When you’re a childbearing person of a certain age, people start to badger you about when you’ll decide to have a child. Over the course of the last seven years or so, everyone from family members to strangers have made throwaway comments about my assumed fertility. They asked if my clock had started ticking. People told me I’d change my mind about only wanting one child after producing my first — that I’d love motherhood so much I’d surely want a gaggle. They made comments about how my hips would be perfect for child birthing. With the exception of a friend that got real about how her vagina had been irrevocably changed by the act of childbirth, everyone acted like I’d have amnesia about the difficult realities of labor. All around, the message was this: have a child. Motherhood is wonderful.
The only dissenting voices about pregnancy came from my bookshelves, where women like Ali Wong gave me more realistic depictions of what would happen to my body before and after in books like Dear Girls.
Identity and Infertility (in Life and in Lit)
The unwanted questions and comments about my fertility didn’t stop coming even after I was actively trying to get pregnant. After several months of peeing on ovulation sticks and trying to time things out, I was worried that something might be wrong with me. What if motherhood wasn’t in the cards?
I started noticing that the books I read often painted women going through infertility as villains. I love The Handmaid’s Tale so much that I have a don’t let the bastards grind you down tattoo. Revisiting Serena Joy felt very different when I was worried about my own ability to conceive. Her childless state had turned her into a monster. It put a sour taste in my mouth — as did the trends I noticed in thrillers about childless women that ripped other peoples’ children away. The Widow by Fiona Barton is one of many recent examples of this I’ve come across. Thinking about the way Jean Taylor was portrayed still makes me queasy.
I knew I wasn’t a cold and calculating villain. All the same, I started picking up lighter reads.
Pregnancy News (and Pregnancy Blues)
On Mother’s Day this year, two pregnancy tests confirmed I was pregnant. I told my husband. The next day, my primary care physician confirmed what I already knew. We decided to tell close family and friends despite the fact that we were still early in the first trimester. After more than a year of wringing our hands over the news and worrying about everything from the pandemic to toilet paper shortages, it felt good to have something to celebrate. The pandemic had turned me into a doomsday prepper. Pregnancy made me feel like I could stop panicking and Googling bunkers.
I was incredibly grateful to be pregnant. Regardless, my reaction to my first appointment with the obstetrician was a meltdown. When confronted with the ultrasound, I broke into uncontrollable tears. I worried that I wouldn’t be a good enough mother, that I wasn’t ready, that I didn’t have what it takes. I also worried I’d pass my anxiety and mood disorders on to my child, a possibility that came with great guilt. People make jokes about hormonal mood swings, but no one told me I’d see the stirrups and feel sheer terror. The only other 33-year-old woman I could think of that might have felt that way (and admit to it) was the character Addie in Kim Church’s novel Byrd.
The Shock of Miscarriage
In what couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes later, I was sobbing for other reasons. When my nurse looked at the ultrasound, it was clear something was wrong. She called someone else in for a second opinion. Worried looks and medical jargon flew back and forth between them. I knew in my gut what was happening before they addressed my husband and I directly. The pregnancy was no longer viable. My baby had stopped developing. My husband reached for my hand and squeezed. It felt like the world stopped turning and everything went quiet but me. I couldn’t stop apologizing.
I’d filled my Kindle with books like Expecting Better and What To Expect When You’re Expecting and did everything they told me. I cut back on caffeine significantly. Prenatal vitamins replaced my vices. I went on walks for exercise. I poured hours into researching the safest car seats and strollers. I’d even started thinking about the books I’d buy to fill child’s bookshelf. Surely, if I’d studied so hard to be a good mom and complied with the research, a missed miscarriage couldn’t be the outcome. Until the book I Am, I Am, I Am, I hadn’t even known that a missed miscarriage was a thing that could happen. It felt like a thing that would only happen in a book. But there I was, and it had happened.
Turning to the Literature on Motherhood
After more tears, I went to the literature again to find the things that friends and strangers don’t tell you. There’s so much people leave out when they’re trying to woo you toward motherhood with the idea of that sweet baby smell and nursery decorations.
After multiple rounds of failed medication management, I was told I’d need surgery. My boss was 100% supportive, but I worried about what other people might think about my time away from the office. I’d always assumed a miscarriage was something that happened and then was done. At this point, the complications from mine were closing in on a month. I’d only been out a few days here and there, but surgery meant another day off. My guilt was lessened by reading articles about other women fretting over the same thing (like this one in The Cut).
Deciding we’d try again resurfaced worries I had about being a mother with a mood disorder. I revisited Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot. She wrote so openly about what it meant for her to approach motherhood while also managing Bipolar Disorder that it made me ache. It was a reminder that motherhood would be difficult (as it is for all mothers), but that it was doable. Beautiful.
Gendered Expectations About Parenthood in Literature
During all of this, I wondered how I could be there for my husband. He’d been my rock when I was inconsolable. I wanted to reciprocate by doing what I could to help him. What I realized was missing from the literature was how to support a man through miscarriage. I couldn’t find a blueprint for what to do. There are those ugly gendered expectations around parenthood, again.
I’m still thinking about what those gendered expectations mean for me. As an indie author with multiple books under my belt, I still haven’t managed to break through the way I hoped I would. There’s a part of me that worries that once I have a child, juggling a tiny human with my full-time job will keep me from having time to write. Reading books about creative women like Dept. of Speculation only intensify that fear. That said, I’m one of the lucky ones. My partner has never been anything but supportive of my dream. More than that, I know he’d be a great dad — one of those men that will be truly present and help carry the weight of parenthood so that we can both model what it means to pursue your dreams.
Books on Motherhood That Give Me Hope
There’s so much nonfiction out there about how to be a mom, but the books that have touched me the most are all fiction. Books like Before You Go by Kelly Heard and Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. What they seem to have in common is that they remind me that I can be a mother one day despite the fact I’m deeply flawed.
I hope I’ll have another chance.