Dr. Blond Bombshell, my reproductive specialist, was an intimidating beauty. Blonde highlights streaked through her soft brown wavy hair. Her makeup was flawless down to the shimmering pale blue eyeshadow that matched the scrubs under her crisp white lab coat. She spoke with a Dallas southern twang, sweet as tres leches. I’d gone to her as a last-ditch effort to have a baby. She’d arranged to test my anti-mullerian hormone (AMH) levels to determine the number of viable egg cells left for fertilization. Three days later, my results arrived in an email. In my bedroom, the sun peeked through the window, providing a ray of natural light. I read the first line. “I’m sorry to inform you about your low ovarian reserve.”
She was the second specialist I’d seen in Dallas. The first was a consultation, and he’d predicted what was now written in black and white. My reserve was so critical it was on life support. Interpretation: my eggs were poached.
I closed my computer and cried.
That was a decade ago. But I’ll start from the beginning.
Dr. Bedside Manner-less discovered my fibroids during a routine pelvic exam in my late twenties. He didn’t ask about your job or family or pat you on your shoulder when he walked in. He kept to the business at hand. If you were having safe sex and weren’t in the high-risk category, he didn’t feel a need to mandate an HIV test, whether you’d asked for one or not. Instead, he would applaud you for being responsible and scold you for wanting to waste a perfectly good test.
I learned that fibroids were non-cancerous tumors formed in the uterus and affected a disproportionate number of Black women. Because I was asymptomatic, he scheduled me to come back in six months. His only course of treatment prescribed was to “don’t bother them unless they bother you.” Orders that seemed more fitting if I had told him I was planning a trip to sightsee bears in the wilderness.
I’d always wanted to have a daughter. Sons are nice, I’m sure. But I’d dreamed of a girl. Like the average woman, I wanted a family. A subset to call my own. Growing up, I’d imagined the day I would become a mother and solidified my daughter’s name for when the time came. The only thing left was for her to show up.
On Mother’s Day, where I’m from in southeast Louisiana men, and women, strangers alike wish you a happy Mother’s Day. It doesn’t matter if you are one or not. The assumption is that Mother’s Day is an inclusive holiday to all women, and regardless of your motherhood status, you are bestowed the honor of the title, at least for the day.
Although I know their intentions demonstrated southern kindness, I resented when strangers presumed that I was a mother. If I correct them, it could be misinterpreted as an insult since no harm was intended. Yet, for me, it served as a painful reminder of not having a baby gestate inside of me, and my acceptance felt disingenuous.
During the next decade, George W. Bush changed places with Bill Clinton in the White House. I shuffled doctors and locations, now living in Charlotte. However, the nature of the visits remained the same. Before arriving, I would chug thirty-two ounces of water to have a full bladder for the pelvic ultrasound. I undressed from the waist down in a room cold enough to make the hair on my arms stiffen. The dressing rooms filled with women in gowns that barely covered their backsides smelled of ammonia and Pine-Sol. The floors were so glossy they looked spit-shined. I held my breath, hoping my bladder didn’t pop as the tech rubbed lukewarm gel on my stomach. I felt like a character in a sci-fi movie. She rolled a handheld device called a transducer across my stomach, magically sending signals to the computer to confirm the unhealthiness of my uterus.
Afterward, I would pee, and another ultrasound followed. The tech stuck a probe resembling a you know what in my you know where. Images of the inside of my pelvis displayed on the monitor like a feature at a movie. I stared at the ceiling admiring its unusual hue of gray. A week later, I met with Dr. Perfect Teeth to go over the results of the ultrasound. The older I got, the more probing the questions. Are you dating? Do you want to have kids? As she read the ultrasound results revealing the number, size, and weird position of my fibroids, I nod at her last question. She explained the amount and location of the fibroids were most likely blocking any chance of fertilization. I’d heard it before, and then I unload and tell her how I initially wanted to wait until I got married to have kids. The marriage situation was looking bleak. I’d recently seen Sex and the City, the movie, and thought of Carrie Bradshaw and her happy ending. I told Dr. Perfect Teeth about the dismal statistics regarding marriage for Black women in my age range, then ended up at my original point. I was in my late thirties, single, and childless. I may or may not have been crying.
Dr. Bedside Manner-less would’ve left the room by now. Her face morphed into concern, or was it pity, as she followed my eyes to the pictures of her subset on her desk. A good-looking family of brunettes. Herself, a man and two pre-teens, a girl, and a boy, dressed in winter white outfits, standing on a beach—their toothy smiles flashy and bright.
Society often lacks bedside manners when it comes to older, childless women. Whenever I’m in a new environment, and the subject of kids comes up, I’d learned to brace myself for the comments. “You didn’t want any?” is my favorite. Also, “You better get you some before it’s too late.” I projected what they were thinking. Barren. Feminist. Cat lady. I felt as if I were in a holding pattern, waiting for real life to begin.
Belle Boggs, in her essay “Baby Fever” from the book The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood, writes about Pronatalism, the notion that becoming a parent is a rite of passage. “Pronatalism is the idea that parenting is a normalizing rite of passage, something we must each go through to achieve full status as productive, responsible adults.” Boggs went on to say, “It works on us whether we realize it or not, validating our choices or making us feel like outsiders.”
Dr. Perfect Teeth and I discussed my options. A myomectomy, a surgical procedure to remove the fibroids, was determined to be the best one. My blood pressure spiked as I heard the risks associated. Any excessive bleeding or discovering a cancerous tumor would result in a hysterectomy.
