1. The Child in Your Head

Yvonne Jowell

The real danger is the child in your head. Even before they’re born, you give them substance, you project things onto them and shape the life they’ll lead. You give her a face, a personality. By doing so, you give her a future, you give her life. It’s not so much a matter of biology, not even a question of the viability of the foetus. It’s not a matter of matter, but a matter of mind over matter. I refer to her as a “she” because “she” was meant to be a girl. Her chosen name was Joanna because it’s a name that works in different languages. I believed that Joanna would be exposed to different cultures. Her future would take her to many places across the world. Or maybe she would grow up in a multicultural environment, in a place like London. I guess that, above all, I named her Joanna because there was a song that I liked at the time, a song by Eddy Grant, “Joanna” give me hope. So, Joanna was the promise that my life would be beautiful. Joanna was the hope that life would improve because of her sheer presence. Thanks to Joanna, I would be strong, stronger than I had ever been up until now, in my fairly short life. Love conquers all, doesn’t it? My love for Joanna would allow us to rise above all the troubles we would face in life. It’s that same indomitable spirit that still inhabits me today, or what is left of it. You never come out of life unscathed. I often joke that I’m like an old tennis ball. I still bounce back though lower and lower and hardly ever above the net anymore.

The child in my head had to be a girl because I felt I could relate to a growing baby girl better than I could to a growing baby boy. I would accompany Joanna through the meanders of the life of a woman in a way that I felt I couldn’t take a boy through, especially not without a daddy around.

I guess that’s when the doubt started. I’d have to construct a story that couldn’t be a fairy tale. I’d have to explain to my beautiful girl why she was growing up in a grotty council flat in a distant London suburb, without much money to support the two of us, and why there was no daddy. Would I tell her the truth? Your daddy was categorical about not wanting to be a daddy. This was an absolute red line of his. He had made that very clear when we were having lunch in Brighton, one bright Sunday after he’d driven us some 50 miles from London in his old Ford Capri. “I could never reproduce myself,” he’d said, looking faintly sorry. That was the reason we’d split up. I had crossed that red line or should I say he had, unknowingly, crossed his own red line, and he was somehow blaming me for making him cross his own red line. Contraception was definitely a woman’s thing. It still is. That I would tell Joanna from a very early age, so that she wouldn’t get caught out.

I started thinking. I really wouldn’t know what to say to a boy growing up fatherless. That’s for sure. A fatherless boy would probably turn to crime later in life. In fact, I’d probably come to detest men so much that I would unwittingly distil some self-hatred into that poor growing boy. So, what would I tell Joanna? Is a girl growing up without a daddy less hurt about the rejection than a boy might be? Surely it’s about the love of a father—or the lack thereof—rather than simply mimicking gender roles in the shadow of a ghost figure that I’d inevitably embellish. I remembered then—and I still remember now—this single mum, a friend of a friend, who would repeatedly tell her three-year old boy that his absent father was a wonderful guitar-player. Great. Maybe he loved his guitar more than he loved his kid? He clearly loved his guitar more than he loved his girlfriend. In fact, he claimed she wasn’t a girlfriend at all, more like a one-night stand although they’d apparently done it more than once. Anyway, maybe he was great guitar-player. Or maybe he wasn’t. In all probabilities, he was a total jerk. Maybe the three-year old boy in question found out the truth, later in life. Maybe he didn’t care. Anyway, what would I tell Joanna?

I guess my friends ran a quick reality-check for me. I was a poorly paid translator working for a big engineering firm. I was paid so poorly that I had to live in digs near work as I couldn’t spend too much money on transport. Although I was being super careful with money, I still had very little savings left at the end of the month, just enough to visit my family in France every so often. In any case, I’d have to resign from my job because I had no access to childcare, and I’d have to apply for a council flat. As a foreigner on the dole, maybe I wouldn’t even qualify for a council flat. Maybe there was a very long waiting list. What then? My beautiful life with my beautiful baby girl was already getting smashed by material circumstances. So, a good friend of mine immediately proposed to arrange an abortion for me. I could do it in France. It had to be arranged quickly so as not to miss the deadline. I wasn’t entirely sure how pregnant I was, since my periods were quite irregular and I didn’t keep track of the dates. My GP had told me there was a bit of a waiting list in the UK. So, now it was “make your mind up” time.

I heard that little voice in my head. It was Joanna’s little voice. “Mummy, you said you would love me and protect me. Mummy, you promised we would have a beautiful life together.” Faithful to my high moral standing, I did engage in a dialogue with my beautiful imaginary girl to explain the reasons why it wouldn’t be possible after all. It wasn’t possible to have a beautiful life together. At best, we could have a miserable one together. I promised Joanna that I wouldn’t forget her. I promised that I would build a good future for my future children. I promised Joanna I would never ever find myself again in a position where I didn’t have a real choice. I promised Joanna that I’d become financially secure.

I was true to my word. I changed my job to secure more free time in order to complete the PhD that I’d put to the side. I became a lecturer, then a senior official in an International Organisation. I’ve had a successful career and a successful relationship with a man who wasn’t afraid to reproduce himself. We have three wonderful grown-up children, none of them called Joanna.

Every April, I remember Joanna and I thank Joanna for giving me hope.

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