Maybe I’m not meant to be a mom,” I said to my best friend after my second miscarriage. At the time I had thought of it as my first miscarriage, because this time we had heard the baby’s heartbeat, and my husband and I had even started bandying about names, before the doctor cruelly informed me that my pregnancy, at 10 weeks, was no longer viable. (The first one was a few months before when I had seen a positive pregnancy on the home testing kit, but by the time I made it to the doctor it was gone.)
“But I felt it! I saw the heart pumping!” I told another friend incredulously. She was the only one I knew who was going through fertility treatment. She nodded sympathetically but didn’t say a thing, like someone who had been in the trenches for too long and had seen it all. But I would not understand that until much later. Like, in my 30s when I was dating and had stayed up chatting all night with an amazing guy only for him never to call me again. In the beginning, it was shocking, outrageous, criminal. But by the end, by the time I’d met Solomon at 39, it was de rigueur. (The night after I met Solomon, I wasn’t even sure he’d call).
And now, I was amazed, in the worst way, that one week I was pregnant, and another week, pfft. Gone.
SOME WOMEN know their whole lives they want to be moms. Others wait for the yearning to come a’ calling. (When I was in my 30s, there was no third category of women who decided not to be moms, of what would come to be known as “child-free by choice,” or at least I did not know of them. There were only women who were moms, who wanted to be moms, or never got to be moms.)
By 35, the baby bug had not overtaken me. My womb was not aching, my biological clock was not ticking loudly. (I guess it was but I could not hear it.) “I just don’t want to wake up one day and realize it was too late,” I told my new therapist, whom I’d hired for the express purpose to figure out if I wanted kids or not.
“Do you even have a boyfriend?” he asked me, confused. He was a Canadian gay man living in Los Angeles – basically the opposite of me, a Brooklyn-born, Orthodox-raised, formerly religious New Yorker with a decade of Israel in my 20s sprinkled through. “Can’t you cross that bridge when you get there?” (That was when “social” egg freezing was still experimental and women did not preserve their fertility.)
I told him I did not want to wake up one day at 45 or 50 and realize that I wanted children but did not have them because I was too afraid to. Too afraid that I would be like my parents, unsuitable for each other and largely uninterested in their four children. I wanted to know the answer: do I want to become a mom? Absent the yearning, the twinge, the wandering glance of envy with every passing baby carriage, could I choose to become a parent?
After a few years of therapy, a few years of being an aunt to my nieces and nephews, I ascertained that at my bare minimum as an auntie and occasional babysitter, I had already surpassed my own parents’ bar and I could be a mother or stepmother. If I met the right person. (I was quite sure I would not be able to do it on my own.)
And I did meet the right person and I did tell him I wanted kids. And I did, in principle. I had come to realize that the only way to get over my past, to get past my past, as it were, was to create a future of my own. So what if I wasn’t dying to be pregnant or go through labor or breastfeed or buy children’s clothes? I made a rational decision that having a family was the best route for me.
But making a decision does not mean the universe will line up with your desires.
Solomon and I got married when I was 41, and I got pregnant the week after our wedding. That was the one that didn’t take, and I viewed it, at the time, as a false start.
But a month after our honeymoon, I fell pregnant again, and this time I vowed I would appreciate my pregnancy, take care of it, really want it, as I hadn’t in the past. I did feel connected to the tightness in my tummy, the twinge of a new life taking shape a new, unknown path beginning for me: mother.
It was as if that flip had finally been switched in me. As a young girl, I had never played with dolls, or played house — I was more into Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman – never felt the need to be a caretaker. But with this nascent batch of cells splitting and reforming and taking the outline on the ultrasound of a future human being, I felt protective and protected.
That’s why I was in such a state of shock. I had finally gotten on board, but this train wasn’t going anywhere.
“Maybe I’m not meant to be a mom,” is what I’d said to my best friend. I mean, I spent almost 40 years not wanting it. And only a few months preparing for it. How hard could it have been to just revert to my travel-loving, adventure-seeking self? We could have a wonderful life together, Solomon and I, exploring the world and each other, without procreating. That’s what I tried to tell myself.
BUT IT was too late. Literally and figuratively.
I was approaching 42 and had to start fertility treatment. Instead of learning the lesson that maybe I wasn’t meant to be a mom, my short pregnancies made me want it, really want for the first time. When my womb emptied, for the first time I felt empty. And I felt like I needed to fill it with a baby.
Truthfully, even after all this time and all that treatment, I am not sure how much others understand about someone going through infertility. Maybe they can understand how tough it is on your body, on your finances, on your relationship. But they cannot grasp the level of uncertainty you must live in, wanting a child and not having one. Or wanting more children than you already have.
You live in limbo. Not life and death limbo but a different kind, of a life on hold, between your childless friends and your parent friends, not content to be in the former anymore and not eligible for the latter; you’re not quite sure what to do with yourself except for the endless hamster wheel of fertility treatment, reaching for a goal that seems just just out of reach.
And you wonder. You wonder what your life is going to be like. If you’ll ever get the key to the magical city of Oz. Or if you’ll have to return to Kansas, where it all began.
And when you’re in the Jewish community, bordering on the religious one, you feel even more left out.
As the cycle of the year begins with Rosh Hashanah, when every other day seems to be a holiday (especially in America with two- and three-day chagim), it’s even more isolating for the childfree-not-by-choice, watching all the seemingly happy families in their cacophony, the kids tumbling from their sukkot or dancing with their Torahs.
You wonder where you fit in in the world, in the Jewish community, which seems set up only for families, replicating, from generation to generation.
Of course there are so many valid ways to be a human in the world. You don’t have to be married or straight or a parent or a grandparent. You can still be a productive, happy member of society.
But what if you want to be part of all that mayhem and can’t?
OUR STORY is not the best but it is not the worst either. Many lose pregnancies later in the term or at birth. Many need surrogates to carry pregnancies. Some families never have biological children, or any children at all. It took us four years, 10 doctors, nine rounds of IVF in both America and Israel and two more miscarriages (four in total) before we finally had our daughter six years ago.
“Was it worth it?” people like to ask. What a silly question. In the fertility world they say you get the child you are meant to have – whether by pregnancy, surrogacy, adoption, or whatever route you end up taking. And we have the daughter we are meant to have: feisty, fierce, bashful and exuberant. But I’d rather have fast-forwarded through those ugly, hormone-filled, not-knowing-if-I’d-have-a-happy ending years. I’d rather that second pregnancy been our child (a boy, it turned out).
I wish I could say that during the sleepless nights of early motherhood to the diapers and breastfeeding and potty training and babysitter hiring that I had forgotten it all: every needle, every disappointing test result, every miscarriage, every bris and bar mitzvah when I wondered if it would ever be me.
Some do forget, caught up in their new lives.
But those memories are buried within me, deep down, even now, six years later, as I help my daughter braid her curly hair for the holidays, build paper chains for a sukkah party, wonder how to help her navigate cliques and bullies and mean girls and rude boys and all the joyous preteen years to come.
As I sit with my family and other parents discussing holiday plans and school districts and developmental milestones and complain about the endless trials of parenthood, I watch from the outside, still looking in, looking in at how I finally belong.
The writer is the author of The Trying Game: Get Through Fertility Treatment and Get Pregnant without Losing Your Mind.