I assumed I would have three children. While the image of the partner I would have these children with always seemed out of focus, there was never a doubt I was going to be a mother.
I believed this so firmly that I spent most of my adult life trying not to have children, stifling my fertility with birth control pills, waiting for the right moment. By the time I met, married, and made a life with my partner, the twilight of my 30s descended. That’s when I entered the mind-bending and emotional torture of trying to conceive. Eventually, we made it across the finish line and had our first child. Even though I was a new mom, changing dirty diapers and job hunting like our lives depended on it — which it kind of did — I closed my eyes, leaped, and tried to conceive one more time.
There are so many reasons why we shouldn’t have tried again. The first time my partner and I tried to conceive, I was plunged into the darkest moment of my life. That sounds like an overstatement, but it’s pretty accurate. My entire upbringing was based on the idea that I would be a fully formed woman only when I gave birth to a child.
None of my accomplishments — no diploma, no publication, no job title — would garner anywhere near the validation my relatives gave to each woman in my family who gave birth. I would remain a young adult, never a full-fledged woman, until I did this one thing. It wasn’t until I tried and failed to conceive that I realized how deeply flawed and damaging such a narrow definition of womanhood could be.
If I couldn’t conceive, then what was the point of my existence? All the research that pointed toward diminishing fertility associated with age came rushing at me when I menstruated after our first try. Things turned pretty dark by the second, third, and fourth tries. I had so fully associated motherhood with adulthood, my marriage, and my future that my handle on reality began to slip. In truth, I was dealing with other things in my life that were disjointed.
My partner and I moved abroad, and I had no job, no friends, no family. All I had was my phone. I survived on video chats and messaging my loved ones. That was my only connection to my old life. Plus, I was embarking on these emotional challenges completely alone, pretending everything was just fine.
I needed to be reminded that I was already whole. I needed to remember that my fertility, or lack thereof, did not define me. My partner witnessed my descent into the baby abyss and became so worried about leaving me alone with my dark thoughts that he asked me to stay with his family for a while. By that time, I was mostly incoherent and cried from the time I opened my eyes in the morning until I slipped into bed at night. I mourned the person I thought I was supposed to be and the future I thought I was supposed to have.
I hadn’t told my partner’s parents what fragmented me so profoundly. It took a few days of their cheerfulness, and taking me for walks, and cooking amazing dinners, for me to gather the will to speak the words, “We can’t have children.” His mother didn’t pause, “It took us four years before we could.” I had no idea my partner waited so long to be born!
Then things took a turn. Time went by, and I was still living my life in grayscale, unfertilized. In the middle of all that dragging around the apartment, I had a thought. I couldn’t remember my last cycle. I had withdrawn from daily life so entirely that I lost track of … well, keeping track. I had stopped checking my basal temperature, urinating on ovulation sticks, and wishing away menstruation. So I took a pregnancy test. Then I took five more.
My baby girl. Labor lasted 33 hours. My daughter didn’t (and still doesn’t) sleep through the night. I hadn’t landed a full-time job. My husband was a freelancer and work wasn’t guaranteed. We still lived abroad, an ocean away from my family and friends.
Child care costs as much as rent, and rent costs more than it would almost anywhere else in the world. There was no reason to try to have another baby. But we did it anyway. It was completely different this time around.
After we tried to conceive the first time, I learned that many of my friends either had gone through a similar experience or were dealing with situational infertility. For some, that meant they had not met a partner, or they could not afford fertility treatment, or they had cancer or endometriosis that resulted in a hysterectomy.
I felt fortunate to have my little girl. So the next time I embarked on my journey to conception, I promised myself I would be open about the process of trying. Most importantly, I tempered my expectations.
Months passed and we had not conceived. Then I needed to have a minor surgical procedure that meant pregnancy would need to be avoided. I made peace with the loss of each egg as the months passed. And then one spectacular week I received two pieces of life-changing news. One was a job offer, and one was a positive pregnancy test.
I sit here rubbing my belly. I’m confronted with a whole new world of challenges, and some of my old ones linger. Starting a new job while pregnant and parenting a toddler. Still living abroad.
And now, I bite my nails as I watch the world descend into a national health crisis that threatens the likelihood of medical staff and resources available to assist me during birth. But I soldier on, embodying a version of womanhood I never knew I had the strength to endure.