“Will we be tying your tubes during the procedure?”
I was sitting cross-legged on the sticky pleather—the doctor’s sterile office familiar by now—my hands clasped under my full belly.
Moments earlier, my weight gain, blood pressure, and a healthy fetal heart rate were all scratched in tiny illegible marks on my overstuffed chart. The nurse with a tendency to call me “hun” had taken her two hands and caressed my bump as she spoke softly of her own family. Three boys, like me. And she tried, tried for that fourth. Three miscarriages later—the last at twenty weeks—she knew it wouldn’t be.
“Do you want your tubes tied?” I looked up to meet the doctor’s expectant eyes. The question was not new. He or the nurse, sometimes both, asked at each monthly visit.
I had yet to answer.
I once loved a man who kept coming back.
He’d show up at the side door of the seventies-style off-campus apartment in the Portuguese section of Providence. I’d let him climb the spiral staircase to my room in back, the one facing Ives Street, with the lone blue wall we’d painted together when our love was young. Back when we drank and smoked and snaked his shitty silver sedan up the coast over winter break, The White Stripes streaming through the speakers. Back when we jumped up and down on that old secondhand mattress on Williams Street when, wasted, he proposed marriage before we collapsed, slick with sex and sweat.
Years later, he’d show up in bars across downtown Manhattan. We’d drink together because that’s what we did, huddled at the bar or in some corner booth, our heads touching, our speech slurred.
We stood on the dark Soho street corner, embracing as the cab idled. I was already seeing someone else, but we kissed all the same, our mouths full of memory. As if we didn’t know how to part without it. The mere taste of his tongue made me think of the scar on my knee from that time on the car console just over the Arkansas border. Part of me cherished the memento.
“I’ll call you?” he mouthed through the taxi window.
“Okay,” I said. “Sure.”
I’d already be under the knife—that much was clear. My babies only came out with the help of a surgeon’s hand. After forty-eight hours of labor and over four hours of pushing, my first son—a week late—still held on.
Now I was facing my fourth C-section. At thirty-five, with a husband of thirty-eight, I had plenty of potentially fertile years still ahead of me. And, the doctor warned, a fifth C-section would be unwise. A tubal ligation is the recommended course. He—everyone—assumes I’m done.
And probably, I am.
But some of us have a hard time letting go.
There’s a bin under my bed that no one ever sees.
In it, a pair of socks with iron-on labels from an old summer camp beau, floppy disks with early drafts of college papers, locks of towhead blond baby hair, a burgundy waitress apron from a gig in a breakfast place fifteen years back.
There’s a box of decaying Godiva chocolates from a boy I dated in 1989. Midway through that year, he moved upstate and would send me letters on primary colored paper drenched in prepubescent cologne. I saved those too.
Affixed to a broken bookcase against the wall of my parents’ garage are index cards with phone numbers of old friends or lovers in faded Crayola marker. I haven’t called any of them in years; those aren’t even their numbers anymore. I don’t take them down.
There’s a pair of two-toned oxfords with frayed laces and eroded heels stashed in the corner of my closet. I keep shoes long past their prime; they’ve walked with me; their soles bear bits of where I’ve been. My shirtsleeves hang past my wrists, and I should get my pants hemmed, but I don’t. They drag in shallow puddles, soaking up the muddy moisture, and I take that with me too.
I’m heavy with the weight of all I hold onto.
I went into labor with my third son four days before my scheduled C-section. I was tucking my older two boys into bed when I felt an insistent gush of fluid between my legs. Some frantic Internet research confirmed: my water had broken. I called my husband to come home, my in-laws to get the kids. Two hours later, we were walking to the hospital four blocks down the road.
By the time we reached triage, the contractions were coming fast and fierce. They only intensified as we waited for anesthesiology. Four minutes apart, then two. It took eight tries to land my intravenous line, my veins thin and resistant, my hands and arms bruised from failed attempts. Each time, the nurses would beg me to lie flat on my back. It was unthinkable in the midst of a contraction, as my body tensed and fought to push this baby out.
“It’s not fair!” I wailed again and again, thrashing my arms against the crinkly bed paper. All the labor pain was for naught—they’d be cutting me open regardless. But what I mourned most were the four days I expected him still inside me.
Sometimes I try to trick time. I wake in the dark early morning, at three or four a.m., lengthening the days by stealing hours from the night. I am unwilling to let moments pass without living as many of them as I can.
One day, I look up the definition of tubal ligation online and read that it’s a sterilization procedure, according to Wikipedia, “in which a woman’s fallopian tubes are clamped and blocked, or severed and sealed…”
My mind wanders to the days and weeks following my firstborn’s birth. “I’ll remove them for you in a single swoop. You won’t feel a thing.” My husband, a surgeon, stared disapprovingly at the Steri-Strips that still railroad-tracked my incision, over six weeks since the C-section.
“What’s the rush?” I countered. “They’ll fall off eventually.” I feared not pain, but a sense of loss. The tape residue on the backs of my hands from where they inserted the IV was long gone; my body was steadily shrinking as my son’s swelled—he had already outgrown all the newborn-size clothing.
The Steri-Strips, cruddy and useless, were all that was left of the lengthy labor and delivery, of the day that morphed me into a mother.
“A woman’s fallopian tubes are…severed and sealed…” I flinch involuntarily and close the computer screen.
At my tenth college reunion, I pass the old dorm where, in room 150, we first made love. I close my eyes and linger there for a little, letting the wind whip my face, my feet unsteady. I force myself to feel back there—to remember the room, what I wore, how we laughed and worried we were doing it wrong. I try to conjure any scraps of conversation my imperfect memory will allow.
For a long time, on that date—of lost virginity to a lost love—I would carve out a few moments to recall whatever I could. Each year, it was less. Eventually May 8th came and went without me even noticing.
I lie awake in bed and feel the flutter of the baby low in my abdomen. Soon my body will be emptied of another for good. I will the days before the birth to pass slowly.
It’s not aging that fazes me; I’m not particularly attached to my youth. But it’s the letting go, the slipping away of anything I’ve been, known, loved.
Maybe if I carry enough with me through this life, I’ll move so slowly that nothing will change.
My belly feels heavier this time, if that’s possible, my mood constantly shifting. Most of the time, I feel damn lucky. But tired, too, weighed down. Laden with another life.
For weeks, I hedged. I never felt uncertain of my answer, but the utter irrationality of it kept me from admitting it to myself, from speaking it aloud. One Tuesday, halfway through the pregnancy, I found the words:
“It’s the finality of it,” I start. “I’m just not ready to have my tubes tied, even though this is likely our last. So no.” My voice gains strength. “I can’t.”
The rain pounds mercilessly on the roof, ricochets loudly off the metal gutters. It’s only three p.m., but the skies are black. My oldest son’s school bus turns slowly onto our street, delivering the last of my three children home.
I’ve collected the stray lawn chairs and trash pail lids from along the driveway, stowed them in the garage. I gather whatever I can, keep it close.
We are safe against the storm.
DINA L. RELLES is a writer with work published in The Atlantic, Atticus Review, River Teeth, STIR Journal, Full Grown People, The Manifest-Station, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. A piece of hers was recently chosen as a finalist in Split Lip Magazine’s Livershot Memoir Contest. She is a blog editor at Literary Mama and is currently at work on her first book of nonfiction. You can find her at www.dinarelles.com or on Twitter @DinaLRelles.
She Stopped Taking the Pill—but What Happened Next Shocked Everyone!
She and her husband wanted a child—a “little-Nick-and-Sarah-baby.” She stopped taking the tiny daily pill. Nothing happened. Her body, young and healthy, refused to ovulate more than three times a year— a practice of inadequate irresponsibility it had begun with Menstruation Number One, when she was almost sixteen. She worried, a lot. She could become one of the women forced to smile through tight teeth. The mouths sing-songing, “We’re trying!” “Whenever God blesses us!” “Someday!” The ones who cry to see blood on the soft, snowy cotton, those who stare surreptitiously at the lucky. The experts on aiming a bad-news-bearing pee stream on a plastic stick, the minds trying to will nothing into a pink line.
After Months of Suffering, She Made an Amazing Discovery That Would Change Everything!
In the end, her body would fail for only a little over a year. The worry had eaten away at her for no reason. She could have saved the tears for something better. When she felt her way to the gray dawn bathroom and she vomited into the bowl, she knew it must be true and it was. It was a bad time—they had just moved across the state—and they had stopped actively trying, wanting to get more settled in their new city. But she hadn’t started using birth control again; she’d been lulled by their failure thus far. Now they were, at the same time, happier and more worried than they had ever been.
The Appalling New Ways in Which Her Body Betrayed Her!
She should have spent those worry-months picking up extra waitressing shifts. When the sickness came, she wasn’t ready. Her body failed her in a new way now. Her blood rushed harder through the highways. Her doctor, bony and cruel faced, the only female doctor who’d accepted Medicaid, berated her for gaining weight—it was too much, too quickly. She’d thought only a woman could understand what she was going through, but she saw no sympathy in the stony eyes, just disgust. The prescription for high blood pressure—get off your feet and stop eating so much. Her worry over her inability to conceive morphed quickly into another worry, as her body struggled, as the money quickly became not enough.
