One room in our house remains empty, or rather has become a repository for every object my husband, Scott, and I can’t find a place for—a de facto storage room. For a couple of years now, the door has remained closed. We do not call it a nursery.
Everyone has unsolicited advice: You just have to relax. When you stop trying, you’ll get pregnant. Go get stoned. Have sex in the car. Stop thinking about it. I feel like I’m acting in the movie of someone else’s life. Fertility treatments—one round after another—are for fortysomethings in power suits or fringe weirdos with septuplets and their own reality show. Not for boho graduate students in their thirties with rock-musician spouses. Still, here I am.
On Sunset Boulevard, I run into an old friend one morning. I know that, like me, she’s been having difficulty getting pregnant. I’ve long been jealous of her slender figure, fashionable clothes, and chic friends. She always seems to be coming from a SoulCycle class with Gwyneth or book club with Beyoncé. When she turns around, I see that I can add a baby bump to the list of things she has that I want.
With a beatific smile, she tells me that she got pregnant with the help of Maori tribal healers from New Zealand, who happen to be in town again right now. “I heard about them from (insert movie-star name here). Have you seen her baby, (insert name of fruit, Hindu god, obscure blues/country singer)? Adorable! Ridiculous! The baby was breech, and she almost had to have him in the hospital, but the Maori healers laid hands on her and turned that baby around, and three days later it shot right out of her before her husband even had time to fill the birthing tub.”
When I get home, I look up these healers before my coat is even off. Indeed they’re in Santa Monica, being hosted at the home of a Vedic astrologer, whatever that is. I book an appointment for the next day. I am elated.
I show up at a 1950s beach house, painted powdery pink. Two dachshunds dressed in lederhosen—little Peter Pan collar shirts, embroidered suspenders, the whole thing—greet me at the door. You can read that sentence again if you need to. They’re followed by a plain-looking woman in the kind of shapeless dress you buy at the Hare Krishna Cultural Center off Venice Boulevard. She rubs her pregnant belly. Of course she does. Everyoneeveryoneeveryone is pregnant.
“The dogs are so cute,” I say, because it would be strange to not remark on this canine cast of The Sound of Music. “Are you doing a photo shoot or something?”
“No, no. I would never make them be models. The rejection isn’t healthy. I dress them up every day because they like it. I sew all their clothes myself.”
I show up at a 1950s beach house, painted powdery pink. Two dachshunds dressed in lederhosen—little Peter Pan collar shirts, embroidered suspenders, the whole thing—greet me at the door. You can read that sentence again if you need to.She gives me that same pregnant smile my fashionable friend gave me. The one every pregnant woman gives me. The one I uncharitably imagine to be smug.
“I’m sure you’ll make lots of great baby clothes,” I say, still haunting her doorway.
“I’ve already got a closet full of gender-neutral clothes for three different ages. After the dog outfits, it was really challenging to figure out the place to put the baby arms and legs, but I’ve got the hang of it now.” She gives a snorty little laugh. “Would you like to come inside?”
I’m thinking the dog clothes are strange and maybe sad. Then I check myself; that’s not exactly getting off to a non-judgmental start. If the astrologer were a drag queen, I might think that the dogs in suspenders were eccentric or charming. Because how these things read is all about context. It’s all about tribe. I suppose you never know where you may find one. Mine might be right through the door. The astrologer and her Teutonic wiener dogs lead me into a room with two massage tables set up in the center and a half-dozen or so people sitting on couches around the edges. Some of them look like what I imagine Maoris to look like—thickset and wide- featured, with almond-shaped eyes. Some look more like the dog costumer’s friends—tanned and beflip-flopped and stylishly tousled.
No one looks up or stops talking. I stand there, hovering somewhere between the doorway and the couches for a long moment before I start to panic. I’m such a schmuck. I’ve handed $200 over to yet another charlatan. I think of the angel healer I saw the week before, who had a visitation from the archangel Michael, telling her that all I needed was a ritual cord-cutting, where she’d sever the invisible cords tying me to my past. She could do it right then and there, she said, for a mere $300. Or the storefront psychic I went to on a whim, if desperation can be classified as a whim, who told me there was a curse on me that could only be lifted if she traveled to the village where she was born and, at the foot of a mountain there, buried a jar of nails that I’d peed on. All she’d need from me was my urine and $2,000 (true story, I swear).
One of the men starts asking what people want for lunch. He hands around a Chinese menu. He turns to me. “You want some Moo Shu or something?”
“No, thanks. I’m just here for…” What do you call it anyway? Without getting up, another of the men indicates that I’m to lie on one of the tables—I haven’t even told them why I’m here. Are we really going to do this in front of the smug dog lady and everybody? Do I have to admit in front of all these men that I can’t get pregnant? Ashamed or not, I lie down.
Then a third man, slight and muscular, approaches the table as his friend orders Chinese. “Why are you here?” he asks. I’m grateful that he leans in close so I don’t have to speak loudly. When I’m through explaining my situation, he walks to an ample woman of impossible-to-determine age, who’s been sitting on the couch with her eyes closed and her hands on her knees, like a statue. He whispers in her ear. I don’t even know what language they’re speaking. I don’t know anything about these people, and I’m completely at their mercy. Is this what smart people do?
