“I have five sons!” She told him.
I have decided to have my IUD removed, a small tweak of the body to correct an unquiet mind.
I do it to put an end to the back and forth, the should I, shouldn’t I / will I, won’t I / I can’t, I must that daily intrudes on even my most mundane thoughts. I am tired of asking everyone I know, including famous writers I am speaking to for the very first time, whether I should do this. Nobody cares, I say to myself, except for you.
Well, some people might have opinions, I think, imagining the reaction from friends and acquaintances real and virtual when they learn that I have chosen to get pregnant with a fourth (!) child in the middle of a global pandemic in spite of the fact that I am 38-and-a-half years old and have clicked on enough alarmist internet headlines to know that quality control on my eggs is not what it used to be.
In spite of the fact that I already have three children. An embarrassment of riches or, some might say, an over-abundance, especially given the state of the world.
In spite of that very state of the world which is the most chaotic and uncertain it has been in my lifetime. At the time when I am weighing this decision, there is a deadly pandemic raging. The president of the United States does not appear to care whether the people he is supposed to be governing live or die. Hospitals are using operating rooms as ICUs and trucks as morgues. Women are giving birth in masks, without their partners. When I am trying to make this decision, schools are closed and my days consist of an ever-repeating reel of children asking for more snacks while I try to siphon words from my increasingly distracted mind.
I am torn about this decision in spite of the fact that I would like to write. Some more essays, maybe a novel. To be, in other words, a writer. And in spite of the fact that I have learned that the more children one has, the less time to oneself one has. And that time to oneself is, in fact, a necessary precondition to writing. I have tired of the mother/art monster debate, mostly because it has, in its most common form, been settled. Of course you can create art and also be a mother. But how much of a mother and how much art? That question still remains.
When, a number of years ago, an essay appeared extolling only children as the optimal childbearing choice for women who want to write, Zadie Smith jumped in with several counter-examples. Aside from Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, who famously have four, none of the writers she mentioned have more than two kids. I cling desperately to the idea of Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman.
Adrienne Rich, who gave voice to the stultifying effect of domestic life on art, had her tubes tied after her third child.
And yet, somehow, I still feel there is a decision to be made.
You have one month, I tell my uterus. As if it cares one way or the other. Does it care, one way or the other? Do uteruses want to be full? To do their job? If so, when is their job done? Am I pulling mine out of her well-deserved retirement in these sweet years after childbearing but before the upheaval of menopause? I leave such questions to the side because I figure my uterus will let me know and I don’t have the bandwidth to worry about both of us right now.
You have one month, I tell my husband. As if he is pushing me into this. How easy it would be if he was. “He just really wanted another one,” I would tell people. “You know, his mother recently passed away.” And they would probably feel bad for me but suddenly this having of a fourth child at 38-and-a-half years old in the middle of a pandemic would be understandable, explicable. It seems easier than taking responsibility for my own conflicting desires, trying to pin it on someone else.
You have one month, I tell myself. If, when you aren’t pregnant at the end of that month, you feel sad, you will know your heart’s secret desire. If you feel relieved, you will know your heart’s secret desire.
There is one true answer that exists beneath all of the hemming and hawing and I will uncover it through subtle trickery, an outwitting of my own conflicted mind. But even making this small and circumscribed decision feels like a step forward and I wonder if, in midlife, I have suddenly become an optimist, willing to give up some small measure of control amid the chaos and take a chance on hopeful abundance in the face of terrifying scarcity.
I have not become an optimist.
I know that the decision to hand this decision off to my uterus and one TBD egg is not fueled by optimism but is instead a hedge against failure and emptiness. To not give myself the opportunity to become pregnant would be a decision in its own right, a decision to place all of my metaphorical eggs in the basket of a different kind of creation. It would be a decision to be generative in a different way — to try and make a book instead of a baby — and what if I fail?
There is security in embarking on the kind of creation that I know I can accomplish because I’ve done it before, to know that if I can’t be generative in the way that I want, then I can at least go with the way that I’ve got. To know that if I don’t get the book, I will at least have the baby.
And maybe three children in is too late to be anything other than a literary dilettante, a dabbler. Maybe it makes more sense to use these final, fleeting moments of bodily fertility to fill another seat at the table, to add another shoulder for my children to lean on when I am no longer around, rather than waste that precious time trying to board a train I don’t realize I’ve already missed, trying to turn myself into someone I will never be.
Making this choice also feels like insurance against Regret, that old bogeyman. One last chance to be full of something before I spend the rest of my life feeling empty. This is very me, a person who has never met a closing door she didn’t want to wedge her foot in at the last minute, even when she is the one who started closing it in the first place.