I left her office, consumed with self-loathing. Because of a coinciding medical issue, I was in do or die mode. Why had I stuck to the ill-advised “don’t bother them unless they bother you” advice for so long and not adhered to corrective measures sooner? Like many Gen Xers, I sailed through my twenties and much of my thirties searching for the American dream, climbing the proverbial corporate ladder. With each job promotion came a different city. I’d long for permanence, but being single and childless made it easy for me to uproot.
The surgeon I’d chosen for my myomectomy was an acclaimed doctor in Baton Rouge. I opted to have the surgery in my hometown to be near family. In his office, baby pictures from mothers whose fertility he’d single-handedly saved acted as wallpaper. I grinned so wide my cheeks hurt, confident that my little bambino would be on that very wall of fame one day. After the surgery, woozy from the anesthesia, the first thing I’d asked was if I still had a uterus.
His grey eyes lit up like fireflies. “Your womb is as good as new.”
He boasted about the insane number of fibroids he’d removed, his career-best.
“Would you like to see them?” Dr. Womb Saver asked with the innocence of a kid who still believed in Santa.
He’d warned that there was a risk of them returning, and the timeline to conceive was thinner than a blade of grass.
I flew back to Charlotte filled with optimism and soon met with a doctor who shared my hopefulness and whose hair was redder than ripe strawberries. Having no time to waste, she determined donor insemination as the top choice. A couple of weeks and a series of tests later, I left Dr. Ginger’s office loaded with information to unlock potential baby daddies. I browsed sperm bank websites, sifting through an assortment of matches, leaning towards a cheerful graduate student and a six-foot graphic designer whose baby picture showed him eating crayons.
But shortly after, I met a handsome man whose brown eyes tinted green in the dim light at a bar in Charlotte’s university area. Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” thumped in the background. We chatted about everything and nothing while eating hot wings and drinking beer and watching the Orlando Magic beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA conference finals. As months passed, we became a couple, and I swapped donor insemination profiles for an ovulation app.
I tracked my most fertile days like a bad habit, and we fucked like newlyweds. My optimism soared, along with the soul of America, as Barack Obama was elected our first Black president. I was in a relationship and was the healthiest, physically, I’d been in a long time. But after a year and a half of trying, our attempts grew futile, and due to matters unrelated to fertility issues, our relationship ended.
Looking back, I can admit that I dove into the relationship heart first, viewing red flags with eyes half-closed because of my diminishing time left to birth a child. Nonetheless, I loved him something fierce.
Single and heartbroken, and now living in Dallas, I found myself back at square one. I felt like a failure—less of a woman. Inwardly, I beat myself up, questioning if my desire to have a biological child was rooted in shallowness or selfishness when there were other methods to become a mother. I speculated if I was affixed more on the dream of motherhood than the complex realities of what it entailed. The revelation stark as ever. I can’t believe I didn’t have a baby. I blamed myself to a fault and doubted God. Was I not worthy of carrying a child?
I interrogated how bad did I want it? Foster care was a viable option. If I wanted to be a mother, I would’ve made it happen by any means necessary. The cost associated with adoption or freezing eggs was mainly not covered by insurance and incredibly expensive. Still, I regretted eradicating the possibilities. Friends offered comfort and advice. I have nephews and God kids and know the feeling of loving someone as if you’d birthed them yourself. Still, I ached for the ones not birthed.
How could I explain grieving something that never physically existed, unlike women who’d suffered actual losses like miscarriages? There was no accustomed ritual to be performed, no funeral to attend, or ashes to gather. Yet mourning overtook me. I retreated in depression, smiling on the outside and drowning in tears on the inside.
In his book, Grief Is a Journey: Finding Your Path Through Loss, Dr. Kenneth J. Doka says, “We feel disenfranchised grief over losses that are not openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly shared.” According to Dr. Doka, “We experience these losses, but we come to believe we do not have the right to grieve them.”
A year after I received Dr. Blonde Bombshell’s news, I was at a park. A perfect autumn day as the cool breeze offered a welcome respite from the Dallas summer’s record-breaking heat. Joggers and walkers populated the track while children frolicked on the playground. Barack Obama had won a second term, and optimism still flourished. But unlike before, the reminder that there are things you cannot control constrained my hope.
At the park, a Black girl, who looked to be no more than four or five years old, caught my attention. She was near the slide. As kids would climb up the stairs and perch atop ready to glide down the yellow chute, she barricaded her tiny body across the bottom of the slide, daring kid after kid to glide down. Inevitably, each child would leave from the slide, some in tears running to their parents, to tell on the little girl who blocked their efforts from sliding down.
Later, I watched the girl snatch a little boy’s action figure and taunt him with his toy, dangling it in his face, defying him to take it from her. It was superman. I beamed despite her brashness and wondered why I was so enamored. Then I realized she was fearless, a badass, brimming with confidence, what I’d envisioned my daughter to be. I smiled as she strolled in my direction. She grinned back, and just as I was about to speak, she stopped and walked the other way.
I tried to identify the point in my life when the mourning ceased. When I no longer winced in pain when reading fertility stories about women conceiving after myomectomies or the regularity of millennials freezing their eggs. The question “what if” no longer haunted my thoughts. What if I had my surgery when I was younger or had gone into debt to adopt or had finished navigating the foster care system?
A gradual reckoning happened, and over time, I learned that two truths were acceptable: wanting to birth a child of my own and allowing myself grace for the choices I made and didn’t make. And for now, that is enough.
Erica L. Williams received an MFA in Creative Writing-Fiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Blood Orange Review, Necessary Fiction, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. She currently resides in Baton Rouge, LA. You can find her online at www.ericalwilliams.com and on Twitter @ericalwilliams3.