In my effort to conceive, I’ve tried acupressure, chiropractic, Reiki, quitting wheat, quitting dairy, quitting sugar, quitting meat, unquitting meat, eating lots of ice cream, expensive supplements, charting ovulation, Chinese herbs, yoga, breathing, meditation, hypnosis, ayurveda, muscle testing, meditation, homeopathy, Kabbalah classes, church, colonics…. I’ve taken out my piercings because an acupuncturist suggests they are “obstructing the flow of my chi.”This is what happens when you want something so intensely. You lose all your power. In my effort to conceive, I’ve tried acupressure, chiropractic, Reiki, quitting wheat, quitting dairy, quitting sugar, quitting meat, unquitting meat, eating lots of ice cream, expensive supplements, charting ovulation, Chinese herbs, yoga, breathing, meditation, hypnosis, ayurveda, muscle testing, meditation, homeopathy, Kabbalah classes, church, colonics…. I’ve taken out my piercings because an acupuncturist suggests they are “obstructing the flow of my chi.”
Still, when the buxom tarot reader in my neighborhood suggests a pagan ritual that involves burning a candle shaped like a penis during a certain phase of the moon, I do it. I order special magnets off the Internet and put them under the bed. Because what else should I do? Nothing? A Buddhist would say that I’m suffering because I believe happiness resides outside of myself. I’m suffering because of my attachment. I tried Buddhism once, and I sucked at it. My entire soul has been sculpted by desire; longing is a particular talent of mine. I’m wedded to my spiritual hunger—what would I do with my nights? Miracles, on the other hand….
Upon hearing what the man whispers in her ear, the woman on the couch opens her eyes like an angry, awakened spirit. Or maybe she’s just annoyed that her nap was disturbed. She removes her gray hoodie, then strides toward me with an impassive face but a caged energy, as if something is about to spring. Everybody keeps on talking, but they do at least turn down the volume a bit. The Chinese-food-ordering man stands at my feet and holds my ankles down, and the question-asking man stands behind me and puts his hands on my shoulders.
The woman gingerly lifts my shirt to expose my midsection. The girth of her arms is impressive. She says nothing, just shapes her fingers into what look like talons and then, with all of her mass behind them, brings them down onto my stomach and begins to dig. She feels for the outlines of my organs, and then I believe she actually tries to move my uterus around, to draw my pelvic bones apart, to reposition my ovaries. At least I think that’s what she’s doing. I can’t say for sure because pain explodes in the center of me and radiates out toward my extremities. I instinctively leap up, and the two men pin me back down. I scream for her to stop. When she doesn’t, my screams turn into sobs.
She’s hurting me for being a fool. For being an asshole from L.A. who believes that movie-star moms have the answer. For thinking I can just insert myself into the middle of her tribe and hand her two hundred American dollars and be healed. She’s punishing me for believing that I’m entitled to a miracle. Everything in me contracts around the pain. My feet hurt and my ears ring and my hands feel like ice. A shrunken old Maori man with a shock of white hair rises from the couch and shambles over. He shakes a rattle behind my head and begins to chant. The guy holding my shoulders leans down and says in my ear, “He’s calling the spirit of your child.” The old man gazes into the space above me: “Your child is here. We see him. He just can’t find you.”
The chant is beautiful. It soothes me. Something bright and calm breaks over me. The healer lets up with her claws and as the pain recedes, I begin to laugh. The Maoris laugh along with me, though we never check in with one another about the punch line. The session ends, and I thank them and walk out, feeling exhausted and famished and spent.
Little waves of laughter surprise me the whole ride home. Because, after all, it’s funny—all the bizarre things I’ve done in pursuit of motherhood. It’s human—to be miserable at achieving nonattachment. And it’s worthy of compassion—to try so hard and to fail. I finally feel a shred of this compassion for myself, as opposed to wild fluctuations of self-hatred and self-pity. If motherhood ever does find me, this may prove a useful thing.
Later that afternoon, I walk on the beach. I remember the doctors’ words after my last round of IVF: “We’re not giving up yet!”
Little waves of laughter surprise me the whole ride home. Because, after all, it’s funny—all the bizarre things I’ve done in pursuit of motherhood. It’s human—to be miserable at achieving nonattachment. And it’s worthy of compassion—to try so hard and to fail.The expanse of sand stretches out in front of me. Life stretches out in front of me: the blank check to the medical-fertility gods, the drugs again, the waiting again, the online-forum nights turning into mornings, as I shake with stress. The sham cures. And everybody telling us that if we’d just relax already, we’d get pregnant. It is as clear to me as anything I have ever known. The doctor might not be giving up, but I am. I’m giving up.
I tell Scott that night. I fear this will be the end of us. Not immediately, perhaps, but eventually. My husband wants children more than anything, and here I am quitting the race before the finish line. He puts his head in his hands. He’s the best thing I’ve ever had, and he’s going to leave me. Here it comes. Instead, he says, “Thank God, baby. Thank God.”
I walk around for the next few days blanketed by a luminous placidity. I’m aware that this is a temporary reprieve, that I’ll soon again be longing fiercely for a child. But for now, releasing the cycle of hope and despair has left me with an odd sensation of freedom, my first in years.
One day, I wander into a coffee shop, and a poster on the wall catches my eye. On it is a smiling family, a jumble of ages and races. It advertises a seminar on adoption, which I haven’t seriously considered to this point. It had seemed so vitally important to carry a child in my body—to experience the wonder that everyone keeps talking about. I look at the flyer and in an instant reconsider this whole perspective. What do we really want anyway, a miracle or a family? I take out my phone and call the number on the flyer.
* * *
Adapted from Everything You Ever Wanted, May 2015, Penguin/Plume. This excerpt also appeared in Elle, April 6, 2015.