From the moment menstruation begins and the first drop of fertile blood appears, girls are trained to fear unwanted pregnancies. I remember well my initiation into the disquieting ways of my body: as my mother and I walked down the wet slate path toward the car, she turned to me, paused momentarily, and said, “We’ll help you out if you get into trouble.” (Trouble. A code word for pregnancy, dead ends, the facts of life not yet discussed.) For me, at twelve, the idea of getting into trouble was a familiar one, but the hushed severity of my mother’s tone chilled me and let me know there was nothing familiar about this brand of trouble. For one thing, usually whenever I ran into trouble I was not helped but made to suffer in solitude.
Fortunately, trouble in the form of an unwanted pregnancy has never come my way, but some months the fear has been palpable. More times than I’d care to admit, I’ve looked at my toilet paper expecting to be handed my destiny. That fear has returned following the temporary reprieve of my childbearing years, when babies were my goal. As my younger child nears kindergarten, I am haunted by the possibility that I will have a “happy accident.”
Thirty-five years ago my mother accidentally brought me into the world, and I have lived with a baffling sense of ambiguity ever since. Now, as a mother of two planned children, a girl and a boy, I half expect to repeat my mother’s experience. There is a certain dose of superstition to my fantasy/fear: so far, my children have re-created the exact birth order, gender, and spacing of my mother’s children. They even weighed the same, right down to the ounce.
Given this history, I can easily visualize giving birth to a girl weighing — as I did — six pounds, two ounces. And this child, unlike her siblings, will arrive with not only a birth story but a conception story, a tale of impulse and surprise.
I must confess there is a certain appeal to being a child of such racy origins. I have always felt the tingle of sex associated with my existence. To be the result purely of sex, without planning or purpose, adds a certain Dionysian vibrancy to one’s arrival. In the family constellation, the accidental child is a shooting star, soaring without pattern through a vast universe.
My unticketed journey began late one Saturday night in my parents’ darkened bedroom. They had returned from a terrific party and my mother, so the story goes, couldn’t keep her hands to herself.
Whenever the tale was told, my father would wave his hands in innocence and grin. It was a devilish grin, conveying the pleasure of that fateful moment when his wife let loose. To think of my mother allowing passion to override reason and temporarily becoming as feral as a field rabbit thrilled me most of all. My Irish Catholic relatives always smiled sheepishly when discussing my arrival. “Your mother had her tubes tied the day you were born,” my Aunt Honey would say with a laugh. While I wasn’t sure where those tubes were, I intuitively knew they were linked with the steamier side of reproduction. I was living testimony to what could happen when people merged so deeply that they passed beyond thought.
Likely there exists within me some primal desire to reproduce myself in the form of a third and unexpected child who forces her family into a bigger car. Yet, when I strip away the allure of my conception, I find I really do not want another baby to pull on my earrings and spawn another circle of carpools. I pray not to revisit that long and sleepless road of raising a child who will steal yet another cup from my shrunken breasts. What I want instead is a ritual for saying farewell to those mighty days of expectancy — I will miss them. I am expecting are three words whose sense of triumph is, in my experience, unmatched. Those nine long and not always comfortable months of gestation were when I’ve come closest to being invincible and completely alive. And giving birth made me feel as vital and well equipped as I’ve ever felt.
At a party recently, I overheard a father of two offer a first-time mother-to-be this advice: take your brand-new baby and immediately inhale that smell. “There is nothing ever again like that smell,” he told her. And he sucked in deeply, loud enough for everyone to hear, trying to relive an indelible but ultimately irretrievable moment.
To walk away from that generative world without at least shaking hands or waving or giving a heartfelt hug seems wrong and ungrateful, unthinkably cold. There are many manuals for women with fertility problems, and even more for pregnant women, but for the woman who has relinquished her reign as a fertile female there is almost nothing. Maybe she will receive an awkward moment of sympathy from her husband. But sympathy might not be the right sentiment for what is, after all, a decision she has made and not a condition imposed or a tragedy unleashed upon her. Sympathy is often window dressing hiding a much more fundamental need for compassionate attention. A little attention can help a person move on to a new role in life — in this case, to becoming a “postfertility woman.”
Just by giving it a name I am giving it attention and defining what is making me so irrational. I can now explain my odd behavior as the result of “postfertility stress syndrome.” For example, it was clearly this condition that prompted me to take more than a hundred pounds of baby equipment with us when we moved across the country last summer. Right now, in my attic, I have everything from a stroller, to a portable crib, to a breast pump (an item I loathed while nursing). In my foggy postfertility stupor, I refused to sell a single baby item at our moving sale; my defense was as poorly argued and emphatic as an alcoholic’s justification for having a drink. I all but slurred my loud no when my husband asked if we could just sell one of the baby backpacks. All of my maternity clothes are still boxed in my cedar closet — not to mention all my books on pregnancy, names, and babies.
I am also quite certain it is this stress disorder that makes me completely unconvincing when I try to persuade my husband to have a vasectomy. Whenever I gently ask him to consider this birth-control option, he always responds positively, though his complacent tone tells me he’s not about to have anyone alter his private parts. Recently, I told him that our new family doctor performs the operation, that it takes only a weekend to recover. “Oh,” he said in a vaguely interested, noncommittal manner. Has he booked his appointment yet? Not a chance. Am I perturbed? Not a bit. I am grateful in my own foggy way. To take away my husband’s seed would be akin to selling the stroller; it would mean the long ride of pregnancy and birth and babies was over, ended — which, I’ve come to realize, is more than I’m willing to concede just yet.
That’s why what must occur before I can give away the booster seat is a ritual to help usher in the change. When a mother decides to stop having children, or has a hysterectomy, or experiences menopause, she should gather together a group of other such women and dance a postfertility dance. They could meet late at night dressed in lingerie to symbolize their reclaimed sexual identities. No longer so tightly bound to the home, each woman would dance with arms opened wide and the buoyancy that comes from no longer carrying anyone inside her.
It would be a sort of going-away party. When a woman says, “No more babies,” she is leaving the world of expansion and ten thousand tiny movements and that deliciously positive state of expectancy. But it is not all bad. A mother bird done nursing her young returns to flight. To use an oxymoron — like “happy accident” — it is a sweet loss; certainly much sweeter than most. For one thing, what remains despite the loss are those children who did arrive — expected, unexpected, adopted, or otherwise brought by some miracle. For another, the mother can come back to herself, get back in her old jeans, maybe go back to work, definitely return to a place nearer to where she once lived: “I don’t want any more babies — I want to climb mountains in Nepal.”
Just don’t sell the highchair while I’m gone.
So I will wait for my dancers to convene. And while I wait I will keep expecting. But instead of a few gentle kicks inside my outpressed belly, I will feel the flutter of those things yet to come; not a new life, no, but one that is rounded, poised in readied expectation.
And when I need to hear the harmony of two heartbeats inside me, I will slip quietly into the children’s room as they sleep and lie down beside them and listen to their calm breath telling me in soft, short breezes:
I arrived; you expected me, and I came.
I arrived; you expected me, and I came.
What could a third pregnancy bring me that isn’t already here? Myself in the form of a third child? But I, too, am already here.