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You can’t just have one.

Several years had passed, and the Mother was finally on an even keel again. She had lost her baby weight, was working full-time, had some savings and even something vaguely resembling a social life. The baby sling had gone, along with the cot, the phil&teds pushchair, even the punk rock lullabies CD. Some mornings she actually woke up and cried when she realised that the hardest part was over, or at least that was what she naively thought. It was then that she started to hear the rumour, a whisper at first, but gradually that whisper got louder.

The first time she heard it properly was in the park, there were murmurs in the trees, and then parents chattering. Gradually she was able to decipher what they were saying as they glanced over, looking at her and her child.

“You can’t just have one,” one of the other mothers said.

“I’m sorry,” replied the Mother, not quite believing what she was hearing.

“Oh, I’m sorry, how rude of me. What I meant to say was, have you just got the one?”

When she replied with, “Yes, just one, a boy,” the lady nodded in a kind of sympathetic, patronising way. As if she knew something that the Mother didn’t. What the hell?! The Mother didn’t like where this was heading. She particularly didn’t like the “just” either. Wasn’t one child ample? Didn’t she have her work cut out already? She and her partner were busy bringing up a well-balanced, happy boy. They were both working, they kept the house clean – well, cleanish. Christ, they’d even adopted a cat, wasn’t that enough? According to this bunch of know-it-all mothers, no, it wasn’t.

And it wasn’t just them either. Her private life seemed to be up for discussion by every Tom Dick and Harriet. Work colleagues, friends, even her own family got on board. At family gatherings, she’d be asked, “When are you planning to have your next one?” or sometimes less formally, “You’ll have to get a move on, you know, you’re not getting any younger.” At which point she was often tempted to reply, “Nor are you. Anyway, I’m not planning on any more, I don’t want my child to have a sibling. I want him to grow up spoilt, lonely and egocentric.” But instead, she just told people Sod off and mind your own business.

The phrase “Just the one” began to bandied about in her direction so often that she felt like she had some kind of illness or condition. Often she felt obliged to explain herself to other people, to defend her decision. Even to people she barely knew.

“Oh, yes, I just have the one. After that, I gave all my other eggs away to charity,” the Mother would tell people. Or: “Well, I did want another one, but they are so bloody expensive, and I want to spend all my money on myself.” 

To top it all off, who were the worst offenders, the most vocal of all the “You can’t just have one” mafia? People who had no fucking kids at all, that’s who.

Eventually, of course, the Mother made a fatal mistake and asked, “Why, why, why can’t you just have one?” Of course she’d wish she’d never asked. 

“Only children grow up lonely. They become selfish, rude and arrogant. Throughout their childhood, they have no one to argue with.” Huh, like that’s a bad thing. 

“There’ll be no one to look up to him. Only children are just a bit different. Then there’s the guilt, knowing one day your child will be all alone in the world. And what if they don’t have kids of their own? Then you will never be a grandma.” “Well, I could live with that,” thought the Mother.

People would often make these comment and then follow it up with an anecdotal tale about a mad man or dictator who happened to be an only child.

“You know who was an only child, don’t you?” they would say. But she learnt to always get in first: “Yeah. Elvis!”

The Mother often wondered what she would have done if she’d heard the “you can’t just have one” rule before getting pregnant with her son. Perhaps she would never have had kids at all. Yes, and perhaps that was why she’d never been told about the rule. Like wetting yourself when you sneezed, it was something you only discovered after you’d had a child.

Anyway, the Mother was perfectly happy with one, she wasn’t planning on having any more. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans, and if you don’t, just ask a mother with young children, but not when she’s breastfeeding.

One Saturday morning in May, the Mother woke up feeling queasy. She immediately ran to the toilet to be sick. None of this was an unusual occurrence for a Saturday morning. Her partner looked at her puffy face as she emerged from the bathroom and said, “Christ, what were you drinking last night?”

“Tea,” said the Mother in mock indignation, “and a bit of carrot cake, I went around Larissa’s, didn’t I?”

“Maybe it was something she put into the cake,” suggested Jason, shrugging.

“Yep, or maybe it was something you put in my vagina a couple of months ago,” thought the Mother.

For a staggering three months, she toyed with the idea of buying a pregnancy test but decided instead to bury her head in the sand. (Those things are only 99 % accurate anyway). It was lovely down in the sand, warm and silent, like a floatation tank. Down there, she could barely hear the noise of her own mind whirring and worrying.

But when she came back up, she was carrying an extra half a stone, and that was just on her tits. She had no choice – a trip to Boots was in order.

This time around, it was a much nicer experience, not because she was really excited and couldn’t wait to find out if she was expecting again. No, but because this time, at least she got to do it in the comfort of her own bathroom rather than a public toilet. Sitting comfortably on a soft pile M&S bath rug was definitely preferable to sitting in a vandalised public toilet with one foot wedged against the door. 

After just three minutes, the test revealed two distinct red lines. Fuck it, it was positive. Well, positive at least in one way. The stick had spoken – she was pregnant. She cautiously waited a few more minutes just in case, but after another five minutes, it was still positive.

The time had come to tell Jason. She wanted to make sure he was sitting down and in a good mood when she told him. That night, she got lucky. When she came home late from work, he was lying on the sofa, drunk, wearing only his jeans. The parallel, of course, was not wasted on her, but given the gravity of the situation, it felt too soon for jokes.

He took the news surprisingly well, although she thought she might have heard him mutter, “Where are we even going to put it?!” But maybe it was her imagination.

At least this time around, she knew what to expect. It still felt like a juggernaut was about to hit her, but at least she knew it was coming.

Knowing what lay ahead, the Mother began to do everything she could to make life easier after the baby was born. As she was currently working as a supply teacher, she was entitled to zero maternity pay. This meant she needed to save every penny and was going to work for as long as she possibly could.

Being heavily pregnant and working presents its own set of problems wherever you work. When you work in a school, these difficulties include stress, standing for a large part of the day, and a lack of opportunities to go to the loo. But there is a far greater issue facing pregnant teachers and teaching assistants across the land – stairs. Bloody great flights of them. The Mother knew there must be schools in London without stairs, she’d just never actually worked in one.

Generally speaking, the older the school, the more stairs it had. Victorian architects had clearly given little thought to the needs of working women in their third trimester. They were far too preoccupied with creating elaborate interiors, bay windows and ridiculously high ceilings.

The Mother happened to be working at Oliver Goldsmith Primary in Peckham at the time. The school was built in 1899 – huh, you do the math. The place had more stairways, corridors and turrets than Hogwarts. Her class, of course, was on the top floor. One day when returning from morning break, she had to stop and sit down on the stairs. A black knitted shawl partially concealed her massive bump.

A concerned and caring teacher stopped and looked at her. She recognised him from the staffroom. At five foot five, he stood as tall as her. Also, like her, he was part of a generation of children who had been taught using blackboards and the threat of violence. In those distant days, chalk had two purposes – firstly to write on the blackboard and secondly for the teacher to throw at your face if you weren’t listening.

The Mother liked this man, he was old school. He often made her a tea in the morning and called her ma’am or miss when he couldn’t remember her name. But never did he refer to her as “the supply”.

“Are you OK?” he asked in a strong Scouse accent, which had not softened for all his years in London.

“I’m fine,” replied the Mother. Then he said, “If you don’t mind me asking, exactly how pregnant are you?” Ah, now that was the six million dollar question.

“About five months,” she offered.

He didn’t look convinced, and nor was she.

She never did make it back to her class that day, and baby number two was born before her time sheet had even been processed. This time after the birth, when she said, “I’m never doing that again,” she meant it.

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