Groundbreaking Research Uncovers the Top Five Things to Avoid When Pregnant!
She needed to keep waiting tables—they couldn’t pay their bills with only his tips. She left her restaurant and he left his, so they could get a new restaurant together. This way, he could carry her heavy trays. Sinking into their sofa after midnight, after working a double shift, her feet and legs rebelled. They tingled, ached, screamed at her as she held onto the stove for support. She stirred canned soup and heated hot dogs—all against doctor’s orders, but they were quick, cheap, and she was too tired to deal with more. They sat on the green sofa with the Southwestern design—ugly but free—and binge-watched episodes of Friends he had downloaded—illegal but free—as they fueled their bodies with salt, sugar, and fat. These nutritional sins were the only luxuries they could afford so they savored them. They went through all 236 episodes in that dark apartment. She doesn’t think Friends is funny, anymore.
They Had Nowhere to Turn—and Then, an Unexpected Phone Call!
They had to choose which bills to pay. The apartment’s rent was the most important, of course, the truck payment second. All frivolities had already been cut, and all bills were already in or past their grace periods. The truck insurance was allowed to lapse, which meant they now were in danger of their only vehicle getting repossessed. One chilly night, his parents called him. They weren’t rich, or even super comfortable, but they had read between the stress lines in foreheads and the pauses in phone calls. They offered to share what they had. They offered to make room. She threw everything in cardboard boxes, nervous and relieved about the offer. He used their last dollars to rent a U-Haul, and they drove it, along with their uninsured truck. They drove from Dallas to the Hill Country; from the cold apartment complex surrounded by strangers to the warm house surrounded by family.
The Aging Effects of Stress—Doctors Say You Can IMPROVE YOUR MENTAL HEALTH by Letting Go of Unrealistic Expectations!
The stress wasn’t over, but it was lesser. It was now the stress of preparing for childbirth, of two women sharing a kitchen, of heads butting, of chore parceling, of packed cardboard boxes in the garage with no plans to unpack them anytime soon, and of feeling beholden by the knowledge that this graciousness could not be repaid. It was no longer the stress of unpaid car insurance, eviction, and having to choose cheaper food over healthier food. She still couldn’t bring herself to care what the scale said—she’d deal with it later. Her new doctor-who-accepts-Medicaid was a man; she felt that she could accept the advice that resonated in her and release the rest as “something he knows nothing about.” He didn’t mention her weight—either he was more compassionate toward her feelings or too busy and uncaring to take the time. Either way, she was grateful to ignore it for now.
The Shocking Aftermath of Her Life Choices!
She gave up canned soup, doctors with cold eyes, waitressing, and Friends. She gave her body her blessing to grow their baby girl for the remaining three months. His parents gave all they could spare to the preparations for their granddaughter’s arrival. She and her husband felt the relief of release as hope returned to their eyes. It wasn’t the perfect start for a young family, but it was a safe and loving one. They accepted it gladly.
SARAH BROUSSARD WEAVER lives on a hill in beautiful Portland, Oregon. She is a senior at University of Portland. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Eastern Iowa Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Mulberry Fork Review among other journals. You can visit her at sbweaver.com or tweet hi @sarahbweaver.
I’m so sleepy, staring out the bus window. It must be near midnight by now, and half the kids have curled up with their pillows and blankets, headphones and cellphones. I’m getting rocked fairly roughly to sleep. I take a moment to search through my purse for a pill, two really, first my birth control pill and then a cranberry supplement. I swig down a gulp of bottled water for the first, and, for the first time, notice that Mindy is sleepily regarding me from across the aisle. She very quietly asks me about the second pill.
I bristle a little that I have so little privacy here, that these teenagers get to know so much about my life that I didn’t mean for them to. She doesn’t mean any harm asking after me, though, and is trying to do so quietly. I reply quietly back, “Well, maybe. I do seem to be having some, um, trouble in that department.”
Mindy nods and gently leans her head on the back of the seat in front of her. “My mom uses those—they seem to help,” she offers softly. “Sorry you’re having trouble.”
Her dyed curly hair frames her face, and she’s removed the vintage eighties earrings she’s worn to the tournament today. Mindy gathers her traveling blanket around her body and pads over to my side of the aisle and sits down next to me. She didn’t really ask, but I think boundaries are somewhat invisible to her. She’s a good kid.
She’s still half whispering when she asks, “Do you really have an infection, or are you just peeing a lot?”
I kind of thought that issue had been put to bed, and I’m unsure of whether it’s okay to even answer her, whether I should shut her down. That just seems mean, though, and unnecessary. I answer that as far as I know, I’m just peeing a lot.
“You know, you could be pregnant.”
As far as I remember I only raise my eyebrows and nod. Is this conversation actually happening?
“Odam is having a girl,” Our other speech/debate coach and his wife are expecting. “I think you are pregnant. It’ll be a boy; they’ll be friends growing up.”
Odam, last name, kind of astounds me as a coach. He’s the one who has every kid clamoring to hang out in his room before school, after school, during lunch. I’m envious that our students want to be around him 24/7.
But … I am also absolutely horrified at the thought of my life being that taken over by children. I like the quiet before the first bell rings and that lunches give me a moment to think. After school I can plan and sit and rest, then I can seek my students out when I’m ready. I know where they’ll be—Odam’s room. These speech and debate tournaments last from Friday afternoon until late Saturday night and I enjoy them. I do. It is a lot, though. I sometimes just want to read and sit and disengage and be by myself.
Having company sometimes is nice, sometimes.
I take in what Mindy’s said. She might not be wrong about this. The week before, when I had been shopping, I was suddenly drawn to a little blue blanket. One with frogs. It was so soft and felt necessary. I picked it up then slowly set it down again and left it there, convincing myself that I was crazy. We don’t have any plans for this yet. The plan was to start trying next year, just before my husband’s job transferred us again. So that I wouldn’t have to leave my kids before we actually moved away.
“That’d be nice, for us to have kids who would become friends,” I tell her. This is far too familiar a conversation to have, but it’s so sweet and hopeful and generally not embarrassing, I let her go on, let her in.
“You know, I want to have lots of kids. I’m good with kids.”
I’m sure she is good with kids. I watched her a number of times read stories to children and she’s a natural: sweet and empathetic and kind. When she whispers about how nine children would be what she really would like, and how she knows she’ll be a wonderful mother, I am sleepily sure that she’s right about that. I like my privacy and I want to be professional and distant, but as Mindy keeps talking, the compartmentalized aspects of my life keep bleeding into each other. All I can feel is affection. It’s nice that she has wishes and hopes and dreams for me, like I do for her. I secretly hope that she is a little bit psychic, too, while I listen and fondly watch her curls bounce along with the bus.
A few weeks later and I’m chaperoning for a state-wide tournament. Odam was the one who really coached polished and perfected blonde Cheyenne to the top of her field, but things being what they are, no one is going to send a teenage girl and a male teacher alone on a flight to the Texan-Mexican border. So, I got to tag along, too. At this point I know Cheyenne more by reputation than conversation. She is a shark, great at debate but even stronger in original oratory. I’m a little nervous that she’ll be just like those girls I knew in high school. The Winners. The ones who had little time for the “also-rans” like me. With a start I realize that I am still scared of popular teenage girls.
My survival tactic back in the day had always been to bury my head in a book, act a little cool, aloof, and distant until I could prove to myself that it was safe to peek out. Often when I did, some slight, some pointed look, some omission put me back in my place. However, now I’m a chaperone, sharing a room with a girl who made it to State. I can’t hide my envy behind a book all week and pretend I’m invisible and that she doesn’t exist. That is just not going to be okay. I am a grown woman with a degree, a husband, and a mortgage, for God’s sake. I should be over this stuff by now.
I’d filled my suitcase for this trip with a full pack of pads and a full pack of tampons, thinking I would need them. But day after day, the dull ache below my navel never developed into a full-blown cramp. When I could get away with it, I’d stare off into space calculating and recalculating. We had not been planning to get pregnant. I couldn’t believe that Mindy might be right. Or that as I was figuring this out while I was hundreds of miles from my husband. I called him from the hotel and asked him to ransack WebMD, to look up every symptom I was having. Everything—exhaustion, bloating, nausea, sensitive nipples—meant I was either pregnant or about to have my period. My roommate was starting to get suspicious.
Between the moods swings, the napping, the bits of conversation she and Odam could hear and the fact that I couldn’t not tell them for one more second because I was going to burst if I had to hide what might be the biggest thing that ever happened to me in my entire life from them for three more days … I admitted to them what was going on. That very soon I was going to find out if I was pregnant. To my surprise, they both grinned and bounced while we talked and they enjoyed teasing me mercilessly. Every time I scarfed a handful of chips, or started to drift off while I was talking, Cheyenne just laughed and would proclaim, “You are so pregnant, Kwagner.” I feel absolutely silly for even considering being afraid of her.
“Um, Miss?” Danielle is in my Pre-AP class and has come up to my desk. We’re all writing quietly and she’s approached me with her paper in hand and a stage whisper.
