An unforgettable story about the complex choices women make for love, motherhood, and family—and the unexpected events that open our hearts to what really matters in life.
Clare Elias feels more than ready to conquer being a parent. She’s already mastered the business world, running a flourishing chain of boutique flower shops. Her husband, Marc, is handsome, successful, supportive—and nearly a decade her junior. Clare is at the top of her game, so how hard can motherhood be?
Then the babies come—both of them. And Clare finds herself in the midst of the crisis faced by every woman who’s ever tried to Have It All. She’s sworn she won’t have her children raised by nannies the way her inattentive mother did, but when help arrives in the form of pretty, young, hyperefficient Jenna, Clare has no idea that bringing this stranger into her family will change everything. As Marc becomes distant and secretive and, worst of all, one of her babies gets sick, Clare—and Jenna—must make the kinds of heartwrenching decisions that no woman wants to face.
Wise, witty, and powerfully emotional, Who Loves You Best captures the working mother’s joys and frustrations—as well as the guilty secrets of nannies—in a tale that is surprising to the very end.
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Tess Stimson frequently contributes to newspapers and women's magazines. Born in England, she graduated from Oxford before working as a television news producer. Stimson is also the author of The Adultery Club, One Good Affair, and Who Loves You Best. She lives in Vermont with her family, and is currently at work on her next novel, What’s Yours Is Mine, which will be published in 2011.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Orgasms are so tricky, aren’t they? You need just the right mood and atmosphere; one false note and it’s all over, however diligently your husband tongues your clitoris. I’ve never really enjoyed oral sex at all, actually, but I never said so when we first met in case it made me seem dull. And then you get stuck with it, don’t you? You can hardly tell your husband after seven years of marriage that he’s barking up the wrong tree.
I knew I was too tense from the start, of course; but when I put something on my List, I like to get it done.
“Darling,” Marc says, looking up from between my labia, “is something wrong?”
Not that sex is ever a chore. I put facials and reflexology on my List, too. How else could I run seven boutique flower shops in seven different parts of London and still keeps things ticking over smoothly at home without being ruthlessly organized? It may not seem very romantic, but if more wives put sex on their lists, there’d be fewer divorces. Though I don’t think Marc would see it quite that way.
Poor Marc. He wasn’t really in the mood tonight either: He wanted to watch ice hockey on cable (his home team, the Montreal Canadiens, were playing); but of course it’s never difficult to change a man’s mind. They don’t need warm baths, soft music, candlelight, and forty minutes of foreplay. Or even a flesh-and-blood woman, come to that.
He returns conscientiously to his task, but I’m tired and we both have to be up in five hours, so I . . . well, I exaggerate things a bit. We all tell little white lies from time to time; sometimes faking pleasure is the only polite thing to do.
After a brief interval, Marc slides comfortably inside me. I hold him close so he doesn’t pull out too soon and waste our efforts.
Three months isn’t very long to try for a baby; but I’m already thirty-seven years old. I work very hard to make sure my handsome, charming husband forgets he’s nearly a decade younger than me; but I don’t forget.
Not for a moment.
Sex with Marc is usually very nice. So it’s unfortunate that I conceive during one of our more pedestrian encounters.
My pregnancy is textbook; I know, because I read fourteen of them. They give different, and frequently conflicting, advice, but when in doubt, I err on the side of caution. As I explain to Marc (crossing my fingers behind my back): It isn’t that I’ve gone off sex, but neither of us wants to take any risks with the baby.
And then, at the thirteen-week nuchal fold scan, we discover it’s babies, plural.
Marc is delighted, of course, at this sign of his exceptional virility. Once I get over my initial shock, I quickly see the practical advantages. Two babies are scarcely more work than one; it’s just a question of organization. Doubling up on the homemade apple purée, that sort of thing. It’s taken five years and a great deal of careful planning to create a window in our schedules, and finances, for this pregnancy. At least now I’ll only have to take maternity leave from PetalPushers once. Marc may have wanted six children (he has five older sisters), but two has always been my limit.
“Darling: twins?” my mother ventures when I break the news. “Clare, are you quite sure that’s wise?”
“A little late now,” I say dryly. “Davina, I manage nineteen staff and seven shops. I think I can take care of two small infants. I’ve researched it thoroughly.”
“I’m sure you could write a marvelous thesis on child-rearing,” Davina says, “but it’s not quite the same thing as actually doing it.”
