Battle to Be Mom
I’ve watched The Kids Are Alright 10 times already.
I see parts of my life in many of the characters: the kids who sought out the biological parent, the radical lesbian parent, the donor parent. I watch myself navigating this life of progressive, radical lesbian mom and wonder if my kid will be alright. I find myself caught between the businesses of providing a stable, secure environment and following through with my break-all-the-rules-badass, political identity.
My sexual identity has always been political. Coming out publicly in Jamaica in the late ’90s meant risking bodily harm. It also meant I had to assume a combative stance just to survive the violent climate of intolerance. And when that risk of sexual assault became a reality, it meant fleeing to America, where I believed I would find the safety I needed to explore and eventually lay claim to the life I imagined a lesbian should live. (Insert enactment of wild sexual fantasies and frequent political rallies here.)
Sixteen years later I am a single mother of an 18-month-old toddler, living in a Brooklyn apartment, spending my days fishing stray crayons from behind my bookshelves and constantly reminding people I can’t be out after 7 P.M. because that’s when the kid goes to bed. I can’t remember the last time I had an unplanned orgasm. I hardly sleep. I spend more money on diapers than I do on dining out and I definitely have no idea what is trending in the current lesbian circuit in New York City.
How did I get here?
I have to admit that the trajectory was deliberate and masterfully engineered. I was 34 and happily entrenched in the perfect Brooklyn lesbian life. I was a serial monogamist, passionately falling, then failing, then brooding, and then moving swiftly from one tragic heartbreak to the next. I knew I wanted a child, but I was waiting on the right woman to come along and inspire the trip to the sperm bank. Then my 35th birthday arrived and I began to feel my eggs drying up inside my aging ovaries. By the time I celebrated my 36th birthday I knew my love affair with love affairs was no longer enough. I quickly moved from stealing glances at babies in the supermarket to checking out men I could seduce and hope that it would lead to pregnancy. No girlfriend who wanted to be a mother was in sight. And something told me if I kept waiting I would be missing out on doing something it was clear I really, really, really wanted for myself.
By the time I walked into the fertility clinic on 5th Avenue and 40th Street in Manhattan, I was a woman hell-bent on the mission to become somebody’s mother.
For the most part I was optimistic. I was only 37 — still on the milder end of age-related infertility. The decline begins at 35, but it doesn’t really become acute until about 39. I was in good physical condition; I ate well, I was a runner with a healthy weight, no medical problems, and I’d had no surgical procedures that could cause infertility. I shook the doctor’s hand, filled out the appropriate forms and said I was a sort-of-single lesbian (I was seeing a woman who was not really sure she wanted to be a mother) looking to get knocked up as soon as possible. I grinned with pleasure while they told me I had come to the right place.
Legs up in stirrups with the man I had met minutes before peering up into my vaginal canal, I pictured the face of the child who was waiting for me to walk through these steps in order to fetch her. I wondered if I would have a child who looked like me. I didn’t mind the poking and the prodding of the examination. In fact, it felt comforting, as if I were already on the delivery table and the doctor with the South African accent was going to present me with a baby when I pulled my legs from the stirrups.
But my grandmother always told me there’s many a slip between cup and lip. Between the cup I imagined running over with my bundle of joy and the lips through which the ultrasound wand (which really looks like a Hitachi Magic Wand) passed, there was a hmm, and a sigh, and a quiet conference between the physician’s assistant and the good doctor from South Africa.
In an optimistic voice he told me I had a large, badly located fibrous tumor — so large it should be removed anyway, he said. But it definitely had to be removed before we could attempt any baby-making activities. I was referred to a doctor across town. I took the first appointment they had for my surgery. It was going to cost more than I anticipated. I begged the surgeon to give me an artist’s rate. I told him I would wax poetic about his generosity on my Facebook page, I told him I was an abandoned child, I showed him my blogs about how much I wanted a baby. I showed him my bank statements. He finally agreed to do the surgery for a third of the sum he first quoted. I told him I had no words to express my gratitude. Then I went home to beg and borrow money. When I was done I had just enough for the surgery. I had no idea how I was going to pay for the sperm and drugs and the fertility clinic’s fees afterward, but I couldn’t get pregnant without the surgery, so I bit my lip and handed over my silver.
