This post appears courtesy of Cooking For Monsters and is part I in a multi-part series
We don’t want to hurt the hearts of our barren friends.
When you intimately walk with someone through miscarriage, stillbirth, fertility treatments, adoptions cut off at the last second. When you bear witness to the depths of their pain, the plummeting vistas of their internal agony, when you love them much and don’t want to cause them pain with your own experience, and when you are a person who ethically welcomes life, there is something I find that women, in this position, struggle to say:
“I’m pregnant again? Shit.”
As a society, we’re still struggling to talk about stillbirth and miscarriage, but I am hearing the stories of the barren begin to be told. I’m so glad. Perhaps it is because we can all relate to barrenness, on one level or another. When we hear those stories we have empathy for the painful cry of, “I must be cursed,” or “Why does everyone have, and take for granted, the thing that I cannot have?”
Even if our bodies don’t, our hearts understand barrenness.
It is so often only when we realized that we could not have children that we first discovered that, elementally, we wanted them.
When I was younger, I didn’t fantasize about hair color or make lists of baby names. (Except for characters in the amazing novels I was going to write. At 8.) As a teen, I was not moved by chubby infantile bodies or little coos. You might think that my disinterest in motherhood meant that I didn’t like kids. Not so. I loved kids.
I babysat, nannied, watched the church nursery, taught Sunday school and VBS, tutored, was a camp counselor, a youth group leader. I enjoyed children. I loved to play. I loved to teach, to enter into their world and share their experiences. But I was always glad when I was done, when the parents came back and I handed them their small spawn and got to go home.
I did not dream of the children I would one day have.
Maybe because I didn’t plan on getting married. In my plan I was heading to England for grad school and years of writing in some tumbled down stone flat with leaky pipes, first installed in the time of the Tudors. It was going to be a good life. It suited me. I’d do very well at it.
Still. I was aware that, if the universe turned inside out and I ever did get married, I would want a family. (I’m Sicilian. I believe in family.) It was in the first few years of marriage, years in which I could not even have sex, thanks to a condition now known as vestibulodynia, that I found an overwhelming desire to have a baby come rising up out of my soul from some place I was formerly unaware of. I remember laying on my couch, in our house in Carrboro, accompanied by my Sheltie and German Shepherd, weeping so hard I couldn't breathe.
I was carrying something that physically weighed me down into the upholstery. It was unlooked for and formerly unseen, a burden, an emotion that evoked travail.
I had trouble processing it, that painful longing to hold a baby in my arms and call them my own.
I had never wanted to be a mother. I didn’t think of myself as mother material and, chewing on things over the last few months, I still actually don’t. Which is sad and interesting, considering that I have four children and I'm pregnant with my sixth. My fifth was miscarried.
I mother and I give it my all, but somehow I’m not acknowledging my own motherhood. (Probably need to process that one with my therapist. AmIright?)
Back when I was single, I was the nanny that was like a cool aunt. That’s who I always figured I’d be - the cool aunt. The one that traveled and lived abroad and had a fascinating occupation and popped in with presents to tell stories and take nephews and nieces on adventures.
I’d enjoy it. I’d be good at it. I was good at it.
Maybe I didn’t contemplate motherhood because I felt like it wasn’t worth the emotional energy because, as with most things in my life, the things I wanted evaded me. The things that came easily for most people. Like digesting your food. Or sex. Someone being proud of you. Someone wanting you more then they wanted themselves. Getting the position or assignment or role you wanted, because you were good at it and worked for it.
Ok yes, clearly I am a middle-child. I suffer from middle-child syndrome. You know, the kind where you’re overlooked and forgotten and blamed for everything. (It's a thing.) And if you over-function and don’t show what you’re feeling, doom is sure to befall you at every turn.
“Things taken away” is a theme in my life.
So when I turned out to be one of those rare women who, for complicated genetic reasons, develop vestibulodynia as a result of taking low-level doses of birth control and I didn’t get better, because almost no one does, my OBGYN felt compelled to bring up the topic of reproduction.
At that moment in time, I was utterly overwhelmed by the circumstances of my life. Understandably, If you can’t have sex, getting pregnant is going to be a challenge. Conception wasn’t going to happen without expensive medical assistance and vaginal childbirth was out of the question. So we’re talking invasive procedures and elective surgery.
At that point in time, I didn't want to think about children. Or why I couldn't have them.
I had never much thought about having children. Maybe secretly, at some point in my teens, I had taken out that desire and looked at it, quietly, before putting it far away from conscious contemplation.
Let's get real, I’d never felt very fertile to begin with. I didn’t start my period until days before I turned 14. Everyone and their dog had their period at that point. And then it came, and it was the worse thing in the universe. I bled for two weeks and puked my guts out and cramped like a 400 pound man was sitting on my little uterus. “Congratulations!” a friend bellowed with her southern twang, “You’re a woman!”
I didn't feel any different then last week, before this hellish hormonal nightmare had descended upon me.
I didn’t feel like a woman. I felt like a half-dead rodent that had been attacked by wolves but was so pathetic they let it live and then it fell in the river and half-drowned before dragging itself back to its den to die.
I didn’t look like a woman. I remember my older sister, having started her period so long ago I couldn’t even remember a time before her monthly crazy bitch week, generously advocating for my mom to buy me a training bra. (Cause of my feelings. Cause I was so left out. Training bras are for emotions, not bewbs.) The growing of breasts was a thing that evaded me for a long time.
When I was in my late 20’s my face shape and body shape subtly changed and it occurred to me, once again,
“Damn it I’m a late bloomer.”
Physically, girlhood to womanhood was happening just years prior to turning 30. How is that fair? One time when I was at the gym an older gentleman asked if I was on my lunch break…from high school…I was at least 27. I mean, for pete's sake. Come on, already.
This lucky break of genetics is going to pay off tremendously in my 50’s and 60’s. So I’m told.
But it sucked in high school. It sucked to be so physically behind everyone else. It sucked to be funny looking. To have bad teeth and bad glasses and bad hair and the wrong clothes. (Short story material. My adolescence has got that much fodder laying across the span of years, like cow patties plopped down in wretched dreary fields.)
College was better. But by then I also didn’t give a damn. It’s complicated.
Why is it so complicated?!
Why is it so hard? This relationship with our body. Forget the horror of our culture, it’s standard of perfectionism and over-sexualization of everything. Just set that aside. Set aside how mean adolescents can be to each other. Set aside how we all compare ourselves to the prettiest and most social and least awkward. Set aside even abuse and its repercussions.
Look just at the awkwardness of hormones and physically and emotionally metamorphosing on some crazy time-table that belongs only to you.
Or reflect on how most of our mothers didn’t know how to talk to us about our bodies, or adolescence, or sex, in a healthy nurturing way. Whose mother loved them self? Whose mother didn’t look in the mirror and dislike what they saw? You cannot tell your daughters, “I am ugly but you are pretty” and ever have them believe it.
If you do not love yourself, your daughters will not love themselves.
What mother knows how to welcome her daughter into womanhood, to sexuality, without being bound by her own shame and brokenness, insecurity, abuse, regrets?
I want to give my daughters the gift of teaching them to love themselves, even when they’re funny looking. I want them to enter adolescence with as much self-awareness and dignity as they can. I want them to see their beauty and have the skills and resources they need to navigate all the wretched, hard things. I want them to have a mother who loves herself, as she is, who can welcome them into womanhood with grace, humor, and compassion.
So first, perhaps, I ought to figure out what womanhood is. And if I have it.
END OF PART I