The nurse from my OB/GYN’s office is always upbeat and seems wholly invested in my quest for motherhood. My husband and I have been undergoing the flood of invasions and procedures associated with infertility, including an artificial insemination, which—as I understand it—involves spinning and isolating the good ones and injecting them into my ready space.
The nurse calls to tell me levels from a recent hormone test are sky high!
“What does that mean?” I ask, and she says, “We’ll confirm it by blood test when you come in, but you’re very likely pregnant. Congratulations!”
It happens that my in-laws are visiting from out of state, but experience has taught me to keep presumptions of pregnancy under wraps. I’ve gone through nearly the whole box of First Response pregnancy tests stored in the cabinet under my bathroom sink and hidden my prematurely purchased copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
So my mother-in-law and a friend join me on a shopping excursion to a distant outlet center, where I begin to viciously cramp and soon realize I must go home. Driving down the 15 in my in-laws’ rented car, I notice the stark expanse of combustible weeds and drifts of trash framing the road. I know what’s happening, but there’s nothing I can do to save me or the seat.
In my driveway I stand up and shield my bottom from view, backing toward the garage, gulping through explanations and apologies about the lurid red stain on the front seat of the rental car.
I used to walk three times a week with a neighbor in the moist cocoon of the Tualatin Hills Nature Park in Beaverton, Oregon. The exercise was to shed our tensions—mine from the pressures of job seeking in a spiraling market, hers from managing a department at a major bank. One afternoon it was a trudging walk because she had suffered an ectopic pregnancy a few weeks prior and was devastated, inconsolable. She seethed about the women she saw on the news: grimy-haired in sweatpants with children they “didn’t deserve.” Her words sliced through the stillness. She’d done “everything right” in her life, she deserved happiness more than an addict or a negligent deadbeat. Where was God in these things?
We walked wordlessly for a while, the insulated hush of the forest reverberating with her outrage. She finally looked up at me and said, “How can you stand it? How can you stand not having children? Did you try everything?”
Despite the spear through my center, I replied that as innate a wish as parenting had been, when I embraced the flow of my life’s events, I no longer needed to control them. And then unexpected triumphs occurred.
“Like finally getting my degree, like traveling abroad.”
“No offense intended here.” And she actually said this: “But what are you going to do with an English degree?”
“I’m not exactly sure, but I got it,” I said.
We walked on in silence, her insecurities chipping away at my faith.
I’ve just met a young mother and her toddler son at the duck pond in our suburban, planned community. He’s hopping through the overgrown grass, gathering up stray feathers and examining them with wonder. The downy bits stick to his pudgy fingers. He squeals so that we’ll notice the baby ducks plopping into the marshy water. I tell the woman that her son makes me smile, that at his age they’re so able to access bliss. Without hesitation she asks me how many children I have. I feel caught in a lie. I fumble through an explanation about no kids, wished for them, late second marriage, didn’t happen. Our conversation halts like a toy with a dead-battery. She doesn’t know what to say to me with my childlessness. There is no further grab we can make to connect because of the gulf between my dormant organ and her functional one. She looks out toward her son in his bottom-damp pants and says quietly, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” I say good-bye and turn for home.
I knew a single woman who had a daughter named Jenna that she was always leaving behind while she went to The Troubadour or The Whiskey or The Viper Room or just away. I enjoyed caring for Jenna because I had ticking imperatives that weren’t being met. Jenna and I were in mutual need. One Saturday I took her with me to the beach. She was four years old and squealed and splashed along the foaming fringe of the Pacific. She’d boldly run toward the sea, then retreat back to me in rhythm with the surf, her browning arms enveloping my thighs for protection. In the dense afternoon light, I brushed the coarse sand from her ankles and legs, and pulled her pink jacket over her salt-chalky shoulders. On the way home we stopped at McDonalds, where an older woman smiled at the whimsical banter between Jenna and me. The lady said, “Your daughter is adorable,” and instead of correcting her, I reached down and smoothed Jenna’s hair with motherly artifice.
WHEN DOES LIFE BEGIN?
“You don’t know what love is, really, you have no idea about your capacity for love until you have a baby. Your life just changes. Everything that seemed to matter before doesn’t, your reality centers around your child.” On discussing the difficulty of finding friends when you’re childless in the suburbs with a friend who has children.
“Relax; you’re too wrapped up in this having-a-baby shit. Have a drink, forget about it,” an irritated Kristen says as she shoots a cigarette from a package and heads for the patio of the Mexico Chiquito. Not six months later she’s quit smoking and is attending meetings and banking $40,000 so she can adopt a daughter from China.
“You will have a baby, and it will be beautiful, and you’ll be happy, and that’s when your life will really begin.” A well-meaning friend.