“Yep, hon, what you need?”
“Miss,” she’s quieter than ever and hasn’t given me a drop of trouble since I met her, “I wanted to ask you something, but I’m worried that it might be rude.”
I blink a little trying to guess what it could be, “Well, I’m sure it’s no big deal. What’s your question?”
“Well ma’am, I noticed that you’ve been looking a little poochy. Not bad or anything, but is it okay if I ask you, are you pregnant?”
I’ve only known I’m pregnant for five days and I wonder how I could possibly be showing already. I’m shocked. Well, the hell with waiting those first six weeks to be on the safe side. I’m not going to lie to her; there’s no reason to. This baby, this tiny grain of rice with a heartbeat, wants to be a part of the conversation despite my introverted objections. I don’t get a say, anymore, about keeping private.
“Um, yes, I just found out myself.” Danielle squeaks as quietly as she can in delight. “But I’m not ready to tell anyone yet, is that all right?”
“Of course, I won’t tell a soul, I’m just happy I was right. Are you excited?”
“You know, I am.”
“Okay, Miss, that’s all, I’ll go back to work now.”
She sneaks back quietly to her desk, never asking about her essay, never telling anyone before I’m ready. It takes me a while to realize how closely my body is looked at every day if so slight a difference is seen so quickly. I feel as if I had always been teaching naked and never knew it.
Dierdre is unhappy that I am pregnant.
And she has stopped calling me “Mom”.
She liked to call me “Mom” and had been doing so all year. We were close and I knew too much about her home life for me to ever see her real parents without having to push down anger. I knew there should have been a point when I drew that line between us more firmly, where I should not have allowed her to lean so heavily on me. But who can in good conscience step aside when you could catch someone who is falling? It doesn’t dawn on me that she is having this close relationship torn away from her. My biological child could become my whole world, a world that wouldn’t include her.
For a few weeks she doesn’t even talk to me, doesn’t smile. She had a boyfriend by then, and the two of them had stopped by before and after class pretty often. He assured me that he’d talk to her about it. I hoped he would, but for the few weeks that Dierdre kept me at arm’s length, I was able to breathe.
As my pregnancy progressed, I needed literal breathing space. I needed fresh air to escape the fumes of Axe body spray and Bubble Yum that permeated the classroom. I couldn’t escape the nausea of morning sickness, or the strange smells of masses of teenagers pressed around me at all times.
Figuratively, I needed breathing space to figure out whose kids were going to win out at the end of the day, mine or someone else’s. My body wanted me to take a two-hour nap every afternoon. My gradebook, on the other hand, was gaping and empty and needed to be filled with percentages. Each night was a fight over who would get my time and energy and attention. I could not fathom how much worse the push and pull would be once my olive-sized baby was a full grown child. These are just logistics, though, and I harbored the illusion that if I was just well-organized and resourceful, I would be able to manage my time and energy to get things done.
Deep inside, however, I knew that Dierdre has forever muddled and warped my ability to be objective about this. Her deep, endless needs stared me right in the eye and made it clear that being a teacher is absolutely more than grammar and roll call and assignments. I couldn’t pretend that just managing the paperwork will make everything turn out all right. I had asked these children to trust that I have their best interests at heart, that I care about them and what they will learn, that I will be in their corner through good and bad. It took so much of me, almost all my waking thoughts. The feelings that poured off of my kids stayed with me through the rest of the night, every night. It was so much.
If I were to leave them to stay at home with my baby, because it was too much, I would have lied to them about always being there. I would tell them that they’d be okay, that I’m interchangeable and, that their lives will be just fine after I have gone. Which will inevitably make them feel as if they were always interchangeable, that my life would be just fine without them. Not true. Some might understand, but the kids who needed the most were the ones who would feel me severing the ties the most completely.
Towards the end of the school year, Dierdre’s class throws me a baby shower, complete with pastel streamers, yellow duckies, and a hand-decorated cake. We eat while watching Romeo+Juliet, and Dierdre takes a picture with me. She later sets it in a frame with the word Friends engraved all around in different fonts. An acknowledgement that I can’t remain her mom, but maybe I am not lost to her forever. I’m glad to have her back, and scared that I’m going to have to leave her before too much longer.
Last period, and Andrew is in trouble again. Maybe he’s just talking, making the girls around him giggle, rolling his eyes back in his head, leaning back in his seat, and stretching his ridiculously long legs out into the aisle where I have to climb over them—I don’t quite remember. I’m eight months pregnant and not happy about any shenanigans, much less his, so I’ve dragged him out into the hallway to ask him what’s going on.
He gives me some muttered apology, again, I don’t remember for what offense.
“Miss, you remind me of my mother. She’s short and smiles a lot, too.”
“Oh?” Is this a good thing, a bad thing…
“She lies all the time,” he frowns and stares at me hard. “All the time she’s smiling, she’s hiding something, she’s hiding what’s going on to us, pretending it’s not happening. I’m trying to figure out if you are really like her.”
I know that Andrew is going to be testifying against his father in court soon, confirming that his father had abused him and his younger brothers for a long time. I know his aunt and uncle are raising him, and that I have no possible way to contact his mother. If you look at Andrew’s file, it’s as if she really disappeared.
“Okay.” I take a deep breath. There is not much else I can say. He is studying me, and has been trying to decide if he can trust me. He looks down at my swollen belly. My shirts barely cover me and sometimes my lessons are interrupted because the whole class is mesmerized by the baby’s flips and turns just under my skin, just under my shirt. I have become used to all the staring, all the questions. I had imagined that my baby and me, as we both grew, our intimate relationship would be wordless and private. Me and my baby, we’re public property.
“Miss, can I ask you, did you want your baby?”
I’m about to answer him without hesitation, but I then pause to notice that I was about to answer him without hesitation. Before this baby, I would have weighed every answer to see if it gave too much away, or if what I said could have caused trouble somehow. I don’t take time to decide if my answer will hurt him somehow, but I do take the time to make sure what I say is true.
“I wasn’t expecting him, but, yes, I want him. Very much so.”
He nods a few times and seems to trust that I haven’t lied to him. “That’s good. I think it’s much better when the mom wants the baby. It’s different.”
The next class, Andrew brings in pictures. They are of him and his younger brothers as babies and toddlers. I sit by his desk and we all exclaim how cute he was. I’m torn. He’s rewriting my image over his mother’s, making a version of her who tells him the truth and who smiles at the child version of him. It seems to be helping him somehow. I cannot imagine leaving him behind in just a few weeks. But what had happened? When did he begin to believe that his mother never wanted him at all? How badly will I hurt my son if I don’t do right by him?
Will my son eventually paste an image of a different mother over me? Will he look at me and know exactly who I am and need to erase that person, those flaws that hurt him so badly, in order to function?
I cannot afford to get this wrong.
My son, Nicholas, the boy I carried around amid so much commentary, is now six years old. His kindergarten teacher is very pregnant with her first child. My guy seems completely captivated with the idea but refuses to ask her any questions. He wants to know about her belly, if she’s excited, whether the baby is going to be a boy or a girl, but he absolutely will not ask her. He is terrified he’ll embarrass her. I try to hide my smile at this, as if all the questions my students asked about him in utero had offended him deeply. He is quite serious, so I don’t want to appear as if I am laughing at his plight. But I would have never guessed that this shyness would have become a part of him, especially after my students’ impertinence helped break my heart open a little more than I thought it could.
When it’s time for his teacher’s maternity leave to start, Nicholas keeps frowning into his cereal. With furrowed brow he admits he is worried that he might forget what she looks like. “Mom, I’ve been having dreams for her and the baby, but I can’t finish them if I can’t remember what she looks like. Some dreams I can control but not if I forget her.”
I don’t know quite what he means. He is very serious and anxious about it, though, so I help how I can.
“Should we ask if we can take a picture of her?”
Nicholas nods but then yells out, “But I don’t want to ask her! I would feel embarrassed. She might feel embarrassed.”
“What if I ask her?” I offer. “I am sure she would think it was sweet that you wanted a picture of her.”
I always did.
“No, I would feel embarrassed.”
“But do you still want her picture?”
Nicholas looks down into his lap and whispers, “Yes.”
I e-mail her and ask her for him then bring my camera when I go pick him up. When I take his teacher’s picture, he hides behind my legs and barely says goodbye. She seems to appreciate that Nicholas wants to remember her. He seems uncomfortable and unsure of this intimacy, that she knows that he likes her. He misses her already.
She still isn’t back from her maternity leave yet, and all us parents give each other looks because we know maybe she will come back and maybe she won’t.
I didn’t come back, and that was so painful.
I hope for my son that she does. I find it sweet and hopeful that he has wishes and hopes and dreams for her, the way I’m sure she does for him.
I have a feeling she misses him, too.
I always did.
KRISTIN WAGNER writes creative non-fiction drawing on her experiences as a teacher, a stay-at-home mother to two school-aged boys, a wife, a person struggling with fibromyalgia, a foodie, and a self-appointed critic of pop culture. She posts regularly on these topics at kristinwagner.wordpress.com. In addition her work has appeared online with FibroDaily.com, Literary Mama, and, most recently, at Mother Always Write.