I have taken a pregnancy test and it is positive. This takes place the first month after my IUD removal so, my body having outwitted my scheming mind, I never get to know my heart’s secret desire. I only know that I have become depressed at the idea that, should all proceed without a hitch, I have sentenced myself to another turn around the carousel of sleepless nights and complete interdependency with a helpless human being. During these first few weeks, I am unable to write anything, and my worst fears about my creative capacity hitting its limit appear to be confirmed.
Because I am not happy or excited in the way that people are supposed to be when they learn they are pregnant after willingly removing their birth control device, I decide to only share the news with a handful of people.
Mom would have been so happy, my sister-in-law says.
It hurts to think about, I reply. Now there will be a grandchild that she never knew.
A few weeks later, she sends me a text that says: I have decided that Mom gets to know this baby first.
I am reminded that pregnancy turns many people, sometimes even the most hardened skeptics, toward the spiritual. I do not usually enjoy this aspect of pregnancy, the urge to metamorphose an affair of the body into a concern of the soul, but given the seeming certainty of my uterus, perhaps I should try something different this time, try to think about things differently, if only as an experiment in creativity I won’t get another chance to repeat.
Don’t worry, I won’t tell this kid how sad you were when you found out you were pregnant, my husband jokes when I tell him that I am feeling more positive about the whole thing.
But here I am telling the world, which will one day include that same child, because isn’t it time we realized that regret is not a permanent state of being? That you can feel regret and then move on? That, like happiness and sadness, cynicism and spirituality, it is a feeling that we cycle through rather than one in which we set up permanent residence? I wonder if realizing this sooner would have changed my decision to have my IUD removed.
As my body expands — more quickly, it seems, than ever before — I start writing again. I have decided to write an essay on getting pregnant during a pandemic and so the decision to have my IUD removed begins to feel more and more like a selfish one. What if, instead of deciding to have a fourth child in spite of my desire to write, I have decided to do this in service of my desire to write? What if deep down I was too scared to lose the inspiration that comes from watching a person transform from nothing into something? From watching myself transform from one thing into another? What if I am addicted to the parallel metaphors of pregnancy and infancy, that you can become a slightly different version of yourself every month until suddenly you are something entirely new.
I feel the baby move for the first time on what would have been my mother-in-law’s 76th birthday. I am sitting in front of my computer, trying to write, when I feel the kind of faint movement that Adrienne Rich described as the “ghostly tremors” of her own body. Even the fourth time around, it is surreal, this moment when what was before just an idea and a grainy image becomes someone else moving around inside of you.
My doctor tells me that the uterus becomes softer with each pregnancy and I begin to think of my uterus like a favorite pair of jeans, worn down from overuse but becoming only more beloved as a result. I am embarrassingly proud of my uterus for this transformation even though I know that this is like being proud of continuing to exist. Which, come to think of it, actually means a lot more than it used to.
Is that you? I say out loud, in spite of myself, as if I know the “you” to whom I am referring when in fact I feel strongly that we are strangers sharing a body.
Then I think about how, if it is a girl, we will name her after her grandmother and I will be able to tell her that I felt her kick for the first time on Bubby’s birthday.
Yes, I think, I will be open to the mystical this time. In this quiet moment when I should be writing, I remember what my sister-in-law said and imagine that, while I deal with the cacophony of dinners and baths and bedtimes, this unborn fourth child is being cared for by her Bubby. I imagine my mother-in-law, restored to health, sitting and rocking this person I don’t know yet, talking to her the way she did the other three. That loving whisper of, “I know, I know,” that soothing certainty.
In the midst of this second trimester reverie, I revise the Jewish lore I learned as a child. I decide that the angel who teaches unborn babies the entire Torah in the womb is not a stranger but someone connected to them, someone who already loves them. And I decide that the punch from that angel that, according to this etiology, causes the little indentation on our upper lip, is not a punch at all but a final kiss from that same loving caretaker, a mark bestowed upon my child by the first person to hold her and teach her what the world has in store. She will have to relearn what she lost — some of it with joy, some of it in pain — but she will always have a physical manifestation of the spiritual truth that, even if she does not know her Bubby, her Bubby knows her.
Yes, this time I have decided that I will be open to that kind of magical thinking.
Are we going to do this or what? I ask the baby fluttering around inside of me. I am talking about the book I am trying so hard to write but I am also talking about the baby, who has somehow transformed from a decision into a person. We are strangers but, in that moment, I turn us into collaborators. You can do that sort of thing with babies, imagine them to be co-conspirators in your own personal dramas and ambitions, a short-lived antidote to the otherwise happy scourge of children becoming their own people.
