A story of personal triumph and unconditional love, Motherhood Reimagined reveals what happens when we release what's expected and embrace what's possible.
|Publisher:||She Writes Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
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i always knew
It was a warm, sunny West Los Angeles day in 1981. Whether summer or winter, the ocean breeze that graced the area gently drove the smog away and kept the temperature at an almost constant 70 degrees. I strolled down my block from the candy store, drinking my soda and eating some apple-flavored Jolly Ranchers, my usual after-school snack. As a ten-year-old growing up in an affluent area of LA called Pacific Palisades, I had few cares in the world. I waved to my neighbors, and I stopped to pet my friend's cat. Four doors down the block from my house, I noticed a new neighbor — a woman, probably in her late thirties, with a swollen belly. She had an easy, carefree air about her in her thin, purple, flowy, sleeveless shirt, Birkenstocks, and unshaved armpits. If I had known the word then, I would have said she was hippie-ish. When she glanced at me, I put my head down and kept walking, embarrassed.
Though to her my gesture probably said "shy," really I was plotting to befriend this very pregnant woman, not because she looked super cool (though she did), but because I wanted her baby. Yes, I was a ten-year-old baby-stalker, and thanks to my hypercritical mother, who had questioned my unabashed baby-lust more than once, I had begun to think there might be something wrong with me. So I kept my distance from my new neighbor, choosing stealth mode for the time being.
When I arrived home, I continued my after-school routine. First I watched an episode of One Day at a Time, then I did my homework. But fantasies of playing house with a real baby occupied my mind. I began strategizing how I could introduce myself to this baby mama.
That weekend, Operation Meet Mama commenced. First I played on my front lawn, staging elaborate weddings for my Barbies, after which they moved into my Barbie House and had many babies. When I got antsy, I moved on to gymnastics, practicing cartwheels and handstands, all with an eye on the house a few doors down. Even if she did come outside, I realized, it would seem a little weird if I suddenly rushed up to her the minute she emerged from her house. Clearly, I needed a plan that would place me directly in front of her house, so I could oh so casually say hello if she happened to, say, come out to get her mail.
Luckily, the stretch of road right in front of my new neighbor's house had recently been repaved, and that extra-smooth stretch of pavement had become the prime spot for roller-skating amongst the neighborhood kids. So I ran inside, grabbed my skates with the sparkly laces, orange wheels, and green toe stop, hunted for my special sparkly silver socks, which I had nicknamed my "Pizzazium" socks, and geared up. Then I set out to roller-skate in front of her house, pretending to work on some tricks.
I followed this charade every day after school. It seemed like an eternity before I actually saw my pregnant neighbor again. But as soon as I caught sight of her, I looked away, pretending not to see her. Ugh. Why did I do that? But then, like iron filings to a magnet, my burning desire to play with that soon-to-be-born baby won over, and I made my move. "Hi," I blurted out as I paused my roller-skating routine and rested at the curb in front of her house. "How many months pregnant are you?"
"Seven," she replied. "It's my first."
Before I even found out her name was Sharon, I asked, "May I feel your belly?"
"Sure," she said.
I rolled over to her driveway where she was standing and placed my hand on the gauzy fabric draped over her belly. I marveled at the hard, moving surface, astounded that there was a new life inside her. With Operation Meet Mama complete, it was time to launch my next offensive: I was gunning for the lead babysitter position in her household. Phase I of Operation Get Hired? I sat down on the curb, making myself comfortable, and started chatting, trying to sound like a responsible kid who a certain someone would like to have around after her baby was born. "I play with all the kids in the neighborhood," I bragged, regaling her with my baby expertise. Sharon seemed interested, so I began daily visits to her home, intent on sealing the deal. My fantasies of playing house with a real baby were quickly coming to fruition.