Nicholas’s teacher did come back from her maternity leave after a solid twelve weeks home with her first-born, a boy. Once she finally did, my often anxious first-born was able to let his shoulders relax and was able to smile a little more quickly. And frankly, so was I.
The weekly playdate prompts me to clean, which helps to chase off cockroaches. Here in Alabama, land of robust flora and fauna, the consequences of sloppy housecleaning can be cockroaches nearly the size of mango seeds crossing your living room wall by lamplight. So I clean, wagging my full abdomen behind the vacuum and holding my vacuum-phobic toddler on my hip. Every Wednesday morning, Sam and I welcome a handful of moms—most of us in various stages of pregnancy—and three other toddlers for a couple hours of nonstop play and food and mom talk.
I am the only mom working outside home. This week, as we sit swapping stories about our toddlers’ naps and eating habits, discussing labor and delivery, I feel like I left half my body at the clinic. In the past three days, I worked forty-two hours as an emergency veterinarian. I wonder how other people stitch together their various lives.
Just over twenty-four hours ago, I lost a patient during a surgery to repair his diaphragmatic hernia. Today, the woman cradling a pregnant belly, cross-legged on the floor, jumping up to redirect toddlers or serve tea doesn’t feel like the same woman who orchestrated anesthesia, surgery, and ultimately resuscitation attempts at three in the morning. My hand prying open the elastic to check for a full diaper is the same hand that reached through the hole in the diaphragm, grasped a still heart muscle, and squeezed rhythmically until it began to twitch in my palm, for a moment. My voice singing “The Wheels on the Bus” told a tearful young woman that the gentle three-legged dog who brought her through a painful divorce had been too damaged by the car that hit him to make it through surgery.
Every now and then, one of the other moms asks me about work. One conversation began, “You deal with animals, so you might know what to do. Something died in our ductwork and there’s a horrible smell.”
Another time, someone wondered if people actually bring their pets to the clinic during the middle of the night. I answered honestly—yes—citing an unfortunate recent example involving euthanasia.
“I had to euthanize him,” I repeated, prompting a rapid subject change.
Mostly, we just talk about being moms, which is, in fact, my harder job.
At work, we sometimes order food, the way most offices do. Taking an index card around, someone collects orders from the staff and phones China Garden. The anticipation usually beats the real eggroll, which drips oil down my fingers yet remains dry inside, requiring syrupy orange sauce squeezed onto each bite. On the other hand, the crab rangoons are perfectly crisp and creamy inside if I can get to them while they’re hot. Often, just when the food arrives, I’m racing around, aware of the patient family who’s been waiting almost two hours in room three, the pushy woman who’s harassing the receptionist and seems to have no money, and the elderly gentleman in room four who, my staff informs me, is diabetic and needs to get home soon. Also, two critical hospitalized patients, one of whom does not seem to be breathing well at the moment, tug my attention.
I cram a crab rangoon into my mouth while scrutinizing the radiographs of the diabetic man’s dog. With my free hand, I press my aching breasts. Lactation makes me ravenous, and with limited time to eat or pump breast milk, my body distracts me with discomforts. One friend of mine, in her obstetrics and gynecology residency, pumped when and where necessary, putting milk production and comfort over privacy, earning the T-shirt they made for her at graduation with Creamery written across the front. I lack her moxie, and her hands-free breast pump.
I cock my head and stand back, chewing fried dough and deciding about the x-rays. Also, I’m organizing my plan of action. Get that diabetic man home now, check on the hospitalized patient with dicey breathing, examine the pet in room two for potential drop-off, and have a technician triage the pushy woman’s pet and finances while I race to the bathroom to pump. Those x-rays are normal. And go.
At home after working overnight, I wake in the early afternoon. I am molten, a liquefied rock settled into the bed, the long pillow between knees and arms. My head has melted into the pillow during this nap. Some heavy low sound slips from my chest. Sam rattles his crib in the next room, while the baby stretches and jumps in my abdomen. Her movement is like a mild electric shock that twitches an involuntary muscle, the only part of me able to move at all. On my overnight shift, I rested briefly after five a.m. Several critical cases kept my attention all night. One eventually stabilized, with fluids dripping into an elderly canine vein. The other patient quit battling to breathe against the thick fluid around her lungs. A flat-faced Persian cat, she gasped in the oxygen cage for hours, then flung out her legs and died. She left the clinic in the arms of two devastated people, and I felt relief for her. The night removed my bones, leaving me a motionless slug with maternal responsibilities.
More sounds from Sam, with words now: “Up!” I find my limbs individually, sliding them under the blankets. I crawl up out of the well. In Sam’s room, I sit on the floor by the crib, where he grins and hops around, peering at me over the front rail, through the rungs, over the side. I go back and forth like a limp metronome, joining our favorite game, “I See You Over the Top, I See You Over the Side.” I aim his space heater at my lower back and knead my lumbar muscles, laughing with him as he flops into the blankets. Joy is this: my warm back, a radiant boy, electricity of the daughter I contain. Stiffly, I ease sideways, then stand up one foot at a time. I snag Sam under his armpits and hoist him into our afternoon.
Last Sunday we were so busy at the clinic that I added sitting down to pee when calculating minutes off my feet in the past fifteen hours. We were so busy that one large German Shepherd mix stayed for several hours on the floor in the exam room where we’d euthanized her. Her status—recumbent, dehydrated and shocky, with a maggot infestation in her hind end—went from the top of our triage list to the bottom after she was dead. Short-staffed, we kept her in our thoughts but turned towards the living, trying to alter the course of other patients’ lives.
I began that shift with an emergency Cesarean section on an English Bulldog. Four puppies. Two with detached placentas were dead. One with a malformed head and severe cleft palate lived two hours. The fourth puppy rallied and made it home. Bulldogs are seriously impaired when it comes to reproduction. And breathing. I finished the surgery with my pregnant belly soaked in amniotic fluid, but glad to have mama bulldog recovering nicely.
I walked from surgery into the treatment area. All of the exam rooms were full. The long, U-shaped benches in the lobby had people seated shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting to see me, the only veterinarian in the building. I had to pee.
Two nights ago, I thawed and browned some venison—cuts I didn’t recognize because they were a gift from a friend. My plan: fajitas. The pieces looked miserably chewy, and the smell struck me as unappetizing. I set it aside in my crockpot and made veggie fajitas instead, intending to spice the meat and slow cook it. I forgot about it overnight. In the morning, I felt wary of the meat still sitting on the counter. So I ignored it. By noon, I was actively guilty and disgusted by the meat and myself. So I put it in the fridge. This morning I made my move, almost in tears about it, and threw away the perfectly good—though neglected—food. In the trash bag, it totaled only the size of my two fists. But it was food, the flesh of an animal who died to be eaten. Either way, it made me sick.
I learn in a continuing education seminar that hormones, like estrogen and progesterone, are considered hazardous substances. “Beware,” the pharmacists say, reciting regulations guiding the administration and disposal of such pharmaceuticals.
“No wonder,” I think, eyeing the other pregnant veterinarian beside me, and closing my eyes to feel those hazards in my own veins. I have been newly pregnant, then postpartum, then breastfeeding, now pregnant, heading toward postpartum and breastfeeding again. I have worked through both pregnancies and breastfeeding, feeling larger than life. Hazardous. “Don’t mess with the pregnant lady,” I joke to my coworkers.
But I do feel somehow superhuman, more than myself. I love the wide eyes on my clients, watching me enter an exam room belly first. Everyone can see the power that I carry. Little did I know that mothers everywhere carry the weight and strength of their motherhood at all times. Beyond pregnancy, it simply becomes invisible.
Hazardous. There is no end to the changes wrought upon a pregnant body, both during and lingering after gestation. I have learned not to underestimate progesterone and estrogen, and the rough seas when the two trade places in hormone hierarchy. So I grin at the pharmacists and their regulations for such dangers.
I lean between wall and exam room table, transfixed by the woman across from me. It is four in the morning, and her cat is dead on arrival. Nothing I can do, but we stand talking, two women close in age. One year ago, today, her daughter died. And now her cat.
She tells me to take photos, videos, to hold each moment like glass. Her daughter, not quite one year old, was asleep. Something stirred her husband, nudged him to check on the baby. She wasn’t breathing. They acted fast. Her heart still beating. A local hospital. A need for life flight. No helicopters available. A desperate drive. Days on life support. And then it was over.
We are both weeping. Her cat lies between us.
My cat prowls and stretches and climbs onto the shelf of my belly. I’m not settled in for napping yet. She’s ready, though. First I must arrange pillows strategically to support my back, neck, protruding abdomen. I turn off the cell phone. Let the dog in. Set the baby monitor on its charger to avoid low battery beeps. I fold myself around the pillows and begin with a deep breath inward, filling my chest and womb, allowing breath to flow down my curving legs to the soles of my feet. Purring, the cat joins me. I lift the blanket corner. She nestles against a shifting baby. As I focus, my face heavies, sinking against my bones and teeth. My breath, again, washes through me like a wave carrying light foam up the sand, then receding back into the ocean. In labor, these waves of breath will carry us to delivery, transforming wild pain into something I can hold.
