Old Houses in Krumau, Egon Schiele, 1914
by Rachel Howard
The other day a card arrived: a picture of mother, father, and child, teeth bared, cheeks pulsing with fresh blood. The baby looks more like him, with that nearly translucent-white skin, a shadow of brow bone where the eyebrows would be; but there it is, her mouth—the combination struck me as monstrously fascinating. Next to the photo cursive text wished me peace, love, and happiness. A card like a dozen others received in December. I’ve thrown out the rest, but this one I hung on the refrigerator, though I was not sure why. Then I woke in the middle of the night, picturing it. The mother is a friend from college who used to tell me she didn’t ever want to have a baby, couldn’t imagine bringing a life into such a broken world. That had scandalized me at the time, coming as it did from a girl who used the word prayer without irony, a girl who had decorated her dorm room with icons and crosses—this was before I myself had come to faith. Nearing age 36, she changed her mind about procreating. I am about to turn 38.
Not so old yet, I understand—but old enough to add that “yet.” With a body that seems to be entering second puberty, hair growing in new places (chin, nipples), skin creating troubles (brown splotches now rather than acne), breasts swelling one day, shriveling the next, uterus aching. The same confusions of adolescence: Do I control this body or does this body control me? But now is added the question: Do I want to have a baby?
Unlike other questions, this is not one that stays present-tense. In two years, five at most, I will join the women whose confusions on this question are irreversibly retrospective.
When the question was still future-tense, at various moments, I believed I had answered it. Didn’t I pity my old college friend Sarah when she said she’d never want to conceive? I was 28 when she told me that, I was newly married to a man who wanted children, a whole litter, if he could convince me to labor that many times. Denying his wishes, I planned one. Girl, preferably. But can you say you really want something you presume you will only pay up for later? My first husband and I argued over names, over nursery colors, always recreationally, the way you’d think about getting a dog. I see now that it was comforting, to have the future-tense question, Will I want to have a baby?, answered for me by my then-husband. Since I married aware of his procreative wish surely someday, later, I would.
Sometimes now I think about getting a test to find out if I am infertile. What if it never was possible for me to conceive? The thought excites. What if the resulting logic was, I don’t want a baby now, and I can’t have one anyway, so I shouldn’t want one, so I won’t. Would that be comforting?
All I know is in the past. All I know is what I felt in flare-ups of certainty—moments in which desire shot high like a flame. Then died.
I know that in the second year of that first marriage, when I suspected we would divorce, when my period did not come for three months straight, I searched the Internet for “RU-486,” the so-called abortion pill. I know that I cringed at the idea of a vacuum inside—and I cried. Three days of panic that I would have to make the choice, and then there it was: sweet-smelling warm blood in my underwear. But I know even now, without doubt: I would have had that abortion.
There are other things I know.
I know that right after my divorce, at age 30, I thought smugly, This is the perfect time to be single again. I’ve got five whole years until I have to worry about having a baby.
I know that when I was 32, when my new boyfriend squeezed my breasts, wheat-colored milk bubbled from the nipples, and I fed Joe like an infant, and when he came I fantasized that I had forgotten to take my pill.
But of course I hadn’t actually forgotten. I know that I never forgot to take my pill.
I know that when I broke up with Joe, at 33, I remembered myself as a teenager, reading Virginia Woolf. Shuddering at the idea of childbirth, thinking it might be more interesting—just as I had decided never to smoke a cigarette—never to conceive. I know that I remembered all of this and after leaving Joe I began to say to friends, apropos of nothing, “You know, since I was a teenager I’ve always wanted to adopt.”
But I know I have also thought since: Virginia Woolf was a great artist. She had her writing to carry on after her. Did that give comfort as her life sank beneath the water, as she felt the final flickers of her shining thoughts?
More things I know.
I know that when I was 34 and I lay in bed with K., who was 50, and he said, teasingly, “Maybe you’re pregnant right now”—I know that my heart beat madly for five minutes of rapturous hope.
