I’m not a kids person. Never have been. In fact I’ve gone as far as saying on many an occasion that I hate children. Harsh, but true. I have just returned from a trip to the states, eight years after I spent a summer there as a young, free, single twenty-three year old. My little cousins recalled the mad cousin Ash, sworn off men, never wanting to marry and never wanting kids. Fast forward eight summers and their cool cousin Ash is two stone heavier, wears no make up, with a husband in tow and sporting what can only be described as the cutest ball of fat hanging on her right arm… Toby, nine months old. Also know as my entire world and universe. I’m obsessed. And yet only two years ago I received news that would lead me to resent my life, resent the hand I was dealt and at times resent my pregnancy and my unborn child. Not an easy thing to say out loud but it’s the honest truth. Women don’t speak truthfully enough about a lot of things, especially pregnancy related. I am going to. Hear me out.
One week after our wedding I sat at my desk in work, catching up on my busy office life as a sales manager for the largest conference hotel in Dublin City. Taking calls goes hand in hand with the daily routine. A good sales person never leaves a call unanswered. Calls mean money; money means targets being reached; targets being reached means more money. I never missed a target. I smashed targets. I was always on the phone. I was driven. I was professional. I had a vision. I was rarely home. I entertained clients. I dined out. I went to galas and balls. I had a five year plan. I wanted more. I was determined and I loved my job. This was my life. The phone rang. I answered it. I was caught completely off guard by the voice on the end of the line so I stepped outside onto the corridor to continue the call with my doctor in the genetic testing clinic. She didn’t want to give me any results over the phone, she would like me to come in to see her. But I knew. I assured her I was ok to hear it. I promised her I would get support if I needed it. That I was strong, I was able, I was ready to know. The truth is I wasn’t. I stood there, alone, on the corridor as the tears filled my eyes hoping none of my colleagues would appear from a dark doorway and catch me in this unusually vulnerable state. The complete lack of control over my emotions surprised me. I was in a daze. I was a mess. I had believed I would go back to my desk as if nothing had changed. But after that call EVERYTHING had changed. I retreated to my office, had a cry, answered some emails and went home for the rest of the day to prepare myself to share my news with my husband and family.
Here’s the thing. I am not sick. I am not ill. I am not a cancer sufferer or survivor. But I am angry and I am hurting and I want to be able to share that without judgement. I am the proud owner of a mutated BRCA gene. More commonly know as the “Angelina Jolie”. BRCA1 & BRCA2 are tumour suppressing genes. When either of these genes is mutated or altered the carrier, yours truly in this instance, has an increased risk of many cancers, but most importantly for women breast and ovarian. The risks are high. Too high for me to ignore. High enough to make my world crash around me. High enough to be put on a high risk patient list. But are they high enough for me to throw a pity party? To me, yes. Was my news more worthy of anger than someone getting actual bad news not just the possibility of bad news? Of course not, but to me yes. I was in limbo, afraid to express these feelings out loud only to be told how lucky I was I didn’t actually have cancer and that they’ll definitely catch it if I did. Then realising how lucky I was only to feel guilty about being angry in the first instance. How do you convey this inner conflict to anyone without coming across as totally self-absorbed. I struggled. Friends and family were supportive but only of the half truths I was expressing.
I had previously spoken to the doctor about the risks, the options and the plan for me if my result was positive. But the BRCA plan was not my five year plan. In fact the BRCA plan totally contradicted my plan. It laughed in the face of my plan. It involved MRIs, six month breast and gynaecologist checks and at least two surgeries, but not before it involved children. Ah children! Have your babies and then as soon as possible we will take your breasts and ovaries. OK? Good. You’re married a whole week now, great, get busy! So I’m paraphrasing, but it did mean some big questions had to be answered. Did I want children? I mean I told my husband I did because I thought I might at some point. He would be a great dad. He wanted a whole basketball team full of kids. Did I? No. Maybe? Who knows. All I know is in that moment I didn’t. I wanted my newly-wed life that I deserved. I wanted to get promoted in work. I wanted to move jobs into a bigger role with benefits, maternity leave and work life balance before I even thought about kids. We wanted to move to our forever home, maybe we’d even convert a barn in the countryside worthy of a Kevin McCloud visit. At that point in life I’d be readying myself to start my own business which would allow me to work from home, be a great Mam that baked bread and went to basketball matches, did charity work and all the while being nominated for Business Woman of the Year awards! This was no longer the plan. I was to be pregnant by Christmas. When I was done having my family I would have a double mastectomy and hysterectomy. That was the new plan.