When the baby finally arrived, after two long months of anticipation, I was hovering, waiting for Sharon to return from the hospital. I doubt the new family was home for even five minutes before I bounded up their doorstep, asking to hold the precious little bundle. From that day forward, I became a constant presence at their house. In part, I hung out there because I preferred Sharon's company to my mother's. The two seemed polar opposites. For one, Sharon was much younger and cooler than my mom. But that was just the beginning. Sharon's relaxed attitude and bohemian style had a calming influence on me, especially in contrast to my mother's endless list of regimented ideas enforced by frequent yelling. I loved Sharon's creativity, like how she had given her baby a made-up name, Sheriden, a combination of Sharon and Dennis, the father's name. My traditional mother, on the other hand, mocked this made-up name, calling it silly and odd. In fact, my mother mocked many of Sharon's choices — her unshaven armpits, her diet of raw, bright green produce that my British mother generally boiled into a drab green mush. Though I had connected with Sharon so I could play with Sheridan, unexpectedly, I had gained a surrogate mother for myself.
I'd spend hours talking to Sharon, recounting the most recent drama with the girls at school or which boys I liked. If I had tried to talk to my mom about this stuff, she'd lecture me, unable to hide her exasperation, "If Kimmy didn't invite you to her birthday party, then just stop trying to be her friend." But I'd been in class with the same twelve girls since kindergarten. My mother didn't understand the constantly shifting cliques and ever-flaring dramas were inevitable. She just wanted everything to go smoothly, and my distress stressed her out. Talking to Sharon, however, made me feel grown up. I could unload my feelings without fearing judgment, and I could trust her opinions and advice.
Every day, I would rush home from school, have a snack, do my homework, and run down to Sheriden's. Sharon would sit at her kitchen table, shelling beans or folding laundry, and I'd chat with her while chasing Sheriden around the house. I took care of everything for Sheriden — fed her, changed her diapers, kissed, and cuddled her. I loved Sharon, but I also loved this baby and wanted to spend every possible moment with her.
After nearly a year, my mother and Sharon agreed to let me babysit Sheridan. I was only eleven, so it took some negotiating. But I'd been taking care of Sheridan while Sharon was home practically every day for her whole life, so obviously I knew what I was doing. At first, I'd watch her for only a few hours at a time, and only if my mother was home to call upon if anything went wrong. But before long, I'd reached my goal: I was Sheriden's main babysitter. Not only was I thrilled to get to play house all on my own, I was getting paid $4.50 an hour for it! When Sharon had a second baby, I was doubly happy to watch both Sheriden and her little brother.
For as long as I could remember, I had known with all my heart that, more than anything in the world, I wanted to grow up and be a mother. When anyone asked how many children I wanted to have, I'd say, "Eleven." I obviously knew nothing about what raising a gaggle of children entailed, but my devotion was clear. Loving and caring for Sharon's children deepened my resolve to keep children in the center of my life. I was single-minded about it. Until I wasn't.
If my child self had peered into a crystal ball to see her future, she would not have recognized the corporate lawyer sitting in a swanky San Francisco bar with her friends, sipping a $15 glass of Zinfandel. I had continued to follow my interests in all things maternal, creating summer camps for the children on my block, babysitting throughout high school, studying women's reproductive rights and medical anthropology in college, and writing my thesis about the medicalization of childbirth and breastfeeding in an urban aboriginal community in Australia. Though I had toyed with the idea of a career in academia, I'd chosen law school instead, hoping to make an impact on policies related to maternal health. I focused my studies on women's autonomy over their bodies, especially during pregnancy, and I even interned as a patients' rights advocate.
Upon graduation from law school, however, I realized that the jobs I longed for at such places like Planned Parenthood or NARAL (National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League) often required a pro-bono stint and/or proved so low-paying that I'd never pay off my student loans. Meanwhile, the dotcom boom had law firms heavily courting new hires, and the high pay and prestige of Silicon Valley pulled me off track. I compromised, accepting an offer at a firm with a health law department and an impressive roster of biotech clients, telling myself at least I would get exposed to interesting bioethical questions.
