Close to Motherhood

Marilyn Wolf

It's a cold night, and I am leaving the theater where I just watched The Cider House Rules. I am smiling and nodding politely at my date in an effort to hold back the sob that is lodged in my throat. This is one movie I didn't watch through the eyes in my head. I watched it through the eyes of my heart. I didn't know I was going to. In fact, I had no idea what the movie was about when I went into the theater, but within minutes, I felt the eyes of my heart spring wide open and become fully engaged. This movie might be about many things to many people, but for me, it was about unplanned pregnancies, abortions, and unwanted children. That is what I saw portrayed tonight. That is what The Cider House Rules is about to me.

I was twenty-one and finishing my senior year in college when I discovered my own unplanned pregnancy. I had lots of dreams, but I certainly never dreamed that I would be sitting at my college graduation, barely able to breathe because the dress I had purchased just a month before was now too small. Nor could I have imagined that halfway through the commencement address, I would have to bolt from my seat and scramble over other graduates in an effort to get outdoors before vomiting on the people sitting in front of me. I recall the people outside, parents and grandparents who either could not find a seat inside or who chose the warm air of mid-May to the intolerable heat inside the auditorium, staring at me.

There I was, a young woman in her graduation gown and black pumps, attractive, bright eyed and full of hope, typical in every way except that this particular graduate was leaning against a brick wall, bent over double, clutching her head so as not to lose her mortarboard into the bush into which she was vomiting.

After I recovered, I became painfully aware of the people watching me and for once hoped these grown-ups assumed I was ridding myself of the alcoholic excesses of the night before, not that I was genuinely ill due to morning sickness. I noted the irony to myself, offered a feeble smile, and took myself back into the auditorium, wondering if my own parents had noticed my sudden exit. I dared not search for my boyfriend, sitting somewhere in the sea of proud faces, for I feared he had seen me, and I had not yet decided what to tell him. My unplanned pregnancy was still my secret, my problem, and I had made no decisions regarding solutions.

In the movie, set in the 1940's, many of the women who had the same problem I had over thirty years later, had their babies and turned them over for adoption at the orphanage which is the setting for much of the story. Crying with anguish, one woman proclaimed that she neither wanted to see her baby nor know its sex, but in the final moment before the nurse carried the newborn away, the mother relinquished. Upon seeing the squirming squalling infant, the woman's face crumpled, and although I knew it was only a movie, I wondered how she could let her baby be taken away from her. Something inside me shouted out, "Wait! Don't let her take your baby! Don't you see? That's your baby!"

But in a flash, the scene had changed, and moments later, we were introduced to other women who opted for abortions, of course, illegal in those days. One particular scene was rather graphic with dialogue about a dead fetus and a crochet needle lodged inside the dying woman's uterus, the result of a botched attempt to terminate the pregnancy. I felt the bile rising in my throat and considered running from the theater but did not. I was glad for the women in the movie who wanted abortions that they could get them performed safely by a doctor who, even then, believed in a woman's right to choose. The irony that struck me deeply about this aspect of the story was that the very place where unwanted babies could be born, raised, loved, and possibly adopted out was the very same place where their lives could be terminated.

And of course, there was the predictable scene where a couple comes to adopt, and all the children sit up straight, smile, and make remarkable eye contact, silently begging to be chosen. Only one is, and the rest are heartbroken, convinced that no one will ever want them. I am heartbroken too, weeping as I factor in the reality that not all children who are spared abortion are adopted into loving homes but instead must face the reality of being unwanted, not once, but twice. I felt confused watching the movie, and anxious as well, much as I had felt in 1975, wondering what to do about my problem, my unplanned pregnancy.

In the week following graduation, I saw a doctor. I was living at home with my parents for the summer, and I told my mother I needed a routine exam, and she made an appointment for me. The doctor who examined me and gave me the official word about being pregnant was the same doctor who had delivered me in 1953. He reminded me of this with a predictable I've known your family a long time, I even brought you and your sisters into this world kind of lecture which included advice about telling my parents, the evils of abortion which he certainly did not perform, the role of the father of the unborn child whomever that may be, and remembering that my family is Catholic, the position of the Church on matters such as this and that he could help me find a Catholic home for unwed mothers.

I left his office in what I recall as a state of utter aloneness and panic. I drove to a park where I had played as a little girl and sat there in the late afternoon summer sun in my yellow Volkswagen Beetle and stared out the front window until my tears blinded me and I could no longer see the swing sets and monkey bars. I cried out of fear because I truly did not know what to do. Against the good doctor's advice, telling my parents was out of the question. They would never support my terminating the pregnancy, and having the baby and placing it for adoption would be an absolutely miserable experience for me.

I felt I should call my boyfriend right away and tell him, let him share this burden with me. It was his problem too, wasn't it? But I was nearly certain what his response would be, and I was not ready to hear it. What I had discovered, much to my surprise, in the few very long minutes I sat there at the park was a sense of joy about being pregnant, a feeling of completeness, and I was not ready to give that up yet.

For two days, I allowed myself the full experience of being pregnant. This was easy to do considering that I was about eleven weeks along. I looked at my changing body in the mirror and felt the tightness of my belly and the tenderness of my breasts. Sitting by the pool, I watched mothers with their infants and toddlers and imagined myself being one of them in a year. I pretended that I was married to my boyfriend and that he was thrilled, as I was, at the prospect of becoming parents. I even went so far as to pick out names. For two days, I kept and protected my secret and to this day, I have never regretted doing so.

