Anthony had arrived late and kept us all waiting at the dinner table, and I was tired, sullen, and longed to go to bed.
It was the first evening of my vacation in France so I apologized as soon as I could leave the room.
And then I heard the dreaded phrase my host muttered as I closed the door. "Her name is Blanche and she's 12 weeks pregnant," he said confidentially, making me spat in anger that my secret had been revealed to a total stranger.
The fact that I had a baby through a sperm donor alone wasn't something I wanted to talk about. To be single and childless at the age of 42 has been a source of great shame for me.
Blanche (42) and Anthony (63) (pictured together with Ottilie) met by chance when Covid struck and the result was a lockdown love story like no other
It wasn't that I thought something was wrong with a woman my age who had no children: it was that I always wanted to have children and I felt that I had failed. When I was growing up, everything worked out fine. At 30 I would have my first child and shortly afterwards my second.
When I got married at 31, I was a little wrong, but the situation still seemed promising. However, my marriage faltered far too soon, and when I was 35 years old we filed for divorce.
At 35, female fertility begins to decline rapidly; I couldn't have been more aware of the fact. At 40, with a series of unsuccessful connections behind me, I became desperate.
And then I met & # 39; Mr Right & # 39 ;. He was funny, intelligent, interesting, and great company. I could see me growing old with him and I really wanted his children.
But within a year we were looking for relationship counseling.
"I really want to have a baby," I said.
Blanche said it was a huge shame to be single and childless at the age of 42, which led her to use a sperm donor (pictured with her daughter) to have a baby of her own.
"I love her, but I don't want a child," he said.
"Well, that's a deal breaker," said the agent. And she was right.
I was totally devastated. I had always thought that the challenge was to find the right partner: it had never occurred to me that this very man would not want to have a child. But he didn't and I did and there was nothing we could do about it.
That Christmas I sat in tears through a school song concert. The stage was lined with children singing sweetly while their parents proudly watched around me.
And I sat in the midst of them and felt utterly abandoned, felt their love flood me and feared I would never have a child.
To be single and childless at the age of 42 has been a source of great shame for me
I was 42 years old and single, and my childlessness had become an ordeal. I could no longer visit friends with young children. I blocked posts from new moms on Facebook and couldn't even stand next to the photocopier at work because he was looking at a bulletin board announcing new births.
Worst of all, I found it hard not to believe that my childlessness was my fault. I was too picky. I was too difficult. I was too careful. I was too hesitant.
I had spent too long with the wrong men and lost the good men I might have kept. And now I felt like I had mixed up everything. I've always wanted to have children and I wouldn't have them.
Not unless I did it on my own and used a donor.
Becoming a single parent had never been part of my plan, but now I saw it as my only option.
Luckily I had one thing on my side: I had frozen eggs. Shortly after my divorce, at the age of 37, I went to a clinic near London's Baker Street and had my eggs "harvested".
Anthony (pictured with Ottilie) had been an empty nest when he met Blanche Girouard
I'd paid £ 300 for storage every year since then – and now they, 16 of them, sat ready to be thawed and then fertilized.
Choosing a donor was not easy. If you fall in love and have a baby, don't worry about your partner possibly losing their high school diploma, having an eye, or a grandmother with dementia. If you are looking for a sperm donor, you are sure to do so.
For days I was scrolling through donor profiles on the sperm bank websites, checking and comparing every detail. In the end, I chose the man I was most attracted to.
Like me, he sang in a choir, came from an academic background, and had a father who told him bedtime stories. He had a lovely deep voice (audible on a recording), a cute baby photo, and an impressive string of hits on his behalf. But the best part was that he had written a wonderful letter to his donor children in which he made it clear that in the future he would be there to "talk and listen" when they wanted to contact and sign off with loving thoughts. # 39 ;.
When we started as a couple, my stomach grew, a little girl grew inside me
The sperm from this donor came from a sperm bank in Europe. Buying a straw cost me 639 euros and shipping to London 295 euros.
Still clinging to the hope that one day I would have a baby with a man I loved, I decided to only let half of my frozen eggs thaw and fertilize – then I sat back and waited to wait hear what happened.
