siblings. Someone asks an expecting father if they will find out the sex of the baby at their next ultrasound and the new mother explains that that is no longer permitted. Without thinking, I ask: when did that change? She doesn’t know I was pregnant this year, too (more than once). She doesn’t know that I have my own labour and delivery story, too, one that would trump any of the other stories presented so far, one that I assume would cast a pall on the whole room, send eyes sliding sideways, set feet shuffling, throats clearing. One that would change the subject once and for all.
My hands shaking and bile rising in my throat – an intense physical reaction I hadn’t expected – I retreat to the windows at the front of the studio. Pretend to look for something in my coat pocket. Wish I had a kleenex to wipe away the tears. I watch the rain fall and the students pass by, wipe my face with my sleeve and brace myself for E’s cries of triumph and joy over the painting she has made, for birthday cake and birthday singing, for bearing with some semblance of grace the next 45 minutes.
I know everyone here who does not know our story thinks I am aloof. One mother in particular glances sidelong at me and makes an effort not to include me in conversation. I never know for sure: would they treat me with more warmth if they knew why I stand apart sometimes, or would they put even more distance between us? Would my story bring us together or scare them all off? A stronger woman might make more of an effort to find out.