Later, consciousness rises back to my eyes when I hear squeaks and murmurs over the monitor. I slept for an hour, pressed by the cat. Lead flows in my veins, holding me into the sofa crevices. I wiggle my toes, stretch, then roll to a stand and prowl back to the bedroom where my small, golden-haired boy grins. “Good nap!”
I open the oven to pull out the chocolate almond biscotti, filling the house with aroma. We’re standing in the kitchen along the countertop’s wide peninsula. Two blonde heads bob up and down as two-year-old boys climb the stepstool to munch banana nut muffins and blueberry cornbread. It’s a typical Wednesday playdate: three pregnant moms and two kids. We’ve just decided to head outside into the sunshine when Jenny, two days past her due date, gasps softly. “My water’s breaking.” She heads for the bathroom, and Rachel and I nearly follow her in there in our excitement. We giggle and our eyes fill. I offer towels and dry pants and assurances that amniotic fluid is the most beautiful thing we’ve ever had on our kitchen floor.
Jenny calls her husband. We settle down a little, finish our snacks, and speculate about Jenny’s next twenty-four hours. Husbands arrive to drive Jenny and the extra vehicle back home. They’re all gone within minutes. A flurry of astonishment and biscotti and well wishes bustles out the door. Sam, perched high in my arms above my own round abdomen, leans his head on my shoulder. We head down the hall. Naptime.
When my daughter is three months old, I discover that I can sing and whistle simultaneously. I’ve never tried that before. If fact, I’m not trying it now. After a full weekend of work and waking nights with Stella, I stumble around the house. A sound escapes me, something between a vocalized sigh and a descending whistle of amazement at how tired I feel. The result mixes my vibrating vocal cords and pursed lips into a warm buzzy feeling in the middle of my mouth. I try a tune. Success.
The next day, I try again but have to muddle through some bizarre, atonal, not-so-nicely-buzzy variations before I find the hummingbird in my mouth again. I zuzz out “Twinkle Twinkle” for Sam.
As I’m parenting two children and being an emergency veterinarian, sometimes I squawk out ineffective days, unable to balance my focus, like losing the melody between my lips and my voice. Sometimes a warm buzz fills me and fills the room. There. I find a balance, and a tune wavers along.
ABBIE GASCHO LANDIS is a veterinarian and writer in rural upstate New York. She is working on a book about her relationship with freshwater mussels, set in Alabama. Her writing appears at www.thedigandflow.com.
Some premature babies, the Neonatal Intensive Care nurses tell me, can’t afford the calories it takes to swallow. The first time they take my skinny, three-point-three-pound son off his IV drip to give him real food, they ask me not to watch. They have to run a tube through his mouth down to his stomach—babies this young also have no gag reflex—so that the calories go directly where they are needed, rather than being wasted in tongue and throat action, a method called gavage feeding, the same way foie gras geese are fattened. The instinct to rescue him from this specific invasion comes as a relief: my days are otherwise filled with fear, helpless and enormous and without direction.
The entrance to our nearest hospital butts against a curved driveway where people pick up and drop off patients or take advantage of the free valet parking. Behind it, before shifting into pure concrete and asphalt, is a landscaped grassy area with benches clustered around a fountain and picnic tables set at angles near the walkway to the parking lot.
It looks innocent enough, inviting, but it’s not. The first time I stepped on that walkway, I was looking down and jumped to the side as if it burned through the soles of my shoes. It was paved with bricks, most of them carved with the dedications of donors, bricks given in honor of someone whose name was usually followed by a date of birth and a date of death. What made them unusual was how close the two dates were—sometimes days or weeks, sometimes the same day. I wondered how long those babies had lived. Hours? A whole day? Minutes? Where were their parents now? Did they wake up on that date every year to face the grayness of loss?
My husband Ian and I called it the Dead Baby Walk and kept to the grass after that. We spent a lot of time at the hospital, sitting in Neonatal Intensive Care next to an incubator holding our premature son. He was so scrawny that he weighed less than our smallest cat; he’d been born seven weeks too early, and his lungs weren’t functioning properly. There was no way that I was going to start the day’s visit to him by being reminded of the fragility captured at the beginning of life and how frequently it can end in the opposite of hope.
“I don’t think I can go in,” I told Ian. We could see the birthing center, on the fifth floor of the hospital, from the parking lot. It was seven days after John’s unexpected, extremely early arrival, and I was leaving emotional shreds of myself all over the county as we made our daily drive up and down the New York State Thruway from our home to the NICU. There, locked away from rooms where real people, with normal babies, bore and laughed and kissed and nursed, my son took sips of air from oxygen tubes while another tube tried to clear an air pocket from around his lungs. He had air in all the wrong places and a hole in his heart and had never yet eaten anything not given by IV. The NICU—short for Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, the place for undercooked or sick babies (ours was both)—dragged on me like a small planet with its own gravitational pull, a force nonexistent for people whose babies had been born full-term and healthy.
Every day after being buzzed in the locked door and scrubbing my arms and forearms at the NICU sink (premature babies are also extremely susceptible to infection), I paused just outside the bright room, trying to arm myself against tears that were of no use to anyone. The incubators were shrouded with small homemade quilts made by a charity organization. John slept and blinked and cried under a pattern of cats sitting against a green background while Ian and I read to him from a book of traditional English fairy tales that I’d picked up in London. We sang the “Mockingbird” song over and over, and described the room that was waiting for him: the special mobile his grandparents had sent from England, the fairy tale–themed mural a friend had painted on his wall. I choked when telling him about the blue rug and striped curtains we’d bought. The care that we had put into those everyday details sometimes overwhelmed me.
Today I couldn’t get to the blue rug and striped curtains. Today I couldn’t even get as far as the NICU door. I couldn’t even get out of the car. Today the neonatologist had called early in the morning to warn us that John needed another chest tube to clear a second pneumothorax—an air bubble that prevented his lungs from expanding—and I’d curled up between my bed and the loathsome breast pump and sobbed as if tears could dissolve the pain and me at the same time.
In the parking lot, Ian brushed tears back into my hair. Neither of us had any platitudes. “Can you?” Another nod. A deep breath. A final wiping of nose and face. I swung my legs carefully out of the car and hauled myself up using the handle above the door, heading for the longer path around the curved driveway that avoided the Dead Baby Walk. My skirt brushed over the massive numbness in my abdomen, hiding a healing scar I’d never intended to have.
Two weeks before, I’d been grimacing every time I folded myself into a car and thinking that I couldn’t possibly stand the discomfort of pregnancy for the two months I had left. Three weeks before, we’d been hiking on a remote Scottish island, where the hospital was over an hour’s flight away from the island’s cockleshell beach—an hour if the weather was clear, a day’s wait or more when it was overcast. If my body had turned against me earlier, neither John nor I would have made it. The nearness of the timing still makes my breath short and my hands cold.
I had HELLP Syndrome. A vicious, rare illness that’s caused by pregnancy, with no cure except delivery. It hit me fast, progressing from slightly elevated blood pressure to nearly unbearable abdominal pain within twenty-four hours. By the time my obstetrician performed an emergency C-section, my liver was failing. When my son and I came out of the operating room, Ian was on the phone with my older sister. He froze, not knowing whom to follow as they whisked us each into our own intensive care units.
That first day, I sat in shock in the ICU, smiling automatically at the nurses because being nice is such a deeply ingrained habit that it’s almost pathological. I’d jerk awake when the oxygen monitor screamed to tell me I’d stopped breathing again. My fingers shook as they stroked the streaky Polaroid photo taped to the bed rail. John Henry, a thoughtful nurse in the NICU had written, 4 lb 3 oz, 17 in. I didn’t see my son until thirty hours later, when I was transferred from the ICU to the birthing center’s Mother & Baby section, surrounded by women with full-term newborns and visitors armed with balloons and flowers. Ian and I, three thousand miles from our families, navigated phone calls and inedible hospital food alone, no baby by the bedside.
That first time I met John, at some dark hour of the night, a NICU nurse lifted him, tubes and all, out of his incubator and into my arms. Our IVs tangled; Ian held an oxygen sniffer to John’s nose; I murmured happy nonsense, a normal new mother for a few minutes, ignorant of the month to come.
A week later I sat once again on the high stool next to John’s incubator. I hadn’t been allowed to hold him since that first day, due to the chest tubes, oxygen sniffer, and IV lines, so Ian and I took turns resting our index fingers in his little hand, living for the moments when he squeezed. We couldn’t do more than that. Premature babies are also extremely sensitive to touch. Stroking a preemie’s head or skin can drive him crazy.
The nurses—our friends by now—looked at us anxiously when we walked in that day, the day I gave up on hope and struggled to come in the door. They’d seen parents go through this before, and worse. The neonatologist wrapped us in her professional sympathy as she showed us the second pneumothorax on an X-ray and said John might have to be transferred to a tertiary care unit closer to New York City. I envisioned weeks of three-hour commutes to spend scarce minutes with him, and it seemed unbearable.