Out of eight eggs, I was lucky enough to get five embryos, three of which reached day five – the age at which they were most likely to survive after implantation.
Each embryo was classified and once my uterine lining was thick enough, the best was transferred into my uterus with a catheter. Two and a half weeks later, a urine test showed I was pregnant.
But after six weeks the fetus that seemed so promising had stopped growing and I was told I had no choice but to miscarry.
I didn't want to be awake when I lost my first chance at having a child, so I decided to have my womb scratched under general anesthesia. When I came by, I was mad with grief. So crazy in fact that I contacted my ex-boyfriend in hope versus hope that he might have changed his mind about children and saved me from this dire situation.
Blanche said she is well aware that Anthony isn't Ottilie's father – and so is he – but being a trio together makes her soul soar
But of course it shouldn't be. So I made another try.
This time I threw everything at it: biopsy (to choose the best embryo for transfer); Embryo glue (to hold it on my body); Daily hormone injections, patches and suppositories (to thicken my uterine lining and help implant and grow) and acupuncture (to improve my chances).
On Boxing Day 2019, I found out that I was pregnant again. This time during the six-week scan, I heard my baby's heartbeat as fast and loud as the hooves of a galloping horse.
It was now halfway through February and I was supposed to be skiing in the Pyrenees. Except that I was 12 weeks pregnant, couldn't ski, and was forced to tell my host.
So it came about that he told Anthony.
It happened that Anthony couldn't ski either. Or at least he glanced at me and decided not to ski.
We went walking for five days while the rest of the group hit the slopes. It was bizarrely warm for February. The sun was shining on our backs as we walked through woods and fields, climbed hills to see ruined Cathar castles, and tried to open the doors of medieval churches.
The first day we stopped for lunch, he asked me if I wanted to have children. "I know you know," I said, looking straight at him.
Blushing, he began to ask a barrage of questions. "I think you are heroic," he said when I finished explaining. "I don't feel heroic," I replied. & # 39; I'm sick. & # 39;
I had car sickness early in my childhood. Being pregnant in the Pyrenees was worse. When Anthony drove slowly around mountain bends, I was very grateful. When he stepped in front of me as I was sliding down a scree on a hill, I thought he was a very nice man.
And when he offered to take me to the airport when he wasn't going there himself, I suspected that maybe he thought I was being nice too.
For a week we just ran and talked. Now, on our last drive together, we fell silent and didn't know what to say.
"It would be a shame," he said finally, "if we lost contact." And I agreed. Then he dropped me off and drove into the night, letting me feel his absence, but only a few hours later he sent a flood of messages about how I knew he would do it.
It soon turned out that my pregnancy didn't put him off at all. Far from it, in fact. He had been happily married for 25 years when his wife died unexpectedly of heart disease.
Now, nine years later, at the age of sixty-three, he rattled alone in a seven-bedroom house in Wiltshire, fell asleep before the ten o'clock news, wondering what to do with his life.
As a father of four children between the ages of 26 and 31, he welcomed the prospect of adding another. He liked the idea of filling his house with family again. And the fact that my child would be about the same age as his three grandchildren (all under three) made it even better.
Almost immediately he told his family about me and my baby, and although they were surprised, they always supported me.
I preferred to get to know each other slowly, meet occasionally for nice outings, and spend a lot of time with each other's friends and family.
But that didn't happen. Within a month the country was locked into a lockdown, forcing new couples to stay together or stay apart. The prospect of being together after meeting only a few weeks earlier seemed absurd. But it was that or nothing, and we both felt "the hell with it, let's go".
So we did it – first in Wiltshire and then at my home in London. And slowly we came together as a couple. We exchanged experiences. We saw each other at our weakest point and lowest ebb. Searched for solutions and found compromises. Most of all, he wanted and tried to get things going.
Meanwhile, my stomach grew, my breasts filled, a little girl grew inside me, and I began to panic about the birth.
The new restrictions meant that I could only have one person with me when I was in active work. Who is that? My mother? A friend? A doula (who helps women with childbirth)? Or Anthony?
For months I discussed the options. But in the end the answer was clear. It was Anthony who consistently supported my decisions about how and when to give birth. It was Anthony who had sat through long Zoom sessions on hypno-birth, did his best to tell me to be calm and relaxed when I was doing something else, and drove me to the local hospital at three in the morning, when I was worried that it had been too long since kicking the baby.
