I Wanted To Be A Mom. I Didn’t Want To Be Pregnant.
The phone call on a Friday brought me to my feet. At the window of my high-rise apartment I watched people swarming the sidewalks, taking advantage of the spring weather. “It’s not as bad as it sounds,” my doctor said. I paced my living room as she described the procedure she thought could treat my fibroids. “We’re still trying to find out why black women get this at such alarming rates. There’s still no data on that,” she said.
I didn’t know what data could tell me at that point. I did know that I was tired of these fibroids, which were growing rapidly; tired of looking three months pregnant, tired of the heavy periods. I wanted them gone. And my doctor could make that happen. She just had one thing to ask me first: “I need to know your plans on getting pregnant.”
The line went quiet on her end as she waited for my response. After a moment, she said, “Use the weekend to think about it, O.K.? And we’ll talk on Monday.”
I had two days to decide what to tell my doctor about whether I wanted to carry a child.
What if I’m not ready? It was the question I asked myself at 30 and again at 35. What if I will never be ready?
I am Jamaican, which means I am from a culture where many women assume their roles as mothers early. They do this whether or not they’re married, and whether or not they want to be mothers. They wear motherhood like a well-fitted gown, moving the way their mothers and grandmothers did before them, with grace and certainty. As a young girl, I watched girls not much older than me poised with bellies they couldn’t get rid of, because abortion — unlike being impregnated by men twice their age — is a crime in our country.
My older cousin was one of those girls. She needed no reassurance of her beauty, but when she became pregnant at 16 by a fully grown man, people glanced away, as though her beauty had faded and been replaced by something vile. She had to live with looks of contempt for months, breathing lightly as she passed by with a bowed head, still wearing her school uniform, a loose girl careless enough to let her whole life slip away. I, on the other hand, excelled in school and did everything right, including not having sex with boys until I was 20. But by our 30s, my cousin had gained respect, her mastery of motherhood becoming her mastery of life itself. “It is what it is,” she’d later tell me, never once bringing up the past, but certain of the present. The contemptuous grunts of our elders were now directed at the woman who had passed the age of 30 without child. Me.
“Nikki, when yuh g’wan have one of yuh own?” my mother asked a couple of years ago when she noticed that I was hovering dangerously close to my mid-30s. She was carrying my newborn nephew in her arms. “Is about time yuh start thinking ’bout it.”
She knew that lesbians could still have children with — in her words — “dat t’ing yuh use in di turkey,” and thus remained unrelenting in her request for a grandchild.
My mother had me at 22, the average age that young women in Jamaica have their first child. When I was 22, I was applying to graduate school; dating women and going to parties and poetry cafes; jobless, carrying around a college degree in my box of things. I couldn’t fathom being responsible for another human being then.
My sister, like my mother, had her first child in her early 20s and her second child six years later. We still looked and sounded alike, but I was keenly aware of the difference — my baby sister becoming a woman before my eyes. My mother proudly assumed the role of grandmother. Soon, my Ivy League degrees and achievements paled in comparison with my sister’s miracle.
After she had her first child, my sister dropped out of college, and we got into a battle about ambition. I probably shouldn’t have said the things I said to her, the only person who supported me when I first came out as a lesbian to the family, but I was shocked that she would put her college degree on hold to have a baby. We came to America as immigrants with the understanding that there was no room for mistakes that would keep us from achieving the American dream. But who was I, a broke graduate student who had just switched careers to pursue my dream as a writer, to make such a claim?
My sister ended up marrying her high school sweetheart, the father of her child, who is now an accountant. They live on Long Island with their two beautiful children. Culturally speaking, she made it. Unlike me, she doesn’t have six-figure student loans and the battle between time and her aging ovaries to think about.
I was never sold on motherhood until I started babysitting my nephews. Before then, I had deeply resented how the world perceives black women as maternal figures, the media often portraying us as mammies, in complete disregard of those who might not have a maternal bone in their bodies — bodies we have struggled and fought to own since the dark history of slavery. In protest, I refused to really look at children. But my nephews transformed my resentment of mothering into hope, and I fell in love.
My wife and I met 11 years ago, when we were in our mid-20s. It has been seven years since we got married. I knew from early on in our relationship that she wanted to bear children. Ever since she was a young girl, she knew she wanted to carry a baby of her own.
“What does it feel like? To be sure you want to?” I asked her once, lying in bed, listening to her heartbeat, desperately wishing I could feel that yearning too.
“It’s just an urge,” she explained. “An unexplainable urge that makes it hard to be around other children and not want your own.”
My wife had been the one in our relationship to try pregnancy. We tried intrauterine insemination for two years. She knew I didn’t want to carry a baby, a truth that was hard to disclose in the beginning. What she understood, even then, was that my not wanting to give birth to a child didn’t mean I wouldn’t want to mother our child. We also knew the questions would come from the outside world, and we resented them. We live in a heteronormative culture that perceives my wife as more masculine and therefore not the one to carry our child. Whenever friends and family would ask about our pregnancy status, they would look to me.
Even the fertility doctors we went to for treatment nonchalantly told us that it was good that we each had a uterus. “If one fails, the other can try!” they said. The doctors’ suggestion might have made perfect sense to some, but it ignored the fact that my wife, and not me, was the person who wanted to be pregnant.
Life threw a wrench into our plans. After several tries and one miscarriage, my wife was advised, for medical reasons, to give up her dreams of carrying a baby.
Not long afterward, I was on my sofa, contemplating what my doctor had just said to me. I need to know your plans on getting pregnant.
I knew that the procedure my doctor recommended could pose complications for women wanting to get pregnant. I knew there was another way to treat my fibroids and still, possibly, be able to carry a child, though that surgery generally meant a longer recovery time. And I knew, deep down, that I cared more about getting rid of my fibroids than bearing a child.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror — the dark eyes and high cheekbones. Wouldn’t I want to have a baby one day with a full head of hair and those eyes? Those cheekbones? That color? Small drops of regret spilled onto my cheeks as I was unable to conjure more than just eyes and cheekbones. I told my wife.
“We can adopt,” she said. I didn’t detect an ounce of judgment in her voice. I loved the sound of adoption. So many children need good homes.
My thoughts bounced back and forth. Something about this dilemma made everything seem unreal. Why would I feel so conflicted if I never wanted to bear a child in the first place? Does this make me less of a woman?
“But what if I could go through with it?” I asked, thinking again of the women in my family and the women in our circle. What if I was just being a coward?
“You have to really want to,” she said. “That’s a lot to take when you don’t really want to carry.”
“I was afraid you’d be disappointed.”
“I would never do that to you.”
On Monday, I called the doctor back. I managed to dial her number and listened to her receptionist’s easy-breezy voice say: “The doctor is busy with other patients, but if you leave your number, she will call you right back. Can I ask what’s this concerning?”
“Just tell her I will go ahead with the procedure,” I replied.
The doctor got back to me immediately. My heart battered the wall of my chest as I readied myself to explain, to apologize — to say anything that could redeem me in the eyes of a doctor who has children of her own and who has delivered many babies. I assumed she would try to see whether I really meant it, a reaction that women with difficult convictions often face.
All she said was, “Fine.” The question that had hung over me for many years had an answer.