After seven days, two pneumothorax, a hole in the heart, and an extra bit of heart valve where it wasn’t needed, there was only one thing that hadn’t been tried: John had not yet had food. He’d lost slightly under a pound—a quarter of his body weight—while my pumped milk had been piling up in the freezer, the only offerings I had to give the gods.
The next day they decided to start feeding him. One milliliter of milk went down the tube to his stomach. The next time it was three, no calories lost to pesky swallowing. His breathing became less erratic, and they turned down the whispering oxygen. Within three days, John had recovered so well that it startled even the neonatologist. He was a full month old before his lungs were strong enough and his heart repaired enough for him to be discharged, but two weeks into his life he was tube- and IV-free for the first time and learning to eat on his own.
Those of us who have faced the potential loss of a child will never bear the pain of those for whom the potential became a fact. We may have stepped on the Dead Baby Walk, but we haven’t bought a commemorative brick. All I can say is that the fear has come close enough to unshroud itself, to touch the heart. Every parent fears losing his or her children. The physical hazards and accidents—cars, drug addiction, sudden peanut allergies, a million unthinkable possibilities—haunt us. It is something else, though, to have that fear cupped in your hand, to acknowledge it by name. To be warned: “Prepare yourself.” Because once prepared, once you know, the Dead Baby Walk’s existence stalks your footsteps. Like all traumas, it becomes embedded in our physical bodies as well as our psyches.
Before his third birthday, John was hospitalized twice for asthma. The second time was the same day we brought home his new baby sister. I held her while Ian drove away with John strapped in the back, his chest caving to expose ribs and diaphragm while he fought to inhale oxygen. His lungs had been too weakened by their early struggles; a simple summer cold caught his alveoli in a tight grip and laid him flat.
He’s seven years old now, and, if all goes well, on his way to being diagnosed asthma-free, despite the incessant coughing that exhausts him every time he catches a cold. I yell at him on a regular basis—brush your teeth! turn off the TV! please stop whining!—something I couldn’t have envisioned doing either during the NICU-month-of-hell or his later asthmatic episodes. He plays Minecraft, rides his bike, does his math lessons, throws a fit when I ask him to pick up his Legos. He’s a normal kid.
But I don’t feel normal anymore. Or maybe it’s that I have been normalized. Maybe avoiding loss, pretending death doesn’t exist, is the abnormal state. I’d hate to believe humanity’s fate is to walk shadowed with grief, sorrow slipping into us painlessly like milk down a gavage tube to a premature baby’s stomach. But on our hospital visits for John’s chest X-rays and to his pulmonologist, and when I returned there for monthly visits to the high-risk perinatologist during my second pregnancy (being at a 25% risk of developing HELLP or various other complications again), the Dead Baby Walk still made me jump like an animal that’s seen violence. Its existence reeks of trauma and fear. It’s a reminder of how linked we are: We clutch at the good moments, the small joys, while the greater sorrows, the losses that eat us alive, lie waiting beneath our feet.
ANTONIA MALCHIK’s essays have appeared in a variety of publications, and are forthcoming from The Washington Post, Orion, STIR Journal, and The Atlantic. You can read more of her work at antoniamalchik.com, and about her experience with HELLP Syndrome on BuzzFeed Ideas. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
If my life were a sitcom, or one of those feather-light family dramas paraded out each year with its supposedly new treatment of the same dusty issues, I’d have seen the plot twist coming miles out. My sister’s text message should have said everything. “Are you busy? I have something I need to tell you that I don’t want to text.”
While I typed that I was free, I thought of the plethora of things that could have happened. Had she or her boyfriend had another relapse? Did she lose her cat again? Was she going to ask for money to tide her over for the next month? Had I accidentally divulged one of her numerous secrets to our parents?
I didn’t have time to consider other possibilities because the phone was already ringing.
“Hey, how are you? What’s up?” This was me, anxiously trying to gauge the urgency of the situation.
“Sissy, I’m pregnant.”
When people get news like this, they make a big, sweeping statement, something like, “You could have knocked me over with a feather.” I used to think that those types of declarations were overwrought, but suddenly, I could commiserate. My head was reeling. I had to sit down and remind myself to breathe as I underwent a series of indescribable and permanent emotional transmutations.
My five-years-younger sister, a recovering addict with just months left in her several-year course of study in beauty school, was pregnant. The father was working on his own recovery. “He was scared,” my sister admitted when she described her boyfriend’s reaction to finding out he was soon going to be a father. “But then he wrote down this list of things he wanted to do for the baby. It was so cute.”
For the next few minutes, my sister paraded out a very thorough overview of how she came to discover she was pregnant. First, she said, she felt tired. “I didn’t even want to put on my makeup,” she said. The same day, all the other girls at beauty school told her that she looked like shit.
“I knew I was pregnant,” she said. “I told my boyfriend, and he said I was just being silly. He said, ‘You always think you’re pregnant.’ He and I got in a big fight about whether we could afford a pregnancy test. I walked out after the fight and went straight to the store. I spent the last two dollars in my account on some crappy store-brand tests. When I took the first one, there were two lines—faint, but pink. I tried again two days later. They were darker that time. I told Mom, and she said to wait, but I explained to her, you don’t get a false positive. It’s rare. Over the weekend, we went to the free clinic and they said I was definitely pregnant.”
“But … are you happy?” I wondered aloud.
“Yeah. I know it won’t always be sunshine and rainbows, but…”
I had been dying to have this very conversation with my friends and family for what seems like forever. I have wanted to have a baby since the day after I married my husband. We will celebrate our two-year anniversary in six months. In times of old, we would already have one baby. Our second would be cooking in my stretch-marked, vertical-lined belly. I would exclaim with fervor about how often I felt my babies kick, and I’d lament to anyone who would listen about my morning sickness, the aches in my back. I would wax poetic about the knowledge that a life was growing inside of me. This was supposed to be my time in the sun.
Instead, my sister was pregnant at twenty-two. My sister who had been kicked off my dad’s car insurance for having too many speeding tickets and at-fault accidents to remain insurable. My sister who has to rely on a healthy—no, corpulent—injection of funds from my parents to make ends meet every month. My sister who has relapsed several times already, and who doesn’t yet have a year of sobriety under her belt. My sister was going to experience the unbridled joy of parenthood, albeit on a shoestring budget.
I went to the refrigerator and wrenched the cap from a bottle of beer. I walked briskly into the next room, leaned over our mahogany wine rack, and grabbed the first bottle of white I saw. Without ceremony, I threw it in the freezer of our new gourmet refrigerator.
My grandmother had her first child nine months to the day after she was married. She’s Catholic, and whenever we talk, she chides me about not going to mass enough. Several weeks ago, I called her to chat. “You can call during the day?” she asked, incredulous. I explained that my new job was something I did from home, and that I was just a volunteer. “I see,” she said in disgust. I told her about how I was starting to ready one of our spare upstairs rooms for a nursery. I could hear her suck in her breath. “You aren’t pregnant, are you?” She spat the last bit like an accusation.
I cringed. At twenty-seven, didn’t I have the right to be pregnant? “No, Grandma. I just wanted to get the space ready for when we are.”
“Good,” she said, clearly relieved. “You’re not ready.”
I reminded her about the proximity of my dad’s birth to her marriage date, but it made no difference. For a reason I’m not privy to, she doesn’t think we should be having kids.
My husband and I own a five-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bathroom house with over an acre of sprawling lawn and mature woods. My husband works as an electrical engineer and I stay home, spending my time curating a startup Etsy shop, funneling my anger and passion into often half-baked writing endeavors, and cooking in our granite and stainless-steel kitchen. Admittedly, I am a terrible cleaner. My husband does all the vacuuming and the only mopping that actually cleans our oak floors. I tend to just spread around the dog hair and dust.
What about any of that made me an unsuitable candidate for parenthood? I wasn’t sure.
It took me weeks after that conversation to realize all over again that I was prepared for my eventual expedition into parenthood. More than half my planning is already done, for heaven’s sake. I know that I want to breastfeed, and which kind of bathtub insert I want for my children. I know that I want to give birth in a hospital where there are birthing tubs, and that I’d like to forego having an epidural, if I can handle it. I know exactly how many prenatal visits our health insurance will cover, and even when I’d like to conceive so that I’m not heavy with child in the hot summer months. Especially, I know that once I am pregnant, my life will change forever, and in ways even I cannot premeditate.
Immediately I sense that my sister is blithely unaware of the intricacies of what she will be undertaking. My first hint is that she doesn’t understand the three-months rule—that most women don’t tell people they’re pregnant until they’re three months along, as that is considered the point after which a spontaneous miscarriage is least likely.
“I’m twenty-two, though,” she says. “I’m young and healthy, so I’ll probably be fine.”
Just throw another dagger, I want to say. But I don’t. Instead, I play the role of the good older sister. I try my hardest to be supportive of her difficult decision and not to let her see how much I am personally and selfishly hurting.
I also fill the rest of my familial duty by peppering her with questions about things she has yet to consider. Has she thought about the price of child care? What happens if the baby’s father doesn’t stick around? Has she considered adoption? I tell her she really ought to keep it in the back of her mind, just in case.
