Caroline Green* had her hands full with two small children and wasn’t intending to have any more. So the prospect of an unplanned third baby was a massive shock and threw her into confusion.
My four-year-old son was thriving at nursery; my 18-month-old daughter was a delightful, babbling toddler. I loved being a mum, but I was finding the relentlessness of parenthood exhausting.
Managing their different needs and the constant demands on my physical and emotional resources was wearing me out. Having two seemed more than double the work, especially at mealtimes and play times, most of the time actually. I couldn’t imagine how my friends with three – or more – children coped.
It was a normal day. Leaving the children and their father sleeping, I left the house at 7am, cycled into my office seven miles away in central London, did what I had to do, cycled home and got on with being mum. The children were their usual adorable selves. Teatime, bath time, bedtime stories, snuggles. By the time I fell into bed, just after 11pm, I was good for nothing. I was asleep within minutes.
My abdomen was movingThe strange but immediately familiar sensation of a baby’s butterfly kicks woke me with a jolt. At first, I couldn’t take it in. I could feel my abdomen undulating in that unmistakable way. After two recent pregnancies, I was well versed in the timings. These were the kicks of a foetus aged at least five months.
It felt surreal. I wasn’t taking the pill, but we’d been careful. I could think of a couple of occasions when I could have conceived, but, six months after stopping breastfeeding, my periods were back to normal and I didn’t feel pregnant. Except, that is, for the movements of the being that appeared to be learning to box inside me.
As I lay there watching the sun rise, thoughts raced through my head. Folic acid. I hadn’t been taking it. Maternity leave. Would I be eligible? Did I even want another baby? I knew, deep down, the answer was maybe, but I was also well aware that my partner didn’t want a third child.
While my logical brain was processing these practicalities, my abdomen continued to dance, out of control. As I watched, elbow- and heel-shaped lumps protruded through my skin. The sensation was so recognisable that, fantastic as it seemed, I began to accept my fate. One particularly powerful punch under my ribs hurt so much I gasped in pain.
Did I want another baby?I decided not to tell my partner yet. Things hadn’t been great between us lately, partly due to both of us coming to terms with the restrictions having children made to our lives. I knew he would be livid if I had another baby.
I also knew I could never have a termination. I once spent a morning in a Marie Stopes clinic holding a friend’s hand as her baby’s life was ended. She thought it was the right decision at the time. The memories of that day have never left me.
I didn’t know what to do. Clutching my belly, I got up and headed for the bathroom, where I could see that my slim torso was slightly more distended than usual. My stomach continued to ripple.
A mother’s bondToo fraught to cycle, I caught the tube to work instead. Somehow, I made it through the day. At lunchtime, I bought a pregnancy test but daren’t use it in the office loo in case someone interrupted me.
I sat on a park bench and phoned my GP. “I need to come and see someone. I think I’m pregnant,” I said. It seemed impossible, yet there could be no other explanation. I had no other pregnancy symptoms – sore boobs or strange cravings– but I didn’t experience any with my other pregnancies either.
All day long, on and off, I felt the baby moving. I felt myself beginning to bond with him or her. Would he have my son’s blond locks? My daughter’s almond-shaped eyes? I began to imagine how he or she would fit into our family. I wondered how my little girl would like no longer being the baby. I suspected that another child would be more than my partner could handle. It might even trigger the end of our relationship.
Testing timesThat evening, he went out to the pub as soon as I got home. Once the children were in bed, I took the pregnancy test into the bathroom and locked the door. The three-minute wait seemed interminable. It almost seemed pointless doing the test. I knew what the result would be.
When the test indicated that I wasn’t pregnant, I knew it had to be a mistake. While a positive pregnancy test is almost always correct, a negative test isn’t always reliable.
That night, I told my partner I wasn’t feeling well and moved into the spare bed next to my daughter’s cot. I barely slept. It was summer, so I was naked with only a sheet over me. The baby’s movements were clearly discernable through the thin cotton.
An expert opinionThe next morning, I left early to go to the surgery. My GP was upbeat. “So you’re pregnant again?” She asked me to lie on the couch so she could examine me. With practised fingers, she gently palpated my stomach. “I can’t see any signs of a baby there,” she said. “It must be wind.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “But I can see it moving. I can feel it moving,” I insisted.
“Do you want to be pregnant?” she asked. “No, absolutely not,” I replied. “I’d never planned to have any more children.” As I spoke, I knew I was telling the truth.
The GP did a pregnancy test. It was negative. I was still incredulous. She asked me to return to the surgery the following day. She said she thought I was experiencing a phantom pregnancy and explained that this isn't uncommon among women who want to be pregnant. “But I don’t want to be pregnant,” I said.
The inconceivable truthBy this point I was feeling very weepy and confused. It was inconceivable – pardon the pun – that I was making up pregnancy symptoms because I wanted another baby. I’d conceived both my children the first month we tried. I imagined that if we tried again, the same thing would happen. I was certainly not trying to convince myself that I was pregnant. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I’d planned my previous pregnancies with military precision, taking folic acid for months even before I stopped taking the pill; and ensuring that I was on track for full maternity leave and pay. I’ve always been a planner; it’s not in my nature to leave things to chance, especially something as life-changing as a third child.
The rest of the day passed in a daze. My belly continued to leap and contract as if there was a baby inside. Then gradually, over the next few days, the movements subsided. Before this happened to me, I’d heard about women who gave birth without realising they were pregnant. I used to think that was ridiculous. Now I understand that the body – and the mind – can work in mysterious ways. Maybe, deep down, I had wanted another child, but I genuinely wasn’t aware of it. Perhaps my body was telling me something I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, acknowledge.
A decade on, my children are teenagers. I didn’t have any more babies. My family is complete with two but I still think about my phantom pregnancy and what might have been.
*Name has been changed.
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