While I’m in the throes of infertility, my friend, Ellen, gets pregnant. She’s surprised because she and John “hardly ever have sex,” and what with her being older they weren’t even trying. Not long after the news, John calls me and asks if I’ll host a baby shower for Ellen, “You know what a flake Mary is,” he says about Ellen’s sister. “And their house is a mess.” So I agree to do it, although it’s akin to hosting a party nude.
We’ve come to Phoenix to “unwind.” I’ve set my towel by the rim of the hotel pool, where my legs are submerged in the water and I’m steeped in the aroma of chlorine. I’m reading a best-selling novel wherein one of the characters, an obstetrician, is holding a clinic for various pregnant women. The novel quotes this glittering heroine saying, “A woman is never more a woman than in this state.” I wrap the book into the plush towel dampened by my footprints. The water wrinkles the pages, but no matter, I will never finish the book.
Every afternoon my neighbor walks her daughter home from school. I see little resemblance between them, the child fresh, buoyant and chatty, the mother suspicious and worn. The girl never passes my open window without her sing-songing voice resonating. She springs to the points of her toes with each step and waves around artwork, quizzes, her youth—all fluttering past me as I spy out the window.
Her mother brings up the rear, deflecting the joy. She’s a hip-thrusting walker, hoisting her bulk defensively from side to side, her beefy arms jack-knifing for momentum. I’ve heard her bellow, “Katelyn, stop with that song,” or “Un-acceptable, Katelyn, stop where you are,” or “Sister, get back here with mother and brother.” Katelyn’s mom has something against pronouns. Sometimes, after being corrected, or slowed, or skinned in some way, the girl watches her mother through gloomy, puckered eyes. I wonder what she pictures looming in her future.
SPITTING OUT THE TAR
After critical desperation sets in, I pay $650 via credit card to have a telephone session with a psychic healer who has been recommended to me. I have unfounded faith in her. For an hour she performs rote “healing exercises” like gathering the “tar” of my despair in my mouth and “spitting it out.” Just go, “Bleh, from your core,” she instructs, and when I don’t do this with enough vigor she bullies me to a real primal scream.
Afterward, I lean against the rough surface of my living room wall, phone clutched between my shoulder cap and ear, elbows on knees, spent. I feel nothing. Not better, not worse, not healed, not broken. Then the healer tells me she can sense over the telephone that my protein intake is inadequate and suggests that a daily green powder shake will help. It doesn’t.
IMAGE: Flickr Creative Commons/stevendepolo
Phenomenal essays that grabbed me from word one.
I’m so glad that you read this piece, Kathy. Thank you for your friendship and talent.
These are beautiful, Pamela. So elegant and short and yet they say so much. I’m still reading. Get back to you on fb soon.
What an honor to have you read my work, Bonnie! I treasured your personal message.
One of the most interesting things to me about this discussion is that (I think, based on the names and responses) only women have commented so far. Believe me, men face the same societal pressures to have children as women do. Maybe the pressures aren’t quite as forceful, but pressures are there just the same. A supposed friend made the off-the-cuff observation in a recent e-mail that “You can’t be a complete person until you have had children. They teach you so much about unconditional love.” I kid you not. This guy has a master’s degree, and has published fiction and non-fiction books. He knew that I have no children when he wrote that phrase down. It is a societal prejudice, as ugly as racism. There is a similar societal pressure to marry. Single people as they start to get older begin to more acutely feel that pressure. I know. I didn’t marry until I was 45. Some people actually believe that your life doesn’t begin, or count for much, until you have married, and fathered or mothered children. When I married at 45, I did the math and realized when I would be 60 years old, any child I might father would be entering the tempestuous teens. I remembered how awful my teenage years had been–aggravated by the “generation gap” that existed at the time I grew up, the Vietnam era–and understood right away that disciplining a rebellious, mouthy teen-ager right before I began to draw my social security check was not a good recipe for serenity in old age. Perhaps that decision was not fair to my wife, 10 years younger and from a family of 8 kids. But I understood I was not a good candidate for fatherhood. My own childhood had been anything but happy. My father and mother remained married, but basically I was raised by my mother. My father was there in body, but not in spirit. He was vacant, distant, absent. He had been abandoned, his whole family had been abandoned, by his own father, who had divorced his mother at a time when divorce wasn’t common, and married the mistress with whom he had fathered a son (half-brother to my father). As a result, my father had no strong father-figure in his life, and neither did I. It was time to break that cycle of neglect. I think in our society a lot of people have kids who don’t really want them for the right reasons, and aren’t really suited for fatherhood or motherhood. The sad thing is, some people who ARE suited, and want kids for all the right reasons, aren’t able to have them. Is it God who decides this? Fate? Luck? I don’t know. I only know that every human life is valuable, that all of us have something to give the world. I am grateful I am starting to write again, for instance. Creation is the same, whether it comes from the womb or the heart and mind. Giving hope. Sharing. Being human. That is a gift all of us can offer others.
