It was a perfect baby, slippery and pink. Its legs and arms were tucked into its body and its head was bowed as if sleeping, or praying, like a tiny pious monk. Smooth and compact, shiny and hard, it seemed to be made of resin and sat on the sort of wooden display stand that might hold a Fabergé egg, or a football trophy. But it is a sort of trophy, isn’t it, Grace thought, reaching out towards it.

‘Oh!’ As soon as she made contact, the baby toppled off his wooden stand. His? Hers? Grace couldn’t tell, but she sensed that knocking the model baby across the examination room shelf did not bode well for their appointment.

‘What have you done?’ Dan asked, his voice teasing.

‘I’m so tense.’ She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. ‘Why doesn’t it get easier?’

He took her hand in his bearish paw and squeezed it, giving three short pumps in place of a platitude about how everything would be fine. Grace tried to return the baby to its upright position in the display stand but it was top-heavy and refused to stay in the base, which bore the label Twenty-six weeks.

She stared at the baby’s face, which appeared peaceful and somehow wise. She could scarcely believe that a hot-blooded version of this creature could ever grow inside her, and for a moment she wanted to scoop up her handbag and pull Dan out the door before they caused themselves any more heartache born of false hope.

Her husband inched closer to her. ‘You’re doing it again,’ he said, sweeping back the stray hairs that fell in pale wisps around her face.

‘Sorry, what did you say?’

‘I asked if you wanted me to book those cheap flights to Tokyo. You’re staring at that baby like it leaked the final exam answers to your maths students.’

This is how they spoke to each other at the clinic: with careful, pointed cheer.

Grace’s brow creased as she focused on righting the baby, but its slick finish meant she couldn’t get any purchase on the varnished stand. ‘I don’t want to book anything while we’re having treatment.’

‘We have to live our lives.’

‘I thought we were putting all our energy into this. I don’t want to give up.’

‘I’m not giving up. I just think we need a holiday.’

‘What’s keeping Doctor Li?’ Grace asked, looking back to the closed office door.

A cable of tension stretched from the base of her skull all the way down her spine. She rolled her head back until she heard a satisfying crack. The motion gave her a sweeping view of the Empona consultation room— the bottles of hand sanitiser, the mauve and violet décor, the poster showing the cross-section of a woman’s torso that looked like a piece of meat, eerily congruent with the disposable cover that had been pulled across the examination bed like butcher’s paper.

The door opened and Grace whipped her hands away from the broken baby model.

‘Hello, Doctor,’ she said hastily.

‘Hello, Ardens,’ Doctor Li replied. ‘I suppose you don’t want me to say it’s good to see you again,’ she said with a wry smile.

Despite the boxy skirt and prim, tightly buttoned shirt she wore under her white coat, Doctor Li looked breathtaking, as always. Before their first appointment Grace had thought Doctor Ashley Li could not possibly be as attractive as the photos of her in magazines, when in fact, the pictures had scarcely done her justice. Were it not for her plain clothes and her purple rubber Fitbit, Doctor Li could be from the distant future when aesthetic imperfections, such as weak jaws and dry skin, had been bred out of the species altogether.

‘How are you today?’ she asked, pert and professional.

Dan straightened his back. ‘Excellent, Doctor, just excellent.’ He always turned into a prize student in the presence of their doctor, as if he were expecting her to reward his good behaviour by pulling out a vial of magical fluid with a secretive grin and the preamble, ‘I only give this to very special patients . . .’

Doctor Li walked purposefully across the room to the sink where she squirted antibacterial gel into her palm and rubbed her hands together before seating herself at her desk.

‘So,’ she said. ‘We’re going to try again?’

‘We should get a loyalty reward card,’ Dan said. ‘Every tenth round is free, right?’

Doctor Li opened the Ardens’ file. ‘Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.’

‘Doctor,’ Grace said, pulling a folded newspaper article from her handbag, ‘I wanted to know what you think about trying dehydroepiandros-terone.’ She pronounced the compound carefully.

‘I’ve been reading about a maverick fertility specialist in London. This article says he has the highest success rate in the country. Double the national average.’ She held out the clipping as evidence.

Doctor Li gave a reassuring smile. ‘Grace, I assure you, you’re getting the very best care here. Everything that can be done will be done. Studies have not been able to demonstrate any real benefit to taking DHEA.’

Grace silently refolded the article and returned it to her bag.

Doctor Li was as compassionate as a patient could want, but every time she scuffed into the room in pastel-coloured ballet flats to deliver bad news with her standard chaser ‘Sometimes it just takes time’, Grace wanted to shake her and shout, ‘Easy for you to say!’

In three weeks she and Dan would celebrate their second wedding anniversary. The happy event had taken place within a year of their meeting on Grace’s fortieth birthday and it had given her a glimpse of the dream she had all but given up on: blanket forts in the lounge room; homemade playdough cooked over the stove on a rainy afternoon; piggyback rides; fairy bread; and bedtime stories told with all the voices. These were things she had always wanted but feared had slipped the noose — until she met Dan. 

She looked at him now, her shrewd, caring, grizzly bear of a husband, and felt a surge of gratitude and love. She squeezed his knee and he rewarded her with a smile. Her heart lurched. He would make such a good father.

‘As this is your sixth round of treatment I feel I should take you through the statistics again,’ Doctor Li said.

‘We know the odds,’ Grace said…

What if you gave birth to someone else’s child? A gripping family drama inspired by a real-life case of an IVF laboratory mix-up, The Mothers follows the story of two couples, one baby. An unimaginable choice. 

Grace and Dan Arden are in their forties and have been on the IVF treadmill since the day they got married. Six attempts have yielded no results and with each failure a little piece of their hope dies. Priya Laghari and her husband Nick Archer are being treated at the same fertility clinic, and while they don’t face the same time pressure as the Ardens, the younger couple have their own problems. Priya is booked for her next IVF cycle the same day that Grace goes in for her final, last-chance embryo transfer. Two weeks later, both women get their results. A year on, angry and heartbroken, one of the women learns her embryo was implanted in the other’s uterus and must make a devastating choice: live a childless life knowing her son is being raised by strangers or seek custody of a baby who has been nurtured and loved by another couple.

The Mothers by Genevieve Gannon is published by Allen & Unwin.