I’m the mother of two, yet never had morning sickness, swollen ankles, a craving for anything like pickles and ice cream, or experienced what’s been described as having a truck run through me. For a while, I didn’t see that as a plus.
I was about 23 and my mother and I were watching the episode of "One Day At A Time" where Valerie Bertinelli’s character Barbara Cooper tells her fiancé Mark (played by Boyd Gaines) that she can’t have children. He tells her that he really wants a family and this news could be the deal breaker of their relationship. They argue. He storms out. And then, in true sitcom form, moments later there's a knock on the door, he rushes back in and tells her that he loves her and doesn’t care if they ever have kids; they’ll have puppies, parakeets or guppies, as long as they’re together.
I turned to look at my mother for affirmation that, “See Lorraine, when someone really loves you, they don’t care about anything else that they may have to deal with.” Instead, she rolled her eyes and said, “Yeah right, good luck with that.”
And I guess that was the first time when I actually realized that my problem might be a problem.
Between fourth and tenth grades, I not only got my period, I got it with a vengeance. I’d bleed for at last a week and my cramps could only be eased if I laid on my back on the sofa and had my mother gently lower herself on me to sit on my stomach. It was against her will and became a joke amongst my friends, but it brought relief so I didn’t care what anyone thought.
I did care about what people thought though when it came to my appearance. For my 16th birthday (I’m a June baby), my “sweet” gift to myself was to lose weight. I did not want to enter my upper classman years as the chubette I believed I was. Although I was slightly overweight, my poor body image was really about my inability to accept that I had a curvaceous body. What aided and abetted the idea that I was too fat was that the jeans companies had not yet caught on to the whole “women’s bodies are different and we need our own more shapely cuts” thing. So every time I put on a pair of Lee’s or Levi’s that were my waist size, I couldn’t get the pants past my thighs, and if they fit my hips there would be enough room around my waist that a small child could curl around in there for a nap. I broke a lot of needles on my mother’s sewing machine taking in the denim.
Between sophomore and junior year of high school, I had tea for breakfast, soup for lunch and whatever my mother made for dinner. Except sometimes I didn’t go home for dinner. It was summer and I had a job as a checkout person at the local supermarket, so sometimes just right from work I would go out with my friends and not eat anything or grab a quick salad or ice cream cone. Basically, for the end of June, July and August, I didn't eat a whole lot. Not the healthiest way to lose the weight, but effective.
Then my periods stopped. I didn’t think the dieting could be the culprit, as I had only lost about 15 pounds. But I was about five feet tall, so 15 kind of looked like 50 had come off.
After a couple months of no “stomach sitting,” my mother thought we should have the situation checked and we left the Bronx for a pretty pricey Manhattan gynecologist our GP recommended. He then sent me to an endocrinologist for a second opinion.
At first, everyone wanted to blame my anorexia, as they kept calling it. So the first course of action was for me to gain some weight back, which I did, but that didn't change anything. After a battery of tests, they determined that my amenorrhea was hereditary (I have two cousins on my father’s side who have similar issues), it would have happened anyway, and the weight loss just had hurried things along.
I was sad and wanted to confide. In high school, I hung with a large group of girls: some friends, some frenemies, some just bitches. On a subway ride from the Bronx to Manhattan to go shopping, I semi-shared with the nicest of the nice girls that I might not be able to conceive. She gently touched my hand, made a frowny face and told me not to worry; it would probably work out.
A few days later, I was hanging with one of the bitches who, apropos of nothing, brought up how she thought my current very good-looking boyfriend and I would probably have cute kids. I knew without hesitation that the “nice” one had blabbed. And then the other shoe dropped. The bitch added, “I hope when it’s time I’ll be able to have kids. I mean, if I couldn’t, I’d feel like less of a woman.” (That’s right, she went there.) As you can imagine, it was said in a breathy, sweet way, as the insidious among us are known to spew their venom.
“Hey, look at the time,” was my exit strategy and realized this would not be the last time someone used my medical issue to make me feel bad unless I kept my mouth shut about it.
