I just got off the phone with the nurse from Dr. Lowen’s office. I picked up the old brown Trimline phone that’s been in this retreat cabin of my mother’s forever, and a woman’s voice asked for me and I said, This is she, and the voice said, It’s Becky from Dr. Lowen’s office. And I said, Uh-huh. Then Becky said, The result from the latest test was positive, and I said, Positive? And she said, Yes, you are no longer borderline pregnant.
No longer borderline pregnant? I thought I might fall over. I looked out the window at the leaves of the poplar trees shimmering in the breeze. My eyes settled on a vulture falling from the sky in a perfect spiral. He was flapping then gliding, flapping then gliding as he descended, and I thought to myself:
I will remember this moment and that vulture for the rest of my life. I thought to myself: That vulture is a sign. A part of me is dying.
And then the nurse said, Hello? And I said, Yes, I am here. Are you sure I am pregnant? And she said, Yes. And I said, Really? Are you sure? You’re not going call me back in two hours and say you made a mistake? She said, No. And I said, Well, how do you know? She sighed. It was a ridiculous question, but since she had been telling me for a week that after three blood draws they still couldn’t tell if I was really pregnant, I felt justified. So I pushed. Well, what do you know today that you didn’t yesterday? And she said, The HCG levels are definitely going up. HCG levels? Yes, in the last twenty-four hours the pregnancy hormone count has risen from 700 to over 2,300, and that usually means a healthy, robust beginning.
And then I had what could only be the first twinges of the maternal instinct. Healthy and robust? A huge smile spread across my face. That’s my baby!
And then it was as if the synapses in my brain sending exploratory signals to my uterus finally made contact. Aye, mate, is it a go down there? Yes, yes, Captain, we’re full steam ahead!
I was convinced that getting off the phone would exponentially increase my chances of reverting to not-pregnant, but I released Becky anyway and stumbled over to the bathroom, where Glen, my life partner and father of our soon-to-be-born baby, was shaving.
Well, I guess that puts the whole motility question to rest. And I said, I guess it does. Then I wrapped my arms around him and buried my face in his chest, and he wrapped his arms around me and rested his chin on the top of my head.
I was in ecstatic bliss for about ninety seconds, and then it hit me: an avalanche of dread that took my breath away.
Pregnant? A baby? What have I done?
I looked at Glen. He was going through his own reality check, which brought me even closer to the brink of total hysteria. But then, before I could burst into tears and run screaming out of the room, he pulled me into his arms. You are going to be a fantastic mother, he said to me, to my fear. His love overwhelmed me, and I started to cry big, wet tears onto his favorite black shirt.
We’re going to have a baby.
For the last fifteen years I have told everyone—friends, family, hairdressers, editors, cabdrivers, doctors, and anyone else who would listen—that I wanted a baby. I want to have a baby, I would say with urgency or a wistful longing, or both. And I meant what I said, I really did, I just had no idea what I was talking about. I had almost no actual experience of babies, so the object of my wanting was abstract, the display of it ritualized. I want to have a baby was something I said, a statement that evoked a trajectory, a general direction for my life.
The truth is, I was wracked with ambivalence. I had the usual questions: When, with whom, and how the hell was I going to afford it? But there was something else, too, a question common—if not always conscious—to women of my generation, women raised to view motherhood with more than a little suspicion.
Can I survive having a baby? Will I lose myself—my body, my mind, my options—and be left trapped, resentful, and irretrievably overwhelmed? If I have a baby, we wonder silently to ourselves, will I die?
To compound matters, I had a tempestuous relationship with my mother, and feared the inevitable kickback sure to follow such a final and dramatic departure from daughterhood. What if, instead of joy and excitement, my mother felt threatened by the baby, and pushed even further into the margins of my life? What if, then, out of jealousy and her own discontent, she launched covert or not-so-covert strikes against my irrefutable separateness, now symbolized so completely by becoming a mother myself?