I realize that I have started calling the growing cells inside of me “the baby” in spite of my reticence to do so during past pregnancies. Perhaps this is because we have already told the other kids, who are old enough to notice the changes in my body, and you can’t tell kids that there is a fetus inside of your uterus; you have to tell them that you’re having a baby.
I am trying to write a novel but mostly I work on this essay, which makes me feel bad, like the only words that will come are the Mother Words, the words that start in my body instead of in my brain.
My three-year-old, coloring a piece of paper upon which, at her request, I have written her name, points to the scribbles she’s made and says: “This is the wind that blows my letters away.” I think about how nicely this adorable aside might work in a meditative essay about trying to write as a mother of young children, and I feel ashamed. Almost everything kids say can sound profound when you imagine using it in a meditative essay.
What do we do about the problem of this material of motherhood, at once hard-earned and too cheap, too easy? Is it only a problem if it is all we have, if we cannot otherwise prove our literary worth? Is calling it a problem in the first place a devaluation of motherhood?
Either way, here I am, manufacturing another adorable aside machine, keeping the material coming.
I am divided on the question of the material.
Pregnancy has long been a metaphor for creative potential, usually taken up by people who never experienced bodily pregnancy.
According to Plato, Socrates thought of himself as a midwife. The only difference was that his patients were men, not women, and his concern was “not with the body but with the soul that is in travail of birth,” trying to figure out whether “the offspring of a young man’s thought is a false phantom or instinct with life and truth.” You can be pregnant with a person or you can be pregnant with an idea but the midwife who helps birth an idea actually has the harder job because while a baby is always a baby, an idea can be a monstrous falsehood or a gleaming truth (are there cutoffs for legal termination of an idea?).
Nietzsche, who often describes himself as pregnant with ideas, identifies the relationship between the two as a kind of creative supersession. Spiritual pregnancy, he writes, is even better than the regular kind.
Neither Socrates nor Nietzsche give much consideration to the possibility of doing both of these things, and certainly not at the same time.
It turns out that when you choose to get pregnant during a deadly pandemic you do, actually, have to be pregnant during a deadly pandemic. I click on articles about babies pulled out of mothers who are in comas and I lie awake at night, heart thumping, thinking about how this story could change, how it might become a story beyond my control, a story about a half-made decision that leaves my children motherless, wondering, for the rest of their lives, why I didn’t think three was enough.
There is so much more blood than usual coursing through a pregnant body that when my heart beats wildly as I try to fall back asleep in the middle of the night, I can hear it in my ears. It makes the same sound that fills the room when my doctor places the fetal doppler on my abdomen at my monthly appointments. In my anxious state, my heartbeat matches my baby’s and I wonder whether we’re both going to be okay.
During this time, each jerky movement inside my body is equally annoying and reassuring. One time, I am almost asleep when both sides of my abdomen twitch at once, as if to form air quotes around my womb (“baby”/alleged baby) and remind me that nothing is guaranteed.
Shirley Jackson had four children. I cling desperately to the idea of Shirley Jackson and try not to think about the fact that she died of heart failure at the age of 48, leaving her children, and her writing, all alone.
My father-in-law’s death is sudden and unexpected, not at all like the long, punishing arc that took his wife. We had been keeping our distance because of the pregnancy, and because numbers were spiking. We now have a name if the baby is a boy, but there is no feel-good, mystical story that will make it easier to bear.
When you’re thinking about adding more children to your family, you often hear platitudes like “the love expands” meant to reassure you that space will be made for any new addition. It’s one of those clichés that is more annoying for being true, at least in my experience. It is less clichéd but also less cute to talk about how grief expands in the same way. You may think you have reached capacity but there is always room for more.
My father-in-law wasn’t the one who would hold the babies but later, when they were older, he would be the one to tell them who they came from. Being full of the future while burying the man who carried an encyclopedic knowledge of his family’s past is a new and very particular kind of grief. We fill the world with children who will never know all of the people who would have loved them. An inevitable ache.
Did he die of the virus, or of loneliness? We’ll never know whether the distance we were keeping killed him or saved me.
I have made it to the third trimester, which means that my baby is more likely to survive if it has to be pulled out of me while I am in a coma. It also means that time’s winged chariot hurries near, the vise tightens. I am still two months away from my due date but my body already has that shape that compels men to ask whether I’ve swallowed a basketball and people of all genders to confidently refer to me as “mama.” There are very few perks to being pregnant in a pandemic but keeping my distance from strangers is one of them.
