March 27, 2007 — -- They're questions that plague millions of young women: Can you really have it all? Can you have a career and motherhood and keep your sanity?
Author and activist Rebecca Walker, daughter of legendary author and activist Alice Walker, wondered that for years. Like many 20 and 30-something women, she was raised to view motherhood as a less empowering choice than a career. But at the age of 34, she took the plunge and gave birth to son Tenzin, which she calls "the biggest thing that ever happened to me."
In her book "Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence" Walker reveals how she came to terms with becoming a mom, and urges other young women to know that, if they want to have a baby, they need to plan it with as much dedication as they would a career.
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? Areyou 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. I looked into his eyes and tried to keep myself from screaming and jumping up and down. We did it, I said. He grinned. 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.
You may not look pregnant at this point but your embryo's heart, no bigger than a poppyseed, has already begun to beat and pump blood....The embryo itself is about a quarter of an inch long and looks more like a tadpole than a human.
I called my mother last night to tell her the news, because I promised she would be the first to know. When I told her I have never been happier, she was quiet. She said she was shocked, which was shocking to me since I've been telling her for a year that all I want is to write books and have babies. When we were about to hang up, she asked me to check her garden. I said okay and told her that I had ordered some outdoor lights for this tiny house she lets me use, and that the new tile in the shower is almost finished. Then I hung up and started to cry.
I don't know if I wanted her to be like all the other mothers I've seen get the news, whooping for joy and crying and jumping up and down, but when she didn't, I was overcome with doubt. Flopping down on the bed, I regressed all the way back to high school, when I got my acceptance letter from Yale. I was ecstatic, and proudly presented the letter to my mother as she cooked dinner. She calmly husked a few ears of corn, and then asked why I would want to go to a conservative bastion of male privilege. It didn't take ten seconds for me to question my own dreams. Why did I want to go to one of the most well-respected colleges in the world?
Why am I having a baby?
Glen found me lying on the floor, practically catatonic, staring out into space with tears streaming down my face. We talked for a long time about rites of passage, and how everyone is bound to have a reaction that has nothing to do with me. Mothers and fathers have to reckon with their own mortality, with becoming grandparents, and what that means about where they are in the life cycle. He told me to get ready, people say the strangest things when you tell them you are pregnant because it brings up so much for them.
Like when I met with my literary agent about this book. She told me she was pregnant with her third baby, and I said something awful like, How can you possibly take care of three children? Or even worse, Was it an accident? Then I grilled her on whether she would be able to take care of her baby, my book, and me. I was seized with anxiety in the moment, but really, her pregnancy rang my bell. Happy, vibrant, strong, direct. I thought, If she can be a VP of her company, gaze adoringly at a photo of her husband whipped out of her purse, and talk about how her kids are the greatest gifts of her life, this baby thing must be possible.
I went to sleep pondering whether I got more positive messaging about having a baby from my agent in thirty-five minutes than I did from my mother in thirty-five years.
I'm back in Berkeley, in my apartment that suddenly looks like a broom closet. Where am I going to put a crib?
Dr. Lowen ordered an ultrasound this morning to make sure that there really is a baby growing inside me. Isn't that why I'd asked Becky ten times if she was sure? Dr. Lowen says we need to know that the fetus is inside my uterus and not ectopic. Ectopic! Glen had to calm me down. All I could think was that a problem must have showed up on the last blood test and Dr. Lowen didn't want to tell me on the phone and give me heart failure.
Glen drove me to the hospital, and then tried to distract me in the waiting room with bad jokes and blueberries. I kept asking him what we'd do if the baby were ectopic, if I lost the baby before I even had her. How is it possible to feel so attached so soon? By the time the technician called my name, I was sure it was all going to end in tragedy. She poked and rubbed and scanned and prodded my uterus for about twenty minutes, looking for the tiny cluster of cells and shaking her head until I was convinced the whole thing was a fluke. At that exact moment, when I squeezed Glen's hand and said, Well, maybe we don't have a baby after all, the technician pushed the button on her mouse ball and drew a line from one point to the other. Got it.
So now it's super-duper official. I've got a baby growing in my uterus. It's really the most surreal, ridiculous, amazing thing.
Rushed around, getting ready to fly to Minneapolis to speak on the importance of mentorship in young women's lives at the Minnesota Conference on Adolescent Females. Usually I like going to Minneapolis, but today I am just so tired. I can't imagine getting on a plane and then turning around the next day to come back. It's only three and a half hours each way, but at the moment, Minnesota may as well be the North Pole.
I was up all night consumed with anxiety about money -- mine and every other mother's. By most standards I am well off, but now that all I do is think about the stuff I am going to have to pay for, like the college education that's going to cost two million dollars ineighteen years, I don't know. I remember my mother making endless calculations on brown paper bags and blank pages in her journal when I was a child, and my father sitting at the dining-room table writing checks out every month, his brow furrowed andintense. They must have felt the same way, going over the numbers again and again, wondering how it was all going to workout.