Before I even celebrated my thirtieth birthday I was pregnant. I resented this. The annual triple birthday extravaganza consisted of me watching two of my best friends and all of our families and friends getting trollied drunk while I designated dessied some of the delinquents home, via Mc Donald’s drive through, from my own bloody 30th birthday party. Trying to get pregnant to the tick tock rhythm of a cancer time bomb is no fun for anyone. In fact I’m sure it was the least sexy post-wedding six months in the history of any newly-weds. It was full of screams and vibrations, but not from the bedroom, from my ovulation app. I resented that too. So I deleted the judgemental, beeping calendar that forced sexy time in militant fashion when all we wanted to actually do was Netflix and really chill. After deleting the app I got fairly drunk over a few weekends and sure enough, with the pressure off and without the monitoring and the strictly timed quickies, we were pregnant! I found out while on my own at home one evening. I had gone off wine. I put it down to the bender I had been on at a work gig the night before, but still, unusual for me. I had a stressful day and I didn’t want wine. I poured it. I smelled it and I couldn’t drink it. It repelled me. So I did a pregnancy test. My husband was there for all the previous tests. All I could think of was the poor disappointed look on his handsome, loving face every time the result was negative over the six months preceding this night. This lead me to do this test in private. I couldn’t bear to see him and his swimmers take any more rejection. He was in work. And I was pregnant. I checked twice. I would wait until he got home that Friday night and I would tell him. Then I thought, great timing, we had a college gang Christmas night out on the Saturday and a wedding on the Sunday. I was due to have a bloody great weekend and now I was growing a life. A little tiny poppyseed that I couldn’t even fathom as a baby. I didn’t feel pregnant. I didn’t feel different. I didn’t feel love for the poppyseed. I didn’t get overwhelmed with emotion. I didn’t feel like a Mam. I felt hungover to be honest. Great bloody start for this poppyseed anyway! I just sat there for a moment in the bathroom staring into space. Then the initial excitement turned to a tinge of resentment. Then the realisation that I was responsible for a living being swept over me. Then full on resentment. I of course faked complete elation when he came home. I was happy, but he was ecstatic. No words could detail his expression. It’s still one of my favourite moments with him.
Over the course of the next few months I would see the world from many angles. We made a decision that would allow me to retain elements of my plan; we were selling the house and we would be moving to West Cork when the baby was born. We were going to try our hand at being our own boss. The simple truth is we couldn’t afford to stay in Dublin and have the lifestyle we wanted for our family. So a decision was made. This excited and scared me in equal measure. My outlook and priorities changed daily after we put the house on the market. Some days I believed I would take on the world and continue in the same vein as before and other days I could barely get dressed. Some days I was the utter professional and other days I sat and ate cookies in my car that were supposed to be for clients. But people only ever saw the glowing Aisling. The one who still entertained clients, the one who took off for a week in high heels to a trade show in Frankfurt at 27 weeks pregnant, the one who would say yes to any job or any task. I was so desperate to cling onto my plan, my identity, my life. I didn’t want to embrace this new role that was being forced upon me by science and a bloody dodgy gene. Deep down I resented that gene so much. I resented having to hand over clients I had worked so hard with, I resented being pregnant and sidelined and overlooked in work, I resented clearing out my desk and organising a hand over, I resented spending money on corporate maternity wear as I got fatter and less agile. The bubbly, excited mummy to be exterior was deeply haunted by a much darker element. But how could I talk about that? How could I be so ungrateful for the little bubba inside me when so many struggle to conceive. When so many never get to feel their pregnant belly kick. The reality is I couldn’t say it out loud. It was a battle I had to face alone because no one would understand. They might pretend to but I couldn’t risk that. I couldn’t bear to be seen as a monster. So I tumbled clumsily through my last weeks in the corporate world, gracefully accepting compliments and well wishes and saying goodbyes, not so gracefully walking down the corridors of what had become home. I was crushed. I was deflated. I was sat firmly atop the scrap heap. I had lost myself to this gene and this forced pregnancy. It had taken me over.
But then a light switch went off inside me. Subtle as a large brick hitting you on the back of the head. It happened at 7:24am on Monday 15th August last. It was motherhood and it was the most important job title I could have ever asked for. And just like that the resentment melted away. Things that mattered before still mattered but they were compartmentalised and prioritised differently. Being a mother did not mean being any less of the person I was before it would just add to my portfolio of things that l am good at and challenged by. Whether I went back to the corporate world or not. Whether I chased titles or not. Whether I worked long days or not. Whether we lived in Dublin or Bantry or wherever, I was going to give everything I had to this new role. This, the most important thing I’ve ever done.
Life sometimes takes you on a journey that surprises you and teaches you things about yourself that you never knew. I thought I was more resilient than I actually am and much less resilient than people expected me to be. You can’t be strong all the time. You can’t be the voice of positivity always. I still struggle daily. I’m still facing into unknowns. I wake up every morning and check for lumps knowing that this could be the morning the odds catch up on me. But I don’t resent any of it anymore. This journey has meant the arrival of Toby. It has meant a new adventure for our family. It’s made me a caring, loving, proud mother. I have a new inner goddess confidence that I never knew existed but I’m sure all the other mothers reading this must have known about it like a secret cult. Most importantly I can now harness that confidence to say out loud that it’s okay to complain, it’s okay to be honest and it’s okay to feel sorry for yourself when life doesn’t go your way or messes up your plan. Plans change. Throw yourself a massive pity party but don’t face it alone. Invite your friends along for the ride. Moan, cry, scream. Life is shit sometimes. You will be fine. You will be amazing. You will adapt. But you will still be you.