By Leslie Kendall Dye
“She felt she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told…not to look at it.” —Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
For a time I was part of a mothers’ group. A few women who’d had their first babies within the space of months met several times a week. Our conversations involved all the attendant clichés: questions about nursing and naptimes and anecdotes about “secret” co-sleeping or tummy sleeping before it was medically safe. In inclement weather, we traveled to each other’s apartments by bus, our silky treasures wrapped in soft-structured carriers, their eyes slowly closing as we rocked them to sleep.
In pleasant weather we met at a place called The Lilac Grove in Central Park. The wealthy mothers in our group—those whose babies were bedecked in Petit Bateau instead of Carter’s—lived lavishly in buildings that towered nearby; the more modestly endowed among us trooped to this elegant spot to sit in a circle and breathe in the springtime while sharing first-time motherness.
I had a certain amount of time—how much exactly, I didn’t know—before my membership in the group would expire, because it would no longer be made up of first-time mothers. Everyone would certainly go on to have more children—everyone except me.
People say you will forget a “bad” pregnancy. The moment I heard this, I began keeping a diary, to ensure that I did not forget the chronic aches in both body and spirit, the fetid prison yard of my gravidity. Pregnancy had been so isolating an experience that I coined the term “prisoner pregnancy” to describe the tsunami-like autoimmune and psychiatric torment I endured for my daughter’s nine months of gestation.
My diary of this time was a maudlin chronicle of psychic anguish that would seem outsize to most. But one person’s mild dyspepsia is another’s relentless heartburn; one person’s blues is another’s agitated depression:
“I’m nothing but rashes and urinary tract infections. There is someone else in here with me and I’ve never felt more alone.”
“I have been contracting for so many weeks now—I will never go into labor and instead I will drown in uterine brine.”
The mothers of The Lilac Grove had plans for larger families. They had the means, too. Sacrifices of career and other intangible longings had been factored into their calculations. Second babies were coming; for some, third ones would follow. I would be the only one who did not gamely climb that hill once more. It was only a matter of time before I’d be left standing at the bottom, gazing up.
Even if you have chosen a kind of planned social obsolescence, even if you feel good with your one baby and your sort-of manageable existence in your fairly tidy apartment, which you can occasionally afford to dress up with some bodega-bought peach roses, it stings to watch other bellies swell, other families grow, and to quietly let your group membership lapse.
So I began another kind of waiting: I waited to forget. I waited for the memory of my psychotic pregnancy to fade; I waited to feel ready to venture into the murk of hormones and rheumatoid distress once more. I was sure there would be a clear indication. I would see a baby one day and my heart would squeeze just so, or my husband and I would silently agree one sweaty night that we’d like our antics to produce more than carnal pleasure. I waited passively and reluctantly, but I waited. I waited to feel that my first child was not enough to complete our family. I waited to see her long for a sibling, to express signs of loneliness or to take up constant communication with an imaginary playmate. I waited for a hunger that can be satisfied in only one way.
Over time, it seemed almost certain that my husband and I were waiting for something that in this lifetime would not come. I can see many other lifetimes for myself, including one in which I am the jolly mother of nine in a large but cozy house on a hill, sending my lambs off to play in the One Hundred Acre Wood until I ring the bell for lunch. But that jolly woman does not live within the confines of our budget, or my body’s various pathologies—nor does she yearn to recover a bit of her former self, perhaps even returning to the stage and screen she abandoned to raise her beloved child. I see the mother of many in picture books, I see her in my dreams, but I don’t see her in the mirror.
I grew very sick a few weeks ago. I told my husband—in a vague attempt at humor—that my host of symptoms indicated Lyme disease: I was awakening each night to ferocious muscle aches; I was sweating and sleepy and nauseated. On top of this I had lost my normally dutiful period. Hormones are the traffic cops of my sanity, so off to the doctor I went. Perhaps she could figure out why my body was a mess of rashes and chills and why my hair was falling out in clumps.
I urinated in a cup and perched on the crinkly exam-room paper, trying not to run a hand through my hair to see how much would slide out this time. When the doctor arrived I told her I felt very sick and as a result I’d lost weight. Surely I had some illness that had disturbed my hormones and caused amenorrhea.
She smiled at me.
“You’re pregnant,” she said.
She held up the stick—perhaps to help me with my obvious disorientation.
The tears rolled.
“I can’t be,” I replied.
But what I meant was: I don’t want to be.
It was not that simple, of course. This pregnancy was offering a last chance for a two-child, “normal” family. The endorphins flowed along with my tears. Maybe, I thought briefly, we could make it work. But even as I considered, I realized we couldn’t. I knew it was a gift I simply could not open, and therefore could not keep.
“We’re happy, the three of us, aren’t we?” I asked my husband that night. Then I plucked my lachrymose chronicle of pregnancy from a dusty drawer and read it aloud; my husband and I laughed so hard we cried. It really was as awful as we’d remembered.
We decided not to make a baby from a chance embryo, but I did get something crucial from my unexpected D and C. I finally got my sign—it just wasn’t the sign I’d expected. I will wonder no longer if enough waiting would make me want to have another child.
The lilacs have not yet awakened. It’s still too cold to play on that grassy grove—if I visited now I’d see the ghosts of the mothers who came together to enjoy their first newborns. The women I once knew were re-made into mothers of two or three children, as well as bosses to nannies and keepers of schedules and people whose lives involve complications that exclude me from their emotional circle. Having only one child, how could I possibly understand what it is really like to be a mother? My membership in the group has permanently expired; I had a last chance to renew and I passed it up.
My daughter and I are waiting for spring. It’s the pleasant kind of waiting. We have forts to build and books to read on the grass where the lilacs will bloom. Soon we’ll spread out our blanket and take in the sunshine on that spot where once the mothers of future multiple children met. And then it will be just the two of us, and we will not be waiting for a thing.
Leslie Kendall Dye is an actress and dancer in New York City. Because she grew up in Los Angeles, much of her writing is steeped in the four seasons, which still delight her after twenty years of living in the East. Find her at www.lesliekendalldye.net or on Twitter, at @LKendallDye.
This essay is part of a Motherwell original series on Motherhood and Waiting.