As a mother, I spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing about death. The panicked calls to 111. The constant googling of symptoms. The hovering over the crib until I’m satisfied that my baby’s chest is rising and falling as it should be. I even have an app that can tell me his heart rate and oxygen level while he sleeps, data I scrutinise with a level of concentration typically reserved for translating ancient texts or defusing a bomb.
But it’s not just the health and wellbeing of my baby that I agonise over — it’s my own, too. While I’ve personally always been fond of having a pulse, staying alive has taken on a new significance since having a baby. I’m a single mum who used donor sperm to conceive, you see. There’s no back-up parent. There’s just me. The me that my baby really, really needs to stick around.
When I lived alone and only had myself to worry about, my biggest single woman nightmare scenarios were 1) choking on food without anybody to help, à la Miranda on Sex and the City, and 2) literally any Luther episode, but especially the one where the killer slides out from under the woman’s bed.
Now, I think of the dead mum plots that dominated so many of the films I watched as a child, each and every one guaranteed to reduce me to an inconsolable mess clinging to my mother’s leg: The Land Before Time, Beaches, Steel Magnolias. While I feel confident that a dodgy kidney or, erm, T-Rex attack won’t take me out, I find myself fixating on what will. Will it be a rogue edamame pod blocking my windpipe because I’ve got about 45 seconds to wolf down dinner before the baby cries? Will it be a reckless cyclist barrelling through a red light on my way to pick my son up from nursery? Will I just pass out in the bath and pray that the little guy screams loudly enough to get the neighbours knocking down my door? I don’t know, but I’m paranoid enough to yank the plug out the instant my hair is washed rather than tempt fate by lingering too long.
I also have a plan in place. I’ve set up a life insurance policy and am making arrangements to ensure that my finances, such as they are, are set up to provide for his care even after I’m not around. And though my son has my good male friend as a godfather, I made it clear that he’s there for rugby chats and manly heart-to-hearts, not potential child-rearing. That job will fall to my sister, a mother of five with 1-year-old twins (she’ll scarcely notice he’s there, we’ve joked).
Single mum Segilola, meanwhile, asked a former co-worker with whom she’d maintained a long friendship to take in her 4-year-old daughter if "God forbid something happened to me".
"It was not a difficult decision asking her because she's one of the most loving and supportive human beings I have ever had the pleasure of meeting," she says of her friend, though the two women are still in the process of sorting out the documents required to legally appoint her as the child’s emergency guardian.
Poppy*, who conceived her 2-year-old daughter through IVF as a single-mum-by-choice, left nothing to chance when it came to protecting her child’s future. She wasted no time in making the necessary arrangements and appointing a close friend and her husband — who make up two of her daughter’s six godparents — to look after the girl should the time come.
"I was really conscious not to have my baby without knowing that I had all the paperwork in place, so I had a meeting with solicitors to make sure I had the right will," she says. "I also made sure that my parents and the guardians had copies of this and the details of my daughter’s family history. They took the time and care to read it and asked questions, and went into the details to make sure they understood what their responsibilities were. This just confirmed what I already knew: that they were the right couple to be guardians, and would also treat my child as they do their own, should they ever need to, which of course we all hope will never be the case.
"I felt that I had a huge sense of responsibility to make sure that if something happened to me, my child would be in the most loving situation that was right for her if I wasn’t in her life," she adds. "I was so, so lucky to have one of my best friends offer to be guardian, with her husband, even before I had started the IVF. The love and support they showed through my journey was amazing and this has only become greater since having my daughter. Their daughters are incredible too, and they talk about us and treat us like an extension to their family."
Of course, even the most carefully orchestrated, comforting Plan B can’t compete with the best-case scenario, which is for all of us to raise our children ourselves and see them grow into adults. Like me, Poppy feels that life — and living — has become more precious, and a lot less reckless, since having a baby.
"I think that as a mother you have a huge sense of responsibility and I expect as a single mum I feel it more," she acknowledges. "I am conscious that I want to do the best for my health and future to be around for as long as possible. I make sure I go for all my health checks now, which I would have let slide in the past.
"I’m not sure that I put pressure on myself, but I want to do it for my daughter and be the best I can for her."
*Not her real name