John, I am THRILLED that you responded, and what an interesting observation you make about my responses (someone has keen perception) being more craft than idea oriented. You are absolutely right. I didn’t want to sway any reader as to the intentions of this piece. It is important to me, in all my work to date, that I connect to a universal, fluid human experience, rather than something specific. Yes, I take on my own grappling with infertility and childnessness, but I didn’t want this to be my “pity party” so to speak. I wanted to simply examine the experience and allow the read to resonate for different people (of both genders) in different ways. I am so thrilled to have a male read this so thoughtfully, and to emerge with your own personal insights. It has made my day, actually. It is fascinating that you and I share a heart-punch with this experience, a friend stating: “You can’t be a complete person until you have had children. They teach you so much about unconditional love.” — so here we see that sometimes we share more in life with common experience and outcomes, than common gender. Thank you so much for reading my work.
Yes, Pamela, I do think we are a lot alike in many ways. I would say we are “trying to write” (kind of like “practicing medicine”–when do you stop “practicing” and when do you start doing it for real? when do writers stop “trying to write” and simply write?), but I suppose as old as I am, I might as well just say we are writers. Both English majors. Readers and writers and critics of our own work and the works of others. I am glad that you took my comments so well, and as they were intended. Though our biographies can’t help but come into play, it is always the writing we are talkiing about, because that is what is most important, the product and not the person who makes the product. When we criticize what we think is bad writing, and when we praise what we think is good writing, it is always the writing that is under discussion, not the person. And the end we desire is improving the writing. That is what we are after. Making each other better writers. I used to be a runner. It took me a long time to understand that I wasn’t competing against my fellow racers. Instead, I was helping them to be better runners, and they were helping me. We were compadres, we were amigos in the great fellowship of sport. I have read one piece of yours, though I have read many of your fine comments (“transcendent arc” you wrote–what a wonderful phrase and choice of words!). If you would like to read a piece of mine in Hippocampus, I have one in the July 2013 travel theme issue called “Silent Night, Firelight.” It is the first, in fact the only, piece of writing I have published in 40 years. I also am a character in another memoir that appeared in the April 2013 Issue of Hippocampus, “First Crossing, Nogales 1971” by Robert Richter. In his piece, Richter calls me “The Poet Redmond.” In my piece, I call Richter simply “B.” We went to high school together, and then Colorado State University, from which we both graduated. Worked on the campus literary magazine together. Now, Hippocampus kind of guys. I need to publish more. That is one of my goals. It has been good getting to know you, and I hope we stay in touch!
Pamela, I love humor, but I’m speaking now from utter seriousness. My sister was married at 21 and could not conceive for 10 yrs. She got on her knees and prayed. and believed God for a baby. She had four in a row. I met another woman who had been to many doctors and had many different treatments to no avail. I was there when she was prayed for. In exactly 9 months from that prayer, she had a little girl. Have you tried prayer? My book, “Miracles, Yours For The Asking” tells it all. You CAN be a mother.
Lucille, thank you so much for reading my piece. Your advice and care is sweet, and trust me, I prayed my heart out. But I’m actually past the years of child-bearing now. I have come to terms with the sadness, and decided that there was another plan in mind for me. If I’d had children, I very much doubt that I’d have gone back to school, got that degree, and discovered how much of a passion writing is for me. I was able to spend an entire summer in Europe and see something of the world. I still mourn the lack that childlessness brought–but I have come to a place where I can contextualize it. There is another REALLY beautiful memoir piece called End of the Line written by Rachel Hall that is a complete sister piece to mine! It also conveys the pain and beauty of these things in life for which we have no control.
God doesn’t leave us with nothing at all. You are a sensitive person and a good writer. .
Thank you so much, Lucille!
We are in love with the idea of motherhood. Children are so adorable—but for such a short time. When my son was 14, about the time of his first zit, I was in such an exhausted state dealing with him, I heard myself say to my friend, “Is it too late for an abortion?” I also lost a good friend during this time period. She called me up and said, “My son has run away from home,” and without thinking, I said, “Some people have all the luck.” But I have to admit, all the time before the hurricane years was a joy. (At least that’s what I keep telling myself.)
Thank you for reading this piece and responding with such humor, Lucille! Hearing people’s thoughts on my work means so much to me.
So much to love about this piece, and what stays with me is Katelyn’s mother’s utter lack of appreciation for her exuberant daughter-and how much the girl’s lust for life resonated with you. Beautiful.
It means so much to me that you read my piece and that it resonated with you, Medea!
Pamela your piece is so touching and personal,~ beautifully written. There is a connection any woman feels once they enter the world of fertility doctors. My heart shares your sorrow.
