Trusting the Mothers

My mother and mother-in-law are both optimistic about this pregnancy. This one, my mother comforts me on the phone, will stick around. My mother-in-law puts her hand on my belly. This one feels lucky.

I have to trust them. I no longer trust myself.

***

In the first year of trying to get pregnant, I looked for signs and saw them. A moment of revulsion at what I’d fixed for dinner, a twinge of pain in my left breast. I think I’m pregnant, I told my husband, again and again, and we shared a smile each time, thinking this was it. It never was.

A year later, and I’m a week late, and this time my breasts really hurt. I take a pregnancy test and I see the blue control line, proof that it’s working, but also a very faint line next to it, which is supposed to signal pregnancy. It’s not dark, it’s not bold, and I can only see it when I tilt the test in specific lighting, but I take it as a positive, and spend the rest of the day humming. Finally, finally. I phone my husband at work and ask him to pick up a digital pregnancy test on his way home. I want something that says PREGNANT; I don’t want to leave it up to my interpretation of a shadow within a white oval. As we wait for the result that night, we laugh and tease each other, talk about how we’ll hide my pregnancy from our fun-loving, booze-hound friends during the first trimester. When three minutes is up, I tell my husband he should look first. He flips over the test, full of anticipation. His face falls.

“Oh no,” he says quietly.

“What? No, that can’t be right,” I take the test from him. It says NOT PREGNANT. I hate the manufacturers of this test.

“It’s okay, honey,” he says.

“No it’s not….I’m sorry I got you excited for nothing.”

“No, don’t apologize, it’s fine….next month, right?” he looks hopeful.

“Right.”

It doesn’t happen next month or the one after that. I begin distrust myself, my body, my intuition. It is the most terrible betrayal. Many of my friends are crunchy, granola types who have natural childbirths, who labor in a tub in their living rooms, who meditate to prepare for birth, and bury their placentas in the backyard under a mulberry tree. They tell me to trust my body, to trust the process, to trust that eventually I’ll become pregnant. I don’t and I don’t and I don’t. I don’t ever become pregnant naturally, and the betrayal is so great, that I want this so badly, that my body can do so many other things well, but not this, the thing I want the most.

Filling out forms at the doctors’ offices (we’ll end up at many), I have trouble answering the questions. How painful are my periods? Well they feel very painful, but…I’m not sure. Maybe they aren’t. Can I tell when I’m ovulating? I thought I could, I thought I recognized the signs, but maybe I can’t. Maybe what I feel, what I intuit, isn’t reality. Maybe it isn’t anything but the desperate imagination of a desperate woman.

***

Four months after I miscarry, four years after we first began, I’m pregnant again, and this is the pregnancy the mothers believe in. In the early weeks, between the doctor appointments which are my only proof that the pregnancy is still viable, I don’t trust the nausea I experience. Maybe I want to be sickened by the smell of garlic. I don’t trust the exhaustion that has me in bed by 8 every night. Maybe I’m making myself tired. At a dinner with my husband’s co-workers, they ask me how I feel, and again, I have trouble answering.

“Sick…I think I feel sick,” I say, looking at their beaming faces. “But the next ultrasound is on Monday…so we’ll see then, you know, how things are going.”

“What do you mean?” says one woman who has two children of her own.

“I…I’m afraid I’m making it up…I’m afraid I want to feel signs of pregnancy that aren’t there,” I stutter. The woman looks at me with sympathy–she knows about last spring’s miscarriage–but not exactly with understanding.

I’m now past the iffy first trimester, my stomach growing each week with the proof that the baby exists. The relationship I have with my body is still damaged. The days pass in a wild, swirling mix of sweet belief that my body can do it if I only have faith, and dark despair that we’ll never get there, that my body has lost its way. I’m working to see its strengths, its resilience in the face of so much messiness, instead of seeing only how it has failed me.

In the meantime…I’m going to trust the mothers, who believe my body can do it, who tell me this time will be lucky.

Saying It

DiwaliPhoto credit.

