Wednesday, June 6, 2012
…a panic attack did.
My daughter’s name (I was always meant to have had a daughter) would have been Willa or India or Savannah or Charlie or Lee or Harper or Nuala or Fiona or Maggie or Izzy.
I would have had a long and natural childbirth, full of curses and complications but, ultimately, successful. She would have had Ram’s full lips and black hair and love of music and my hazel eyes and long legs and love of books.
I would have stayed home from work to care for her until pre-k and we would have had adventures – road trips with no destinations, scavenger hunts on beaches, skipping school to go sledding, sneaking out on dark summer nights to light sparklers, skinny-dipping in closed community pools.
She would have been raised in the city, with Central Park and museums and people from all over the world to teach her who she wanted to be. She would have been a sharp student, excelling in art and English and surprisingly, science. She would have taught me the names of constellations and insisted on completing her science fair projects without assistance and she would have won ribbons for her work.
She would have been socially awkward, shy and uncomfortable in groups. She would have preferred to have one or two close friends instead of a larger clique. She would have been prone to heartbreak at the hands of cruel boys, but Ram would have gotten her involved in jujitsu and that would have boosted her confidence.
She and I would have had a rough patch when she was entering high school and I no longer understood how to relate to her and she no longer wanted to tell me her secrets. We would have caught her smoking pot, and then would have had to decide if we should lie about our own experiences with drugs (mainly Ram’s, as I would have been quick to point out – I had only smoked pot one-and-a-half times and had not enjoyed it). It would have been a rough year but we would have figured out how to be friends again during the summer after her freshman year. We would have instituted a mother-daughter trip every year, closing our eyes and picking a place on the map, exploring the unknown together.
I was 29. I was finishing up the last semester of my Masters in psychology, taking two night classes, completing an internship at a partial care center for the mentally ill and working full-time. I had been off of antidepressants for over a year, lost 40 of the 60 pounds I had gained while on Paxil and ended my ten-year love affair with Camel Lights.
It was time to make a baby.
We had no real money and a very tiny railroad apartment but, in the way that most couples desperate for a child say, we would make it work.
I felt strong and healthy. I hadn’t had a panic attack in many months and the depression was little more than a distant ship on the horizon, too far to hear its sounding horn or be disturbed by its wake.
I was about to turn 30, the age my mother was when she had me. A good omen. My 20’s had been turbulent and lonely; life, I was sure, would begin in earnest for me once I hit 30.
Ram and I had tried to get pregnant on our own for six months with no luck. I became impatient. Too much of life had already passed me by as I had waited for the depression and anxiety to release their stranglehold on me. The time for waiting was over.
I went to my gynecologist. Six months wasn’t a long time to have been trying, he said. But I couldn’t explain the urgency. It wasn’t how long we had been trying, it was how long I felt I had left. What I couldn’t tell my doctor, or even Ram, was that I feared the crazy was stalking me and would return before I could get pregnant. Somehow, I thought, a baby would be my talisman against coo coo. I had to get pregnant before the crazy snared me in its net.
Clomid, the doctor said, would make me ovulate if I wasn’t already. I could only take it for three months, however, doubling the dose each month. Anything more than three months was dangerous, as the fertility drug could cause ovarian cysts and bla bla bla. I didn’t hear the rest. Didn’t care. All I needed to know was that this would knock me up.
There’s also an increased possibility, the doctor said, that you could have twins.
Twins! How wonderful. One pregnancy, two babies. A set. A complete family. This was really going to happen. My life was going to start. I was going to be a mother.
At first, I didn’t tell anyone at work that we were trying to get pregnant. Several of my coworkers knew about my crazy, and it still felt too raw and recent to say I was ready to be a mama. Part of me wondered if they might not just call child protective services and have my uterus put on lockdown. There’s a crazy woman trying to have a baby, they might say. Someone sew her shut!
