Image Credit: Creative Commons
During the season of supposed renewal and birth, life halted, withered, and in many cases, died. Fear blossomed in the absence of certainty. Before the shutdown, I had spent the winter months daydreaming about planning a garden. Suddenly and unceremoniously I was laid off, my bank account dwindled, my social life quit, and my anxiety skyrocketed. Without any place to be or people to see, my garden schema became the only thing I could really control. My plans ballooned. What started as a modest co-mingled flower and vegetable garden became a full yard takeover.
At the same time a feeling I had spent years waiting for surfaced. I had never felt the biological pull to give birth. In theory I can have a baby (as far as I know, the mechanisms are in fine working order). But I was and am happy to leave physical reproduction to the other uterus in my marriage. And surprisingly at that moment, after years of knowing I was not ready to raise a child, I found myself… not not ready. I didn’t know what ready felt like, looked like. But the doubt I had been tending for years finally died back, and something else—hope, I think—took its place.
My wife and I celebrated and moved quickly. We asked a friend to contribute sperm. We bought sterile sample cups and “fertility-friendly” lubricant and a wearable-fertility tracking device and prenatal vitamins and syringes and ovulation predictor kits and pregnancy test strips. I spoke the words “sperm,” “insemination,” and “uterus” more in that first month than I ever had collectively in my previous life
Outside, I cardboarded over the weed-choked turf and dumped a literal ton of mulch. I sledge-hammered the concrete walkway and created a new porous path, amended the soil, connected and ran new hoses, sowed the first round of seeds, watered, and cracked the spine on a new journal to meticulously record it all.
I learned the language of creation. Non-Gestational Parent. Variegation. Viability. Intracervical Insemination. Aggregate. Two-Week Wait. Morphology. Cradle to Cradle.
I followed the rules. I only left the house for groceries and curbside pickups at the hardware store. I wore a mask and carried a backup in the car. I stayed six feet away. I planted the tomatoes next to bedfellows like basil and peppers. I sprayed neem oil to stem the total destruction of my brassicas by white moth larvae. I warmed the sample cup between my palms when our donor delivered his contribution. I remembered to draw the lubricant into the syringe first, then the semen, so as not to waste a single drop of sperm lingering inside the tube.
I secretly hoped we would hit the lottery on the first try. I was sure a pregnancy would happen within three months. I knew it would be no longer than six months.
Six cycles passed. Even though we had dump truck’s worth of will, we were not finding a way.
The garden exploded. We drowned in Russian pickling cucumbers, Blacktail Mountain watermelons, Oxhearts, Bumble Bee Pinks, Hoods, Bull’s Bloods, Napolis.
My wife joined an online support group for queer couples trying to conceive.
I spent sunburnt months ripping out the remainder of lawn, building a terrace, waiting for more soil and mulch deliveries, carving out flower beds, pruning, succession planting, babying the sprouts and bullying back the aggressive elders. It was a season of endless weeding. Endless water. I nearly bit my tongue off when I saw the water bill. I felt sane and insane. Each day was manically productive. Occasionally I slowed for a moment and felt proud of my progress.
But everyone else was pregnant. Everyone else was a parent. One of my wife’s coworkers announced her good news over a Zoom meeting. Pregnant people strolled past the garden. Non-gestational parents cycled by with tots strapped into the baby bike seats behind them. Children shrieked in the park. Children bellowed from neighboring yards. Pregnant bellies and cooing newborns appeared on every television show. A pregnancy was announced in the one place I truly thought was safe, a Canadian YouTube home renovation series. My sister-in-law gave birth to our nephew. We were overjoyed. We were devastated.
Was it my fault for making us wait? My wife was ready to get pregnant at 26. I spent years with her—unmarried, then married—explaining why why why we were not ready, I was not ready. Now that I was ready, the universe had on us on standby.
We decided to expand in another direction. We adopted a blue Pit Bull and named her Babe. Our lives became a little less about our lack of baby, and more about Babe who, at first, required constant attention. “Where is she?” replaced all reproductive terms as the most spoken phrase in our house. She could be chasing a fly in the bedroom, or shitting on the floor, or eating an ant trap filled with borax, or drowsing in a beam of sunlight, or swallowing a chicken bone whole, or stealing my recently vacated spot on the couch, or watching the birds peck at fallen seeds in the garden, or jumping into bed and trampling our sleeping bodies at 4am, or barking so loud the neighbor’s three year old shouts, “Why is the doggy so loud?” and clamps her hands over her ears and runs away. Never mind that she is too loud over on her side of the fence, and that the sound of her chipmunk-ish voice in her own mother’s garden makes my insides twist up in a terrible gut-ache of longing.
When Babe tore the heads off all of my hostas, I told her, “I’m going to sell you,” and my wife asked, “Would you tell our baby you’re going to sell them?” In this house a dog was not a replacement for a baby. But still, she was and is good practice.
Each cycle we inseminated, we tested, we cried. We desperately needed to find a container for our despair, which was already swamping us both. We began taking weekly grief walks. While Babe trotted beside us crunching the fallen leaves and lunging after squirrels, my wife and I took turns recounting moments of overwhelming sadness we experienced that week. Triggers included an old college friend’s announcement of the birth of her second child, more pregnancies disclosed in my wife’s office, and a stumble upon a list of potential baby names we made years ago. Mostly we talked about the greedy slices grief carved out of each of us.