My time finally came at the end of August. I stayed at my house in London for two nights and went into labor. On the third night, exhaustion and pain overwhelmed me and we went to St. Mary & # 39; s in Paddington.
We waited in our birthing suite for two days and she came on the third day. Not in a hurry. Not in a haze of medication. But in an agony of non-medical pressure with four midwives holding my legs up and Anthony joining them and spurring me on.
"Would you like to hold her?" they asked me and I replied & # 39; No & # 39 ;. Nothing prepared me for such pain. And no one had told me that after I pushed her head out, I would have to push again to free her shoulders.
But seconds later I had changed my mind and then we were lying there, mother and baby – slimy, sweaty, exhausted, but happy.
Thanks to the lockdown, I had told very few people that I was pregnant. But now I wanted everyone to see my beautiful baby – and I didn't care how it came about.
On the night of her birth, Anthony held Ottilie skin to skin with an expression of extreme tenderness on his face. Now he sits up half asleep to keep me company when I feed me at night. He changed her diapers, bathed her and sang her songs. From day one he showed us both nothing but love and devotion.
Of course I am very aware that he is not her father and so is he. I refer to him as "Anthony" and he calls Ottilie "my friend's baby" and sometimes I find that annoying.
But the truth is as it is: Anthony has his own children and Ottilie has her own father, and I don't want to deny the importance of that either.
We cannot yet know what the future holds for me and Anthony and for Anthony and Ottilie. But what I do know is that I never thought this could happen.
Gone are all my feelings of self-loathing and desolation. My heart is full of love and my soul floats with joy. To be a mother to Ottilie is the best thing that has ever happened to me. The three of us together makes me happy and content.
"Current ecstasies thrive on the agony of the past," wrote Oxford poet Elizabeth Jennings. For me she was right.
"Come and stay with us in the Pyrenees – it will be great fun!" A disposable invitation that was accepted on a whim. After all, I'd never been to the Pyrenees, so why not? I arrived at night to join the party – late for dinner but in time to spot a girl with a flash of white hair and an inviting smile. So I met Blanche.
It was a week of skiing that neither Blanche nor me liked. I had a car so we were paired up to take care of ourselves. We both like to go for a walk and after the walk there were restaurants to enjoy. And we talked.
The more we talked, the more there was to talk about. We discussed her pregnancy: the anonymous donor father, relationships, and disappointments along the way.
Blanche asked me about my 25-year marriage, which had ended unexpectedly nine years earlier with my wife's sudden death. What was it like to be a widower? What had my relationships and disappointments been? My four children: what did they do, how did they deal with it?
Given our age difference, I never thought this could lead to a relationship. But by the end of the week, I realized I was going to miss Blanche and the intimacy of those conversations. Five days with someone smart, attractive, and apparently interested in you is a rare gift.
On the evening drive to the airport, she played me Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium. I played it repeatedly after taking her off. The promise to meet again was also repeated in my head.
Lockdown began and at first we were separated, reading our favorite books to each other and emailing recordings daily: Blanche read Strange Meeting by Susan Hill, while I chose The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni. I was ironically amused by the suitability of the titles.
We then decided to spend our time together. Blanche's pregnancy was now evident, and a friend warned me that I didn't appreciate the commitment I took on.
But it was precisely this obligation that appealed to me. I had a happy marriage and I love my children: I know both the challenges and the rewards.
Blanche's decision to have a baby had always found me brave and impressive. The fact that the baby's father was an anonymous donor created space for me to play a meaningful role in her life. I was very moved when Blanche asked me to be with Ottilie's birth.
When I first held Ottilie, I felt emotional and quite stunned. It is incredible to think how far we have traveled since our meeting in the Pyrenees less than a year ago.
Ottilie adds a creative dimension to our relationship: as it grows, so does our relationship. My hope lies in my future with Blanche and a future for Ottilie in my family. I look forward to it.
n An audio diary of the story of Blanche, Ottilie and Anthony is available on the Wonder of Wonders podcast at thingsunseen.co.uk
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