Even as I mention adoption to my sister, I understand how it must sound. My sister and I are both adopted. We are the most different people you can possibly imagine, and that’s because we have vastly different genetic makeups, which I believe contained the hard-wiring for the people we would become.
When we were growing up, my sister refused to accept our parents as her parents. She felt separate from them, and she wanted desperately to be reunited with her birth mother. She was certain that when she did meet her birth mother, she would have the life she always dreamed of: love and unicorns and rainbow glitter skies. Of course, the rest of us knew it wouldn’t have worked that way, but we all loved my sister too much to explain the meaning of “closed adoption.” By the time she was five, my sister’s adoption became the banner she marched into emotionally-devastating battles; her birthday the scene of many a tragic lamentation and outburst rather than a day of joy.
I never felt the way my sister did. I understood what “closed” meant, and I loved my parents. Still, every good drama needs a plot twist, and mine arrived when I was twenty, when I finally learned that my adoption had always been incredibly different than my sister’s.
When my birth mother released me to my parents, she sent along a short letter, which was to be given to me on my eighteenth birthday. My parents gave me this letter two years late. The paper was blue and white, the words written in a lovely round script. “To the baby girl I gave up for adoption,” it read. “If I loved you a little, I would have kept you for myself. But I love you a lot, so I am giving you up.” According to my birth mother’s letter, on reaching adulthood, I could petition Catholic Charities to find her identity. I was astonished. Growing up thinking that I’d never know my birth parents, I hadn’t considered the whole world of possibilities that I now knew could be waiting for me. The prospect was a lot to take in.
“Your sister can’t know,” my parents reminded me, over and over again. “She would be devastated.”
Years later, as I was preparing to marry and move out of my home state, I finally petitioned Catholic Charities. In a matter of weeks, I was united with both sides of my birth family. From the outset, I was startled and pleasantly overwhelmed by the outpouring of excitement and love from the people whose genes I carry. It was, and still is, a fairy tale. Even in fairy tales, however, there is scar tissue underlying all that sparkling joy.
A great deal of sadness permeates my birth family—children tragically lost, relationships strained by lies and secrets kept—but one of the most poignant and untold stories revolves around my birth mother. At twenty years old and between colleges, she had made a hard decision for herself when she found herself pregnant with me. She knew that she couldn’t be the kind of parent she thought I deserved, and she didn’t want me to spend my life shuffling between various family members while she eked out a living.
In the years that passed after my adoption, though, the separation weighed on her. She listened extra hard when strangers spoke of their adopted children, and she looked closely at passing girls or young women who seemed close to my age. Every year on the birthday that we share, she and her husband would take a drive past the hospital where I was born. I can’t imagine how she handled the seven years between my eighteenth birthday and the year we finally met.
Even my newfound relatives bring up my birth mother’s sadness. As only family can, they paint their speculation and concern with a brush that manages to be both coarse and fine.
The only people who really matter in this are my birth mother and myself, and we have rested on the light assertion that we found each other at just the right time, when we were both finally ready.
“You wouldn’t have liked the person I was before,” I told her once, and I truly meant it. I didn’t even like that person.
There is so much baggage inherently tangled up in adoption that I have misgivings recommending it to my sister. But more than that, I have firsthand knowledge of a slew of things that give me deep concerns about my sister’s soon-to-be motherhood.
When we were growing up, my sister was always the difficult one. The chores I took on at age seven, for instance, were not inherited by my sister at the same age. I saw injustice in this, but it was explained away easily. “It’s too much of a fight to get her to set the table, honey,” my mom would say in her most exasperated voice. “Could you please just do it?” And with that, I would be off doing two children’s worth of chores while my sister screamed and cried and gnashed her teeth about things as simple as turning off the television or copying out a list of twenty spelling words.
As she got older, my sister’s issues only escalated. She was bipolar and dyslexic, with a wicked case of ADHD. She was also a serial perfectionist; if a paper my sister wrote or a homework assignment she finished wasn’t clean and error-free, she wouldn’t hand it in. That was only applicable in the classes she liked. In the others, like math, she simply didn’t pay attention. Not surprisingly, her grades were abysmal.
Other issues kept cropping up with increased frequency. My sister chopped off all her hair á là Britney Spears in one of her bipolar depressions, and shortly thereafter, she threatened suicide. Next, she started to lie about where she was on weekend evenings with friends, and on several occasions, I watched in awe as my younger sister was carted home drunk or high. Once, she ran away from home for almost two weeks. While she was gone, neither of my parents would call the police to report her as a runaway; they were too worried that they might give her a police record.
Meanwhile, from what ought to have been a safe distance away at college, I was slowly going insane. My mouth broke out in stress ulcers from all the phone calls from my parents, who vented their frustrations about my sister to me rather than to one another because they no longer spoke. I acted out in stupid and destructive ways, and I went from having a three-point-something GPA to falling asleep in all my classes and getting my first failing grades.
Most of my antics and issues went unnoticed, though, because things were even worse for my sister. Over the next few years, she turned eighteen and started drinking to incredible excess. That quickly escalated to serious drug use. In her post-high school years, my sister trashed several apartments across the state of Virginia because she was always messed up, and unable to function like a normal young adult. Soon after moving back home from a brief stint at a community college near JMU, my sister got incredibly intoxicated and tried to kill herself by overdosing on pills. She called a friend to say goodbye, and instead of accepting my sister’s decision, her friend called 911.
When the ambulance came, my sister was furious. At the hospital, a host of nurses fed my sister whatever you give kids who OD on pills, maybe charcoal. Maybe they pumped her stomach. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that somehow, they saved her.
My dad called me the next evening to tell me what had happened. I was in DC for two weeks of work training at the time, and when I got the belated news, I felt like my life was falling apart before my eyes and there was nothing I could do to stop the shattering. My sister and I may not have ever been close, but I did not want to lose her. She was my sister, my partner in many a silly crime. She was the girl who always woke me up on Christmas morning to tell me how she’d gotten around our parents’ elaborate holiday security barriers. Even though I always begged her not to, she never failed to divulge exactly what Santa had brought each of us the night before.
While my sister was recovering at a psychiatric hospital, I called her several times a day. I remember that it was hard to get her to stay on the phone. She was mad and her fuse was short. The nurses, she said, were mean to her.
Because my sister was legally an adult, she was able to check herself out of the psychiatric hospital and come back home. She was determined to stay sober, she said. That determination lasted a few days. After that, the Facebook statuses about trying to hide her binge drinking from my parents started coming fast and furious. My sister had blocked my parents from being able to see her page, but she hadn’t blocked me, and I had no qualms about playing the narc. Every time that I saw another indicator that my sister was back on the path of killing herself, I called each of my parents at their separate homes to rat her out. They seemed to think it was no big deal, that everything was fine. “You’re not here,” they’d say. “You don’t see her every day.” And as usual, they continued to speak to me and not to one another.
A few days later, I got a phone call at seven on a Saturday morning. My sister was on the other end, slurring her speech and telling me how sorry she was for myriad random things she’d done wrong. We had a long conversation, none of which she remembers. Finally, I managed to get her to tell me that she was at my mom’s house, that she’d been drinking and she’d overdosed on a handful of pills for a second time. I tried to call my mom, but my sister, who had broken approximately her fifteenth cell phone, was using my mom’s cell phone, and my mom was nowhere to be found. After watching my sister stumble around the house and howl at an imaginary maid on Face Time, I called my dad. He eventually called an ambulance and followed my sister to the ER. He stayed there by my sister’s side as she told an unfazed nurse about the astounding variety and extent of her drug use. Over the next few hours, my sister’s hallucinations grew worse. She told my dad in vivid detail about the ghosts in the hospital room with them. She heard them as clear as a bell and spoke with them as if they really were there.
My sister’s next stop was the same psychiatric hospital she’d been in weeks earlier. This time, however, a judge ruled that she could not check herself out. The hospital was still just a stop-gap measure, and an expensive one; my family needed to hastily find a long-term rehabilitation facility that would accept their health insurance. Within days, they found a place in Florida where a spot was open, and my sister was sent there by herself on a plane with a layover in Atlanta. We all bit our nails to the bone while she was en route; it was entirely possible that my sister might try to jump ship midway through her travels. We took our own separate breaths of fresh air when the rehab facility confirmed that my sister was in their care.
When her time at rehab ended, my sister got and stayed clean living in a halfway house in Pensacola. After a time, she tried to go back to community college to make my parents happy. By her twenty-first birthday, which stupidly coincided with the week of my husband’s and my open bar wedding, she almost had a year of sobriety. She handled the wedding so well that several months later, my parents convinced her to move back to Virginia.
