I stare at babies in stores. Babies usually stare back. They wave their fat little arms in the air. They suck on their fists and thump their blankets. They don’t look like they are being lots of trouble. That baby probably cried all night, I tell myself in the car. I look in the mirror and wipe my eyes. Imagine putting up with that.
I won’t look at baby shoes — they are a real weakness. Those tiny little moccasins, 3-inch long cowboy boots, Reebok tennis shoes taller than they are long. I don’t buy Christmas cards that show Mary with the baby Jesus. I don’t sing “Away in the Manger,” and I avoid picking up another person’s baby. The sensory impact of holding a baby — the smell of baby powder, the little curve of her back into diapers — is so strong that it can override the defenses I try to maintain in public. I hate being trapped in someone else’s bathroom, crying convulsively into a handful of toilet paper. I run water into the sink to cover up the noise.
I had always thought I would have children. I am 41 now. Eleven years ago, I married a man who has a grown son. My husband does not want any more children.
I try to avoid telling these facts to other people. I used to explain and apologize. Now I am wary, afraid of the awful things they might say: “Thank God my husband’s not like that, I’d divorce him”; “Have you tried wearing a black nightgown and perfume?” Their comments hook into my mind and dislodge grief that lies just below the surface. I try to keep the grief hidden from other people and like to deny it to myself, but it is there. It has the power of a tree buckling concrete as it forces its way to the surface. I scuttle around as the ground seems to shift and bulge beneath my feet, and children are everywhere.
Babies loll in the pew ahead of me at church. The littlest ones squeak when they cry. I see little girls in scratchy dresses and boys with oversized feet. My friends get pregnant and become round and full and hormonal. As I am talking to them, their babies move inside their bellies, like the earth moving under heaven during creation.
This past year it seemed like all the women at work were pregnant. At lunch even the men tossed out childbirth stories and opinions of Lamaze. I began eating lunch by myself in my dim classroom, setting out yogurt and salad, thinking, It’s better in here anyway. Not as much noise.
My friends have kids in Little League. They go to soccer practices and piano recitals. I tell myself that I have free time. I always hated sports anyway. Kids are work. I am better off without them.
But denial doesn’t hold up very well against real children, and I am unprepared to go to my 9-year-old nephew’s baseball game. The team stands in white uniforms on red dirt. The outfielders put their hands on their knees and lean toward the batter. Their faces are anxious and so vulnerable that I am unarmed. I fail to prevent the thoughts that come into my head. This is what is so terrible? I think to myself. I clap as the kids run off the field and pour into the dugout. Would it have been so bad to have a little boy on this field?
That night I pour a cup of coffee and read a sign hung in my brother’s kitchen:
I can imagine a life
but there would not be
as much noise
or as much laughter.
Alone in the kitchen, it seems very quiet.
Childlessness is a strange kind of pain, different from the pain I felt when my mother died. This grief has no pivotal moment, no death and no end. I don’t miss a person; I miss what that person might have been. When my mother died, there was a funeral. People sang at the service and brought casseroles to the house. It was natural to feel bad. I am not surprised when I miss my mother, and I don’t try to pretend that my life is better now that she’s gone.
I have tried to cement over the grief I feel over childlessness. I want to cover up the sadness I feel for this faint image of an unborn baby, who has no name, no gender and no personality. I smooth over any feelings and try not to let them rise, afraid that hope will rise with them. Wild, unreasonable hope that begins, I am only 41. There’s still time. I begin counting in nine-month arcs of time.
I always think I have accepted childlessness. I have given it to God many times. But with the slightest hope of children, acceptance disappears. If I push harder, I can bring a baby into being. I need to fight for her, this small thing so unprotected, so small she doesn’t physically exist.
If I could bring my mother back from the dead, would I do it? Could I stop myself from doing it?
To push, to lose all sight of anything else in my life, to push so hard that I destroy my husband, our marriage, everything I love: I hold back. I might ignite a fire that would burn down our home and everything in it with the heat of my rage.
One night, years ago, I came upon a verse from the Bible. It stood out as a warning in the late evening light.
The wise woman builds her house,
But with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down.
I looked at the verse for a long time.
I could run from what I have been given toward the possibility of having children, someone else’s children. And if I had these children, would I then long for the man I left? I run away from accepting all of the choices I have made, and so run away from the real option I have left: the acceptance of ambivalence and grief.
I walk downstairs one evening, taking care not to let the stairs creak. My 6-year-old nephew has just gone to sleep in an upstairs bed. I pour a glass of wine and sit on the couch. I open a magazine and breathe deeply. I feel strange. I realize that I am really happy he’s gone to bed and that I am hoping he will sleep late the next morning. These thoughts confuse me. It is one thing to tell myself that I like free time, but I shouldn’t allow myself to really enjoy it when children are around. It might prove that childlessness has made me selfish. It might show that I wouldn’t have made a good mother after all.
Later I sit with an unmarried friend over lunch. She picks up her iced tea. “I hate going to weddings,” she says, and her iced tea spills on the tablecloth. “Having to catch the bride’s bouquet with all the other unmarried women. I’m the only 40-year-old to get out there. If I don’t, my family will say, ‘Ooh, Janie, catch the bouquet, and maybe you can get a man, too.’” She scrubs hard at the tablecloth with her thumb, her face flushed.
I am startled, because I recognize her situation. I have not realized that ordinary events are minefields for other people, too. I have been blind to the pain hidden in other people’s lives, all of the sad and humiliating things they try not to talk about in public. Maybe there are many kinds of grief that earn no funerals, no casseroles and no hymns.
And I think, I could let the grief I feel over childlessness rise to the surface. When the grief rises, I could try not to bury it anymore. I could find a way to talk about it to other people. I could say, I always wanted to have children.