By Amy Klein
I was pushing as hard as I could but I wasn’t getting anywhere, like one of those metaphorical dreams. But no, it was real life: there I was in the crispy fresh water, trying arduously to swim over to the waterfall, but the current was pushing me back, like in an endless pool where my effort was for naught.
Even though the weather was warm and the water was cool and my friends were lolling about in this unexpected water hole or sunning on the rocks after our upstate hike, I had to challenge myself to swim to the staggering shower falling from fifty feet above. Why?
Because I was afraid.
Never had I been fearful of anything water. A Cancer, I was born a water child. Learned to swim effortlessly. Age five, I found myself on the bottom of the pool, while all our mothers were somewhere on deck, ignoring their children, as they were wont to do in the seventies. Sink or swim, I’d thought to myself, although not quite that articulately. I could almost breathe underwater, feeling my way along the peeling-painted asbestos pool bottom and emerging on the other side, nearly jumping out of the water, Shawshank Redemption-style, exhilarated at my miraculous feat.
No one noticed me, but I was different nonetheless.
Swam ever since. Wherever there was water, no matter how many rocks I had to scramble, how far down I had to jump or how frigid the temp, I couldn’t miss a chance to immerse. Only got hypothermia once—but that was the kind of person I was, jump first, think later.
I believed life had a way of working out in the end.
And then it didn’t. Full stop. Four babies, lost. One, two, three, four.
I swam through all my miscarriages, hoping the water’s silence would drown out the horror of the bruising shots and endless tests and screaming hormonal vicissitudes. Splash! I felt like I was five again, remembering that I indeed had it in me to go on. Sink or swim, Amy, Sink or swim.
My fifth pregnancy, I got religious about swimming. I wanted this baby so badly, there was nothing else. Nothing else but fear, plaguing me every moment of week 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, through 20. I was literally a lunatic, my brain screaming from the steroids that were helping me hold the pregnancy.
Swim to forget the fear. Swim to calm down. Swim to calm her.
Her. She was nearly conceived in the water, my doctor being four hours late to the IVF transfer, leaving us no choice but to frolic on the nearby beach, my husband and I pretending we were who we once had been, a joyous couple for whom everything had worked out. With no chance to shower before this last embryo was inserted into me, we joked we would call her Sandy. But the jokes were tinged with salty bitterness, knowing there might not be a baby at all.
My husband only allowed me to use the home heartbeat monitor once a day. Will we find it? Ba dump. Ba Dump. Ba dump. Then I had 23 more nervous hours till I could check again. Except in the water, when I swam.
At week 34, 35, 36, I swam to turn the baby. She was breech. Then she wasn’t. Then she was again. The little fish kept flipping. Another thing to worry about. That, and stillbirth. Something like that I would never survive. Sink or swim. Definitely sink.
Week 39. 40. 41. Still no baby. Not that I really understood there was a living creature inside of me, despite the steady heartbeat, the 3-D photos, my whale of a stomach. The fear enveloped me like water, holding me at a remove from what might be inside. And then she was cut from me (thankfully! no need to worry about the umbilical cord stifling her). There she was, a real live person. It was over.
But it wasn’t. There was joy—so much exhilaration, exuberance, ecstasy!—but still there was the fear. Is she still breathing? Will she die from SIDS? Is she breathing? Will she open her eyes this morning? Is she breathing?
This is not the mother I had planned on being. Given my own neglectful parents, I hadn’t planned out motherhood, but hey: jump in the water first, think later. I vaguely imagined I would be a relaxed mama—nearby but not hovering, raising rambunctious, independent sons. (I was so certain I’d have boys.)
But I was so relaxed during my other late-in-life pregnancies—running, eating sushi, drinking an occasional glass of wine—and look where that had gotten me. I had never before been the type of person who waited for the other shoe to drop: there was no other shoe. Life was good, right? But maybe because I’d never anticipated the worst, infertility unmoored me so.
If I would plan for the darkness, perhaps it would not come.
Even as our daughter grew—healthy, happy, hearty—fear was my constant, comforting me like a friend.
Take this weekend up in the mountains. When my husband came back late from the supermarket, I thought, what if he was in an accident? We have life insurance, right? I also have frozen sperm. Prepare. Anticipate. Be Very Afraid.
I didn’t want to be. Especially not with a daughter. If I’d had her when I was younger—of course without any IVF or miscarriage—she’d have seen a fearless mom. Gregarious, capable, exhilarated. That’s who I wanted to be for her. For me.
And there she was, now, almost a year old, sitting in the shade on the rocks with my friends, while her parents swam.
“I’m afraid a rock could cascade down the waterfall,” I confessed to my husband.
“There’s no chance in that happening,” he said. He had no idea how worried about it I was, a loose stone picking up speed, conking me on the head while my baby watched herself become motherless. He had no clue that when I took endless pictures of her, videoing her every move—look, she’s turning over! She’s crawling! She’s saying mama!—it was because I worried we’d lose her and that’s all that would be left.
I did not want to be that person anymore. So I swam over to the waterfall, pushing myself against the current. Breaststroke, sidestroke, crawl.
Ah, I remembered: There was no point in fighting it. The water, I mean. From my brief surfing days I recalled I had to go under the current to pass through. I submerged in the sweet water, and the pressure lessened. Lessoned. Maybe the fear would be a constant now, as a mother, but I’d have to go under it anyway.
I swam to the rock at the bottom of the waterfall, emerged into the sun, the hard patter of the fall releasing the tension in my shoulders, my neck. I looked to the left bank at my daughter. Unlike so many years ago when my own mom didn’t notice if I sank or swam, my daughter was watching for me from the rocks, waiting for my return.
Amy Klein is the author of The Trying Game: Get Through Fertility Treatment and Get Pregnant Without Losing Your Mind (Penguin/Random House, April 2020). You can find her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.