I know that after I resolved to stop seeing K., who liked only the idea of a baby and not the idea of marriage, I found myself at a noisy, drunken party, asking a tarot card reader if I’d ever have a child.
And the tarot reader said I would marry but not have a child, and that would be OK.
I know that at 35 I told G., “If I get pregnant, I’m not having an abortion.” I know that statement was the deciding break, the last meaningful thing I said to G. before I never saw him again.
I know that six months later, when I began dating D. and saw the collection of children’s books in his bedroom, books he said he bought because he’d like to raise a child, my heart felt like a hot light in my chest.
And yet I also know that when I first lay naked with D., certain already that we would marry, and he told me that he was not capable of impregnating me through our sex—I know that I slept in peace.
Because I remembered what the tarot card reader had said. You won’t have a child, but that’s OK, you’ll be happy. Fate!
It wasn’t until a year later with D., after our marriage, that I thought again about that prediction, and looked up the entry in my journal, and discovered that actually—I have contacted the tarot reader to corroborate this, he is a friend and remembered our exchange at that drunken party—the tarot reader had said that I would have a child, but not be married, and that would be OK.
Had I really imagined myself adopting, back when I was a nubile high school junior and freshly enthralled by Virginia Woolf? Because I know that even before correcting my memory of the tarot reader’s prophecy, I dreamt, many nights, of adopting a little girl.
And yet, soon after our first nights together, my future husband and I talked of medical procedures. We repeated the phrase “in vitro,” we clutched each other before the sun rose, we whispered that time was short.
I know that a year later we lamented that the medical procedures were costly, and reasoned that the money would be better spent on adopting a child who was already in the world. We were both sure that we would love the child. And I remember that we were happy, because we would be helping someone in need, and I told my husband that perhaps it was God’s will.
And yet, after that conversation, I walked out of the house into an autumn cooling that felt too early, taunting.
I wasn’t thinking about how I would never be pregnant or how I would never breastfeed an infant or how I would never see my eyes or my teeth or my facial expressions in a growing little being. I was wondering if it was perverse that I was terrified by those possibilities, I was glad to be relieved of them.
I was thinking, So: I will not procreate.
But also: Why does this feel like a death sentence?
And I know that the following summer, when I was 36, and my husband came home one night with brochures from county Family Services, unfolding photographs of children who looked nothing like me, I looked at the young faces and my veins burned with love for my husband and—the blood to my groin surged.
And I know that a year later my heart sunk like a boulder when, after sitting through an information session in a prison-grey room, my husband and I got into our dented car, shook our heads, and said, “We don’t have enough money to adopt.”
I know that soon after I was seized by fantasy: A miracle conception. What if the doctors were wrong about my husband’s sterility, what if I discovered I was pregnant? But I knew that was just my imagination. And I cried silently in the dark, because the persistence of our desire for each other despite the ineffectualness of our sex seemed beautiful.
I know that the next morning I said to my husband, “Maybe we should call a fertility clinic after all.”
I know that I said that just last month.
But what do I know, really?
I think I know that what I want is to nurture a small new life, whether born of my flesh or another’s, because watching my own life wither will not be enough.
But surely I know that whatever God gives is enough.
No: I know that what God gives must be enough.
But what does God give? What line distinguishes God’s will and mine? Does a line exist when you seem to have two wills, your body’s and your mind’s?
Perhaps it is the lot of human beings to be more certain of their fears than their desires. Because I see now that what I fear most is being denied the consoling illusion of my continuation at the moment of death.
And so, fearful of writing another sentence, I retreat to the kitchen. And see again, on the refrigerator where I have placed it so that it cannot be ignored, my memento mori. The photo of those teeth-bared faces: Two faces so unlike each other, the third hinting at growing to resemble both. Cells, programmed with their own will, a will we cannot see or control or comprehend. I look at my old friend Sarah, who has crossed over. And I wonder if I will be forever unknowing, as the kitchen clock ticks, and the present, every second, becomes the past.
About the Author:
Rachel Howard is a writer of fiction, personal essays, memoir and dance criticism. Her debut novel, The Risk of Us, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April 2019.