Look at the baby, my mother mouths against my ear, pulling me close. She sees babies at the mall, in the grocery store—babies in the tomatoes! Allen Ginsberg would shout. She calls my name to show me babies on her phone, searches my face for a sign of enchantment. But all I see are strangers born from strangers. I am alerted to their presence everywhere we go. I am shaken like a bottle of juice whose contents are too settled. Look at him. Look at her. We stop and look together, though my stare is forced, and I break it long before she can tear herself away.
I’ve never told her about the pregnancy nightmare that’s recurred for years. There’s not much to it other than that I’m pregnant and vehemently don’t want to be. Since abortions never appear to be an option in Dream Land, I give birth and wake up digging my nails into the sheets and screaming.
My aversion to pregnancy and childbirth has been around a long time. Always on trend with toys, my parents presented me with a doughy, yarn-haired Cabbage Patch doll and assumed I’d love it as much as every other toddler in 1989 loved hers. It stayed sealed in the box. Next came a doll that ate and drank and soiled just like a real baby. It too was neglected, though that may have been as much my reaction to its satanic voice as to the chore of diaper changing.
Instead, I lived in the worlds of books. I acted out elaborate anthropomorphic fantasies with model horses. After years of creative play trouncing domestic imitation, the baby dolls – fake doo-doo and all – were dispersed at yard sales and Goodwills. I’d like to think that this was my first feminist act. Are adult gendered expectations any surprise when our boys drive hot wheels and our girls clean up shit?
I was not the only one who craved escape. As a little girl I saw the way my mother sealed herself away from my father first as an act of defiance, then as self-preservation. I watched her stumble half-blind over the rubble of wife and mother, looking for a life. At school I threw myself into learning about Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. I have already joined myself in marriage to the kingdom of England, I practiced in the mirror. I vowed never to enter into a union like my parents’ separate beds and simmering resentment.
People say that I am my mom done over. I can’t look at myself without her piercing through: the brown eyes, deep Cupid’s bow, disobedient hair. She is a transparent layer over me, or I over her; I’m not sure which. I mimic her gestures and method of coping, which is to clean until my body aches. I echo the timbre of her voice. I inherited exactly two things from my father: his elegantly narrow sprinter’s feet and his hunger for learning. Otherwise, I could have sprung out of my mother’s forehead like Athena or formed from a mitotic split. Strangers, to her delight, ask if we are sisters.
The blood of the divorce still pounding in our ears, she once whispered, “It’s just us. It always was.” Such was my understanding of our lineage: beginning with her, ending with me.
Mom and me; me and mom. I turn the words over like a lump of dough in my palms. I listen to them alternate like the clicking of a Newton’s cradle.
She stopped bleeding years ago. I still bleed trails into the thousand possible directions of my life after thirty. The Bible kicks up a fuss about “menstrual impurity,” but truth be told, I’ve always felt most pure during those days. Despite the mess and the pain and the irrational headspaces, I know that I belong entirely to myself.
In college I leaned against the wisteria-covered pergola and followed my friend Julie’s hands down to her hips. “I want to be a mother so badly,” she breathed. Her joy was in imagining that space full. Mine was in watching it empty.
Because my mother’s mother, Doris, died before I was born, my concept of her never developed beyond the hair curlers and polka-dotted dresses in her faded photographs. “Grandmother” was an abstraction, grey hair in a bun, a role I crafted with spirit gum for a middle school play. Anyway, Doris didn’t look a thing like us.
My mom pushed me into the world a year to the day after her mother departed from it. She started howling before we even left the hospital. I was sleeping soundly in the nursery across the hall, in the box they keep you in before you know pain.
“You just needed and needed and needed,” she explained to me years later. “It was hard to imagine you as a little person who would love me back one day.”
I thought about staring up at her with wide infant eyes, wiggling against the crib in a state of perpetual discontent. My cries splintering the memories of her mother. My father buried in his textbook a state away. How do you love anything in such suffocating loneliness?
“I understand,” I said. That sprawling mass wasn’t me, not yet, with a mind and a voice and an identity. I couldn’t begrudge my mom for not being enthralled with my existence when she didn’t know how to manage her own. Nor could I, sharing his love of academia, begrudge my dad for going back to school during that time – though this decision would sow the seeds of their separation. Einmal ist keinmal, the German proverb goes, or once is never. You do your best, without a guidebook. You choose one of the darkened paths. You land in a heap twenty years later and shake your head, say, well, that wasn’t right.
“I understand,” I told her again, but that’s not it. She knows. It’s the crushing guilt of only living once.
“Don’t get married at twenty-two,” she had said. What a relief that someone older and wiser had already botched that part of life so I wouldn’t have to. Okay, then. Cross that off the list.
So I started grad school and hurtled over the borders of my alcohol tolerance and slept with boys who would have probably fucked a hole in the ground and loved so hard that I made myself sick. And what a relief when she added, “At your age, I didn’t want kids either.” And when she repeated it at 23. 24. 25. Navigating the sea of break-ups and bosses, underemployment and unavailable funds, I was given her blessing to send my potential offspring careening into the void.
She changed her tune soon enough.
My great-aunt, a woman I loved nearly as much as my own mom, died just before I turned 27. Her wake felt almost offensively impersonal; small talk with distant relatives in a restaurant where my friends and I regularly demolished pitchers of sangria. I longed for a more appropriate commemoration, twirling around with the fur and lace in her closet, inhaling her thousand perfumes.
Two small boys clawed my cousin’s legs as we said goodbye. “They’re a handful,” she said, fluffing their hair.
My mother slinked a smooth arm around my waist. “I’m waiting for the day when this one will give me a handful.”
I pulled away and shot her an injured look.
Back at my apartment, I dialed her number. “What was that about?” I asked bitterly, half angry that our aunt was dead, half resentful of being reduced to a womb. It wasn’t what we had ever agreed upon
“I don’t know.” She paused. “It’s just something people say.”
I have a friend named Sam. Sam is an expat writer living in Colombia who is rather serendipitously my age and from the same rural pocket of Maryland. We met in person for the first time last year at a Mexican cantina to sort through the rubble of our roughly comparable failed relationships.
“I’m so ready for a baby,” she sighed dreamily into her margarita. “How about you? Are you there yet?”
“Not even slightly,” I grinned.
Were any of us ever ready? What does “ready” even look like? My mother had been ready for me her whole life, until she wasn’t.
“Find yourself,” she used to tell me all the time. I looked everywhere.
I’m still looking.
As I write this, Sam is a new mother. She gave her child a gender-neutral name not long into her pregnancy, but when I saw her holding a daughter, something in my heart blossomed. Sam crouched over her laptop, writing, while Jasper slept on her shoulder. I understand now why I remain unfazed by babies but deeply moved by the tenderness between mothers and daughters. I don’t want what Sam has. I want what Sam will have.
I put her burned bones in my mouth and swallowed them whole, Cheryl Strayed writes after losing her mother to lung cancer. When I watched the scene in Wild of Cheryl howling and clutching her dead mother to her chest, I cried so hard I thought I was going to vomit. As a girl I had always wondered what it was like to love someone as much as my mom loves me, but now I know. It is a love that affixes you to another person, whose joy and sorrow you absorb as much if not more than your own. A love like consuming ashes.
Einmal ist kinmal.
I swallow the birth control that has given me the life I’ve wanted for over a decade. “Maybe I’ll adopt someday,” I say to my mother.
“Maybe you will,” she nods. We finish our dinner and take each other’s hands.
I chose my galloping Breyer horses over the Cabbage Patch fence.
I can choose to love a daughter not from my own body as fiercely as my mother loves me.