But the day finally did come when I felt I had to tell my boyfriend. He and I had been together for a year and had talked in a general way, the way young adults do, about getting married someday. Better than anyone, I supported his plans to attend veterinary school and understood how my pregnancy would interfere with the smooth way he envisioned his life proceeding, but I could not abandon the hope that he would respond by suggesting marriage. One part of my mind, that part which was attached at that time to my uterus, saw no reason that we could not get married and have our baby and continue on with our career goals. It seemed reasonable to me.

But the horror that I saw spread across his face the instant the news sank in told me that my boyfriend would not think my idea was a reasonable one at all. When I suggested it, he began to laugh and cry at the same time and began rambling about how he would never get through veterinary school if he had to support a wife and child and how being a veterinarian was all he had ever wanted and what would his parents say and how his life was ruined but he didn't really mean that but how could I think getting married was a reasonable thing to do, we were only twenty-one, and on and on he went as my heart fell out of my chest and sank through my gut past my baby, out my vagina, down my leg and into the black earth. By the end of that summer evening, through tears, angry words, apologies, and promises, the destiny of our unborn child was determined. He or she would remain unborn. I cried myself to sleep that night and the next day, I called an abortion clinic in Raleigh to make an appointment.

In the years since, I have wandered through a broad range of emotions about my terminated pregnancy. A counselor at the clinic had told me that what I would probably experience most in the aftermath of my abortion would be relief. I seriously doubted it at the time but found she was right not too long afterwards once I realized that a difficult problem had been solved. But I also discovered that this relief that I was not in some Catholic home for unwed mothers was tinged with guilt and fear that I had committed an awful sin for which God was sure to punish me eventually. Alcohol, work, and other relationships helped me drown this voice of guilt and sadness for many years. It even seemed that the voice of joy I had heard for those few days before my abortion had also been silenced. It just didn't seem to be an issue, something I thought too much about, until age thirty-one when the hands of my biological clock began swirling around in my gut, and I was struck with great force by the realization that I indeed wanted to have a baby.

A few years prior, I had married a high school sweetheart, but not the father of my unborn baby who did go on to become a veterinarian. When we married, we agreed that having children was probably something we would never want to do. The key word here of course is probably. Because my feelings about this issue had changed and having a baby felt like the absolutely natural thing to do, it never occurred to me that my husband would not feel the same way. But he did not.

I began to sink into a depression, and my old Catholic guilt sometimes told me that this was the punishment God had been waiting to deliver. But I persisted in my belief that he and I would make great parents and that having a baby was the right thing to do. He did not acquiesce. After many discussions, arguments, and fits of rage, we finally sought counseling and came to the agreement to end our marriage so we could, as we are prone to say in this day and time, get on with our lives. The life I was going to get on with was meeting a man who would want to marry me and have a child with me. The life he was going to get on with was finding a woman who was content with her career and did not want to become a mother. We parted friends, wishing each other the very best in getting on with our lives. Ten years later, I am a single woman devoted to her career with no children and he is a married man with two daughters.

Over the years, I have imagined much about this child I never had. When I look back on that time in my life, I do not feel I made a mistake by terminating the pregnancy, am grateful that abortion was legal and available to me, and have remained steadfast in my pro-choice stand. However, I have found myself thinking, "My son would be this old." and "My daughter would be in college now." and other such musings of a would be mother. I have three nieces and a nephew who I am very close to, and I think I love them as if they were my own, but I don't really know since I have nothing to compare my affection for them to. I am a godmother for one friend's daughter and am considered an aunt by the two daughters of another friend. I was even a stepmother for a time during a brief marriage and have dated divorced men with children.

I've come very close to motherhood, brushed up against her legs and even peeked around her skirt. I've felt her tight belly and tender breasts as she incubates her chick. But it seems that in this lifetime, being a mother was just not to be. I'm past the safe childbearing years, even in this liberal culture where women have babies into their early forties. I've seriously considered adopting a baby that I would raise on my own, but that has never felt quite right. I've known all along that what I've wanted is what I call a "whole package." Marriage, motherhood, a man who longs for fatherhood and chooses me to be the mother of his children. Family stuff like baseball games, recitals, Halloween costumes and Christmas mornings, parents day at college, and weddings. And watching the father of my children turn gray as he watches me grow mellow as we contemplate the years ahead. Traditional stuff, yes. A picture that might surprise some of my friends. A picture that describes the life of one my sisters. Well, that's the picture I've secretly held for myself all these years.

As a single woman, staring down fifty which is just a few years away, I get on with my life. It's a good life. But from time to time, I still feel a dull ache about my unmet dream of motherhood and family life. Rarely though is it a sharp pain any more. When I am aware of it, it is a longing. And there are times when I don't feel it or even think of it all. Yet, maybe because I am a woman or because I am a woman on the threshold of menopause or maybe just because I am who I am, there is something I carry with me all the time. Deep inside my being, stirring about at times, sleeping at others, is an unborn part of me. Some part of me waiting to happen. It is that part of me which has never been fully expressed, that part of me to which I have never given birth. A part of me which has come close to motherhood.

© Marilyn Wolf

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