I woke up feeling guilty for even thinking about all this. Most people in the world raise their children with far less than I have. But that's the thing, isn't it? Even when you have enough money to pay for nonessentials like organic produce and designer toothpaste, there is still the yawning fear of not having, losing everything, living in deprivation.I definitely thought about money long before this baby moved into my womb. I worried about how we were going to send my ex-girlfriend's son, Solomon, to boarding school. I worried about how much health insurance costs, and how little money I put into my IRA. But now my thinking has a frightening urgency. I find myself wondering how all the other pregnant women and mothers and fathers manage what basically boils down to sheer terror in the face of so much responsibility. Religion suddenly makes a lot more sense. So does workaholism. And Xanax. And back-to-the-land movements that emphasize doing more with less.
I bolted out of bed this morning to research the Voluntary Simplicity movement. I read dozens of entries by people named Sinnan and Marigold who grow their own food, wear only three pairs of pants, and make their own soap. I learned that an American baby consumes two hundred times more of the earth's resources than a baby from Eritrea.By the time Glen woke up, I was deep in my closet, figuring out how many pairs of shoes and sweaters I could transform into fossil fuel in order to justify having an American baby. When he asked what I was doing, I snapped that I was freaking out about money, wasn't that obvious? He sat in the big chair in our bedroom and put his feet up, watching me. I mean really, I said, how are we going to put this baby through college?He paused. There are always student loans. Student loans? I said, lifting my head out of a storage bin at the back of the closet. Ihad forgotten about those. Weren't several of my friends still paying off their student loans, and didn't they seem as neurotic and happy as anybody else? I gently extracted a purple sweater from the giveaway pile.Having a partner who thinks rationally and optimistically even when I cannot does not eliminate my anxiety about supporting another human being for the next twenty years, but it certainly helps.
I made it back from Minneapolis last night in one piece, but this morning I almost killed myself with a spritz of perfume. I've been trying to ignore the growing intensity of my reaction to smells, but today I just couldn't. I took off all my clothes, got back in the shower, and scrubbed off the barest hint of perfume I had put on my neck. Then I drove to my homeopath's office grumbling about what a bummer it is that I can't wear scent without feeling like I am on a capsizing catamaran.
Marie's excitement cheered me up. I feel it's her victory, too, because from the moment I said I wanted to have a baby, she's been right there with me, giving me flower tinctures and vitamin D, progesterone tablets and visualizations of myself big and pregnant with a happy, healthy baby.
After the hugs and whoops, I confessed that I almost gave up onour noninvasive plan because I thought that after six months, I wasn't getting any younger and should try the medical model. I told her that I had already scheduled the HSG (hysterosalpingogram), where they inject dye into your fallopian tubes to see if they work, and I had a prescription for the ovulation-inducing Clomid in my bag. It was the preliminary, precautionary pregnancy test Dr. Lowen ordered that revealed the fruit of our homeopathic work.
Marie didn't bat an eye or get judgmental, and that's why I love her, my kindhearted M.D. homeopath. She just said, Well, good thing you didn't have to go through all of that! and started making a list of all the foods I should start eating: farm-raised lamb, eggs, Norwegian fish oil.
Then we talked about whether I should stop taking the low-dose antidepressant I've been taking to counteract God-knows-how-many generations of depression in my family tree. The thought of quitting cold turkey is terrifying. I have gone from being skeptical of my little purple pill, to angry that I need it, to hugely grateful to all of the good people in big pharma involved in creating it. I'm not exaggerating when I say it has allowed me to have some semblance of a normal life.
As I looked on expectantly, Marie checked her big pharmaceutical handbook to see if trials have been done on pregnant women. Limited trials, she said, but the drug is rated B for pregnancy, which means it's not stellar, but it is doable. I looked at her across the desk covered with mugs, supplements, and files. Unless we know for sure that it will hurt the baby, I said, I just don't think it's a good idea for me to stop. The first thing depression takes from me is hope, and I am pretty sure I can't have a baby without that.
I left her office feeling good about the decision, but still full of concern. In addition to all of the other ways I can lose or harm this baby, I can now add the possibility of damaging his nervous system with what to some is an optional drug.
I also wonder about straddling the medical ob/gyn and homeopathic worlds. In theory they are compatible, but in reality I am not so sure. Dr. Lowen is all business and efficiency, Formica and fluorescents, and Marie is soft lighting and colorful art, hugs and flower remedies. Of course, Marie says they are compatible -- after all, she is an M.D. -- and Dr. Lowen tries to sound sympathetic when I mention the natural methods. But in real life, there seems to be an eerie disconnect between the two that leaves me slightly uncertain about both.
Which brings me back to where I started, at the perfume that triggered today's initial bout of uncertainty about what just might be the biggest decision I've ever made. Is this the beginning of the end? Is this the first of many things I love that I will have to give up for the baby? First perfume and then sanity, sleep, and travel to interesting places? Is this what everybody means when they say your life will never be the same? Say goodbye to emotional stability? Say goodbye to amber, lavender, rose, and sandalwood? Say goodbye to Brooklyn, Paris, and Dakar?
