The ones who weren't

Fertility was never a problem for me -- I have three wonderful children. But I've never stopped thinking I am two babies short.

Published October 23, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Twenty-eight years ago, when I was 24, I found myself pregnant again at a time when the prospect of caring for a second child was neither sensible nor convenient. My daughter, Audrey, was not yet 1 year old. My artist husband was painting houses for a living, and I was trying to be a writer. We were living in a one-room loft with a shower in the kitchen. When Audrey needed a bath, I used the sink.

Still, I wanted to have that baby, and when my husband pretty well insisted that we couldn't, I was crushed, although -- here is one of the many ways a 24-year-old differs from a woman the age I am now, 52 -- I agreed to the abortion. It was, my husband reminded me, proof of the necessity for the procedure that we had to borrow money just to have it done.

From the moment I terminated that pregnancy (as the language has it, one of the ten thousand ways we in this culture have sanitized and distanced ourselves from the full emotional impact of abortion), I found myself obsessed with pregnancy. When the date came on which I would have been giving birth, if I had chosen differently, I fell into the deepest kind of mourning, and for two years after that, studying my daughter (an only child, till past her fourth birthday), I would periodically summon a phantom image of the younger sibling she was supposed to have had, playing alongside her. Only he wasn't there.

Eventually, I had another baby, a son. And another after that. Wonderful, perfect babies, who grew into amazing, wonderful children. Fertility was never the problem for me. I took for granted the ease with which I conceived and bore babies, as a rich woman might the experience of walking into a department store and picking up a dress or a pair of shoes.

The hard thing for me was never the biology of the thing, only the marriage that would support it. Back when I had agreed to the abortion, I said it was because we didn't have the money, but the truth ran deeper, and was more ominous than that. We didn't have the love, I think. The mutual support, anyway. Though looking back at it now, it was specifically the insufficiency of those things that came to fuel my passion for parenthood. I found, in my children, what I didn't get from my partner. I'd guess the same was true for him.

And maybe because of the loneliness of that marriage -- but also, too, because from the moment I had that early abortion, I had felt myself to be one child short -- I remained obsessed with the idea of having another baby. When I had one, I wanted a second, and when the second came, I wanted a third. After the third, I wanted a fourth. And every time, my husband and I argued about it. He must have carried justifiable bitterness over the relentlessness of my pursuit of a child (and what it suggested of my inability to find what I needed with him alone). For my part, I felt a growing frustration, and then rage, at my inability to control something as basic as my own reproductive life. I'd never pretend for a second that the pain for me of not getting to have another child equaled what a woman must feel, with a willing partner at her side, who's actively trying and unable to conceive. But all we can ever fully know is our own brand of grief, maybe, and that was mine.

I was 35 when my marriage ended, and when it did, one of the hopes I allowed myself -- in the midst of all the sorrow and regret of my failed marriage to my children's father -- was that I might one day be able to have another child. All around me, women my age were expressing their gratitude and relief to have the childbearing years behind them, finally. But as for me, I felt no less longing for a baby, after three of them, than I had when I was 22 and had none. Only now there was another element to the longing, which I had been too young to appreciate in those old days. I wanted not simply to hold a baby again but to truly share the experience of raising her, with my fellow parent.

I had a number of relationships over those years, and always, when I did, I'd find myself conjuring up the picture of having a child with this man, or that one. Sometimes, it was my inability to summon that picture that caused me to say goodbye to a man. Once, it was my own firm stand that I wanted another child that caused the man to say goodbye to me.

I was approaching age 40 when I met Don, a lawyer, who had never married, never had a child. Unlike my husband, or me, he earned a very steady income and had things like health insurance, and the kind of car that isn't likely to require a call to the tow truck several times a year. It took me a few months of spending time with Don to get used to the idea that we could not only go out to a very expensive restaurant for dinner but that, when we did, I might order not only an entree but an appetizer as well. Also good wine.

He professed to love me, and I think he did. In my way, I loved him too, though I continued to recognize an absence of a certain kind of passion I had felt as a young woman, and longed for still. I saw him as what my mother would have called "good husband material." Steady. Kind. Faithful. Someone who would be a wonderful and devoted father, probably.

And so, as the relationship progressed, I allowed myself to entertain, more than a little, the notion that I might one day marry this man, make a home with him. The passion that might have been lacking between the two of us would find, for its substitute, the thrill of having -- this late in the game -- one more baby (who knew? maybe even two) with a man for whom the whole thing would represent a wonderful new adventure.

And then something surprising happened. (Surprising, because I was using my diaphragm at the time, and carefully too. Not to mention, I was pushing 40 with a short stick.) I got pregnant.

Though well over a decade had passed since I'd last felt that particular set of small sensations, I remembered when I'd last encountered them, and I knew without taking the test what was indicated by that odd tightness in my uterus, the tenderness in my breasts, the feeling that at any moment of the day, I might just weep. (Seventeen years earlier, riding in a car with my husband, a Stevie Wonder song, "Isn't She Lovely?" had come on the radio. The song -- written as a celebration of Stevie Wonder's first child -- begins with the sound of a baby's cry, and when I heard it, I had started to cry too, and then I'd turned to my husband and said, "I think I'm pregnant.")

Now, again, I knew it. And though I wasn't in love with the father of this particular fetus, as I had been in love with the father of my daughter all those years before -- and though I had known Don, at that point, only a few months, and had certainly not planned on a pregnancy -- how I felt, when I recognized that I was pregnant, was much the way I had felt all those years before, when I found myself pregnant, a year after my daughter's birth. Bad timing. Not a good idea. And still, I could not contain my joy.