I couldn’t keep the secret for long, however. Clomid mimics many of the side effects of pregnancy, and I had them all: hot flashes, nausea, headaches. Face flushed with sweat, I ran for the bathroom whenever someone ate anything more aromatic than a cracker in my presence. I lost another ten pounds in a heartbeat. But my soaking sweats and slimmer waistline were not the most telling aspects of my condition.
My hormones were the main event at Wrestlemania, body slamming and clotheslining each other, cracking folding chairs over heads. I dared cars to cut me off in traffic, itching to sideswipe an SUV or rear-end a beamer. A permanent scowl took up residence across my face, eyes beady and forehead furrowed. I was a one-woman street gang armed with chains and broken bottles, ready to shiv the first old nun who cut in line at the supermarket.
Is this what pregnancy would look like?
Two months on Clomid resulted in two negative pregnancy tests. For the third and final month, the dosage tripled, the side effects quadrupled and the crazy began a slow creep back.
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes I am! Look at my belly.”
“Ashley, we’ve talked about this. You heard what the doctor said.”
“The doctor is wrong. I’m having a baby.”
“Remember? The doctor said you had to actually have sex to get pregnant. Have you had sex?”
“No, but TJ held my hand and he touched his penis before that. He told me he did. The baby traveled from his hand to my stomach and now we’re having a baby. Give me my prenatal vitamins!”
I had some variation of this conversation with Ashley every Wednesday during my internship at the partial care unit. It was a sort of day care for the mentally ill, a place for them to spend their days supervised, receive counseling and interact with other similarly affected patients. At the end of each day, they went home to their families or studio apartments or group homes, maintaining a semblance of independent living.
Ashley was my age, a schizophrenic who suffered from pseudocyesis – hysterical pregnancy. It was easy to believe she might actually be pregnant. Her belly was swollen and she kept her hands on her stomach, caressing the baby she believed to be inside her.
The thing was, Ashley was a virgin; the doctor had confirmed this fact. Ashley herself admitted she had never had sex, nor had any interest in sex, but felt it was possible to become pregnant by touching the arm of, or talking to a man. According to her, she had had several miscarriages already, always at the time she thought she would have given birth. She grieved each of these phantom babies as her belly shrunk until, a few weeks or months later, she once again announced she was pregnant and the swollen belly returned.
A few of our patients were elderly but most were about my age, suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or various forms of psychosis. When I started my internship, I looked forward to every Wednesday, the interaction with these needy and (mostly) gentle patients, leading group sessions and activities. I worked my eight-hour-shift and then left my patients, and their problems, at the door.
As the weeks passed and the Clomid cast its spell, however, I found it more difficult to disconnect at the end of a day. I began to take my patients home with me, mulling over their symptoms and comparing them to my own.
Chen was a student from China. He had come to the US to study engineering and had, at one time, been brilliant. He had no family or friends here and was said to have been a loner. One day in class he started screaming and throwing books. He had to be restrained and was hospitalized for several months, diagnosed as schizophrenic.
Hearing of his illness, his parents in China refused to let him come home. They sent him a meager allowance each month, which was supplemented by Medicaid benefits and food stamps.
Chen was rail thin and harmless. He would sometimes follow me for blocks if he spotted me on the street. He was not a threat to me and I could have lost him at any time, as he had what we referred to as the ‘Depakote shuffle’, the stoned gait of heavily medicated patients, feet dragging, arms hanging lifeless at their sides.
Chen trailed me like a ghost, the ghost of who I had been or who I feared I would become – a castaway lost in psychosis subsisting in a world that had no place or patience for the mentally ill.
Ana was barely five feet tall and spoke no English. The patients had a choice between doing arts and crafts or preparing lunch for the patients, and Ana always chose the kitchen. She seemed calmest when cutting vegetables or making pasta, humming to herself and smiling.
I had very little interaction with Ana, as she spent most of her time in the Spanish-speaking groups. One day while I was supervising patients in the kitchen, Ana took a boiling pot of water off the stove and walked toward me. She spoke Spanish softly and smiled as she came closer and closer.