Is there any peace in this process? I struggled for years to decide whether to even become a parent. Now that it's happening, I'm plagued by apocalyptic visions of how it's going to turn out. Has it always been this way? Is this elixir of ambivalence and anxiety the universal experience of motherhood, or is it just America, circa right now?
Many women say that for as long as they can remember, they've wanted to have a baby. They say that playing with dolls was their first introduction to the idea of motherhood, that they've known since childhood they would give birth.
I didn't play with dolls. I never knew, the way I knew that I would go to college and eventually earn a living, that I would have a baby. Unlike those women who can't pinpoint exactly how or why they came to the feeling, I remember exactly when and where I felt the first pang of maternal desire.
I was in Africa, on a continent so foreign that none of my old thoughts about myself could hold. I found I could live without running water and electricity. I could survive armed soldiers and random searches of my bags on public buses. I could be friends, sisters even, with women who covered themselves from head to toe in swaths of black cloth.
And, because of a man I met, I could fantasize about having a child.
Ade was and still is a devout Muslim. We met in the middle of Ramadan and spent hours on the rooftop of my guesthouse talking about his culture. In conversations I dominated, I questioned him pointedly about how women were treated. What were his thoughts about the veil? Forget niceties. I wanted to know: Were the women in his family circumcised? I asked these questions, but I can't say I was open to Ade's answers. Though only twenty years old, I was positive I knew much more than Ade about the gender politics of his country from the books I had read and women I had befriended.
But Ade wasn't affected by my arrogance. He listened to each of my criticisms intently, and responded with a rather (compared to mine) complex view. He told me first what he believed (women are as powerful as men and should be respected as equals), and then explained what the Quran taught (one of the Prophet's wives was a businesswoman who financed his rise), and then finally conceded the interpretation of those with power (women should be subordinate and obedient). He was adamant that there was no circumcision, but promised to ask Fatima, a rare female friend with whom he could talk about these things, and tell me what she said.
What can I say? I fell for Ade during those conversations. Ade could talk. He wasn't afraid of me. He seemed to know his own mind, to have considered the issues I raised and come to some decisions, decisions I respected even if I didn't agree. He was unfamiliar with the intellectual combat I was honing at college, and his lack of competitiveness allowed me a relaxed curiosity I had not known. When he left, I felt awake and alive, as if the door of everything I had learned had been blown open.
Because of this and other factors too numerous to mention here, I stayed several months with Ade, and one day, after I had convinced my traveling companion to go to Tanzania without me and Ino longer knew when I would leave Ade's tiny island or why, I went out in a dhow with Ade and some friends. We were far from the shore, out on the open sea. I was wearing a gray T-shirt and Ade's blue-and-white-striped kikoi around my waist. Ade was balancing himself on the hull of the boat, releasing the rope that let the ship's battered sail unfurl in the wind.
As the boat picked up speed, I leaned back on my elbows and imagined a future with Ade. Even though his culture and beliefs ran up against everything I knew and held sacred, I found myself fantasizing that I would spend the rest of my life with him, that I would wash clothes by hand in a basin with two cups of water, and give up reading at night because we wouldn't have electricity. I dreamed that I would dress modestly and respect his mother, that I would learn to cook delicious food in huge aluminum pots over an open fire.
And then the fantasy I'd never had: the dream that was less about Ade than it was about what I suddenly saw as possible for my life. I would have a baby with Ade, two babies, three babies, as many babies as I could.
A baby. I want to have a baby.
And then, just as quickly, I turned my eyes from the sky to the floor of the old boat and thought, That's ridiculous. I can't have a baby. I have to finish school and start my career.
I'm back in Mendocino. The drive up from Berkeley last night was awful. I was so nauseated going around the curves, we had to stop the car. As I leaned out the window gulping air and smelling the blood of fresh roadkill thirty feet away, I thought seriously about walking, or going to sleep in the backseat and trying again in the morning. I was so happy to get to the gate to the house. I threw myself on the ground and lay there smelling the dirt and waiting for the world to stop spinning.
I'm nauseated and exhausted, but none of that has any effect whatsoever on my urge to nest. I know I'm always trying to make a home because I moved so many times as a kid, but now my nesting thing is on, like, hyperturbo overdrive. My mind just goes tick, tick, tick across every room, scanning for possible upgrades and nooks that could be softer, more comfortable, more homey.
After we unpacked the bags and bags of food, and after I set up my desk by hooking up my laptop and getting the lamp positioned just so, I checked the shower tile and the light fixtures. Then I went around and made a list of the other changes I needed to talk to Carl, my friend the builder/contractor, about.
I don't know how he does it, but Glen just reads and eats and relaxes as I run around trying to make everything perfect. By just leaving me alone, he gives me permission to be myself and I love that. I feel the animal aspect of it, too. I am making the nest and he's standing over, protecting all three of us while I do it.