At home, the stress of being near all her old, bad-influence friends was too much for my sister. Just weeks into the new arrangement, some stupid kid convinced her to have “just one” drink. Many addicts will tell you that there’s no such thing as “just one drink.” “One is too many, and one hundred isn’t enough,” my sister used to say. The last time I heard her say it was just a few days before she fell off the thirteen-month wagon. It was August, and my mother was supposed to come visit for my birthday. She didn’t know what to do about my sister relapsing, so she thought she’d bring her up for the visit, too. I thought about the boxes of good Virginia wine stashed in the basement, the main floor liquor cabinet, our wine rack. Mostly, I thought about the way my sister was when she drank, and I wanted to scream. Instead, I was quiet, mouse-like: my usual self. Luckily, my husband played the hard-ass. He said that if my sister was back on the sauce, she wasn’t allowed in his house. It was the right decision, but not an easy one even to relay. Days later, my sister was headed back to her Florida halfway house to start over again.
Somewhere in there, I am missing something. Although my sister has been back in Florida now for over a year, she still hasn’t hit a year of sobriety. I don’t know when she slipped in Florida, or how, but I know she has. So, with a rusty track record of staying away from substances, she is expecting a child. And she is thrilled about it.
My sister is taking in all my advice and my anxiety-filled diatribes like a champ. “I want to make this happen,” she says. “Everything happens for a reason, and maybe it’s time for me. I did all the stupid stuff most people do in their twenties, and I did it in my teens. It’s out of my system. I’m excited.”
I can’t imagine being so calm about being responsible for a life, especially when there has been so much uncertainty in one’s own current existence. I am flabbergasted, gob smacked. Mostly, though, I am jealous beyond measure at her grace and composure, her certainty, and the fact that she is going to have a baby, and I am not. She must sense it, even over the phone lines that span the thousand-and-change miles between us.
“You’re not mad, are you?” she asks me. “I mean, you were supposed to be the one having kids…”
“No, I’m not mad. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s not like you planned this. It’s not like you wanted to get pregnant to spite me. This has nothing to do with me.”
This is what I ought to say in my role as supporter, mediator, life-saver. It’s not exactly a lie. I just have not yet figured out how to verbalize—or contend with—my disjointed alternate worlds of past, present, and possible future. Not now, and maybe never.
BETH BAILEY lives in rural Michigan, where she is a wife and the proud owner of two fantastic and neurotic dogs. While finishing her first novel, Among the Stones, about love and the war in Afghanistan, Beth writes the occasional personal essay and has started working on a collection of essays about veterans of war. Her work has been published by Words After War. You can follow her on Twitter at BWBailey85.
Back when I was still shell-shocked from having separated from my husband of nearly seven years, when we still had a massive amount of financial untangling to do before we could truly own our own lives, when I was still kept awake at night by waves of panic about not having enough money to support myself, a friend told me, rather matter-of-factly, that I had a pile of shit in front of me that I had to eat. Not only that, but all I could use to do so was a tiny spoon. The good news, she said, was that one day I would reach the end of the pile, and then much lovelier things would be placed before me.
Her prediction turned out to be correct. I met Sam just as my divorce finalized. I like to say that he was my prize at the end of all of that shit, like the toy buried at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jacks—except of course, that’s not fair to the Cracker Jacks or to Sam.
When Sam and I first started dating, I was subletting a small carriage house in my native Atlanta. The carriage house was built in the 1920s, had hardwood floors and French doors, and the walls were painted a cheerful yellow. Sam lived about a mile away, and since we both worked from home, sometimes I would fix pimento cheese sandwiches and invite him over for lunch. He would bring sweet tea. After we ate, we would take a walk around the neighborhood before we both returned to the more practical details of our day. One sunny spring afternoon, after our walk, Sam and I tumbled into bed—work be damned.
We were thirty-six and forty-one years old, and we were in bed together on a Wednesday afternoon, sunlight streaming through the blinds and making stripes on the quilt. It was hard not to feel as if we were getting away with something. This was not what most of my friends—in the middle of marriages, careers, and parenthood—were doing. Yet Sam and I were not cheating on anyone, were not making up excuses to our bosses, were not neglecting our children. Both divorced without kids—his divorce more graceful than mine—we had each eaten our fair share of shit to get to where we were, in the giddy stages of early love. It was heaven.
After dating for nearly a year, Sam and I took a trip to Panama, snorkeled over undulating jellyfish, kayaked in the middle of the blue, blue ocean, gripped each other’s hand as our cab driver weaved recklessly in and out of Panama City traffic. Back in Atlanta we celebrated our one-year anniversary by having spaetzle at the same Alsatian restaurant where we had our first date, and it was there that Sam proposed.
By the time we married in a tiny ceremony in our home with a homemade cake and a bouquet picked from my friend’s garden, I was thirty-seven, Sam forty-two, and we wanted to have a child. Given our ages and our level of commitment to each other, it was tempting to start trying on our honeymoon, but I had a novel coming out the next month, and a tour to go on, and I didn’t want to be distracted by the “am I/ am I not” game one inevitably plays while trying to conceive. And so Sam and I waited until my book tour was over in July. At the end of that same month, seven days before my period was due, I took a pregnancy test and was rewarded with a faint blue plus sign.
I felt incredulous that this—pregnancy—was happening to me. I had always felt on the outside of things, a consummate observer. For a long time, this was my preferred mode of being—it gave me an illusion of control that I desperately needed. Agonizing over choices was infinitely preferable to actually making them. Which is why I spent much of my first marriage trying to figure out whether or not to have a child. It was far easier to wrestle with that question than to face the truth of my situation: that I was in a marriage that no amount of therapy would fix, and that I had willingly put myself into this untenable position in order to avoid fully committing to life, with all of its vulnerabilities and uncertainties.
I am now nearly nine months pregnant, my belly big and tight, my energy low, my body taking on a life of its own, and subsequently doing all sorts of embarrassing things. When I sneeze, I pee! When I walk ten feet, I get winded! If I don’t eat a bowl of prunes every morning, I’m constipated! Despite the all too earthy side effects, I love being pregnant, love that I get to experience the bizarre and amazing process of reproduction. I love feeling our son roll and kick inside me. The sheer physicality of the late stages of pregnancy makes what began as something abstract (revealed only by mild nausea and a plus sign on a pee stick) into something much more real. And the realness of the pregnancy has brought me closer to the astounding prospect that we will soon have an infant to care for. That once I deliver the baby he will be in our charge, and I will somehow learn to breastfeed, and get by on little sleep, and grow more patient as small tasks become mighty endeavors. Soon there will be a human manifestation of our love—living, crying, and pooping among us—and we will love him in a way we have never loved before and will consequently be more vulnerable than ever.
Still, I am not yet a mother. I am intellectually aware that a mighty and miraculous wrecking ball is about to smash up the life we know, but I do not understand this on an emotional level. How could I before our son arrives? And so I find myself suspended between the life I knew and the life I am entering, much as I was when I boarded the airplane that took me away from my first husband and our home together and into a future yet known.
This means I am acutely aware of what I am losing: right now Sam and I are still a two-person unit with a host of inside jokes and allusions. We are newlyweds and we are playful. Hopefully we will remain playful as parents, but there is a weight that will come with our new responsibility that we cannot ignore. Post-baby, we probably won’t spend many Sunday afternoons playing Ping-Pong at the local sandwich place. Most likely I won’t cook as elaborately as I do now. Cheese soufflé will no longer be on the rotating menu, nor will I make homemade soda syrups and granola bars. We will have to watch ourselves and not act horribly toward one another when sleep-deprived and overwhelmed with the stresses of new parenthood. Chances are, we will not always succeed at doing so, and our own warts and shortcomings will be more fully revealed.
We are trading one reality for a more intense, harder one—one that for us will be richer, and deeper as well—and we are both ready and excited for the change. And yet the other day, I found myself weeping over what we are losing, our sweet courtship of pimento cheese sandwiches and afternoons in bed. I found this unsettling: it felt like my old, non-committal self coming back into play, the woman terrified of getting herself into something she couldn’t get out of. My tears also felt disloyal toward my unborn son, whom I already love with a startling ferocity. But then I tried to be gentle with myself, the way a mother might be, to allow myself to be sad about the ending of this time when we know each other only as a couple, this time of burgeoning love among people who are not new to life, who weathered some hard things before meeting (and who will surely continue to weather hard things as life goes on). I imagine that twenty years from now, I will think of our early, heady days as a couple with sweet nostalgia. And probably also with a touch of condescension, as in: We thought we were close back then, but look at what we’ve been through now, look at how the roots of our lives have entwined.
It seems that in life there is no gain that comes without loss. Surely one day I will think back on our son’s infanthood with nostalgia, as well as his days as a young child, a boy, and then a young man. To live fully is to commit to things we are terrified to lose, all while knowing loss will come. It occurs to me that life is a series of deaths we must endure, and even somehow embrace, in order to let new life in. Maybe the same is true of our corporeal death, when our bodies will grow cold and lifeless. Maybe instead of fearing that day, I will try to take comfort in the model life has presented so far: New life sprouts in the spaces made by the losses we learn to endure.
SUSAN REBECCA WHITE is the author of three novels: A Place at the Table, A Soft Place to Land, and Bound South. A Place at the Table was recently released in paperback. It is a Target “club pick” and a finalist for the Townsend Prize, Georgia’s oldest literary award. White has also published several essays in places such as Salon, Tin House, TheHuffington Post and The Bitter Southerner. She lives in Atlanta with her husband Sam Reid and their (very) soon-to-be-born son.