MOTHERHOOD.

When my mother was near death at age 90, she told me she was ready to die, but could not. ‘You and Jim need me,’ she said. My brother and I were by then in our 60s.” -Joan Didion

Over the years, the past six specifically, my periods have become torturous. They're heavy, long, and so painful that I'm generally still taking multiple doses of hospital-strength ibuprofen through the third day. I'm already a sensitive person but twice a month (both ovulation and menstruation) I'm so erratic I get on my own damn nerves, crying over a thread on Twitter one moment and steaming hot from a tonally questionable comment or perceived slight the next.

I've been surfing the crimson wave for a quarter of a century. But while periods are rarely convenient, mine was not a nightmare most of these years. For nearly two decades it was short— half a week tops— and any associated discomfort was generally mild enough that I could take a single naproxen with those initial uterine stirrings on Day 1 and not have to worry about pain again until the following month.

 Those days are gone. 

When I told my Louisiana aunt about the evolution of my horrible "monthlies"--the throwback term she is wont to use--she looked at me patronizingly over her eyeglasses and put a hand on my stomach . "Your body is screaming for a baby, girl," she informed me. "It's mad you ain't put one in there." I laughed, but not too hard; primarily because I suspected she was right. "Mad" was exactly the feeling I got from the extreme discomfort I now experienced. Anger, rage. Wrath.

 ***

To add injury to insult, every form of synthetic birth control I've tried over the past two years has totally ravaged me: the ring made me hot, sleepless, and stripped me of my appetite (great) but also my libido (hell no); pills left me nauseated and crazy AF.  I've seen my gynecologist three times in the past year on this quest to pin down something more reliable than [cycle tracking + withdrawal + prayer]—the combination of which contains too many wily variables to make me feel safe. Not to mention, I’m also known to couple this trifecta occasionally (okay, semi-frequently) with the use of Plan-B®, which so dramatically alters my cycle that it screams chaos from the surprise factor alone.

Dr. Chen took the opportunity of my presence to make yet another of her frequent IUD pitches. "It would just make your life so much easier," came the nine-word anthem she has no shame repeating like a broken record. But she knew her chances of getting through to me were nil. Working in fertility has shown me too many women whose IUDs have shredded their uterine lining or caused ectopic pregnancies, resulting in miscarriages, infertility, and salpingectomies. So although the odds are in favor of this not being my IUD story, I still pass every time.

"So let me understand," she slurred in her dry, comedy club matinee-style delivery (which I don't love), "You don’t want to get pregnant, so you don't want the most effective form of birth control… because you think you won't get pregnant?"

In short: Yup.

For the past two years, even though I knew I was probably at least five years out from trying, I've been hyperaware of my choices about my body and my life, because I know for sure now what I did not always know for sure as a younger woman: I want to give birth. I want babies. I want children, people who grow up to be not just my offspring but my friends.

I want to be a mother.

***

My motherhood journey began, like many women, as a daughter. I assiduously studied Bonnie Brown’s every move-- how she cooked every meal, cleaned every room, and wiped every tear, still finding time to devote to my father, multiple church ministries, my school, and even my Girl Scout troop, as our leader. She balanced checkbooks effortlessly, decorated impeccably, entertained with ultimate panache. She was fun and funny and outspoken and beloved by everyone who knew her.

How she relished being a mom. A childhood friend recently reminded me of the time my mother, her thick curly hair just growing back from her last round of chemo, carted me and a group of friends to the amusement park after starting a new round. She even rode the rides. My friends knew she was sick again because she’d lost her hair and a ton of weight, and probably also because their parents advised them not to mention anything too sensitive. But none of them knew then the actual horrors of chemotherapy and radiation and how unlikely it was that a chemo patient could brave either a group of little girls or a theme park.

I’d watched my mother hug toilets and writhe in bed for years fighting cancer. But that day, I watched in complete awe as she confidently climbed in next to me on a stomach-churning rollercoaster. She smiled down into my eyes, as if nothing were wrong. If I focus, I can still feel her hand gripping my thigh in joyful terror as we plummeted down. If there was anything I wanted or needed, even at her most terminally incapacitated Bonnie Brown made it happen. She was the consummate wife + mom, the epitome of "every woman", and I admired her more than any other on the face of the earth. I still do. She was incredible. 

