Charlene Carr’s new novel inspired by real-life fear: What if her daughter wasn’t biologically her own?

Charlene Carr’s tenth novel, Hold My Girl, publishes Jan. 24 with HarperCollins Canada and has been optioned for television. Charlene lives in Dartmouth and received grants from Arts Nova Scotia and Canada Council for the Arts to write her next novel.

When a woman gives birth, generally it’s the father who may have inklings of fear that the baby isn’t his. The mother does not – unless she got pregnant the way I did.

When my daughter was born via in vitro fertilization, my first memory is of joy – she was here, alive and mine. However, within weeks a fear started to creep in. I had grown her, birthed her, but I didn’t feel certain we shared DNA. And if we didn’t, what would that mean? Most importantly, what would I owe the woman whose child I was raising? These questions, when I finally felt confident they didn’t apply to me, led to Hold My Girl, a dual narrative novel about an egg switch at a fertility clinic.

Charlene Carr.Charlene Carr/Handout

Why did I have this fear?

As is the case for many new mothers, those early newborn days are a blur. All of my focus was on keeping my daughter alive, safe and fed. We were in and out of the hospital, and then in and out of the doctor’s office as my milk failed to come in and then failed to come in enough. I breastfed 15 or more hours a day. I slept in 45-minute spurts … if I was lucky enough to sleep at all.

Slowly, things got easier. We left the house. People oohed and ahhed about how beautiful and alert my daughter was. How happy we must be (we were!) and how she was absolutely, unnervingly, the spitting image of my husband.

Their comments opened my eyes. She had dimples, like me, but in no other way could I see myself – a mixed-race Black woman – in my child. Not in her skin, paler than my white husband’s. Not in her hair, blonde and straight. Not in her grey eyes – a colour that, as far as we knew, didn’t exist on either side of our family trees.

Her dimples kept me sane. But lots of people have dimples. And so, my fear grew. It didn’t help that when out with white friends, strangers assumed my daughter was theirs. Or that while out alone with her, a kindly-seeming old man commented how fun it must be to have the job of taking care of such a beautiful child. He may have meant the “job” of motherhood, but I doubt it.

Thankfully, when my daughter was about eight months old, her hair started to curl, her eyes turned brown and her features shifted. By the time she was one, I had no doubt she was biologically mine, which gave me the freedom to write, exploring all the possibilities I hadn’t wanted to consider.

They’re considerations that plague many mothers going through fertility treatment. IVF switches have been in the news for years. In a fertility support group I belong to, I’ve seen nervous moms post, asking whether anyone has had their child’s DNA tested. Whether they stare at their babies, wondering if they are really theirs. Each time I saw one of these posts, never commenting myself, at least one mother would say she’d given into her fears and tested. Others would say they were considering it, and others, that they wouldn’t dare – too afraid of the consequences if their fears were realized.

In the fictionalized scenario of Hold My Girl, race, I knew, would also play a role. Even now, being fully confident that my daughter and I share DNA, there is still anxiety – in the assumptions strangers make that she isn’t mine, or may not be. In how people will label her and how I’m supposed to help her navigate that, a visibly white child, who in a different time and place would have had to sit in the back of the bus; who in this time and place will encounter challenges in defining herself, determining her identity – who, at the tender age of five, already has.

When I sat down to write, I started with the birth mother, whose story most closely related to mine, then moved onto the biological mother, who had to learn that not only had she missed out on carrying and giving birth to her child, but raising her.

Even to myself, the question of who would deserve to have this child, who was the “true” mother, seemed unanswerable, so the novel quickly turned into an examination of not just my initial questions, but of what motherhood is, how it’s so much more than biology.

Another aspect I explored is the pain of infertility, which affects 1 in 6 Canadian couples, and which rose to the surface as I wrote. So many women are ashamed of their pregnancy struggles. We feel broken or embarrassed. We feel like we’re the only one. In the early years of infertility, the shame crushed me. I knew my infertility and pregnancy losses weren’t my fault, but despite that mental knowledge, I felt they were. And it was extremely hard to talk about.

While I was writing the novel, we tried for a second child. I went through multiple rounds of fertility treatment and embryo transfers, and multiple pregnancy losses. Each time I put the manuscript aside to grieve, but each time I came back – with more heartache and also more strength. Hold My Girl delves into these intimate pains with the goal of helping to normalize the unique struggles many couples face in their efforts to build a family. It is an exploration of infertility, IVF, racial identity and the definition of motherhood, and it is my hope that as those who are going through or have gone through this journey turn the pages, they will feel a little less alone and a little more seen.

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