My friend Cheryl who has been trying very hard to adopt a baby is going through a really tough spell. Trying to form and maintain a relationship with one potential birthmom after another must be like a series of impossible exams--how do we prove our ability to love and provide for an as-yet-unfixed object, especially when the judge is the person who will never think anyone good enough for the job that she herself is (for whatever reason) to give up? Even when one understands why it should never be easy for anyone to adopt a child, it just seems plain stupid to me that any birthmom does not see that my friend would be the most loving and wonderful mother to the child.
While writing Cheryl how sorry I was to hear about yet another heartbreak with a birthmom, I thought about how difficult it is for so many women to negotiate that strange built-in potential to mother a child (biologically and/or otherwise)--no matter how different situations may be, how different individual aspirations and frustrations may be. In my case it was the pain of realizing that I would not be able to realize the said mothering potential, my own heartbreak over a child that I never had and will never have.
In the summer of 2010, another long-term relationship possibility that I had been invested in for quite a while was fast proving itself dead. On its heel I had a mindless fling with a much younger man, which ended up in sheer humiliation. The two incidents were like my last straw. I did not consciously think of them that way then, but they must have been, for I remember, despite the apparently impracticable circumstances, wanting and hoping to make it work with each man with a kind of desperation and urgency that surprised even myself. When the two men successively turned out to be no good for even a lasting friendship let alone a committed relationship, a blinking red light came on in my head, as if to direct me toward something that I had not thought of very clearly up to that point. I was repulsed by discourses that had anything to do with the proverbial "biological clock" but there it was. I was 41, had moved into a new place by myself, but instead of joy and pride at my first home that I bought with my own savings, medium-degree depression set in. That was the only time in my life when I really did suffer from something that could be called clinical depression. Every day after work I would trudge home and wallow in misery. In the evening I would sit alone facing what I then called my daily 7-o'clock crisis. Whenever I turned my computer on, I logged in on Facebook and did nothing but look at the photos of my friend Andrea's then newborn baby Oliver. Andrea has no idea to this day, but Oliver's unrealistically beautiful baby face and Andrea's characteristically understated expressions of happiness would make me cry for hours on end. I was long used to the reality of being one of the very few left who had not parented a child or two, but Andrea's pregnancy and birthing had a very particular impact. She had given birth with a donor dad, and Andrea having a child kind of meant that everybody but me in the entire world had a child. It wasn't merely because she is gay--it was because she really was the last person you would ever imagine to use her own body to mother a child. I was genuinely happy for her and her partner, but I was genuinely sad for myself and my ever shrinking possibility of having a child of my own. The more I admired Andrea for braving it and beating all the odds against her, the more I despaired at my own misfortune and lack of courage and determination.
I had never consciously decided upon not having a child, I always had been patient, nursing the vague idea that it would happen to me when my turn came. In all of my relationships, though, the only time a child seemed a real possibility was when M would sweet-talk to me about what to name the child we would have. I was getting into my late thirties then. Partly because I was feeling the escalating pressure of time on my body and partly because I was foolish, I let him fool me with that shit when in reality he was manipulating me not to leave him in his pathetic state of obsessive disorder with all his imaginary symptoms. After 2 years of empty promises and pathological whining he ended up leaving me for another woman (or for a man--who knows?), and in the following years my luck with men did not improve. A traditional marriage and family life was never something I wanted. But not wanting it had its toll. Without it, I realized, it was difficult to have, or even to want, a child--especially in the culture where I belonged. With no feasible alternative in sight I intuitively felt that I was being deprived of something very significant. Thinking that it perhaps was my own fault, not having had more aggressively sought to mother a child up to that point, I began to contemplate adoption and even donors. This contemplation, however, would always morph into a struggle with the sense of guilt at not honestly feeling quite equal to the formidable prospect of becoming a single mother in a morally hostile society. Then the guilt would become even more compounded, for I could not help but think that perhaps my desire to become a mother was (is) just not strong enough.
My problem kind of solved itself in the most unexpected and unwelcome manner, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after I turned 42. Everything changed in a slow yet radical whirlwind. 2 and a half years later, I now feel too old and unfit for adoption, with messed-up ovaries. The fear of recurrence is ever so handy in justifying my cowardice in face of adopted single motherhood. It's all but impossible to picture my life at this point with a man who will adopt with me. Things have been settled for me, without my consent. In a sense it's kind of convenient that I can now stop wringing my hands over what to do, how to do. That, however, neither erases my wanting altogether nor mitigates my irrational sense of guilt at not having capitalized my built-in capacity for mothering. My sense of guilt has nothing to do with the perpetuation of the species or some other moral value. It has everything to do with my own self--not having explored the life as mother, I will never be able to stop asking and wondering what kind of mother I could have become, what kind of child I could have had, what kind of relationship we would have had, what different meaning I would have been able to attribute to my own life.
Idly I entertain this notion that perhaps I could get involved with a divorced guy with a child or two who will let me play out the nice stepmom scenario. But in reality most divorced guys my age do not have small children. Their kids are far more likely to be sullen teenagers who will resent dad's new middle-aged girlfriend to death. My imagination stops at the scene where I'm murdered by miscreant grownup stepchildren, who spit on my gouged out eye sockets. Maybe it is good for my non-existent baby, adopted or not, to not grow up exposed to my grotesque imagination and macabre sense of humor, which are not getting any lighter with my persistent cancer worries.
Though I deeply feel for Cheryl in this difficult time, I almost envy her too. All the more reason for me to share her sadness and to root for her in her unwavering effort to adopt. And I sincerely hope she will meet her baby--sooner than later.