The doctor said the surgery went well. Everything looked good. We just had to do a test to make sure my tubes were open and then we could go for it.
The results were back in a week. My tubes were closed. No tunnels open for the eggs to make the long trip from ovary to uterus. I was going to have to do IVF (in vitro fertilization) — which, by the way, costs three or four times what IUI (intrauterine insemination) does. I went home and gathered my resources. I pulled money from my savings, called in some debts, and got an advance from the theater with which I have a history. Again I was significantly short of the sum I was quoted for the IVF procedure. I took my African market bargaining skills into the midtown baby-making office. They were sympathetic. They were kind. They worked with me and suggested ways I could cut costs. They donated drugs. And threw in some of the procedures for free.
I told them I would blog. I showed them my Twitter feed. I said I would say nice things about them; that I would point the lesbian community who wanted children in their direction. I told them how much I wanted this kid. I showed them my bank statements. Eventually we settled on a figure I could barely make and one they could live with grudgingly. I told them to make this their best effort. I knew I only had one shot at this.
The memory of that month I did the IVF remains one of the craziest in my life. I was taking birth control pills for 10 days, then switching to hormones that made me insane, to injections (which I had to administer myself) that turned me into a PMS-ing adolescent who was menopausal and suicidal. Oh, then girlfriend left me in the middle of the bloody process. Yes, it was a time best recounted in hushed tones and followed up by sincere and reiterated apologies. I don’t know how I kept on schedule with all the meds while I was going mad and trying to survive the heartbreak at the same time. By the time they took the 10 eggs from my ovaries, I was almost ready to say “uncle.” The only reason that I kept going was the feeling that this madness had to lead to something good. I couldn’t have been abandoned by my own mother, left unclaimed by my father, been born gay in Jamaica, be black in America, been left by my girlfriend in the middle of trying to get pregnant, be flat broke because of this process, and not pregnant all at the same time. I had to believe balance existed. I had to believe I would get pregnant on the only attempt I could afford.
On May 8, Mother’s Day of 2011, I ignored the advice of the professionals at the clinic and dared fate in the form of a pregnancy test.
Those three minutes waiting were the longest I had ever had to experience. When the first red line came in, I reminded myself that that line comes in for everybody. My heart stopped when the second one started coming into focus. I did a second test, and a third to be sure. Then I took photos so I would always have this moment. Then armed with three tests that all showed a positive, I let myself breathe. I let myself imagine that I could be here, in Brooklyn, fishing for crayons and staying home at nights. I let myself hope that I could be sleepless and broke from buying diapers. It was Mother’s Day. And I was pregnant. I couldn’t imagine a better thing for me to be.
And today, when I am feeling overwhelmed, when I am feeling like I cannot remain upright one more minute without falling asleep, I go back to that moment and remind myself that this child was wanted — is wanted. Because I went through hell and back to have her, I would go to hell and back to keep her safe, to keep her happy. Regardless of the struggles, the missteps still to come, we are family, and families live and learn and have moments like those in our favorite films.
I look again and again at those photos I took of the pregnancy tests to remind myself of the trauma of that time, how terrible everything was, and how in three minutes I stopped being so full of sorrow and became the giddy, gleeful, mother-to-be. And when I remember the hope, the optimism, and the sense of purpose I felt on that very first not-yet-mother’s day, I get the feeling that yes, my kid is probably going to be just fine. And whenever I land on top of that truth, it’s easy to remember I am exactly where I want to be.
Staceyann Chin is a poet-activist-mother, and author of the memoir, The Other Side Of Paradise.