Now the words come quickly and I count out the weeks I have left to think and write without the threat of a shrill newborn wail piercing the air. I am exploding with person and ideas.
Philosopher and literary critic Julia Kristeva offers a helpful counterpoint to the spiritual pregnancy bros. Actual, physical pregnancy is important to Kristeva because it has the potential to teach us how open we are to others, the porousness of our selfhood. It is a strange thing to experience this porousness as everywhere else barriers are erected and distance enforced. Kristeva also describes the maternal body as “the place of a splitting.” In an essay on motherhood and the Virgin Mary, she writes, “A mother is a continuous separation, a division of the very flesh.” She writes that essay in two different sections and with two different voices, one theoretical and the other lyrical; the academic voice that distances itself from its subjects and the voice of the mother, which gathers them in. In offering an account of both kinds of pregnancies at once, Kristeva visually represents her own splitting.
“WORD FLESH,” she writes in the section written in the voice of the mother, the section where it is apparently okay to join those two together.
As my body grows ever more inhabited, my mind becomes increasingly haunted by ambition that may never be realized, by all of the different, possibly incompatible, people I still want to be.
I read a New Yorker profile of Marilynne Robinson. Her son says he supposed she must have been writing while he was a child but he never saw her do it. I think about how my children tell me long, convoluted stories while I bang half-formed thoughts into the Notes app on my phone.
Why do you spend so much time on your phone? my oldest child likes to ask, a mischievous smile on her face, the seams of my splitting having been made visible to her.
What did Marilynne Robinson’s children expect of her? Am I delivering less than that? Am I failing both my children and my work if they can see each other? Or are they powering each other with their proximity?
The thing about having a fourth child in a pandemic is that even though the setting is unprecedented, there is consolation in the familiarity of the process. Much has been made of the way pregnancy results in an estrangement from ourselves, the way our bodies turn into something new, foreign, perhaps terrifying. I have also been one of the people who have made much of this. So it is surprising to find that, while the physical discomfort of having a person inside my body remains more or less the same, the psychological shift is far less severe than I feared it would be.
Like all neurotic writer-mothers, I have seen myself in Alice Notley’s “for two years, there’s no me here” and injected Maggie Nelson’s talk about going to pieces, skirting obliteration, into my veins. But by now I have seen myself split and cohere and split again enough times that it has come to feel like an established identity. I have gone to pieces before and I have seen the pieces come back together, sometimes in surprisingly fertile ways. I remember reading an essay describing Adrienne Rich as “stable but unfixed,” and that is the state I imagine myself inhabiting. Transformation can be as constructive as it is destructive, even if the new structure doesn’t look particularly solid.
Maybe when we look for coherence, we’re looking for something that our bodies already know isn’t possible. Motherhood is a splitting but it also isn’t, the same way that writing is, and isn’t. So maybe coherence shouldn’t be a goal, maybe it’s a trick meant to distract us from the work left to do. This fourth child is a decision that I made and also a force beyond my control. It will neither save my family nor destroy it; neither save our world nor destroy it. In this way, it is similar to my writing. Both are just decisions I made when I thought I did not know how to make a decision. Both are decisions that will turn into stories that will ultimately escape my control. Because a story isn’t a permanent state, it is a moment that we cycle through.
I have written this particular story in a collection of moments over 10 long months that also went very quickly. I have written it in installments, like a pregnant Dickens writing only for myself. Small changes here and there until, finally, I have created something where nothing existed before.
If you have a hospital birth, before they admit you and send you to a labor and delivery room, they ask what number total pregnancy this is. They emphasize the word “total” in such a way that you know that they are asking you to include the babies you never ended up taking home, a reminder that the uterus, in many ways, keeps the score. On this particular score we have always been divided, my uterus and I. On that day a decade ago when the doctor told me that my options were a D&C or letting the nine-week-old pregnancy, my first, pass naturally, I said, “Get it out,” because I had no time or use for dead things. I just wanted to move forward as quickly as possible. But acknowledging what we’ve lost is, apparently, a toll that must be paid before we can embrace something new.
Six hours after I say that it is my fifth pregnancy, the doctor is handing me a baby girl who will have her Bubby’s name.
“Are we going to do this or what?” I whisper to her as she wails.
Sara Fredman’s work appears in The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Rumpus, and other publications. She is the creator of Write Like a Mother, a newsletter for writers who are also parents.
Featured image: "Ultrasound 1" by Martin Cathrae is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.