Zoe Brigley Thompson was born in the Welsh Valleys. She moved to Pennsylvania together with her husband, Dan – and had a miscarriage the day she arrived. Now a mother-of-two, Zoe recalls the highs and lows of life on another continent…
The day I arrived in the States, I found out I had miscarried. I was pregnant and going out to meet my husband Dan who had a postdoc at the Pennsylvania State University. It was a hard beginning.
He hadn’t bought a car yet so we caught the bus to the doctor’s. In the dark room, in the white light from the ultrasound, I could see the appalled expression on the technician’s face. It was the first time Dan was to see the baby. “Don’t look,” I said, but it was too late.
Everything was similar to Britain yet uncannily foreign. All I could see everywhere I went was our unbearable loss. When the Pennsylvania winter arrived, I felt covered in snow, a dull pain under layers of ice. I had many miscarriages but no-one could explain why I couldn’t carry a baby to term, not even the space-age fertility clinic, where the doctors offered a range of painful tests that told us nothing.
We’d thought that we could keep shuttling between my job in England and my husband in the States. We couldn’t. Our lives together in the States began because we both realised that a transatlantic marriage was no kind of marriage at all.
I grew up in the South Wales Valleys, and I still go back there every summer. I miss the mountains, the sheltered feeling that you don’t get in the flat landscape of Columbus. Welsh Valley families are often matriarchies. In the past, the Welsh coal miners would bring home their pay and give it to the matriarch of the family (perhaps after skimming off enough for a pub visit). Mothers have great significance for the Welsh as fierce matriarchs. I suppose that type has something in common with the American “momma bear”, but Welsh mothers as a type are obviously very Celtic too: intuitive, spontaneous, and tough but always fair.
The way we live now
We live at the furthest edge of the city. Beyond that there is farmland, great red dilapidated barns, ranch houses, silos, corn. Sometimes I try to imagine what it might have been like before settlers descended. I read that back then it was a great, magnificent forest, wet and moss-covered, stretching mile after mile.
The other way is Columbus, a city of 1.8 million people. I’ve never lived in a boomtown before. Everywhere, there are building projects. Broken-down factories are being bulldozed or reclaimed to make way for smart apartments, microbrews, arts workshops, bars, and boutique shops. The city has a kind of funky chic too with plenty of markets, antique shops, ice cream parlours and gourmet food trucks. It also caters for children very well with the zoo, a superb science museum, an art gallery with a special children’s space, and so many beautiful parks.
The family who built our house had Ukrainian heritage. It was only built ten years ago, but it is different to some of the other houses on the block. Most of the houses have big sweeping staircases or high ceilings with chandeliers, but our house is more practical, feels more British – many doors opening and closing, many rooms. It is not so open plan as many newer American suburban homes.
Much of our day revolves around eating. We are a real foodie family, and Columbus is a great city for food. Often we go out for breakfast or at least elevensies. Some days we go for eggs and bacon, other mornings it’s pancakes or waffles lathered in syrup, or some days great slabs of cake.
We love the Ohio forests. Highlands Metro Park has rocky ridges and rivers, an eagle nest, and there are piles of leaves to jump in all year round. We skip stones over the water and find a good stick to be a sword or staff. Often, we make a collection of interesting stuff we find on our walks: leaves, nuts, and stones.
Dan and I now have two kids aged three and one. During the first pregnancy, my son had Single Umbilical Artery (SUA), a condition that affects less than one per cent of pregnancies. With SUA, instead of having two arteries in the umbilical cord, there is only one. It can mean in a quarter of cases that the baby will have problems with their heart when they are born. I felt terrorised by the American doctors during this period, who were constantly issuing dire warnings and prescribing stress tests.
Altogether, that first pregnancy was extremely hair-raising, and there were some tense moments during the birth. My Pennsylvania doctor had been an American navy doctor. I asked him what to expect from labour and he told me, “Don’t overthink it. Just remember that cave women did it”. I didn’t find that advice very comforting. They don’t do midwives in the US like we do in the UK, but I paid for the next best thing: a doula who was a God-send during a difficult birth.
My second pregnancy went far better, though I had extreme morning sickness. My wonderful Ohio State doctor guided me through the process with such sensitivity and grace. My youngest son was born by C-section and it was beautiful, peaceful, calm: complete joy.
Because I miscarried so many times, I never took it for granted that I would be able to have children. This was a good thing, however, because it made me value what I had already, and I had to imagine happiness without children. I try to be careful to avoid the inevitable assumption that women or men always want children after having to confront the possibility of never having them myself.
Highs and lows
The best thing about raising kids in Ohio is the beautiful American landscape. Before we had kids, Dan and I drove across the country from the East Coast to West, and I began to understand the obsession with driving in the States. To see the plains roll out in front of you and then the Rockies rise up like stern faces: I have never experienced anything like it. I want the kids to have that experience too.
The worst thing about being in Ohio is the consumerism. You have to be very careful not to be drawn into the obsession with buying stuff. Whether it’s a $500 Vitamix blender or the latest new toy, you can get anything you want in Columbus. But I don’t want the boys to grow up that way, constantly obsessed with what new thing they can buy. It does not make for happiness. It’s much more healing to be out in nature or to be creating: painting, drawing, inventing games.
I was also totally unprepared for the winters here. We are covered in thick snow for two or three months of the year. I always thought that I would love having a proper winter, but it is actually quite miserable. The temperatures are crazily low and everyone has some horrible illness because we are all trapped indoors. I no longer idealise snowy winters!
I find play-dates a bit terrifying here. American “momhood” can be fairly competitive and there are very high standards. You know those helpful British parenting magazines? The ones that say it’s OK to have that glass of wine, or not to worry if the kids took a night off brushing their teeth? Well, they don’t exist here. The best mom friends I have made over here know that it helps no one to be in competition. To be hard or judgmental about other people’s mothering is not the best way.
I am going back to work full-time at the Ohio State University next semester and the children will be going to preschool. There seems to be something of a divide here between stay-at-home moms and working moms, and often there is not much love lost between them. Some mothers in the US go back to work a couple of weeks after the baby is born, which seems very wrong if women are under pressure to do so.
I am going to miss the boys when I am working full-time, but I can’t neglect my working life. I am who I am because of my work. I want the boys to know me as a person in my own right with my own interests. As a feminist mother of boys, I have a responsibility to lead by example and show my sons that women cannot sacrifice everything of themselves – their needs and desires – simply to please the men in their lives. But still, I will miss them terribly.