Today I feel sad, tired, and unsure about everything. Like I have no real support outside of Glen for having this baby. Like I have no healthy models for how to have a family. My parents barely spoke to each other for twenty-five years. After raising two children together, my father and stepmother live somewhat separate lives. My relationships thus far have been, um, educational, but not terribly successful.
I am trying not to ruminate on all of this and to believe that I can reverse the divorce dynamic by staying with Glen until one of us dies, but it's like my mind is in a vise. When I am not throwing up or wanting to throw up, I am having anxiety attacks about being homeless, unable to keep my family together, and making the same mistakes my parents made. Other variations on the doomsday theme running through my mind: miscarriage, miscarriage, and miscarriage.
I would rather die than hurt my baby, but I think I would actually die if I lost my baby.Is that a depressed thought or a normal pregnancy feeling?
Today I was outrageously nauseated, but went looking at gates with Carl anyway. I think I can safely describe Carl as an aging hippie. He built many houses in Anderson Valley and along the Mendocino coast, and is incredibly knowledgeable about all things having to do with construction, environmental preservation, and a host of other things we haven't yet talked about. He's in his sixties, and has a little shake that makes hitting nails a challenge sometimes, but I consider it a blessing that he has agreed to help reclaim this little house of my mother's from dry rot, wasps, and a general state of dilapidation.
After finding a fairly nice gate that I will be able to open and shut without too much effort even at nine months, we went to see the house he has been building for his family for fifteen years. His wife, Martine, made me chamomile tea with honey for the nausea Itold her was flattening me, and Carl brought over a book of photographs of the home birth of his second child.
The pictures were incredible. Carl was young and cute, with long, braided hippie hair and an embroidered denim shirt. In the pictures, he's rubbing his wife's back and holding her hand and kissing her. She's lying down, fully naked and fully pregnant, surrendering to the process first on her back, then on her side, then on all fours when the baby is ready to come out. The room is dim so the baby won't be shocked, and Carl's first child, Tomas, who was four or five, holds a flashlight so they can take pictures.
Martine and Carl sent me home with something called The Birth Book, a collection of birth stories published by a midwifery collective Carl worked with in the seventies. After reading the stories of ten or fifteen women and their partners and midwives, I feel more than ever that I want to have a home birth. I can't imagine having the baby in a hospital. I just don't see how lying flat on your back can possibly be the best way to have a baby. I mean, for starters, it works against gravity.
I had my first official prenatal appointment today. It was like being on a conveyor belt at the baby-making factory. I was weighed, my urine tested, and seven vials of blood were extracted from my arm. I was asked about my mother's health, my father's, sister's, and brother's. Then back to the beginning for Glen's family info. The doctor briefly skipped a rock across the ocean of my diet, instructing me to avoid shellfish, raw eggs, and one other thing that I now cannot remember. Then she prescribed a prenatal vitamin and handed me several sample packets of the enormous bright purple pill. She did a quick vaginal exam, apparently the only one I am going to have until I go into labor, and then the whole thing was over.
The appointment took about twenty-five minutes and she never looked at or touched my stomach. There wasn't time or opportunity to discuss the creeping depression I've been feeling, or how concerned I am about my life changing, or my fear that I won't be able to handle it all. I mean, technically there was. She did ask how I was feeling, but we were going along at such a clip, I couldn't imagine what would happen if I bogged things down with my actual thoughts. She did say she had several patients who stayed on antidepressants through their pregnancies with no side effects whatsoever. That was helpful, considering I've been gnashing my teeth to stubs every night worrying about the implications of taking them: Am I going to burn in hell or give my kid epilepsy?She also said, somewhere in between the questions about my family's health history and the exam, that she's looking forward to delivering my baby. And that she hopes I won't do something silly, like have a home birth.
After the prenatal, I indulged in my bimonthly luxury of getting my eyebrows and toes done. Just as I was lying down, Yelena, who has been in charge of my eyebrows for the last three years, asked how old I am and if I am planning to have children. I hesitated just a second too long, trying to figure out how to answer, and she said, You're pregnant! And I said, Yes, and she said, I knew it! And then we both laughed and I told her how nauseated and tired and freaked out I am, and she told me about her clients who come in to the salon the day before their due date to get a Brazilian bikini wax. Apparently, they want to look good for the doctors. By the time I left, my toes were a lovely lilac and I was laughing my head off.
The mood swings are so intense. I woke up at four in the morning and scribbled this on the back of a paper bag:
I am eight weeks pregnant and terrified. Each morning I wake up filled with a peculiar blend of dread and longing. Who am I, and what the hell is happening to me? Already I eat uncontrollably, craving foods I classified as off-limits years ago: huge balls of mozzarella, thick steaks dripping with blood, slice after slice of eggplant. After only eight weeks, my breasts are painful to the touch, my small nipples now engorged to twice their normal size and dark as blackberries. I cannot drive to the store without having to slow the car to twenty in a fifty-mile per-hour zone, without pulling over at a gas station to let the ocean of nausea subside. To make matters worse, I can no longer get into my favorite pair of jeans, and my hard-won good posture, the result of hundreds of Alexander Technique lessons, seems frightfully on the sway. And oh yeah, forget about planes, which I have to board every other week to give lectures, readings, and writing workshops. Just the words "jet" and "fuel" send me running for the toilet.
