25 July 2016
ByAppeared in BioNews 861
BBC Radio 4, 20–24 June
By Lucy Caldwell
Dear Baby Mine is a Radio 4 drama based on the true story of Conor and his wife Keeley as Conor is diagnosed with azoospermia – or, as Conor puts it, he's 'shooting blanks' – and the emotional rollercoaster that ensues.
Written by Lucy Caldwell, the play – told from the point of view of Conor – is introduced as a 'story of rooms'. While this might sound a bit clichéd, I thought it actually worked well to set the scene and to help the listener visualise the story.
The first room is the waiting room at the clinic, where we meet Conor and Keeley just before they find out the life-changing news that Conor will never be able to father his own child. Next we travel with Conor and Keeley on their way home as they try to figure out what to do. Do they just try and carry on as normal? How can they? We witness them struggling to come to terms with the diagnosis, we listen to ill-timed pregnancy announcements from friends and family, and cringe as others put their foot in it as they urge Conor to crack on with starting a family. I really empathised with Conor and Keeley's difficulty of finding the 'right time' to break the news to their loved ones, so I was disappointed that we didn't get to hear those actual conversations. Instead, Conor narrates some time later that 'we'd told our folks by then', and this seemed a bit of a cop-out to me.
The story then skips to Christmas time. In Conor's words 'it was just one thing after another, rubbing it in your face that you'd never have kids'. Keeley is still clinging on desperately to the hope that they can have a baby, while Conor has begun drinking to excess and is struggling to cope with his feelings of guilt and of letting Keeley down. This is where we learn their backstory through the use of flashbacks. We discover that they've been trying for a baby for a long time, that Conor had even made baby furniture in preparation, and that he never previously considered that he was the one who might be infertile.
With Keeley refusing to accept the finality of the diagnosis, Conor gives in to pressure from her and her family to get a second opinion from a Harley Street doctor. However, this only proves to confirm his infertility, and Keeley's hopes that she will ever have her own child are crushed when Conor fiercely rejects the idea of using a sperm donor – he doesn't want 'another man's baby growing in my wife'.
When Conor and Keeley's relationship breaks down further, they decide to see a therapist. Although the play is narrated by Conor – sharing his thoughts at pivotal moments and setting the scene when the story skips forwards in time – the portrayal of Conor and Keeley's relationship was balanced and very believable, so when they started therapy I was really rooting for both of them to open up to each other and get their relationship back on track. During a very emotional scene, the therapist asks them to share what having a baby means to each of them. As someone who easily blubs, I might have had a tear in my eye during that conversation.
For me, one of the most touching, thought-provoking moments in the story was when Conor opened up to his friend about his infertility. His friend confesses that when his wife was pregnant with his children he didn't feel like a dad until after his babies were born, and he tells Conor that being a dad isn't about providing the genetic material – it's all about 'the thousand tiny wee things that don't seem like anything when you just list them – it's the being there'. (There definitely was a tear in my eye at this point!)
Conor decides he'd do anything to make Keeley happy, even if that's using a sperm donor to have a baby, and we are thrust into the next room in the story – the room where Keeley will receive IVF treatment. The story whizzes through three failed IVF attempts – a bit surprising, as I thought this might have been a bigger part of the story – before Keeley decides she can't go through the IVF process again, and Conor and Keeley's relationship is at breaking point.
Over a year of therapy later, the story fast-forwards to the 'shabbiest room yet', which is where, as Conor excitedly recounts, 'the miracle happened'. In this room they're cleared for adoption and later meet 17-month-old Ruby for the first time – a thrilling moment. When Conor narrates through the final scenes – getting to know Ruby, taking her to the park, putting her back to bed when she has a bad dream, sharing his concerns about fathering an adopted child – it was really moving. It was a cautious but happy ending, and one that felt well deserved.
Dear Baby Mine was an emotional rollercoaster of a story, but I was happy to go along for the ride. The play tackles an emotive subject, and manages in its 75 minutes to pack in a lot of topics in a believable and a relatable way.