As was the relationship we had. Even with all that she was and did, what I remember most about her is the affection. My mother possessed an aggressive love: She gave big, juicy, wet kisses on the cheeks and neck during the day and sweet, butterfly kisses on the lips at night. Not a day with her went by that I didn’t get pulled close and wrapped up in a constrictor-style hug.

I’ve always known we shared this spirit. The nurturing, feral, ride-or-die mama bear energy that could lift a car off a newborn. Since I was a kid myself, I’ve heard the refrain: “you’re going to be the best mom!” I am the friend my friends come to with sorrows. I am the one that shows up to cook and clean when they are sick. Infants and small children instinctively know my lap and my arms are a safe place. My mother hen vibes run deep.

I've often sensed that, like other qualities, all that intense maternal power my own mom housed didn't die with her, but instead got transferred to me. My entire life I’ve imagined having this magical relationship back again, except this time I would be the mother. I would be the one who got to give all the love.

***

My career in assisted reproduction (more commonly known as “fertility”) began as a very young woman. I was in my mid-20s and kind of fell into my first job in the industry through connections. It seemed at the time like a cool way to transition from the über-corporate, fast-paced, ruthless world of tech sales while still affording me income stability and finally also affording me the time to pursue my passions (music and writing). As a writer I was in heaven. Suddenly, between my colleagues and clients, I got to work with this huge lot of terribly interesting women from all over the world and hear fascinating stories about their choices and the often captivating turns lives had taken to lead them to my office.

Some of my clients were of "advanced maternal age" (over 35) and doing IVF cycle after cycle in order to score a "geriatric pregnancy" (pregnancy in women 35 and over), a term I've always despised. Some of them had no hope with traditional IVF at all due to age or some type of ovarian failure and were using an egg donor to create the embryo they would carry. Others had uterine issues or some other malady that precluded pregnancy altogether and were using a gestational surrogate. Some were freezing or banking eggs or embryos for future use. Most were married or otherwise partnered, but a tiny few were single. It was like being in an episode of an ABC procedural every single day, and I was soaking up knowledge in this new career with the hunger of a student.

At the time, having my own children seemed eons away. Many of my clients were older women who treated me like a daughter or little sister, encouraging me towards life decisions different from theirs. They wanted me to avoid the heartache and financial and emotional strain to which they were now subject. One of my clients, Gretchen*, a financial bigwig in Chicago who tried everything to get pregnant with her husband and was finally resigning herself to an egg donor despite her deep desire to bear her own genetic child, sobbed on the phone to me once, making me promise that I wouldn't follow her example and would instead make the most of my youth and have children before it was too late.  “I spent my 20s and 30s making all this money,” she cried, “and I'm spending it all in my 40s trying to have what would have come so easily then". 

My heart was warmed by the admonitions and advice, but for the most part I tucked my clients' words away. I was deeply thankful then not to have the consideration of children. At that point, none of my close friends had kids or cared about it. A few had even terminated pregnancies. We were all blissfully unencumbered by biological clocks and lifestyle choices, bumbling our way through dating and professional trails, focused only on advancing in our careers, making money, partying, traveling, and using the most effective birth control our insurance could buy.

But the dreams started in 2012, not long after the complete and total obliteration of the last relationship in which I was in love. In the first of them, I held a newborn baby girl, looking down at her round head of soft new hair. I would run my hands through it, following its counter-clockwise growth pattern with the top of my index finger. I could feel her scalp under my fingertip. I could smell that baby smell--milk, powder, magic. I was sitting in front of a mirror in the dream, and when I looked up, I could see myself holding this girl, looking completely natural.

I was 30 years old, and motherhood couldn’t have felt farther or more foreign. Yet I would dream of this girl, and later of her twin brother, all the time. I could smell them, feel their soft skin against mine. I would stand over their cribs and hear them breathing. I would talk to them, have discussions about them with other people. Their cooing soothed me.

And then I would wake up.

