If things had gone the way I planned, I would have been confined to our home with a three-year-old, maybe a two-year-old, when the COVID-19 crisis hit. A boy called Thomas or a girl called Claire; tall for his or her age like my husband and I are tall, with a head circumference in the ninety-ninth percentile and brown hair and eyes because my traits are dominant, but hopefully my husband’s ability to sleep anywhere, at any time.
Like the other parents of toddlers that I know, as social isolation measures wore on, I would be increasingly stressed from days of having to entertain the child, Thomas or Claire, with no break: no day-care, no playground, no grandparental reprieves. Our tables and floors would be strewn with half-completed activities, the television blaring ABC4Kids when it wasn’t screening DVDs of Disney and the Wiggles, front yard a mess of toys and driveway a rainbow of chalk. When Thomas or Claire finally went down for a sleep I would be scrolling through social media, desperate for confirmation that this was both a precious stretch of time I’d look back on wistfully and a horrific historical blip that I could only be expected to grit my teeth through.
But things did not go to plan.
My husband and I had our last consultation with the fertility doctor just as the threat of a pandemic was cresting, ready to dump its societal and economic effects over us all. We were the only ones in the clinic’s waiting room, though that might have been because it was mid-afternoon, a much calmer time of day than the early mornings, during which dozens of women wait their turn to slough off their knickers and climb into the stirrups as part of their treatment cycles. We were asked to use hand sanitiser on entry and confirm we hadn’t been overseas in the last month. The magazines had been taken away.
Our appointment confirmed what we already knew: after four-and-a-half years of trying to have a baby, four of those as patients of the fertility clinic, the very esteemed and empathetic doctor felt there was nothing more that could realistically be done for us. He outlined our options, wrote a referral for a second opinion and told us that if we did ever manage to maintain a pregnancy, he would be ecstatic to be my obstetrician.
I knew this was coming and had agreed with the doctor when he expressed doubt about whether expensive experimental treatments would produce an outcome different from four straight years of failures. I thought I’d feel worse on emerging from his office. I’d been rejected by multiple blastocysts, a couple of embryos, and now an actual doctor: I should be devastated, furious, empty. I should drop to my knees and wail for the loss of Thomas or Claire.
Instead we emerged into a bizarre world, a changed world. Not long after that final appointment the government paused elective surgery, including IVF. If our doctor had recommended we continue with treatment, then our next step would have been another egg retrieval – elective day surgery – in order to create more zygotes. With the restrictions, this couldn’t happen for the foreseeable future anyway. Another health measure involved hospitals limiting the number of visitors who could attend after a birth. I was nine months plus a million years away from that eventuality, but when I imagined cradling Thomas or Claire in my arms for the first time, there were more well-wishers looking on than just the staff and my husband. Mother’s groups were meant to consist of half a dozen women breastfeeding in a café with their oversized prams shipwrecked around them, not timed calls on Zoom.
At two or three years old, Thomas or Claire would have all of the inquisitiveness with little of the language. My imagined child would spout endless questions, half of the words indecipherable, and squeal when we failed to understand. They’d explore their world by hiding our wallets and yanking the dogs’ tails and eating spiders. Toilet training may have either just started or been almost complete, so we’d be sitting and waiting endless minutes while they sat unproductive on the potty or getting a false sense of security from a string of dry nights before waking to a mattress soaked with wee. Thomas or Claire would have big lungs to fill that lanky frame, and as an only child stuck inside with their mother all day, wrenched from all other forms of socialisation, they would have screamed their oversized head off.
Our house, mid-pandemic, is quiet. My husband and I work from home in separate spaces, bringing each other coffee or stopping for a chat on our way to the kitchen. In the evenings we order food and watch television. Weekends, we sleep late, take the dogs for walks, do projects in the garden, read and binge-watch. Without the stress of worrying about a toddler’s development, we don’t have to consider whether these weeks are precious or unbearable or both. Instead, time feels the way it did when I walked out of the fertility clinic on that last day: weird, dispiriting, but with a vague sense of possibility. Some patience. A touch of relief that things are being put on hold, giving us the chance to take stock.
I would love the chance to ride out a pandemic with my tall, endlessly questioning, mid-toilet-training toddler. I’d love to be one of the parents who watch their children sleep at night and want to cry with exhaustion and a full heart and despair. I’d love to not quite be able to love things in the moment, because all of that would mean things had gone to plan.
But they didn’t, and so we make do with what we have. Luckily for us, what we have now is space, time, quiet. A chance to truly step back, look around, and see how things might have been, for better or for worse.
Brooke Dunnell is a Perth writer whose short fiction has appeared in anthologies including the Margaret River Press collection Fire, Best Australian Stories, and New Australian Stories 2, as well as in the journals Meanjin, Westerly, and Etchings. Her stories have been recognised in competitions including the Bridport Short Story Prize 2019, the Newcastle Short Story Award 2019, the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize 2017, and the Griffith Review The Novella Project IV. She has been a judge of various short story competitions and a mentor of other writers, including as part of the Centre for Stories’ Inclusion Matters program.