Because mothers make us, because they map our emotional terrain before we even know we are capable of having an emotional terrain, they know just where to stick the dynamite. With a few small power plays—a skeptical comment, the withholding of approval or praise—a mother can devastate a daughter. Decades of subtle undermining can stunt a daughter, or so monopolize her energy that she in effect stunts herself. Muted, fearful, riddled with self-doubt, she can remain trapped in daughterhood forever, the one place she feels confident she knows the rules.
I was not the only daughter in a dyad of this kind. When I looked around, I saw them everywhere: in my extended family, at my lectures on college campuses, on line at Target, on their own show on TV. Childless and codependent, the daughter did some macabre human version of dying on the vine. The mother kept the reality of her own mortality at bay by thwarting her daughter’s every attempt to psychologically leave the nest.
It seemed that these mothers did not realize that they had to give adulthood to their daughters by stepping down, stepping back, stepping away, and letting the daughter take center stage. These mothers did not seem to know, with all their potions and philosophies, their desires to rehabilitate ancient scripts of gender and identity, that there is a natural order, and that natural order involves passing the scepter to offspring with unconditional love and pride.
Or pay the price.
Because as a writer I do my best research on the lives of others, at least once a week I sat conversing—over tea, on subway platforms, at the farmers’ market, in ornate, fancy hotel lobbies—about motherhood with women who either had done the deed and lived to tell, or who were surveying the same terrain of possibility.
I spoke to single moms and partnered moms, and moms who lost their children to disease. I spoke to stay-at-home moms, working moms, CEO moms, moms on welfare. One mom I met conceived through in vitro fertilization at age forty-five. Another orchestrated different sperm donors over several pregnancies. One “got pregnant” at eighteen and spent the rest of her life trying to recover. I spent an afternoon talking with a poor mom who relied on faith to provide for her sixth child on the way. I spent several years talking to middle-class moms who couldn’t figure out how to support the two kids they had been raising for years.
I talked to men, too, about the joys and risks of parenthood, but my time with them was different. It wasn’t punctuated with anecdotes, or even held together by narrative. Men explored the topic of my pregnancy with meaningful glances and gentle touches of assurance to the small of my back. They encouraged me with knowing nods and unwavering attention, sometimes silently offering themselves, other times letting me know they wished it could be them.
Women gave me narrative and men gave me alchemy, their approbation running like a current into my womb.
My life was full of these elucidating encounters, but strangely, none of them seemed to bring me any closer to what I said I wanted. Unconsciously, I longed to give birth to a child. Consciously, I managed the risk of actually having one by viewing it as one option among many, a wonderful possibility to peruse at will. Like choosing which coast to live on or what apartment to take, I would consider potential outcomes and make my best, informed decision.
Because I am a woman of privilege, a product of the women’s movement, and a student of cultural relativism, I believed that neither choice would be inherently better than the other. Each had pluses and minuses, and so it would not be the choice itself, but howI interpreted the choice that would make the difference. Los Angeles or New York? High floor or great location? To baby or not to baby?
Ultimately, it was like trying to steer a boat with a banana. I had no idea what was going on, no clue whatsoever. I didn’t know that I was already in the water, that the tide was coming in fast, and that I had no option other than to be taken out to sea. I didn’t know that the longing, fear, and ambivalence were part of the pregnancy, the birth, and everything that came after. I didn’t know that the showdown between the ideas of my mother’s generation and my own was inescapable, and slated to play out personally in our relationship. I didn’t know that those fifteen years constituted my real first trimester, and all that time my baby was coming toward me, and I was moving toward my baby.
What I did know is that I had mothered or tried to mother every single human being who had crossed my path—including the son of my former partner of six years—to the point of absurdity, exhaustion, and everything in between. What I did know is that one year in a stunning turquoise lagoon in Mexico, I had a vision of two babies, my babies, and at the very moment their copper faces smiled at me in my mind’s eye, two tiny silver fish leapt out of the ocean, inches from my lips.
What I did know is that even though I doubted my ability to mother, partner, work, evolve, and serve, all in one lifetime, some part of this flesh body I call me was being pulled toward birth: my baby’s and my own.