*** 

Working in fertility began as a detour in my life, but ultimately evolved into a calling. I've helped people begin families in a vast variety of ways, serving as an ear; an advocate; a strategist; a reproductive endocrinological encyclopedia; a friend; a disapproving-grandparent charmer; a genetic counselor; a legal advisor; a fertility medication courier and one-woman injection service in a pinch; and, in similarly dire straits, even once as an ovum donor for a friend. It was this final role that really drove home that I was not just helping people create families, but helping women become mothers. It was also this final role that made me take a good hard look at myself and what role I imagined motherhood would play in my life.  

The fact is, my girlhood was unusually long. It spanned about 15 years, starting at 18 and wrapping up around 33; in some respects it may never be over. Peter Pan DNA aside, I had to grow up really fast as a kid and although there were some idyllic aspects to my nuclear, privileged childhood, it was also filled with terror and devastating loss. For this reason, my life has felt like a patchwork of anachronism; for me, age has never been an appropriate indicator of where I actually was, emotionally or otherwise.

Correspondingly, for several years in my 20s I told myself I might not even want children, which seems weird and silly to say now. I was living the wild life my serious, studious formative years had denied me, and I considered the havoc children would wreak, that I just might not be mother material after all. Maybe, I thought, I would never be able to recreate the magic of the relationship I shared with Bonnie Brown. Maybe it was a product of some alchemy of time and space, lost forever. I slathered on this cognitive dissonance as a kind of balm to my fears that I might never have the picture I wanted. 

Because the fact is that not becoming a mother is, for me, linked directly to the dreaded possibility of never meeting my perfect match. Single motherhood is an amazing feat, and I marvel at every single woman that undertakes it, but it’s never been a goal or plan of mine. My motherhood is just as much about fatherhood. I don’t want a baby. I want a family.

It was in motherhood, after all, that my father most showed up for my mom. Even with a healthy, beautiful partnership full of laughter, it was their roles as parents that drove everything they did and built and fought for and against. Even now, I still sense that everything my father does for me is as much out of his devotion to my mother and the vows he made her as it is an expression of his love for me. We were a unit, always, and as an only child it was this notion of feeling like a team alongside the two of them that fed me whenever I felt left out among those with siblings. 

Similarly, my career in fertility has exposed me to some of the most beautiful loves and admirable relationships (and some of the worst, but I'll focus on the positive). The unbridled vulnerability men exhibit when it comes to the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of the women they love and the families they crave is exquisite.  Recently, a beloved client who worked for years to get pregnant delivered her daughter at 22 weeks. The baby lived for only 12 hours. During the surgical procedure, my client’s husband scrubbed in and sat beside her for an entire five hours of surgery. After the call in which she told me this, I hung up and bawled, both devastated for her tragic loss and struck by the unfailing partnership and love with which she was blessed.

Conversely, I've struggled in romantic relationships most of my adult life; and consequently, there are times I've considered the fact that having a baby might not happen for me. In those moments, I told myself that maybe I would just live unencumbered by the albatross of responsibility for other human beings. I would exist for myself alone, and maybe one day, later in life, a partner who'd lived the same way.

But unreconciled in that wild idea was the fact that I was born with the dream of growing a family written on my heart. Dismissed in this was the aggressive loyalty and love I have to give, overwhelming devotion so visceral I literally cannot keep my hands off of anybody I love. Some women worry that they'll never catch the maternal bug, or that their bodies won't cooperate. But my fertility is proven, and in some form or fashion, I've always had a vision of myself as a mom. 

***

Recently, while home for a family visit, I went for a drive through my old neighborhood.

Living in California makes me feel light years away from suburban Central Virginia and its easy southern crawl. The homes are more beautiful to me now than they were when I actually lived in one of them, and the neighborhoods offer a lovelier air than they did when I was a teenager dying to escape, scratching the corners of my prison like a caged rat who heard someone coming with a key. I always felt, I thought as I surveyed the shamrock-colored lawns, like this world was so small. As an adult, I just appreciate the fact that people are paying half of a million dollars for them; but still, the foliage-lined streets full of large track homes that, despite their grandeur, look and feel like each one regurgitated the one next to it, do carry a pallor of stagnancy for me.