Kettles and pots came to mind, but I let it pass. My mother has never pretended to enjoy motherhood; she made a point of not taking the slightest interest in me or my younger brother, Xan, until we were legally adults. Growing up, I understood “mother” to mean a remote, impatient figure who brushed away hugs—“Darling! Sticky fingers!”—and punctured the small accomplishments of her children with verbal stilettos: “Sweet that you came top in Biology, but darling, there are only twenty-two of you in the class.” I was quite sure she loved us; and just as certain she’d never have had us at all had my father not made it clear her duty—and his fortune—required the provision of an heir.
I’ve never blamed her for palming us off on a series of nannies, but from the start I was determined to do things differently.
It never occurs to me that my child-care plans are at best vague; at worst steeped in denial.
By the time I’m seven months pregnant, I’m completely prepared. Everything on my Baby List has been satisfyingly crossed off. Stair gates are installed in our Chelsea townhouse—“The rug-rats aren’t even here yet and you’re corralling them,” Marc grumbles good-naturedly—and plastic safety covers fitted to every electricity outlet. The nursery is decorated a gender-neutral pale green with child-friendly nontoxic paints; an artist friend stencils primroses (signifying hope and youth), daisies (innocence) and asters (tiny beginnings from which great things proceed) around the door and windows. I spend weeks researching strollers that incorporate the maximum number of safety features while providing ultimate comfort to the infant(s). The obstetrician I select (having interviewed four) dissuades me, against my better judgment, from the sleep apnea monitor, but I have Marc mount a state-of-the-art video system throughout the house so I can keep an eye on the twins wherever I am.
Craig, my VP, is primed to take over the reins at PetalPushers at a moment’s notice. I finish all my Christmas shopping by November so I won’t have to rush around with two newborns should they arrive before their due date (New Year’s Eve). My overnight bag is packed and all set to go. I’m ready.
The twins, it seems, are not.
I try to rest as the books suggest, but I’ve never been much good at waiting. I prefer to make things happen. If I wasn’t so determined to have a natural birth (I’ve read that drugs cross the placenta, making the baby drowsy and less eager to feed in those first vital bonding hours after birth) I’d seriously consider an elective cesarean. It’s so hard to plan ahead when you don’t know your schedule.
And then on Christmas Eve my water breaks as I travel the District & Circle Line, my arms filled with a massed ball of mistletoe for one of my most important clients.
I double up as a belt of white pain tightens around my abdomen. It’s so much worse than I thought it’d be. Why doesn’t anyone tell you?
The newspaper vendor puts his thick padded jacket around my shoulders. My teeth chatter. I can’t seem to get warm. I want it to stop. I want this to be over. I want my husband—
“Marc!” I sob, clutching his hand.
Voices fade in and out:
“We need to get her into a taxi—”
“Too late for that, mate—”
Someone is talking to me. I want them to go away. I’m so tired. I could bear the pain, if they’d just let me sleep first. If only I could rest, and come back to this tomorrow—
“Clare, stay with me,” Marc demands. “When I tell you to push, give it all you’ve got.”
“But my private room! My doctor! Everything’s arranged—”
“Darling, our babies are coming! Isn’t this exciting?”
“You fucking try it!” I yell.
Marc, sotto voce: “Christ, it must be bad. My wife never swears.”
“You might want to let that pass for now, mate.”
“I could see the baby’s head during that contraction, Clare. When the next one comes, I want you to push—”
“Just get this thing out of me!”
Suddenly I have a desperate need to bear down, as impossible to ignore or control as the urge to vomit. It feels like a huge iron fist is trying to punch its way through my rectum. It can’t be the babies, I think stupidly, it’s in the wrong place, I’m going to shit myself, everyone will see but I can’t help it, I can’t stop it, I have to push—
I feel a burning, tearing sensation, as if I’m splitting open like a ripe melon.
“One more push—”
This isn’t right, it can’t be, I’m not big enough, something is wrong—
“The baby’s beautiful, Clare, beautiful, push!”
“I am fucking pushing!” I scream.
There’s a sudden rush and slither, and the pressure has gone.
“Open your eyes,” Marc whispers.
My baby is placed in my arms. He isn’t crying. I open my eyes and look directly into his, deep blue like mine and already questioning. His skin and hair are still waxy with vernix.
Minutes later, his twin sister is born. She yells her fury at the indignity of her arrival immediately. Dimly I register that my son still hasn’t drawn his first breath.
I hear the sound of sirens, and a paramedic thrusts her way towards us.
“Tell them not to worry, I think I’m getting the hang of this,” I say; and promptly black out.
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