I explained that it wasn't him, it was my fear of losing my freedom
I could feel the panic attack starting as the slavering beast lunged towards me while I was having brunch with my sometime boyfriend Paul and his friends.
But it wasn't a pit bull that had my adrenalin rushing; it was his friends' three-year-old, Oscar. This wouldn't be a problem for most people, but I've never had a maternal instinct in my life. Even as a child, I always preferred the company of adults. I don't coo at babies, I run from them.
This time, there was no escape. First, he clung to my legs. Then he lunged for my off-white cashmere cardigan. His mum and dad - in matching red tops - tried to placate him with packets of sugar, but instead his face turned purple with rage. After banging on glasses with a spoon, he managed to empty my Bloody Mary all over my new top.
"Excuse me, I'll just run to the loo," I said, feeling sweat trickle down my neck. En route, panic set in, and I hotfooted it out the back door and into the nearest off-license. After texting Paul, "Sorry, something came up and I had to run out, please apologise to Janice and Martin for me", I bought a pack of menthol cigarettes, which I smoked, one by one, in the rain.
As I took a drag, I wondered what was wrong with me. Loads of women would love to be in Janice's position, with a lovely home, a baby, and a colour-co-ordinated husband. But I've never been sure I wanted children. I'm never envious when I see women pushing buggies. I hide behind my laptop with a latte, grateful that I can tune it all out with my iPod.
Paul was pissed off by the time he got home. "What the hell happened?" he said. "I was so excited about introducing you to my friends, and you did a runner." I explained that it wasn't him, it was my fear of losing my freedom. "I'm sorry I freaked out," I said. "But I don't want to turn into your friends. The matching tops sent me over the edge."
He laughed. "Look, we're never going to wear matching tops. And you have the freedom to walk out of this relationship any time you want." He went on to say that Oscar had "really liked me", but I think that was because he sensed my fear, like cats who rub my leg even though I'm allergic to them.
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Later, I Googled my irrational fear of children. Turns out I'm not alone. There's even a term for it: paedophobia. I also read that patients can be cured of this fear through cognitive behavioural therapy, which exposes patients to more and more of the feared event, and teaches coping techniques.
Maybe by exposing myself to enough controlled situations with kids, I'll be able to handle their company and end up undamaged. Maybe I could get a mum to explain the gurgling noises of a tantrum? I just wish I could say the same about my ruined top.