After the ninth cycle my wife said, “We could have a baby by now.”
Yes, if we had won the lottery, we would have had our baby in that moment.
Besides our donor, we kept the process mostly to ourselves. A part of me didn’t want to feel obligated to explain the insemination process to those who asked, “But…how?” Another part wanted the thrill of announcing our surprise pregnancy, like so many of our peers. And another rejected the vulnerability of sharing this misery of repeated failures. But eventually, we were so overwhelmed by a sense of defeat and loss, we broke down and shared a sanitized version with some family and a few friends. We were still not pregnant. We were struggling.
Responses usually ran along the same lines: “This is hard, but it will happen.” “Just wait. This will be worth it.” “You’ll get the baby you’re meant to have.” I once heard, “At least trying is fun”
The first insemination was interesting, special, a little sexy.
The next 28 were not.
A note to the blessedly uninitiated: endless attempts at getting pregnant are clinical. Timed. Sterile. Nerve-racking. Boring. Rote. Hopeless.
I dug up the earth. I chopped down overgrown trees ignored by the last owner. I transplanted specimens that fit my grand plan and mulched those whose usefulness had come to an end. I became obsessed with usefulness. Was I being useful? Was I doing enough around the house to keep things running smoothly? Enough dishes, enough laundry, enough cooking? I became obsessed with enough. Was I safe enough from Covid? Did we have enough money? Was I engaged enough in the insemination process? Should I do more research? Was I sweating hard enough in the garden? Was I growing enough food? Was I growing enough variants? Was I making enough notes in my journal to benefit the following growing season? Was any of this right?
Gardening is trial and error, but errors in 2020 felt fatal.
Sometimes I worked so long and punishingly hard, I struggled to get my body out of bed the next morning.
I had thought the hard part was over. I was ready to become a parent.
I had thought the hard part was to come. I would lose sleep, selfishness, sanity, and whole parts of myself to a newborn. I would evolve into another—not necessarily better—type of human being.
After a long entry chronicling the autumn harvest in my journal, I scrawled, “I’m fucking burnt out.”
We could have stopped, but actually, we couldn’t. Yes, it was back-breaking labor, continuing after we realized we would require medical intervention, realized our already skint bank account would be drained in order to make our family whole, realized that hope was already well-drained out of both of us.
I won’t speak for my wife. Her emotional state and coping methods are only hers to share. I will say that for me, many times it felt like we were carrying the absence of a person—our baby—on our backs together. And many times, it felt like I carried the absence of two people on my back alone.
I tried to stay grateful. Neither one of us was made chronically or fatally ill by Covid-19. Yes, I lost my job, but I was able to hold onto a teaching side-gig. I was still writing, however sparingly. I was feeding Babe and taking her on her daily walk and picking up her poop in biodegradable bags nauseatingly perfumed with lavender to cover the scent of shit. I was teaching her words like, “play,” “outside,” “water,” and “scritches” so we could communicate better. I was listening to hours of hold music on the Oregon unemployment help line. I was writing cover letters and getting a new, albeit unsustaining, gig that excited me. I was saving seeds. I was making mountains of fresh laundry that lived on top of the dryer. I was making dinner, but more often making orders on Postmates. I was making weight. I don’t know how much weight because I hid the scale in the attic crawlspace, a spot just inconvenient enough to think of it often, but almost never go through the rigmarole to retrieve it. I was making trips to the grocery store for ice cream. I was making my brain healthier, withdrawing from the medication one ill-informed doctor prescribed and beginning another that was easier on my synapses. I was making bubbly water with the at-home soda-maker my wife insisted on buying (and that I mocked but loved just as much as she did). I was making footsteps in the snow and tossing snowballs for Babe to chase. I was making plans for the 2021 garden. Chantenay Red Core and Scarlet Nantes. Rubenza Cosmos, lemon balm. California Poppy, Walla Walla onion, Albion and Benton, Early Scarlet Globe. Florida High Bush. Butterhead. Long Island Improved. Trophy. Sugar Baby.
I was not making a baby. Even though nothing in this world is fair, it felt like a salve to say, “It’s not fair.” I would have rather had my back broken by the labor of the garden.
The collection of scavenged baby items gathered dust in the garage. Every pregnancy test strip remained blank, the absence of the second line a stark white reminder that we were not pregnant. If we dared to break out the pricey digital pregnancy tests, the screen read, “NOT PREGNANT.” Just so we got the message. So there were no mistakes. Not pregnant.
To create in a time of such dispossession was surreal. The world, the entire world, was at a loss. Because of self-and state-mandated isolation, much of my own world shrunk to two dimensions. And yet, I had the potential of a garden and a baby.
I could end this outpouring on a note of hope. No matter how devastated we feel at the blankness of the tests, we live in hope. But the reality is that many couples try for years before getting pregnant. Many try for years but never reap what they sow. The fear and uncertainty are enough to topple a person.
Today, I am fully vaccinated and my wife is halfway there. Whether it is right or not, the bud of the world is opening this spring. Renewal is here. All I can truly know is that the first spinach, radish, and carrot seeds have gone into the ground, have poked their first tiny tendrils into the air, are coming to life in the palms of my hands.
Katie Borak makes short queer blackout poems from western pulp novels, and long stories about icebergs, fanaticism, subverting the patriarchy, and the sea. Find them co-editing Kithe Journal, teaching at Portland Community College, or working in Literary Arts’ WITS program.