I understood two words – water and God.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I don’t understand. No comprendo.”
“Get out of here! Now,” said another staff member, standing in front of Ana and shoving me towards the door. I left amidst a barrage of rapid-fire Spanish. When I turned to look, Ana was still staring at me, smiling and holding the boiling pot out like an offering.
“What was that?” I asked when the staffer found me a few minutes later.
“She was about to throw boiling water in your face. God told her to do it.”
“Oh,” I said calmly, as if that explained everything, which, in this environment, it usually did.
“Ana seems harmless,” I said, shocked that this tiny, quiet woman had an ounce of violence in her.
“She was until she tried to drown her baby. Postpartum psychosis. Watch yourself around her.”
It was as if someone had bashed cymbals on either side of my head. The shock was that jarring. Had Ana been normal before she had had a baby? Was psychosis lurking inside of her (me!) waiting for the proper conditions to steal her (my!) sanity?
What separated us (the healthy) from them (the unhealthy)? Was I even an us or a them? If I worked too hard, took on too much, played with my hormones like a chemistry set, would I create a hormonal bomb that would explode and forever sever the tenuous thread keeping me just this side of sane?
I thought of my father’s mother who, at the age of 40, refused a life-saving surgery and died unnecessarily. She had spent most of her adult life enduring repeated electric shock therapy, in and out of psychiatric wards suffering from, what we now know, was severe postpartum depression. She never tried to hurt her babies or herself, but depression and panic kept her homebound, unable to leave the apartment for weeks or months for fear of what lurked outside the door.
I thought of my aunt, who, after the birth of her sixth child, feared she was going to throw the baby out of a window. She too underwent shock treatment and claimed to be better afterward. But she often looked miles away, making me wonder if she really were better or was just faking it to avoid further treatment.
I researched psychosis, asked professors and supervisors about its origins, for purely academic reasons of course. That a wire could snap in my brain, leaving me forever divorced from reality, was a thought more terrifying than a world with no children.
What was said time and again was that the first psychotic break rarely occurred after the age of 25.
What I heard was – rarely? As in rare but possible.
People suffering from run of the mill anxiety and depression do not typically exhibit signs of psychosis.
So, I could have a psychotic break? That’s what you’re saying? That I’ll probably have a psychotic break any day now? That I’ll be one of those rare late-onset psychotics?
I had always been a late bloomer. What if my psychosis was just late showing up to the dinner table?
Once again, my brain became infected with what ifs. What if the hormonal imbalances of pregnancy make me go crazy? What if I have a psychotic break? What if I’m schizophrenic but it just didn’t happen yet? What if I have a baby and I try to hurt her? What if I can’t function and just leave her in the crib to cry all day every day? What if I abandon her? What if I can’t handle the pressures of motherhood? What if I change my mind after she’s already here? What if crazy skips a generation or two and I’m okay but my baby isn’t? What if I make my baby psychotic?
I didn’t sleep at all the night before I would find out if the third and last round of Clomid had been effective, if I were pregnant.
For the first time ever, it occurred to me just how permanent a thing motherhood is, that motherhood is forever. It wasn’t something that I could take back like an ill-fitting dress; it wasn’t like being a wife, which could be undone with a court appearance; it wasn’t a job that I could quit in favor of another, with shorter hours and better health insurance.
A baby was permanent.
A baby was forever.
Being a mother might make me lose my mind.
Being pregnant might make me lose my mind.
I didn’t want permanent.
I didn’t want forever.
I didn’t want to lose my mind. I didn’t want to be pregnant.
I didn’t want a baby.
I didn’t want to be a mother.
I didn’t want to be a mother.
But I did, didn’t I? Hadn’t I dreamt of teaching my daughter to swim and taking her to the Museum of Natural History? Didn’t I want that sleeping baby on my chest? The late nights of homework, the finger paintings on the refrigerator, the singular smell of baby on my clothes?