I thought my partner -- a childless lawyer, age 40, and in love with me, he said -- would be ecstatic when I told him the news. My anticipation of his excitement, in fact, contributed to the happiness I felt, myself, over this unlikely development. Imagine having a baby without talking the father into the idea first over the course of a hundred late-night fights.

Because he lived in Boston, a two-hour drive from my home in New Hampshire, and maintained such a busy schedule that I saw him only weekends -- and because the thought of holding onto this information five full days without sharing it was unimaginable -- I called Don up to tell him. But when I delivered the news, I heard only a heavy silence on his end of the phone. A deep, anxious sigh. And then the words, "So ... you'll be having an abortion?" He'd send me a check, he said.

Until that moment, the thought of not having this baby had truly never occurred to me. From the moment Id undergone my abortion, all those years back, Id said that as much as I believed in the right to choice, the choice to have an abortion was not one I would ever exercise again. Haunted as I'd been by the baby I didn't allow myself to bear when I was young, I saw this one as representing a wild and undeserved piece of good luck. I had learned, long ago, the unwisdom of believing there is such a thing as a sensible time to have a child, and the folly of supposing things will ever be the way we might choose. Having a baby is about diving into deep and uncharted waters, under the best of circumstances. Sensible or not, I'd been utterly prepared to take the risk this time, knowing the one thing that was not remotely uncertain: that whoever this baby turned out to be, I would love her. I remembered how, when I was pregnant with my second child, I had supposed I could never again love a child as much as I loved Audrey, and then who should come along but Charlie. I had two children then; I knew the love of a daughter, and the love of a son, but none of that prepared me for Willy, a boy totally unlike his brother, all new. So who might be next, whose absence from my life would one day be as unthinkable as the three to whom I had already given birth?

Now, though, listening to Don's lawyer voice coming to me from his high-rise office, a hundred miles south, my knees gave way and I sank to the bed. Hearing his list of concerns (we should have planned things better; people should be married before they conceive a child. Not to mention, he was up for partner at his firm, and the next six months were likely to require even more total commitment to his job than usual), I found no trace of the excitement I'd been anticipating. Instead, I heard the long, slow sigh of a man I suddenly realized would never become my husband.

"You weren't thinking of having it, were you?" he asked.

"I don't know," I said, sighing myself.

I made the appointment the next day. The pregnancy was so new, I had to wait another 10 days before I was far enough along to have it. I dragged myself through them, less because of my physical weariness (though as always, when I was newly pregnant, I felt instantly the need for daily naps) than because a bone-deep sadness had taken hold. And though I told myself I wasn't having this baby after all, I found myself turning down wine when it was offered to me at a dinner party one night, and placing my hand on my belly when I lay in my bed. I did not cry, though I longed to. Audrey was 14 now. Charlie was 10. Willy was 8. They would know, even if I didn't say a word about it, that something was wrong. No doubt they did.

The day before I was scheduled for the abortion, I felt a sudden cramping. The feeling -- though similar to what I had experienced now and then when having my period -- was the first symptom not to match any of those I'd known in my previous pregnancies, and it intensified. Then there was blood in my underpants. Then more of it. I went to the bathroom, felt a cramp more severe than any of the others, and looked in the toilet to see a little clot of blood. I dipped my hand into the water and lifted out a clump of something. I figured I knew what it must be, and didn't want to flush. I carried it to my garden and, though the ground was frozen, dug a little hole, patted the earth over it, and -- finally -- allowed the tears to come. No need to keep my appointment for the abortion.

Not right away, but some months after that, the relationship with Don ended. My choice. I don't even remember what the event was that caused me finally to conclude the two of us had no future. But more than 10 years later, I know it is his words to me, that night when I told him about the pregnancy, that remind me why I could never be with him. No doubt his caution was a sensible thing, and certainly our parting would seem to confirm the wisdom of his position. And yet, I find myself thinking that a man who could have embraced that unlikely conception, at a less than perfect moment, might have been a man I would not have had to leave, one day.

I didn't know it at the time, but that was my last pregnancy. The fourth child I dreamed of -- the one I might have given birth to with a partner who wanted her as much as I did -- was never born.

I've heard women who have known miscarriage speak of the grief they've felt over not being able to share, with a friend, or a parent, the loss of something that never had been seen as real to begin with. How do you mourn a child not yet born, a being too small to have necessitated the purchase of maternity clothes, even? Someone who never had a name or a face?

For me, the impossibility of expression was even more puzzling. How do you grieve the evacuation of a fetus that -- if you hadn't miscarried it -- you would have aborted? I hesitate even to tell the story of my miscarriage to women who have known the far deeper grief of parenthood foreclosed, or never known at all, when mine concerns a kind of foreclosure that only substituted another form of the same.

Still, that is the thing about a miscarriage I think. Or one of the things about a miscarriage, anyway: However it occurs, under whatever circumstances -- even ones, like mine, that would seem the least painful, most very nearly convenient -- it is a death, and nothing less. It leaves you one child short, once again. Which means, for me, that even as I enter into my 50s, with three healthy, loving children, moving themselves now toward the stage of parenthood perhaps -- and me, having shifted, at long last, my dreams of one more baby to those of grandchildren -- I am not simply missing one child who never grew, but two of them. I always know how old they'd be. What I do not know is who I might have been, had I become their mother.

By Joyce Maynard

Joyce Maynard is the author of "Labor Day" and "After Her" (just released in paperback).

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Abortion Motherhood Pregnancy