I go home and see so many I grew up with that have the family and home base I so deeply desire, the partnership to count on and be needed in, but the world around it feels claustrophobic. I've always sensed that it would suffocate me. I’ve always been afraid to give up the seeking part of my life, to lose the rhythms and freedoms that make me feel alive. And for years I felt a pang of pity when I saw the moms. Not all, but certainly the most mom-ish of them, the ones in their overworn jeans or only moderately flattering workout clothes, unloading groceries from a messy SUV or worse, a minivan. Some of them were girls I went to high school with, beautiful girls who now looked more like one of our teachers back then, tired in every sense of the word and in every way I've never aspired to and in fact avoided. For years, I felt a triumphance that my life looked so different from theirs.

But more and more, and now more than ever, I envy the babies. I envy the heavy, rounded bellies filled with the almost-born. I envy the soft, fuzzy infants they nuzzle in restaurants. I envy the woman in the nail salon with the precocious little girl cracking everyone up with her impish wit and wonder. I envy the woman with the handsome young teenage sons who look a bit like they don't want to be with her, and also a bit like they couldn't live without her. 

I see myself in all of these women, at all of these stages. This intimacy with the idea of becoming a mom has met me where I was in nearly every stage of my struggle with the concept. While I've run the gamut on the issue of motherhood, it's always on my mind these days, partially because timing is regrettably more of a factor at this point, and also because I confront this issue daily on behalf of others. And it’s actually hard not to think about it when notable portions of my day are dedicated to corralling my body into gestational submission. An iPhone alarm goes off every single day to remind me to take a pill. I workout not just for vanity or hedonism or even self-care (these all apply, by the way), but mostly because I want to do everything I can to create an environment my kid can thrive in. I log every cramp, every bleed, every mood, every workout, even every orgasm in an effort to one day have an extensive history to present to my obstetrician so we can best assist my body in its ultimate performance.

*** 

The thing is, I know exactly how motherhood will affect me. I love hard. My heart damn near bursts open at least once a day. I can barely fathom the flood that will break loose when it comes to my own children. I both can and cannot imagine the ferocity of carrying someone inside my body, right under my heart, and then watching them walk around in the world, being all human and chasing dreams.

I've learned that when you make the decision to be a mom, you become one sooner than you think. Already I make decisions with my kids—and my family—in mind. IUD contemplation and period tracking practices aside, I’ve readjusted my priorities by only entertaining men I know would be the kind of father and husband to enrich our children's lives. I want them to see love and passion, support and encouragement, sexual freedom and an absence of shame in their native home. I want them to witness and celebrate intellectual curiosity and richness of thought, diversity of opinion, respect for heritage, and a readiness to prioritize fun and joy.

I want to have children and give them chances I didn’t have. At the end of the day, I am just a little girl whose world was demolished when she lost her greatest champion, and who painfully pasted on a smile and followed the path subsequently drawn for her until the weight of expectations nearly crushed her. I want my children to have the family I still miss, the unconditional love I lost, and I want to be that one person in the universe who sees them wholly and truly and offers them every opportunity to live their most passionate, fully alive existence possible. I also want them to have exactly the chance I did have: loving parents, and a mother deeply in love with their father, a man who respects and cherishes her. 

*** 

Borrowing from Robert Frost’s preeminent composition, I have chosen the road less traveled by, for sure. I can probably never fully explain just how much I wish there had never been a fork at all, that the verdant little southern cul-de-sac I started life on had projected a perfectly straight line with stops in all the right places that told the perfect story. There have been fathers, husbands. There have been men on my path that would have given me a perfectly lovely life and children to adore, and I have reviewed and rehearsed my mistakes in those relationships ad nauseam, terrified I made the kinds of wrong turns and irreparable errors all mothers fear. But I realize, too, the impossibility in this; I could not have made a life with any of them because I would have always been aware that it was not really mine. I would have suspected that somebody hijacked my real life, and I would have been saddened to later learn that the somebody was me. At this point in my story, I feel clear more than ever that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. That the man and partner I am supposed to write the rest of this story with, the one who will engender my motherhood, is not from my past, but my future.

I feel as though I already know my children, to some degree. I feel like I’ve known them since 2012, when they first crept into my dreams. I’ve never really seen their faces. I don’t know their names. I might not even yet know their dad. But I do know that they’re somewhere out there, waiting on their mother’s life to evolve in the way that brings them to her, close enough to kiss.

Ashleigh Marie Brown