The answer to that was yes. Yes I wanted a baby. Yes I wanted to be a mother. But I didn’t want that at the expense of my health, my sanity, my life. If I had to choose between a healthy me and the prospect of an unborn baby, I chose me.
I shook and sweated and cried all night. Not at the realization that I could not, should not have a baby, which was a relief, but at the prospect that I might actually be pregnant. I researched abortion clinics, wondering if I could or should tell Ram the truth. Maybe I could say the test was negative and then sneak off in a week or two for the abortion, blaming the ensuing cramps and bleeding on a terrible period. Then in the following months, I could come home one day after an imaginary doctor’s appointment with the sad truth for Ram – I could not have a baby. Even if it wasn’t medically true, and it might be for all I knew, it was true in the truest sense, that having a baby would be detrimental to my mental health, that having a baby would rob me of any chance I might have at a healthy life.
There was no need for an abortion. The test was negative. I was not pregnant. I would not be a mother.
“I need a break from the baby making,” I said to Ram.
“Okay. How long a break?”
“I don’t know. Let’s not talk about it for a while, okay?”
“Okay. But you still want to have a baby, don’t you?”
“Yeah yeah yeah. Of course. Just not now, okay?”
“No problem,” Ram said.
And so, back with the condoms.
I started making jokes when we saw families out in public.
“Reason 235 not to have a baby,” I’d say while pointing to a toddler having a meltdown in a restaurant.
“Reason 947 not to have a baby,” I’d say as a family tried to board a plane with three kids, strollers, diaper bags and Sponge Bob Square Pants.
“Reason 58,306 not to have a baby,” I’d say when a mother cradled a frail baby attached to an oxygen tank at the park.
After several months of sex with condoms, Ram asked if we might start trying again.
“No,” I said much too emphatically. “I’m not ready.”
A cold sweat broke out all over my body at the prospect of revisiting this topic. How would I tell Ram that I never wanted to get pregnant or have a child? Could I lose my husband over this? After all, we had always talked about having a family. This sudden change in plans could be a deal breaker. Was I willing to lose my husband over this?
The answer was yes.
“I don’t want to get pregnant,” I confessed.
“What do you mean? Now?”
“I’m sorry. I just don’t think I could handle it. I honestly think having a baby would kill me.”
Ram looked skeptical. He’s always believed in me, even at my craziest; he’s never doubted that I could do anything. He thought I was having the normal fears most women have when facing the prospect of motherhood. I had to convince him otherwise.
“I am afraid that I will hurt the baby, that the pregnancy hormones will make me crazy and I will wait until I’m alone with the baby and I will hurt her.”
“So you don’t want to have a baby. Can we at least adopt at some point?”
“Sure. We can talk about it. Just not now.”
After that, the subject of kids came up less and less frequently. I continued to joke about the thousands of reasons not to have kids, and Ram started to add his own. There was no defining conversation where we sat down and agreed that it would never happen; our plan for kids passed like a cloud over the sun, a temporary darkness that lifted and let us play in the sun again. Just the two of us. No kids allowed.
I don’t know if Ram jumped off the baby bandwagon or if I mule-kicked him off. We have never left it to chance to see if I could or would get pregnant. In fact, two years ago when I was 36, the age most women crave babies the way addicts crave a fix, the condom broke. This could have been a wait and see moment. But before that thought could formulate in either of our brains, I kicked Ram out of bed and sent him rushing to the pharmacy for the morning after pill. He’s lucky I even let him get dressed before I shoved him out the door. It was the best 50 bucks I have ever spent.
It’s not easy to be a childless mother. Because that’s what I am. I mother everyone around me – my family and friends and patients, children whose laces come undone, old ladies who need help with bags, homeless men who need a sandwich. I sing children’s songs. I carry a balloon rocket in my bag to entertain children I meet. I make quarters magically appear from little ears. I am magic around children. I was meant to be a mother. It will be my biggest regret and my biggest relief that I will never have a child. How can I explain that to people who ask (and they always ask) why we do not have children?