So here I was, thirty years old, a corporate litigator exchanging extraordinarily long hours for generous compensation. In my off-hours, I tried hard to prove to myself that it was all worth it by indulging in lavish dinners, buying expensive wine, shopping to my heart's content, and traveling to exotic and expensive locales. Somewhere between my rocket-speed career and my jet-setting, single life, I'd completely lost my resolve to have children. Though we'd all been warned about "golden handcuffs" in law school, the ridiculous figures we began earning right out of school had lured us. We'd assumed we'd be able to walk away when we were ready. I, for one, thought I could not be bought long-term.
Meanwhile, though, I could be found frequenting trendy downtown bars like this one, where my friends Joanie and Collette, whom I had known since college, and my coworker Tania had just ordered a second round of drinks. Then someone lobbed a million-dollar question to the group: "Do you guys want children?"
My closest friend and sidekick, Tania, blurted, "NO WAY!" exhaling her cigarette smoke. "I would never give up my freedom. And children are brats." This didn't surprise me, coming from my adventure buddy. Together, Tania and I had shaken off bad break-ups by escaping to Cuba to learn salsa dancing. Back home, we became obsessive salsa dancers, working late at the law firm, until the clubs heated up, then dancing well past midnight, then crashing for a couple hours before dragging ourselves back to work at 9:30 a.m.
Tania wasn't like other people I'd met in college and law school, who were more conventional in their choices and lifestyle. She was incredibly intelligent, gorgeous, confident, and committed to having an interesting life and that meant no kids. I looked up to Tania in many ways, including her negative attitude toward children, and realized only in retrospect that it subtly seeped under my skin and into my psyche. She woke up something inside me that had partially died in law school. She, and salsa dancing, helped me rekindle passion and excitement when law seemed to be trying to suck me dry.
Joanie, the youngest of eight siblings, jumped in next, "I definitely want kids. And I don't see why it has to be a choice between children and a career," she said raising her glass. "You can always figure something out." I believed this about Joanie. As our resident Superwoman, she seemed always to juggle a million commitments with grace. She'd worked in Africa as a raft guide, written a guidebook on Mexico, and competed — on weekends, while balancing her job at the California Attorney General's office — in pro divisions of mountain biking and snowboarding. If anyone could find a way to blend parenthood and career, Joanie could.
Colette, meticulous as always in her Banana Republic sweater set and tasteful diamond earrings, shared her plan. "I want to be married by the time I am thirty-three and have children no later than thirty-five." Then she joked, "And let's throw in the white picket fence," suddenly conscious of her absurd specificity. "But really," she continued, "I've started Internet dating, and I intend to go on one date a week until I meet my husband."
Ugh, I thought. Internet dating, a new trend at the time, was taboo to me, something I'd assumed only serious losers would do. So Colette's revelation surprised me. She was cool and fun and not desperate. She was just ... goal oriented. She knew what she wanted, and she was going to make it happen. Still, when I thought of online dating, I recoiled. No, thank you.
Now all eyes turned to me. "Do you want children?" Joanie asked.
Completely detached from my childhood baby-lust, I churned up a non-committal half-answer. "It depends on who I end up with," I said. "I can't answer that question until I meet my partner. Then we will decide together."
"Well, so then what's going on in your dating life? Anyone special?" Joanie pressed. Everyone's eyes lingered on me, as if they expected some sort of big confession.
"No," I said. "I saw Jason the other week. He's still blowing me off. I know he's struggling, and he says he's not ready for a relationship, but he's such a good guy and so hot." My secret plan? To spend more time with Jason, so he'd realize how incredibly cool I was and how compatible we were. This was my pattern: 1) Get hung up on a guy who claims — for one reason or another — he's "unavailable." 2) Hang around until he realizes his mistake, which he never did.
Honestly, dating and relationships had never come easy to me, and I'd spent years at time being single. Instead of recognizing that I needed to get back in the game quickly, I'd either pine too long or reject perfectly good mates for silly, superficial reasons. I wasn't willing to admit that it was time to get over it and get serious about finding "the one." But now that my friends and I were approaching our mid-thirties, the peak fertility window, I could sense that most of them had a clear goal in mind: get married and have kids. It was the driving force behind much of what they did. Somehow, I didn't get the memo. I kept flitting around, fickle, uncommitted, and — I would later realize — refusing truly to focus on finding a partner, for fear of seeming desperate. Instead, I focused on cultivating a fun-filled, interesting life.