And that's just my body. Far worse is what my mind is doing to me. In my worst moments, when I am seeing my patient and adoring partner as a modern-day Satan, and feeling as if I am going to be an unfit joke of a mother, I am certain that I am being invaded by alien intelligence, a force so powerful it can make me do things I otherwise would not, a force so totally in control of me, I may never know who I am again. And while daddy-to-be can make eggs and burn the turkey bacon just like I like it, he can't really help with the psychological plunges I keep having to claw my way out of because after all, I am going to be this child's mother, and heaven help me and her if I can't figure out how to contain my anxiety about it. Right?
Of course, being the writer and reader and info-junkie that we all are these days, I've bought a half-dozen books to try to get myself through this. I've scoured all 669,801 pages on the Internet on pregnancy and the first trimester, pregnancy and depression, pregnancy and emotions, pregnancy and anxiety, pregnancy and fear. They all, every one of them, allow for the kinds of mood swings I am having, they all say that everything I am feeling and thinking is normal, healthy,and won't hurt the baby. But while the experts say what I want to hear, they still don't seem to say it as adamantly as I need them to. They don't say, Yes, you may feel as if you are going to lose your mind and there will be moments when you reconsider everything and think, after all this wanting and trying and hoping and thinking about names and strollers and birthing methods, that the only reasonable thing to do at this point is terminate the pregnancy.
They don't tell you that. Or if they do, they tell you in tones so soft and modest and reserved and professional that you want to scream at the page, the computer, the doctor, Yes, but do you understand that this whole thing is freaking me out? My life is about to change and I have no idea how to prepare? And do you know why they are calm and you are not? Because they don't have to have this baby, you do. They are not going to be responsible for this being for the rest of their lives, you are. They are not going to lie in bed worrying about the week of doxycycline you took before you knew you were pregnant and whether or not the baby is going to have stained teeth that need forty thousand dollars' worth of veneers. They are going to go home at the end of the day without carrying your baby with them. You will never be able to go home at the end of the day without carrying your baby again.
Went to see the Tibetan doctor I have been trying to get an appointment with for months. She's in town for only four or five days every two weeks. Her office was in a cramped suite at the top of a dark stair in a nondescript building on an exceedingly plain street. I chatted a little with a woman in a wheelchair in the waiting room, who told me she has been seeing the doctor for years and swears by her. Everyone else I talk to about her says the same thing. That she comes from a long line of doctors -- her father is one of the Dalai Lama's private physicians -- and she's incredible.
After forty-five minutes, she appeared and invited me into the inner office. I sat at the foot of the examination table in a wooden chair and told her I was pregnant and super-nauseated and super-tired and maybe just a tiny bit more anxious than usual. She nodded and took my pulse. Then I said, Well, maybe I am way more anxious than usual, and a bit depressed, and she nodded again and asked me to stick out my tongue. She asked me a few more questions about my diet and what times of the day I feel best and worst.
Then she said that there is still a chance I can lose the baby, and that I should keep my stomach and the rest of my body warm. She gave me a list of warming foods to eat, and herbal pellets to quiet the nausea, ease the anxiety, and clear my system of damp, cold, and clogging elements. She told me to make a drink of pomegranate juice, ginger tea, and honey, and to take 300 mg of liquid magnesium a day. She said I should consider going off the antidepressant.
When I came out carrying my little silk bags of herbs and a sheaf of instructions, Glen was waiting for me. He was skeptical about the herbs. He wanted to make sure they wouldn't hurt the baby. I got upset and told him that this doctor has been treating people for years and years and that I didn't think she would give me something that would damage the baby. I told him what she said about the antidepressant, and he said I should choose one doctor and follow him or her. He said that all of this doctor-hopping was really just a manifestation of my fear of my life changing and how overwhelming and uncontrollable it all is. He said that if I am not careful, I could end up hurting myself or the baby, or both.
I burst into tears.
He may be right, but it's weird to have to listen to someone else's concerns about what I do with my body. Even though I get theoretically that it's Glen's baby, too, at the moment it's still a bit abstract. Yesterday he reminded me, after I called the baby mine one too many times, that I am appearing on national TV and radio promoting my latest book on masculinity and saying that men need to be more involved with every aspect of domestic life and women need to let them.
Which made me wonder, am I being a hypocrite when I think, Just let me deal with the baby in my body, you go get food and protect me while I'm doing it? It feels sacrilegious to think it, blasphemous to write it down, but maybe there is something to this whole biology thing.
Needless to say, I had a splitting headache by the time I got home. I took three of my new pellets, one of each kind. I had to crack one of them open with my teeth and chew it up. It tasted like dirt mixed with, I don't know, cyanide?
