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Image / Editorial

From the archives: When Anne Harris decided to have another baby after 12 years, things were not so simple

25th Nov 2018

Former editor, freelance journalist and inspiration to working women Anne Harris was the worthy recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year Awards 2018.

We dug through our IMAGE archives this week and found a piece that Anne wrote in September 1982, which is just as relevant today. 

There are some things you never forget, the old wives say. Like riding a bicycle and having a baby. True, after an absence of twenty years, riding a bike was an easy matter. But when I decided, at thirty-three, to have another baby after twelve years, things were not so simple.

I forgot every single little thing- except perhaps the leaden patience needed for the ante-natal clinic. Don’t get me wrong. I think the ante-natal clinic is a necessary evil. It is the Grand Central Station of pregnant women. All human life is there: a bumping, passing scene of charts and case histories and an education for life after birth. It was here, without delay, I first discovered that The Gap was not a short distance between two clumps of a hedge or a chain of funky boutiques for teenagers. “Ah,” said the cheery nurse, filling in details on the chart “That’s some gap.” It was a phrase to be echoed down the nine-month tunnel- “Twelve years? That’s quite a gap.”

I was to hear a lot more about that Gap. Indeed I was continually amazed at the amount of comment, curiosity or cattiness that can be worked up to explain why a person might decide to have another baby, twelve and a half years after the first. Generally speaking this comment divided into an Irish version of the French movie The Sorrow and The Pity about the Nazi occupation, in terms of did you collaborate in having a baby or did you just go along with it because you were too lazy, cowardly or too ignorant. In other words please account for your movements over the last twelve and a half years.

Related: Advice for life from Anne Harris

A pregnancy is the result of sexual activity. But most Irish people refuse to talk about it in that context. So comment on the Gap was heavy with undertones of religion and Mother Nature. The religious tradition treats the gap on a sin/sorrow axis. If you didn’t have the baby for twelve years, you either wouldn’t (the sin) or you couldn’t (the sorrow). You were either defying Mother Nature for twelve years or she was punishing you for twelve years.

I wanted a challenge

Talking to other pregnant women as distinct from casual acquaintances was a lot easier. Pregnant women, as a group, are like troops who have been a long time in the front lines. They are a little collective where good news for one brings a common joy. Pregnant women with traditional views gave me the warmth reserved for the Prodigal of the Pill who had repented. The more innocent believing I had put down twelve years of fruitless effort were glad to shake the hand of someone who had finally hit the jackpot.

It was nice to be on the receiving end of a lot of ignorant goodwill. But no one seemed to believe that having a baby after twelve and a half years was, for me, a simple exercise in free will. By that I mean that the decisions was simple, Carrying it out was fraught with all kinds of questions and fears.

Related: Womanpower in the Dáil – Anne Harris’ first IMAGE as Editor

Take the decision. I wanted a baby. I wanted a baby because after twelve and a half years, the freedom and pleasure of talking and dealing with a growing, nearly teenage daughter began to give way to the acceptance that this child was on her way out to the adult world. What then, sang the poet, what then? I wanted the invigorating plunge into the cold waters of a newly running stream. I wanted to love and hold a small human being whose touch would be soft with need and abrasive with new demands. As the tough, middle-aged executives say when they change jobs at forty, I wanted a challenge.

The price

I knew there was a price to pay. I was working well. I had some kind of shape in my life because work is the great shaper of life. I felt in touch with the twentieth century and what I believed women should be doing in this century, namely shaping society rather than being victims of society. I felt like an adult should feel- useful and productive.

The price of having a baby is that you have to step out of the workplace and go home. Some people tell you differently. They tell you that you can do both. Of course you can have a baby and keep your job. But for the first two years, inside your head you’re not totally and completely in the workplace. Inside your head a lot of the day you’re whatever the baby is.

Next problem of the Gap? Well, there are straightforward physical fears. What has twelve years done to your body? The answer was cheering. The body remembers how to have a baby, even if you think you’ve forgotten everything. And after twelve years going into a modern labour ward you feel a bit like a Yank returning to his old town and remarking how everything is so much improved.

Old-fashioned jealousy

One of the greatest side benefits of the Women’s Movement is that fathers have come out of the closet.

The real problems of the Gap began at home. Remember the growing teenager daughter, so easy to talk to, so rational about the new addition to the home, which after all would hardly impinge on her busy, teenage outside life? Who then is this stricken, pale faced young girl moving moodily about the house, twenty four hours after I am home from hospital? It’s Miss Sibling Rivalry, that’s who, displaced in her own home by the bundle of joy, her nose firmly out of joint.

My timing has been tactless. Just as my first daughter was mentally gearing herself up for the outside world along comes a gurgling usurper, celebrating from the cot, the joys of home, cosseting, minding and cuddling. The young girl who for twelve and a half years had been told she was the centre of our lives, now watched that centre displaced by nine pounds of palpating, pink, squawking flesh. The predictable result was suffocating displays of affection by Miss Sibling followed by barely contained displays of old-fashioned jealousy.

Related: Jenny Taffe, lessons from my cancer diagnosis: ‘I am going to enjoy every second of my life from now on’

Was there any justice in the world at all? She even recognised her jealousy. This compounded her misery. A few futile efforts to re-establish things “the way they were” between her and me were abandoned. But it all worked itself in a very short time when she was able to share in the real work of minding the baby. You could say that in our case, the parenting was divided in three.

Sharing of parenting was the greatest single difference between my two children. In a way the twelve years of my Gap had straddled a social and cultural revolution. And one of the greatest side benefits of the Women’s Movement is that fathers have come out of the closet.

Because for obvious physiological reasons I was hogging all the feeding, the other two jealously guarded their chores. The bathing was father’s and was done at 6.30 each evening. A lifetime’s devotion to fluid of another nature was abandoned to be present for this liquid ritual. From the beginning it was done in the big bath- an interesting perk was that the baby could float in a big pool at ten weeks. One night father hadn’t shown at 6.30 or 7.30 so we went ahead with a brisk bath and tucked her up. The door burst open. “How could you!” He stood in the doorway, a tense accusing balloon of injured innocence. Caught in an unexpected late traffic rush, he had inched his way home along some primeval, umbilical rope as yet uncharted in The Origin of the Species.

Modern woman

The twenties are a voyage of self-discovery. The thirties are more the time to discover new human beings.

Having another baby after twelve and a half years changed all our lives of course. Indeed having had one baby in my very early twenties and the next in the early thirties affords me a sharper focus on women and the ideal child-bearing years. It has almost made a propagandist of me. While young mothers often make great mothers, I don’t think modern woman should have her children until she approaches thirty. For women, as for men, the twenties are a voyage of self-discovery. The thirties are more the time to discover new human beings.

The coldest thing that was said to me was that I had “two only children,” as though the Gap made an unbridgeable divide between them. Certainly, they’re not each other’s playmates. But then we don’t live on top of the Himalayas. There are playmates all around. My daughters will always be linked by those strange, deep, irrational, usually loving, often life-saving ties: they’re sisters.

Anyway who’s to say how absolute is the outer limit of the Gap? As my wise doctor said. ’That all went well. Next time, don’t leave such a big… Gap”.

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