A few months after that conversation at the bar, Joanie announced that she was getting married. Colette and Lori, my closest friends from college, were next. Then a cascade of friends from college and law school announced their marriages and subsequent pregnancies. Of course I was happy for my friends, but I was also starting to get worried. For one, I was losing my party buddies. But, more importantly, I was beginning to wonder about my lack of serious relationships. Why did partnership continue to elude me? Despite my growing curiosity, I never admitted, not even to myself, how badly I wanted to be partnered. Instead, I acted as though I was okay being single. I continued to follow the age-old advice, "Do what you love and the right person will show up." I kept up my busy social life, but the partnership I longed for never materialized.
Meanwhile, my certainty about motherhood had vanished, replaced by a strange mix of ambition, fear, avoidance, and circumstance. In my mind, "Do you want children?" was a question for a couple to answer together, not one for me to answer before I met my partner, or, God forbid, for me to consider as a single woman. Rather than exploring the question for myself, I deferred it for a later time, repeating that motto, "I can't decide until I meet my partner, then it will be a joint decision."
a dramatic shift
A few months after my friend Joanie had announced her engagement, I woke up with a neck ache and a dull pain in my right hand. The previous month, I had billed close to three hundred hours, so a little physical tension made sense. But the symptoms grew. I tried to accommodate them, using the mouse with my left hand to relieve the pain on the right, and procuring a standing desk so I could change positions regularly. Weeks passed, and these changes did little to curb my pain, which worsened every day. Then one afternoon, as I sat at my desk, looking out the windows of my fancy downtown San Francisco office, I shook my nearly-numb hands, trying to revive the sensation. Suddenly, a strange, electric tingling traveled from my neck, down my arms, into both hands, terrifying me. Something was seriously wrong, and I needed to find out what it was.
Soon after, I was diagnosed with a repetitive strain injury called thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) and chronic fatigue. I pushed on through the pain at work, leaving regularly for various physical therapy appointments. Despite my efforts and reasonable accommodations from my law firm, four years of pushing my limits, long hours, stress, pleasing others, and rising to the top had taken a permanent toll on my body. After a year of trying to make it work, I left my position as a litigator and filed for disability.
Excerpted from "Motherhood Reimagined"
Copyright © 2017 Sarah Kowalski.
Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
part 1: remembering,
1. I Always Knew, 3,
2. Forgetting, 7,
3. A Dramatic Shift, 11,
4. Resurfacing the Question, 23,
5. Dating at 39, 28,
6. Trying to Decide, 33,
7. Frozen Eggs and Embryos, 38,
8. They Said It Couldn't Happen, 41,
9. Maybe a Sperm Donor Isn't So Bad, 47,
10. There Are No Guarantees in Life, 52,
part 2: struggling,
11. The Hard Truth, 63,
12. Spermland, 77,
13. Logistics of the First IUI, 85,
14. Babies are Dukkha, 97,
15. More Disappointment, 109,
16. Happiness Despite the Outcome, 116,
17. Ending Self Hatred: Doing the Best I Can, 129,
18. Losing Faith, 141,
19. A Stream of Questions, 148,
20. The Last-Ditch Effort — Medical Intervention, 154,
21. The Miracle (or So I Thought), 162,
22. Nothing Except Love Makes Sense, 169,
part 3: arriving,
23. Clarity, 175,
24. Plan C, 188,
25. An Unlikely Offer, 196,
26. The Sperm Challenge, 202,
27. The Shot, 209,
28. Vacation, Baby, 212,
29. Blue Light, 219,
30. Disbelief, 226,
31. Gathering Support, 231,
32. Facing Motherhood, 238,
33. Surrender, 242,
34. Epilogue, 253,