I have been sleeping for eight hours and now I am starving. I find the incessant desire to eat, no matter how shitty I am feeling, both fascinating and annoying. It's as if the baby doesn't care what I am going through, she's going to make it here no matter what.
On what I can already tell is going to be the first of many outings in search of pregnancy clothes that don't make me look like an infantilized suburban housewife, today I went to a shop called Japanese Weekend. It was recommended by one of my more stylish friends, and so it was in anticipation of the Prada of maternity wear that I made my way up Powell Street. What I found was a modest shop with six or seven racks of black, white, denim, and khaki pants and one Asian-styled top in several cheery prints.
At first I was disappointed. I just couldn't get excited about the same plain pants in four colors, all with a thick elastic band around the waist. But then Blanca, the very gentle and attentive saleswoman, suggested I try the pants in a small changing room and nodded approvingly at my reflection when I did. As she admired, I berated myself for being such a snob. The pants were fantastic, and I decided in a matter of seconds that I was never taking them off.
In my determination to "network with other moms to ensure the success of my baby," as advised by the editors of the Fit Pregnancy magazine I scoured in my ob/gyn's waiting room, I started talking to the other trying-to-stay-cool mamas trying on pants. One woman was five months "along" and had a gigantic one-year-old knocked out in a stroller. Even though she couldn't stop herself from telling me that her son was in the ninety-fifth percentile for weight and height for his age group, I was terribly impressed with this mom. She was dressed casually, in a simple black T-shirt and jeans, and had her dark, curly hair pulled back in a ponytail. She was confident and friendly and seemed very down to earth. She had great cheekbones and lovely lips that were lightly rouged.
Because she wasn't the total mess I expect a woman with a baby in a stroller and one on the way to be, I asked for her secret. She said humor and a stay-at-home husband. Then she began extolling the virtues of the Japanese Weekend pant, namely the elastic band that sits below the belly and can be folded over in the later months. I fell more in love with her when she called the pants she was looking for a "piece," and then pulled the pants she thought would be good forme from the sale rack.
The second mom-to-be to share the mirror was a little more high-strung. She looked like a corporate lawyer on her lunch break, and she tore through the options Blanca handed her with alacrity. We asked each other what I have surmised to be the stock mom-to-be questions: How many months, is this your first, do you know if it's a girl or a boy, and have you picked a name? She was four months pregnant with her first, a girl, with no name. When I congratulated her and said, "Oh how exciting, you're having a girl!" she grimaced and said, "Well, I don't know, girls are easier in the beginning but much harder later on. You know, the whole mother-daughter thing." I was so shocked by her candor that I just nodded and ducked back into the dressing cubicle. But I can't stop thinking about what she said. I just want my baby to be healthy, but I know what she means.
Went with my mother to see a documentary about a guy who eats McDonald's food for thirty days. After the film, I told her that I've been feeling depressed, and she told me she was depressed throughout her pregnancy. She said that she always assumed it was because she was isolated in Mississippi, where I was born and where she was working with my father in the civil rights movement, but maybe it was hormonal and genetically so. She said she was practically suicidal, and there were days and days she couldn't get out of bed. She said between the nausea (check) and the depression (double check), she almost lost her mind.
When I spoke with my father on the phone last night, he confirmed her memory. I asked how he dealt with it, and he said, Well, it was hard. Then he told me a story I'd never heard:
My mother wanted to go to Mexico after her first trimester because she was convinced that the sun and getting out of Mississippi would make her feel better. The only problem was that they didn't have any money. So my father put their car, the VW Bug his mother bought him when he graduated from law school, up for sale. Your car? I screech. You sold your car to go on a trip to Mexico? He laughs, not quite able to believe it, either. We lived in a suburb. My father's office was blocks and blocks away, as was the grocery store and just about everything else. He said it seemed so important to my mother, and he knew he could get a loaner from work. So they sold the Bug and went to Mexico, where they bought two paintings by the now famous Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo and got nauseated riding on public buses careening around mountain curves.
I asked my father if my mother's depression lifted as a result of the trip. I think I remember a picture of her in Mexico, wearing ared-and-white serape and a huge smile. He is silent for a long moment. You know, Rebec, I can't remember. I don't think so.
I broke the bank today at the market. I bought three different kinds of prenatal vitamins, two bottles of nausea-quelling ginger syrup, a box of healthy-pregnancy tea, two whole cooked chickens, two dozen eggs, bunches and bunches of kale, spinach, and broccoli, a huge piece of halibut, two containers of tuna, two Caesar salads, two containers each of blueberries and strawberries, tomatoes, carrots, and about six different kinds of organic chocolate, including a pound of fruit-sweetened chocolate-covered raisins. I have no doubt that if I had more arms, time, and money, I would have filled five more carts. I can't tell if I was hungry, slightly manic, or revved up with pregnancy hormones.I rushed home to meet Sonam, my potential midwife, whom I have known for years and always imagined delivering my baby. She arrived with her granddaughter asleep in a stroller just as I was unpacking the last grocery bag, took her shoes off, and asked if she could brush her teeth. Then we sat around my kitchen table with a calendar trying to figure out how pregnant I am. I told her Dr. Lowen's estimate of eight weeks from the ultrasound, and that I think I am more like ten weeks. She took notes about how I have been feeling (tired, nauseated, depressed) while I made tea and devoured a container of tuna and a whole box of crackers.
