Missing Children

"Wanting A Child" collects the stories of writers whose desire to be parents came far easier than the children they longed for.

Published May 5, 1998 10:45AM (EDT)

My wife became pregnant during her first menstrual cycle after she went
off the pill. Through blind luck. There was no basal thermometer, no
counting of days, no testing of mucus viscosity. Our attitude was, "If it happens, it
happens." Underlying our casual approach was an unspoken, paralyzing
fear of failure.

We are conditioned to think about procreation as the easiest,
most "natural" event. The societal message about people who do fail -- those
unfortunate to suffer miscarriages or stillbirths, those who endure
infertility, those who are gay -- is that they have been naturally
selected out and are therefore damaged. Silently damaged. It is a great
unspoken. This we know from a surprising number of friends who have
suffered from not being able to have a child. In this age of supreme
faith in science, the loss of a child seems medieval, and those who
endure it frequently feel compelled to suffer in silence, too hurt, too
ashamed, too angry to talk about it. And we, the unthinking easy
breeders (our daughter will soon be 3), generally don't know what to say, how to comfort, how to
empathize with such a primal, personal loss. "Wanting a Child," in which prominent writers share their personal stories
of infertility, miscarriage, adoption and the challenges of raising
disabled children, should help banish the taboo of talking about
miscarriage and loss, comfort those struggling to become parents and
help those who want to understand the emotional crush weighing down on
their friends.

These wrenching yet hopeful essays open a window into a house of
pain. It is a place where the biological alarm clock has gone off,
dropping the all-consuming procreational bomb on the brain. "The
irrevocable moment in becoming a parent is not the moment you conceive a
child; it's the moment you conceive of her," Barbara Jones writes of traveling to China to adopt a girl when she was still
single. As soon as these desirous shock waves ripple through you, the
world assumes a simple duality -- you either have a child or you are
childless. "They were in one world, and I was in another," as co-editor
Helen Schulman puts it in her harrowing account of trying to conceive, a
three-year nightmare that included "three miscarriages, five doctors,
two surgical procedures, a blood transfusion, infertility drugs, four
months of progesterone shots, endless, endless testing, and a partridge
in a pear tree to achieve this pregnancy."

Procreation is frequently perceived as a mystical experience wherein
strange cosmic forces seem to play with no regard to the hard and fast
rules of science, logic or fairness. And when infertility strikes, most
of the contributors turned from intuition and the unknown mysteries of
the universe to the comfort of fertility specialists. "Magical thinking
gave way to practicality," as Rita Gabis puts it in her poetic essay
about her battle with infertility and miscarriage. And when science
fails, faith in anything, even mourning, can be obliterated, as with
Peter Carey, who writes a heartbreaking remembrance of the stillbirths of
three children to his first wife. Thirty years later, remarried and
with two healthy children, Carey still regrets not naming his lost
children, not properly mourning them, not properly acknowledging his and
his wife's pain. As co-editor Jill Bialosky writes in her beautiful and
tragic account of the loss of her two prematurely born children, "They
existed; they matter."

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Even after Bialosky's tragedy, she, like many others, continued to
yearn for a biological child. "What is this burning desire? This need
for a child? I remember wishing they could extract it out of me, the way
they extracted my child," Bialosky writes. While wishing the feeling
away, she still completely entrusted herself to fertility specialists:
"Medicine is seductive. It gives me the hope I need to get up in the
morning." And after repeated failures, hope itself can become the
enemy. "It was hope, more than anything else, that my wife most feared
these days," Bob Schocochis writes in his devastating essay
about his wife's repeated miscarriages.

When we first decided to try to have a child, my wife and I glanced at
the literature of failure, about what could go wrong with egg and sperm,
and the myriad of misfortunes that can befall pregnancies. But only a
quick glance. We had an almost superstitious fear of looking, as if by
letting words and phrases like "ectopic" or "Down's syndrome" into our brains they
would somehow manifest themselves in my wife's womb. What would we do
if we were faced, like L.N. Wakefield and Michael Berube, with an
amniocentesis test showing Down's syndrome? In "Wanting a Child" the
emotional weight of deciding whether to abort is
heartbreakingly rendered. "Every aspect of daily life, from what I ate
to how I slept, to my thoughts and emotions, had been focused on
protecting my unborn child," Wakefield writes. "How was it possible
that I would consciously with free will participate in its death? How
could my husband and I have wanted a child so desperately and yet have
known relatively quickly that we would not keep it?"

Philip Lopate, in his account of raising a daughter with severe gastric
problems, writes: "That she made me enter the Kingdom of Anxiety, which
is the lot of all parents, seems a small price to pay for the plentitude
of her being." And this is at the heart of "Wanting a Child," this
fierce, unquenchable desire to give life, to give of ourselves. Jenifer
Levin, a single gay woman, contributes an account of her quest to
adopt a Cambodian child in the war-torn country that does not allow
foreign adoptions. She persists, fights and passionately demonstrates
"the multiple ways we find to love."

My daughter recently told me, in all seriousness, "Daddy, we're not friends." Luckily she amended the statement by adding, after a dramatic pause, "We're mammals." Because of her constant creativity, willfulness and unrestrained love, I have never experienced so much joy, exasperation and connection to life as
in the last two and a half years. Reading "Wanting a Child" affirmed all
of these feelings and took me further, opening me up to the complete
realm of possible parenting experiences. To acknowledge the risks, the
possible pains, the possible failures only heightens my appreciation for
the miracle that is having a child. For any parent and for anyone who
has contemplated being a parent, "Wanting a Child" is an invaluable

By Rob Spillman

Rob Spillman is editor of Tin House magazine.

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