We’re at a Diwali celebration and the house is packed. Caterers in the kitchen pull lamb and garlic flatbread out of the oven, assemble crab and corn samosas, dish out chutneys and arrange pistachio and cashew cookies on a platter. Tiny girls run around barefoot, their chubby tummies poking out from their midriff-baring saris.

Our friend Josh is sitting across from me, his 6’5″ frame perched on a wooden ledge in the living room. I’m trying to get comfortable on the low, squishy couch, but at 4.5 months pregnant, my sense of balance and mobility is already shot, and I am a seal negotiating the sand. Josh looks concerned because my husband, who is sitting next to him, has just told him I’m having  complications with my pregnancy.

“Some things are…um…weird in my uterus!” I shout over the din, gesturing in the air. I don’t know exactly why I phrase it this way. Maybe I’m tired of explaining it to people, maybe it seems like an odd place to have such a discussion, maybe it’s having to yell over all the merrymakers that makes me not want to bellow the words  “subchorionic hemorrhage” and “placenta previa.” As soon as I speak, though, I know how lame it sounds.

“I don’t know what that means,” Josh yells back. No kidding.

My husband Joe tries to fill in the blanks while I reflect for the umpteenth time that trying to be vague about what you struggle with, what you fear–never works.

I grew up with a mother who asked me about my feelings, who wanted to know what I was afraid of, and how she could make It better. For years I told her, and she did make It better. But she never told me what she was afraid of, and despite knowing she struggled with depression, with anxiety, I never ever saw It. She wanted to protect her children from It.

I moved away from home. I made friends. I asked them to tell me about their feelings and I wanted to make It better. Sometimes I told them what I was afraid of, but usually not, and over the years, I kept my struggles to myself, and sometimes away from the family that had told me it was okay to talk about It.

You know people like this. We don’t say It because it means being vulnerable. Or risking judgment. We don’t say It because it means we might make you uncomfortable. Or worried. We don’t say It for so long that we lose the ability to say It, and It hangs around our necks like an anvil.

By the time I was two years into fertility treatments, I had had nearly two decades of practice being silent. Silent about OCD, silent about depression, and in recent years, silent about infertility. I finally became pregnant…and quickly miscarried. It was the end of being silent. Like a rubber band pulled farther and farther apart, there were only two ways to ease the tension: break the band…or let go. I let go. I let go far and wide and free. I stopped guarding the secret of infertility like an unwanted treasure. I stopped saying, maybe someday we’ll have kids; maybe when Joe doesn’t have to work such long hours; maybe when we get our student loans paid off. I said It to the people I loved, the people who wanted to be compassionate, who wanted to support me, who knew I was carrying around something big and dark and unspoken. I’m saying It now to anyone who is reading, who has been there and couldn’t say It.

It has not been a perfect coming out. People say dumb things; people clam up when you’re finally ready to talk about It. But now that we’re here, I wouldn’t go back. The pain of keeping infertility, and then miscarriage, a secret, was much worse than the experience of being open about It.

So we go forward with this second pregnancy and this time–no secrets. Joe tells Josh that I have bleeds in my uterus. The placenta is in the wrong place. We don’t know if the baby will make it; we don’t know if my health will be compromised. We hope for resolution; we hope for a full-term pregnancy. We are thankful for each day I carry the baby we’ve waited five years for. We are scared. We are optimistic.

We are saying It.

What is Knowable

“Honey, you’re blinking again,” Dad says. “Grandma asked me about it.”

“Oh,” I look at my feet, face flushed with shame. I am 10 years old.

“Why don’t you try tapping your foot instead? Every time you feel like blinking, tap your foot instead,” Dad has already suggested this before. I hear his desire to be gentle, to be sensitive, coupled with an urgency to get me to stop being so noticeably weird. I get it. I have been plagued in recent months with an overwhelming need to blink my eyes in rapid succession. I don’t really understand why I do this, only that it begins one morning when one eye feels sort of dry while the other feels sort of watery, so I blink the dry one to get it to water a bit to match the other one. That doesn’t work, so I blink many times. Now the eye that was dry is still dry, but it hurts, while the watery eye is still watery but doesn’t hurt so I have to blink the watery eye until it hurts to get it to match the dry eye. It’s never enough and it never evens out so I spend most of the day going about my business with squinting, blinking, irritated eyes. Dad initially asked the month prior if my allergies were bothering me. I said yes, because I don’t know how to explain why I’m doing this. Now we’re both acknowledging that it’s not organic, it’s in me, it’s in my mind, and I can control it. And yet…I can’t.

