Who do you think you are?

by Anne Moore

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I was one of those girls who wrote poems about her period. Not that I ever had the organizational acumen to track my cycle, but starting when I was about seventeen, I was drunk on the power signified by this painless blood. I could make something with my body. Another person. I didn’t want to, not yet, but I could, and there was something heady about that potential.

At the same time, there was other blood I was less interested in thinking about the meaning of. I started displaying symptoms of ulcerative colitis around when I was seventeen as well–blood in my stool, mainly, and unexplained weight loss. I never told anyone about the blood, not even when I had an emergency visit to the doctor because I’d started missing my period and had fainted in the shower (retrospectively, I know that I must have been extremely anemic, a symptom that returned later). I assumed the weight loss was the result of a mixture of luck and unknown reserves of self-control, and that was that. Once I went to college, I started smoking in earnest and the negative effects of nicotine on my immune system caused my colitis symptoms to disappear, even from my memory. (Fun fact! Some doctors use the Patch to treat ulcerative colitis. Since it’s an autoimmune disorder, the way that smoking compromises your immune system actually works in your favor. You still stink and have yellow teeth, but Smoking Saves Lives!) My denial was so successful that it wasn’t until I started having symptoms again in my twenties that I even remembered this previous bout of unexplained bleeding.

When the symptoms did come back, they did so in earnest, and I got progressively sicker until I was hospitalized, and ultimately had to have my colon removed. When listing potential side effects of the procedure, the doctor mentioned that abdominal surgery would negatively affect my ability to get pregnant, but I felt (accurately, it turns out) that I didn’t have a real choice in the matter. They had long since moved beyond the standard anti-inflammatory meds, and I was receiving intravenous steroids, which weren’t working at all besides making me manic and deeply self-loathing. The next medical step would be another IV treatment, one that resembled chemo in that I’d get weekly or biweekly injections. Into veins so small that each IV and blood draw demanded that a special expert be called into my room.

The warning about fertility was scary, but not as scary as dying, which seemed to be my other choice. And lo and behold, when they did remove my colon, the doctors said it was about to rupture. At one point during my recovery, I ran into a friend who worked in the hospital lab, and he said that he’d seen my name on a tissue sample. My colon was so thin, he told me, it looked like cellophane.

So when I decided to try to get pregnant after all, it was always couched in the language of risk. I had a series of conversations with different doctors in different clean, blue-lit rooms, each with a different focus, but all with the same message: I should start right with IVF, since I already had the credentials to get infertility treatment covered by insurance; here is a long list of the medications (including my psych meds) that I would no longer be able to take if I got pregnant; the good news is that pregnancy often sends colitis into remission–oh, but that probably doesn’t apply to you since you had your colon removed. And so on.

But I still wanted it. Ariel had carried our two-year-old, and I’d at first decided I just wouldn’t try at all; that it would be too much trouble. But I was sick of giving up on things. I’d given up on finding a faculty job in English before I’d even started looking for one–there were hardly any jobs in my field, and certainly none in Boston. I was slowly settling into this new direction in life, but not without relentless regret and second-guessing. And my new job focused on helping students go after opportunities that were just at the razor’s edge of their reach: a Rhodes scholarship, a Fulbright fellowship. Even for the smartest, most qualified students, odds are they’re not going to get it. And I realized, more and more, that I’d never really pursued anything I didn’t already know on some level that I was going to get. When I was in the seventh grade, I got a D in shop because I just stopped working after I made a car that rivaled “the Homer” for impracticality. I walked the mile race in gym class, claiming that I was protesting the fact that I had to take gym when the truth was that I didn’t want to reveal to anyone (including myself) how slow I really was. Better to opt out, since the possibility of winning always remains off in the imaginary. If I really wanted to run a marathon/ climb a mountain/ write a novel, I could–I just choose not to. From graduate school to relationships, I’d only taken risks when I knew I’d succeed.

When I decided to take this risk and started inseminating, I somehow convinced myself that the best course of action was just to believe that I was pregnant. The worst that could happen would be that I was wrong, right? Wrong. Because it turns out that the belief that you’re pregnant is maybe the worst part of trying to get pregnant. Every month, when the infamous two-week-wait came to a bloody halt, all I could think was how I’d failed–again. And the voice in my head (who, frankly, isn’t great company even on a good day) took on a relentless, cutting edge. “Who do you think you are, anyway? Did you really think this was possible? For you? After everything? Idiot.” And so on. After six months, one attempt to get off psych meds, and the emotional clusterfuck that is hormone treatment, I was done. Was I capitulating to this voice by “giving up” so early? Maybe, but I think (as with most things) that there’s another, less brutal, side to the interrogation “Who do you think you are?”

Because the truth is that nothing has made me rethink who I thought I was like my path to being a parent. I had a really specific idea of what it meant to be a mother, one that was intrinsically tied to carrying a baby: I’d be this endlessly providing earth mother who breastfed her babies until they were four and made homemade organic food and somehow found time for endless fun crafty adventures with my kids while at the same time working on my own creative and community projects AND serving as a de facto mom for lonely neighborhood kids and whatever other fantasies I’d unknowingly hauled around about repeating-with-a-difference the choices and circumstances of my own mother. Being the non-gestational parent forced some distance between me and my fantasy of motherhood, and opened up unexpected rewards.

For instance, one of the things I’d always been most drawn to, in an old-fashioned feminist way, about motherhood was the way it disrupts the boundaries between the self and the other. The gestating parent and the newborn are distinct beings, but also not–and my mother reminds me of this endlessly, with comments like “I made you–you’re a piece of me, like my arm.” This idea of porous boundaries between distinct people (the mother and the child) is fascinating to me, but also terrifying, especially given how much I have struggled with self-loathing in my life. I love Izzy in the endlessly expansive fashion of all parents, but I don’t feel like she’s me, and this frees me up to take her on her own terms.

The thought, “who do you think you are?” feels fucking awful when I’m having it: shaming and self-defeating. But at the same time, there’s the possibility for liberation in it. Who do I think I am to be a mother, anyway? As a seventies-style femme, I always thought I knew: I was fucking Gaia, and I’d have a million babies and feed them all from my bounteous bosom. Turns out, I’m something else altogether, and since I don’t have an established roadmap, I can figure it out as I go. I can’t rely on my body to do what I thought it would, but that’s opened up my definition of motherhood, and made it limitless.

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