My GP concurred on my next visit when he offered the unsolicited advice that I not tell, “every Tom, Dick and Harry you go out with that you can’t have a baby.” (And after I had created that nice sandwich board.) Then he counseled that I would eventually have to tell my future husband before we got married that I couldn’t procreate, because if I didn’t his mother would say, “Look what you married.” (Oh, yes he did.)
But then, problem solved. I was put on hormone replacements, and began menstruating again. I even dropped some of the weight they’d made me put back on without consequence. I feel pretty stupid admitting this, but I didn't realize it still meant that I couldn't have a baby.
One day, years later when I was about 20, I was talking to my mother about somebody we knew who was pregnant and I started going on about, “Well when I have a baby,” and she looked at me as though I’d just said, “When I go to the moon.”
My mother said, “Lorraine, you know you can’t have a baby." Turns out getting PMS once a month was just for show. The doctors didn't want me to feel different from other girls, but the baby-making thing was still a no-go.
I burst out crying over my Cheerios and declared I was never taking those pills again. Not only was I sad, but also angry that no one really made sure I comprehended my situation.
It never occurred to me though that someone wouldn’t love me for my lack of ability to procreate, despite the nasty comment of the bitch and the equally unkind words of my GP. I decided to test the waters.
I was going into my fifth year of on again/off again dating a guy I grew up with. I fudged the truth by saying there was a possibility of no biological children in our future.
“Oh really?” he mused. It was weeks before he actually gave me a real answer.
We were at a football game and he turned to me and said, “You know that thing you said about not having children? It bothers me.” Though when our relationship ended about a year later, it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the fact that he turned out to be gay.
As college was ending, I rekindled a relationship with a very cool guy I’d known in high school. One night I brought up the subject, in a very general way, as in, What if you married someone who found out she couldn’t have children? He went into this spiritual diatribe about how babies come from love and doctors don’t know what they’re talking about. Dealbreaker.
I stopped talking about it even in generalizations to anyone, and tried not to think about it at all, filling post-grad days at my low-paying entry-level job in advertising and hanging with friends.
After about a year, I met someone at a party I had not wanted to go to. I saw him across the room and thought, “That’s the man I’m going to marry.” I figured if he was going to be my husband, then I should know his name, so I introduced myself. Neil and I saw each other as part of a group for about six months before we started dating, and became exclusive not long after that.
A couple years in, I didn’t want things to go any further without him knowing my issue, so I could cut my losses if it was a problem he didn’t want to be his. He is the oldest of seven, so a family was a given for him. He said as long as I was open to adoption, he was OK. He stressed he was not willing to go through in vitro or use surrogates. Since I’d been told in vitro probably would not take with me anyway and I also had no interest in the surrogate route, I figured we were good.
It wasn’t quite the door slamming, come back in blabbering about puppies and guppies, dramatic “I love you no matter what” heart wrencher I thought seemed so romantic on the small screen, but at least it wasn’t, “Good-bye.”
With that conversation behind us, our relationship then focused on when we’d get married. That happened five years later. A year into our marriage we started looking into the adoption process. It took about twelve months to find one that suited us, and we them, and another twelve to get approved. We had been on a list for three years when a call came at my desk around four o’clock on a Friday. I thought it was an account executive whose M.O. was phoning right before the weekend with late-breaking requests from the client. If was her, I was going to go up there and beat the crap out of her. But it wasn’t. It was the agency telling me that we had a son (who’s now seventeen.) Three years later, he had a sister.
When they were little, and sometimes even now, I look at them and wonder if I could have even made anything as perfect as they are –- at least to me. I have no regrets that my body took a path that for a while I could not understand. It happened because these two children were going to need a mother. I was chosen.
Even though I can never participate in a different set of conversations -– the ones that revolve around whose labor lasted longer or who needed best rest for the entire third trimester, I am never conspicuously silent about where my children came from. I may not be able to tell you what it’s like to be pregnant, but I can speak ad nauseam (if allowed) about being a mother.