***

As a child, I was easily stressed and always worried. I fretted about small things–being made to try out for the third grade talent show, losing my house keys for the tenth time–and bigger, scarier, more out-of-my-league things–being kidnapped by a stranger, being molested by a neighbor, dying young of an incurable disease. I absorbed the ills of the world around me and made them my reality, regardless of how unlikely they were of occurring in my actual life.

I spent many of those years surfing an undercurrent of doom that I never really understood. Besides the blinking tick, I performed counting rituals to make the space I inhabited safer; I created an elaborate system of synesthesia, where I assigned colors and temperatures to letters and numbers. I went through periods of restricting the type of food I ate. In the midst of these manifestations, I was not aware of why I was behaving this way, only that it seemed to temporarily keep the fear at bay.

Later on, these behaviors were given names: OCD, anxiety, depression. With the help of therapy, I identified what had previously been unknowable: what my fears were, why I had them, and what I could do to deal with them in a productive manner. Therapy isn’t for everyone, but it was for me. It was the compass pointing me towards wellness.

Since trying to get pregnant, nearly five years ago, I’ve often felt that turn back toward the therapist’s office, the impulse to sit in a chair and tell someone what this feels like, and have them tell me why. But infertility feels different to me. It’s not like counting my steps when I cross the street or blinking my eyes to “fix” the moisture. The inability to have a child with the person you love is exactly what it sounds like. Frustrating. Painful. It doesn’t hide in a mask of facial ticks. It is the most basic of impulses, to have children, to create family, to feel a new level of bond and commitment with your partner. Infertility is the barrier to all that. It is visible. It is honest. It is infinitely knowable.

I think about the 10 year old who couldn’t stop blinking, who wanted to know why and didn’t have an answer, and her suffering was all the more vivid in its cloudiness. Although I am not grateful, necessarily, for the years of infertility, it has been a sort of gift for this pain to be transparent. To be open. To be knowable.

Infertility, madness, and memory

WelcomeMatPhoto credit.

When I sit in the midwife’s office, waiting to see if the bleeding is another miscarriage, the time that passes is both immeasurable and long, the silence both a racket and a void. My husband, of course, has a stake in the outcome, but I am more aware than ever of my aloneness in this moment. That women carry children, bear children, nurse children—it is a special kind of burden, and I am feeling its sting as I try to take deep breaths. I think about my friend Addie’s truth: faith is an empty room.

It’s hard to know exactly what other writers mean when they speak their truths, but for me, this sentiment describes how any kind of faith, not just religious faith, but belief and trust in anything you can’t know for sure, anything out of your grasp, is essentially a journey of solitude. No one can tell you it will be okay. No one can shoulder what you fear. You may eventually find comfort in the experiences of others, but there is a significant portion of your time spent in isolation. It must be that way.

This blog will attempt to talk about my experiences in those empty rooms. Nonfiction writers and memoirists often have 1 or 2 topics they come back to again and again. The topics they just can’t quit, the ones that formed who they are. In my grad school MFA program, we quickly learned each other’s topics: cancer, family dysfunction, exploration of modern masculinity, sexual identity, evangelical Christianity, landscape and identity. We wrote about them over and over again, seeing our cancer diagnosis as it related to our spouse, seeing our sexual orientation as it influenced our childhood. We wanted to understand our obsessions and so we wrote our way through them.

This blog will tackle the two topics I return to again and again: my attempts to become and remain pregnant, and my lifelong history of mental illness. Though not related through cause and effect, they are in many ways inseparable to me because they inform so much of how I see the world. They have been at turns destructive and nurturing, terrifying and fascinating. If these topics are familiar to you in your own life, this blog may be for you. If they’re unfamiliar but you like entering unknown worlds, this blog may be for you. If you enjoy memoir and nonfiction as a genre, no matter the topic, this blog may be for you.

Welcome.