When her granddaughter woke up, we shifted into the bedroom and talked some more while the baby went around the bedroom picking up my shoes and letting them fall to the floor with a boom that made her laugh. It was great to have a real live baby in the house, a prelude to what is to come. Since Sonam is a friend of both my mother and me, and because she asked, I told her that my mom wasn't as enthusiastic as I had hoped. She told me to remember that whatever is going on with my mother has nothing to do with me, and that babies have a way of transforming families. She also said depression is common, especially in the first trimester, and that I should boost my vitamin B intake to help.
Then, get this, I lay down on my very own bed, and she felt my stomach, measuring the size of my uterus by counting thumb-widths from my belly button. The second she put her hands on my belly, I knew that I wanted her to deliver the baby. It was like she was talking to the baby with her hands, and the baby was listening. And I felt so safe, like I could fall apart and scream and cry and freak out with her, and she would know what to do.
Lying there, I thought more about how much I want to have this baby at home. The one video of a birth I have seen is of a woman giving birth to her baby in a hot tub with just her husband attending. She goes into labor and she's totally calm, doing deep breathing and walking around their house looking like she's in another dimension. As the contractions get more intense, she hangs on her husband's shoulders and he massages her back. Then she gets into the hot tub and out comes the baby, looking unbothered and serene.
My mother said she wished that my birth could have been like that, instead of in the newly desegregated hospital with the doctor she didn't like, who gave her an episiotomy she may not have needed. My mother's experience haunts me. I am terrified of being cut. Episiotomy, C-section, I just don't want to be lying there helpless and at the mercy of a bunch of doctors in a hurry to get to their golf game.
I flew to Seattle yesterday to keynote the annual benefit dinner for the Northwest Women's Law Center. I talked about how since I've been pregnant, I've been more concerned than ever about the need for people in politics and the public eye to have healthy personal lives. So often the momentous cultural work happens at the expense of family and sustained intimacy with loved ones. I saw a lot of heads nodding as I spoke, and several couples came up afterward to talk about their experiences trying to keep their families together in the midst of giving so much of themselves to the work they care so much about.
I met some interesting people at the dinner, including a judge who told me about the evisceration of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the loveliest woman who was seven months pregnant. Of course we had a pregnancy moment because I can't stop myself from telling every single person I meet my news, and pregnant women? Forget it. It's all I can do not to grab them and sit them down in a corner somewhere to pump them for info about the road ahead. The vast, miraculous wilderness of gestation is my new frontier. I'm looking ahead, gathering provisions. I think I'm becoming a mother.The woman's name was Anna and this is her second pregnancy; she lost her first child last year to a rare disease. She had sadness in her eyes for the one she lost, but excitement in her laugh for the one to come. I got choked up talking to her. She was inspiring and vulnerable, and I wanted to hug her and take care of her and marvel at her. I was a mess. She lost her child, and then summoned the faith to do it all over again. How do human beings do it?
Stayed up all night finishing a book review of a new Audre Lorde biography I agreed to write months ago. What a fascinating life. At one point she had a husband, two kids, and a wife -- my kind of woman! But she also had major issues: a raging temper, self-absorption that wasn't easy on her kids or lovers. I am determined to live in a way that puts my baby first. I would rather not have a child than subject another human being to eking out an identity in the wake of unbridled narcissism.But are narcissists aware of their narcissism? I could be going along la-di-da, thinking everything is fine, oblivious to how my choices are impacting my child. I have to rely on Glen to keep me on track. Last night he told me for the umpteenth time that being a parent is easy if you put the needs of the children first. If we can figure out what is best for them and do that, he says, we'll be okay.
Super-depressed and nauseated today. Can't eat. Keep having sick fantasies that the baby is going to be deformed and Glen is going to have a freak accident and leave me to raise the baby alone. I spent hours looking at the listings the realtor sent over. Two-bedroom unrenovated houses for a million dollars. My deformed child and I are going to live in a shack.
Definitely depression. I'll be puttering away, feeling fine about it all, and then, wham! The undertow.
Long day. Depressed in the morning, but managed to eke out an hour or so of writing. I forgot the second thing depression takes from me: productivity.
Had lunch with a writer friend in the afternoon. While we were waiting for our udon, Tina told me about her pregnancy: She was twenty-one, alone, and barely out of foster care. She ate M&M's all day and taught herself how to be a parent by reading Dr. Spock. She said she was too proud and too angry to say she needed help and ended up alone and depressed.
