Last week I performed this piece at a storytelling event, "Give Your Choice A Voice," in support of Chicago NOW and the fight to protect reproductive freedom. This is the piece I performed, for your enjoyment!
Fertility is Not Motherhood
Deep down inside, I always knew I wanted to be a mom.
It wasn’t a baby doll kind of thing. I wasn’t interested in babies. I was interested in the work of mothering, the therapizing, problem-solving, comfort-fooding, unconditional love but also telling it like it is of the thing. I started adopting kids when I was about eleven. Not legally, obviously, but practically. My heart broke for kids who didn’t have anyone. I was one of those bring-them-home-and-take-care-of-them types. My sister used to joke I collected broken and un-lovable people, and it was kind of true. I tried so hard to love the most un-loved folx, and while it didn’t always work out for me, I kept doing it. Eventually I figured out that if I wanted to unload all the care inside me on people who needed it, I needed kids in my life.
I always pictured myself moving into a plot of forest in the middle of nowhere with some like-minded friends, and fostering as many children as we could provide for. When I fell in love with a man, and decided to get married and have kids in a traditional way, I was frankly shocked with myself. Making babies was never part of my plan, and there I was, planning on getting pregnant.
At that point in my life, I had never heard a friend announce a pregnancy with joy. I had a friend who got knocked up in high school and ended up homeless. I had thrown abortion parties for friends who felt alone and sad, albeit completely certain about their choice to terminate a pregnancy. I didn’t know a single person who said, “You know what, I’m ready to have a baby,” and then did. I felt kind of like I was Columbusing motherhood, like, “I’m the FIRST PERSON to ever step foot on this populated island!”
People like to think deciding to have a baby is a completely open set of choices, like it’s not black and white, and to be fair, it’s not completely. It’s a thousand pixilated bits of greyscale. But it is in black and white. It’s not nearly as many choices as you expect it to be. When you’re thinking about ending a pregnancy, it’s not because you’re overwhelmed with options, it’s because you’re lucky to have options. For me, my husband and I decided we wanted to have kids well before we got engaged. We were going to have one or two ourselves, and then start fostering. That’s what I’d always wanted, giving all this love to other kids, not just making new kids to foist it on. Until the moment of decision is actually on you, it feels like you could do absolutely anything.
The day after we got engaged, he had a grand Mal seizure, was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, and before I could begin to wrap my head around what was going on he was having brain surgery and being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and now I’m walking the halls of hospitals with actual pieces of his brain in my purse to beg second opinions out of doctors who deal with brains.
So we got him into a clinical trial for his brain cancer, and all those mothering instincts, that need to care for people, that all pointed right at him. My whole life funneled down into taking care of my fiancé. I cared the shit out of him. Literally, an amazing amount of cancer care has to deal with actual shit. I made a pharmacy tech cry over stool softeners. I was a fucking beast, Tiger Mom or Grizzly Mom or fucking T Rex Mom or something, I took care of everything.
And amazingly, he didn’t die. I don’t say he got better, because you don’t get better from glioblastoma, but he didn’t get worse, and that was a miracle. So suddenly we’re looking at chemo actually ending- also a miracle with glioblastoma- and we got to ask ourselves, “Are we going to have kids?”
It wasn’t a “when” question, it was just yes or no, because either we were, right the fuck now, or we weren’t.
So again, faster than I can wrap my head around it, I’m doing IVF, and then I’m pregnant with twins, and then I have cancer.
Did you know pregnancy can increase your risk for cancer? That’s why the anti-choice crowd tells people abortion can give you breast cancer. The truth is, pregnancy can heighten your risk for a few specific cancers, but the longer you’re pregnant the worse it is. Over the course of two pregnancies, because for some reason I did it again, I had seven cancerous moles removed, five of them melanoma or pre-melanoma.
So now my husband and I, we’re both living in this cancer world. I’m not pregnant, and that reduces my risk SO MUCH, but now I have three very small kids and I live this life where every cold either one of us has, every headache, every itch, might be cancer. Legitimately, honestly might be fucking cancer.
After he had a recurrence, needed a second brain surgery, and I spent a horrific week explaining things like cancer and parental death to two four year olds and a toddler, I decided I needed my baby-making days behind me, permanently. And I started looking into sterilization- permanent birth control. Not an IUD, not Implanon. Ideally, I wanted a partial hysterectomy. I had awful periods, that were made much much worse by two c-sections and a uterine rupture- a story for another time. On top of that, my mother had endometrial cancer. I had suicidal PPD after my last baby. And I got fucking cancer when I got pregnant. If my period was more than five hours late I had a full on panic attack. I figured, getting my uterus out would be common fucking sense, right?
An aside, on the panic attacks. All my life, I wanted to take care of orphans. That’s all I wanted. And now every month, I was running through what would happen to my kids when both of their parents died, when they had to live through a childhood defined by their father’s death by brain cancer and their mother’s death by melanoma. It was fucking Dickensian. And I can’t think about orphans without breaking down.
So I had to do whatever I could to make sure I could never get pregnant again.
The first doctor I went to told me I was too young for a hysterectomy. I was thirty-one, I had three kids, and I knew I didn’t want anymore. But that wasn’t enough for him.
I found another doctor. She said, “What if your husband wants more kids?” I told her my husband was both happy with the three we had AND he had cancer and this would be peace of mind for him too. “What if after he dies you remarry and your new husband wants his own kids?”
My husband had attempted a vasectomy, but amazingly, his doctor fucked it up, leaving him at heightened risk for spontaneous reattachment of his vas deferens. Surprisingly, nobody refused him a vasectomy. He showed up, said, “Snip me!” And they did.
It took me two years to get NOT a hysterectomy. I got a salpingectomy, that’s the removal of the Fallopian tubes, and a uterine ablation. And it was the best thing I ever did for myself- not because it saved me my constant existential dread, but because for the first time in my life, I pointed all that need to care at myself. For the first time in my life, I saw myself as the person who needed my own care, and I mothered me.
When we talk about reproductive choice this has to be part of the conversation; the right for women to opt out of fertility. Because it’s not making babies that makes a mother, I knew that at eleven years old. It’s making babies that makes hostages out of mothers.
My uterus isn’t a baby-weigh-station. It’s my personal self-actualization that made me a mom, and it’s my choices that made my family.
Read about why all mothers should support reproductive choice here: Why Every Person Should Support Planned Parenthood
Read my most recent post here: A Letter From The Future
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