The hand reaching up for the supermarket pregnancy test kit is flecked with the beginnings of age spots. The hand is mine, getting the item cryptically coded as “P tst” on my shopping list. I hadn’t had the guts to write the words out in full, because then I’d have to admit to myself that I’m pushing fifty and possibly pregnant.
This past week my breasts have become alarmingly sore, swollen and tender. But at my age, and with a husband who had a vasectomy five years ago, pregnancy should not be that reason. Still, it’s not out of the question: vasectomies occasionally fail, and perimenopausal women occasionally conceive.
So I have to know, if only to rule it out.
I thought I had bought my last pregnancy test kit seven years ago, back when we were trying for our second child. After Sophie was born I gave away all my remaining kits – they seemed utterly and joyfully redundant.
I choose the cheapest one, a single-use kit. Tucking the little blue packet discreetly behind a Ribena bottle in the crowded rear of the shopping trolley, it glows with an invisible force field, like a lump of kryptonite.
At home, I put the groceries away, then rip the cellophane off the packet. I shake its contents out then make the necessary visit to the bathroom. I had almost forgotten what it’s like to dip a strip of treated cardboard into a tiny plastic cup of clear yellow urine – and the anxious wait that follows, all the while praying for your desired result.
The liquid creeps up the cardboard strip, and soon a pink line appears. No problem with that, it’s expected: the control line. What I wait for, with bated breath, is the test line, the control line’s presently invisible twin. From past experience I know it can take a while for a positive result to show, due to the low levels of pregnancy hormones during the first weeks after conception. Sometimes, just when you’re sure it’s a negative result, a hazy pink test line blushes into existence: barely there, yet undeniably real.
In other years I have been anxious for that test line to appear, however vague it might be. That pinkish line would mean a baby, or at least the possibility of a baby. (There were miscarriages.) This time, however, I am anxious for there to be no test line, just reassuring blank whiteness.
To live in this no (wo)man’s land of maybe-or-maybe-not being pregnant is to play mind games with oneself. I have to consider what my life might look like if I do have a baby this year. Already, at age forty-nine, I am occasionally mistaken for my children’s (youngish) grandmother. Having arrived late to reproduction – I met the right man in my late thirties – I gave birth to our children at ages forty and forty-two. Now the family circle seems complete. Can I cope with another baby at this stage in my life, just when those gruelling years of early childhood are over, the kids are at school and I’m getting out into the world again? Can I stagger once more through the night feeds and nappy changes and play groups? Can we afford the expense of raising a third child? And yet…we strived so hard to conceive our girls, and they have become the delight of our lives. Could I really bear to abort their unborn sibling, baby number three? Would the decision haunt me forever?
It strikes me that, very generally, there are three phases of taking pregnancy tests:
In the first one, you dread a positive result. A mistake has been made. He’s not the right guy. You are too young. You are not ready, he is not ready, you cannot afford this baby and the only result you want is pleasepleaseplease the one that gives you your life back again.
The second phase is the one in which having a baby is now a welcome possibility. Things are more settled in your life. You are nervous, but you are ready for that second line to turn pink.
The third stage is where I now find myself: you have made all the babies you were planning to make, and that fecund stage of your life is over. When you see pregnant women you no longer envy them, but feel glad that those days are now behind you. Unfortunately, your uterus doesn’t appear to have received the memo. You grip the test strip, knowing the result could change everything.
Two minutes have passed. The pink control line remains bold, and the space next to it, where a test line might appear, mercifully blank. Three minutes pass, then five. I take the test strip to the window and peer closely at it under a good strong light. There is no test line, shadowy or otherwise.
I keep the test strip on my desk all day, glancing down at it periodically in case a positive line plans on showing up late. It doesn’t – the cardboard stays resolutely white, to my relief. Whatever is causing my breasts to swell and ache, it is not a minuscule blob of cells relentlessly dividing over and over deep within me. My best guess, now that pregnancy has been ruled out, is that it’s an oestrogen surge, likely the first of many hormonal peaks and dips on the bumpy on-ramp of menopause. There will be no nappies, no Moses basket, no teeny weeny onesies. Instead there will be…what? A thickening waistline, deepening wrinkles, grey hairs silvering the brown. As I swing away from the possibility of a late-in-life pregnancy I must instead confront another undesirable prospect.
The summer of your childbearing years are behind you, betokens the blank strip. As I twirl the cardboard sliver between my fingers it resembles a tiny pennant – the white flag that heralds the gradual surrender of my youth and sexual appeal. This turning point is almost as daunting as that of an unwanted pregnancy.
Rolling back the chair from the desk I regard my legs, long and shapely in their jeans and heels – for now, anyway. It will take time to digest, the realisation that I am closer to autumn than spring. Perhaps I will think about it tomorrow, or next week. There is time. But not now, not now. I push this new reality to the back of my mind. The school run beckons, and I reach for the car keys.
Kate Dowling is a New Zealander of half-Irish, half-Scottish descent. Her non-fiction writing and personal essays have been published in the Evening Post newspaper (NZ) and in Crux, Foliate Oak, Ducts, and The Chaos Journal literary magazines (USA). She tweets from @Kate_DowlingNZ