I am not sure why, given what she told me, but I asked if shewanted another child. She said absolutely not, no, never. She had preeclampsia, a pelvic cavity not big enough for the baby, and a C-section. She was left with stretch marks all over her body and a baby who at six weeks had to have an operation because he wouldn't stop projectile vomiting.I got it, but as she was talking I kept thinking about her son, Mark. He is absolutely gorgeous. Smart and athletic. Sweet. The last time I saw him, he was wearing khakis and a white sweater and looked like a movie star. He hugged his mom and kissed her on the cheek. It just doesn't seem possible that he could be the result of such a hideous experience, and yet there it is: the contradiction at the core of the whole endeavor.
A documentary on celibacy was on a few nights ago, and on it, a psychiatrist talked about the urge to procreate and how it is the strongest human urge, stronger even than the urge to eat. That will to multiply -- the sheer force of it leaves me speechless. Take this one in my belly. He (or she) is determined to be here. I can feel the force of his being. It's as if he has something to do here and just wants to arrive and grow up so he can get to it. He's not ambivalent at all.
On the way home, I stopped by my mother's house and shook my head as she dismissed my concerns about money and affordable housing for the baby. Easy for her to say, I thought. She's got four huge, beautiful houses. I had to remind her that when she was pregnant with me, my father had already bought their house and was supporting her utterly and completely, an option never presented to me, as a baby feminist, as feasible. Letting a man support me while Inest and think positive thoughts, that is.
Leaving her house, I was compelled to do a little retail therapy. Of course, the whole time I was shopping I was thinking that once the baby comes I will never shop again because I will have to pay for diapers and child care and car seats and bottles and blankets.The thought was like walking into an airplane propeller.
Went to see Marie. She agrees with Glen that because of thehereditary predisposition to pregnancy-related depression (and because of the mood swings, three-hour crying spells, and thoughts so horrible I feel ashamed to even write them down), I should consider increasing the dose of my antidepressant. Even though I troll the Internet almost every night looking for articles on the impact of antidepressants on babies, I felt relief just hearing her say the words.
I know that between the two of us, the baby is the most vulnerable right now and I need to do everything I can to protect her, but I have to take care of myself, too. I feel selfish and guilty, but also self-aware and proud. I haven't succumbed to the cultural pressure to sacrifice my hard-won sanity if it isn't absolutely necessary. I'm still a whole human being with needs. I'm an equal partner in this baby equation.
I'm still agonizing over untold possibilities, but I feel fortunate to live at a time when depression is recognized as a treatable illness rather than, say, a religious or criminal defect. At least a few people understand that the choice I'm making isn't frivolous, it's necessary.
Dreamed last night about my ex-boyfriend Andrew, but I think I was really dreaming about all of the guys I have loved but didn't have children with. In the dream, Andrew and I were driving down a narrow road. It was overcast. Huge limestone churches and tiny houses covered with thatch came in and out of focus out the window. I was talking, and kept touching Andrew's hand as he moved the gear stick. He nodded and looked at me at all the right moments, but responded to me in Russian. Flowery, emphatic, lightning-fast Russian. I thought to myself that I must know how to speak his language and I cycled through all of the languages I know bits and pieces of, but could find no Russian. It dawned on me that we had no way to communicate, and that we had been this way for a very, very long time. I didn't flinch, and calmly kept stroking Andrew's hand, but I thought to myself that our relationship was over, and that everything was about to change.
This must have something to do with the e-mail I got from Andrew a few days ago. I have been thinking so much about ourfive-year relationship and what went wrong. The last time I saw him, he was living in Japan and teaching English. I traveled twenty hours to visit him, and after four days of wandering through temples in Kyoto and two days on a ferry to Shikoku, we had a huge, melodramatic fight complete with screaming and slamming doors and walking out of apartments in the middle of the night.
I ended up fleeing back to Narita airport in Tokyo in a taxi that cost three hundred dollars, driven by an officious man wearing white gloves and a little black cap. I didn't understand a word he said, but every ten minutes he would catch my eye in the rearview mirror and say, Narita? And I would look back at him and say, Yes, Narita. And he would say, Okay.I can't remember what Andrew and I fought about, but I have missed knowing, over these last ten years, whether he is alive or dead, happy or miserable. Within forty-eight hours of Googling him, I was staring at photos of his beautiful wife and daughter. They are living in Hawaii; Andrew is weeks away from his Ph.D. In his note he sounded the same. Same dry British-American wit, same Sephardic warmth. I told him about the baby and he congratulated me. He said he always knew I would be a wonderful mother.
I woke up this morning feeling the distance between my life now and all the people I still love but no longer know. After a lifetime filled with a seemingly endless array of choices, I'm somewhat stunned to find myself making such a definitive one. It's thrilling to be opening the door to a new life with Glen, but terrifying to be shutting all the other doors to all the other lives. A part of me wants to leave an escape route open, some ember from an old flame smoldering, just in case. But another part says, No, this is it, you have a child to think about now, and turns away.