This is such a beautifully written and deeply personal piece. This story really moved me Pamela.
This comment was just left on my FB page, and it touched me deeply to read it. One never knows how relevant to others our particular stories might be: “Tears rolled from all the memories that came flooding back from my 20 plus years of infertility .. I re-heard all the friends with those same and similar heart aching, mind numbing comments, plus more. I re-heard the doctors voices, try this, let’s try that next, then… etc. $$$$$$.00 down the drain!!! I also re-lived the news of all the  unwanted newborns through out the region I was living in back then. I heard my in laws telling me I was unfit for their son!, I re-lived the whole 20 plus years in just a few minutes of reading your awesome well written story. Thank you Pamela. I know my end results are different, but I LIVED through those long 20 plus years, and they just don’t go away…ever!”
Interesting piece, especially the way you brought in the various experiences and tied them all together. I have never thought that a woman was “less” because she did not or could not have a child. This opened my eyes to the feelings, thoughts, and emotions that women may go through when they cannot have children of their own.
Thank you for reading this piece, Jackie, and commenting! I am so glad that you found it interesting.
Gives me painful twists to read this, and relief in recognition of being understood. Terrific piece!! Thank you, Pamela.
I know it took me some time to be able to visit this with perspective, I am happy it touched a nerve with you, too, Sue!
Wow! This is powerful. It makes me really think about how children-centric we are as a society. My brother and his wife are childless by choice and they face some of the same kinds of hurtful and insulting comments. I love the way you ended this and broke in into segments.
Thank you for responding to this piece, Deborah!
There is nothing that brings a writer greater joy that realizing that a piece written in a solitary space can connect with others on a universal level. I thank everyone who has left comments for sharing in the journey of this piece.
Pamela, we’re so happy your essay sparked conversation. Yours isn’t an easy story to share, and we thank you for being brave and honest enough to write this. Thanks to everyone for reading and participating.
Never have I felt another’s pain so deeply. Thank you Pamela for sharing your story with us. Beautifully written!
I love this piece. It just makes you very aware of the pain and longing women still go through when they can’t have children despite all the progress science has made in this area. I believe the majority think women have total control over whether or not to have a child nowadays and this story reminds us that it’s just not that easy.
Beautiful and heart wrenching piece. So well done Pamela! Thank you for sharing something so personal! Bravo!
Very nice piece. Enjoyed it immensely.
One of Pamela’ s strongest works. I am blown away by how seamlessly she captures the raw experience of stolen motherhood and the weight of the societal implications that follow. This is such an evocative piece. It hits home with me on a very visceral level.
A friend and I were just talking about how happy we are NOT to have children and as I read this I found myself understanding for perhaps the first time, why a woman would want to have a baby. It seems unfair that so many women seem to have children who are not cut out for it, and others who long for a child for the right reasons are not able to. Thought provoking great read here!
I got a Hippocampus email about its new issue and recognized your name after you made those kind comments on my Butterfly piece in Extracts. Thank you for this beautifully-rendered story about mother-longing. I went through this experience almost three decades ago, when science wasn’t as sophisticated as now. Complicated story, but I always knew I wanted to be a mom. I’m very annoyed with the attitude of “I deserve —-” or “I don’t deserve….” fill in the blanks. I don’t mean to denigrate the real pain we women have who have trouble conceiving, but we need to take a DEEP breath and realize all the awful things that happen to people everywhere, all the time, throughout history and today and put things in perspective.
Once I decided on adoption, I knew I’d be a mother — and I was! Giving birth is wonderful — but it’s not the only way to be a mother. Plenty of women give birth (“undeserving? per one woman above? That may be in the eye of the beholder.) The point is…a mother is in the MOTHERING. That’s what counts most. Cool if you think you’re more of a woman when pregnant. A mother who wasn’t pregnant is no less of a woman — and may be a better mother. Folks also need to take a minute to “activate brain before putting mouth in gear.” I can’t believe the stupid, insensitive things people say.
How many more horrible things happen to women on this planet than not getting pregnant (or even as a result of pregnancy where there’s not good health care). I’ll take not getting pregnant over all the hideous and horrid “unfair” suffering endured by women (and men) every day and count myself lucky if “not getting pregnant” is really the worst thing that ever happens to me. I’m the mom of two great grown-up young men now, through adoption, and I’ve never looked back. Thanks for sharing your feelings, and I know you’ll do just fine. A very poignant essay!
Thanks for sharing a bit of your own story with us, Linda. You bring up a wonderful point.
Linda, I am so thrilled to a) know that you’ve read my work now, b) reconnect with an excellent writer through this piece (thank you, Hippocampus, for believing in it), and c) to realize how many other women share not only ambiguity about becoming a mother, but also ambiguity surrounding NOT becoming one. I well remember your tender piece in Extracts, it was one that has stayed with me.