Sometimes I say we don’t want children. The responses to that are strong and swift:
You will regret it.
You want a baby. You just don’t know it yet. And when you realize it, it will be too late.
Every woman wants a baby.
Who will take care of you when you get old?
Shame on you!
You’re going to be very lonely.
Other times I look sorrowful, touch my belly and say, I can’t have children. I am vague when asked what treatments we have tried, hinting that it is just too painful to talk about. The responses to this are sympathetic but no less urgent:
I know a doctor who….
My daughter got pregnant with acupuncture and Chinese herbs.
You can’t just give up.
It’s God’s plan.
You’ll get pregnant when you least expect it.
Babies from China are very expensive but so smart!
South America is cheap but unreliable.
If you really wanted a baby, you’d adopt.
Other times I make jokes:
We prefer to borrow, not buy.
There’s nothing but moon rock in my womb.
I did have a kid once. I dropped her off in the ball pit at Ikea and never heard from her again.
We have a cat. She can’t demand an iPhone or $100 skinny jeans and we won’t have to put her through college.
What I don’t tell people is that, when I take my friend’s two young daughters out to the park and a stranger says – your girls are so beautiful, I don’t always correct them.
‘’…her passions have outlived her, still manifesting themselves quite firmly, four generations later, through the pursuits and aspirations of her female descendants. Among her six great-granddaughters, three of us write for a living, one of us runs a restaurant, one of us is a hostess worthy of any recipe in this book, two of us are wizards at cards, two of us are trained historians and three of us found a way to live overseas. All of us love a good party. Gima also has two preteen great-great granddaughters, who are not only charismatic and literary, but in whom the ‘prime requisites’ of – yes! – ‘hearty appetite and sense of humor’ have come down the pike utterly intact.
“What I’m saying is, if you are influential enough and beloved enough, it turns out you can stick around for quite a while after you die.”
What does this mean to me, truly? The melancholy part of me grieves that I will leave no legacy behind, no children or grandchildren to carry on my sarcasm or kindness, to delight in sunsets and books, to enjoy solitude and movies, to have a strong left-handed curve ball and no culinary ability whatsoever.
The people I have had the most impact on – my elderly patients – will be gone long before me. Who will remember me when I am gone?
The other part of me, the less sentimental me, feels that a legacy is unimportant. Living in the moment, being grateful, helping those I can, making the most of this life – that’s what matters to me. But I can’t deny the beauty of my patients with children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, even great-great-grandchildren, how so much life and love and potential can come from just one person.
When we meet up with old friends who have children, there is an undeniable physical aspect to the progress of their lives. ‘We had a baby!’ becomes ‘We had another!’. Those babies learn to walk and talk. They play soccer and take karate and start kindergarten. All of these milestones and markers are recognizable in cultures the world over. What are my milestones? Where are my markers?
Old friends look at me and see the same me as ten years ago. A little thinner or heavier, longer or shorter hair, more wrinkles and grays. But still just a wife. Not a mother. Nothing new to report, no way to know the lyrics to their secret mommy songs. So when they ask what’s new (maybe not really wanting an answer) and I shrug and say not much, I smile to myself. Because I have a secret. Lots of them.
I have this whole life to explore and challenge and question and change. I am the singular force driving my life. I alone contain the promise of my future, my passions, my plans, my failures – past, present and future – that make me who I am.
Did you know it is possible to miss something you’ve never had? Someone you’ve never met? I do. I miss my daughter. It’s an physical ache, dull but real. I miss her as if she had actually been born. As if we had shared a secret language that only the two of us had known. As if we had played in the waves together. As if we had celebrated a lifetime of Christmases and birthdays and Halloweens.
It’s true. I miss the daughter I never carried, the daughter I never had. What is equally and possibly more true is that, had I actually had that daughter, I would have missed myself a lot more.
Some days, the non-mommy ache is so big and hard it’s like a sledgehammer against my breast bone. Other days, however, my ribs open up like the door of a birdcage and let me know that I am free.