Published on February 26th, 2021 | by Jennifer Berney0
Body Lore: An Excerpt from THE OTHER MOTHERS
I assumed I had a fertile body, that the desire I felt to bear a child was a chemical that traveled through my bloodstream, that it informed my eggs, my ovaries, my uterus. I assumed that in those dark places, everything was ripening, opening, preparing. I assumed that the moment semen entered my body, I would be instantly, irrevocably pregnant.
It had taken my partner Kellie and me over a year of negotiations to finally agree on how we would conceive a child. We had written out lists of potential known donors, had awkward conversations with some of the candidates, had waited weeks that turned to months for answers. We had changed course and marked up donor catalogs with checkmarks and stars, had consulted with sperm bank personnel, had sent in photos for donor matching services, and finally had placed an order with a credit card. The sperm was on its way, and I assumed that I’d already cleared the biggest hurdle. Getting pregnant would be the easy part.
Over the course of my childhood, my mother had convinced me that I came from a line of exceptionally fertile women. The story of my own conception goes like this: My parents were not married. They had recently reunited after a breakup. My mother, ever careful, was faithfully using birth control. She got pregnant anyways. A determined sperm swam past a diaphragm and reached a welcoming egg. As I grew inside my mother’s womb, my parents discussed whether or not they would keep me. My father wasn’t certain, but my mother was. They settled on yes and decided to marry. As a fetus, I gave my mother eight weeks of morning sickness but never a reason to worry she might lose me.
There were other family stories. My grandmother conceived my mother on her wedding night and then conceived an unplanned third child when she was in her mid-thirties. My half sister, my father’s child from an earlier marriage, conceived her son after one attempt at the age of thirty-six.
All around me people spoke of fertility as if it were a virtue. “If I so much as look at a dick, I get pregnant,” a friend bragged to me once. “I bet you’d get pregnant in a heartbeat,” is the sort of compliment I’ve overheard straight men bestow on their girlfriends, thus conflating their beauty, desire, or vibrancy with their potential fertility.
When the female body is commodified, its ability to produce more bodies becomes an essential part of its value. Women become more receptacle than human. Under patriarchy, a woman’s body is a vessel for men’s pleasure and a vessel for growing progeny—and those are its primary uses. That a woman’s body has value simply for the pleasure and function it offers its owner has not been so widely considered or acknowledged. Women who can’t bear children have historically been referred to as barren, conjuring images of depleted farmland—something that once had value made valueless.
Culturally, we tend to conflate three disparate things: sexual desire, the impulse to nurture, the ability to conceive and bear a child. We act as if a woman’s longing is proportionate to her fertility. I longed deeply, and therefore I was fertile—or so my logic went.
It never occurred to me that for every story I heard about easy conceptions, there was an equivalent story—often whispered or untold—of failed attempts, of interventions, of miscarriages, and of giving up. I didn’t think about those who struggled to conceive and how they were just as alive with desire as those who made babies without trying. If I had asked around, I might have learned that my great-grandmother wed to legitimize a pregnancy she would later lose. I might have learned about the aunt who tried for years to conceive and then finally gave up. Or, if I had reflected for even a moment, I would have remembered a dear aunt who had lost three consecutive pregnancies while I was growing up. The first one ended early, but the second two losses had come in the middle of the second trimester. She named the children she would never raise and buried their remains beneath a tree in her backyard. I knew about her losses not because she spoke of them openly but because each time she miscarried, she called my mother. I came to recognize the sound of her crying voice, muffled through the receiver.
But while my aunt’s misfortunes may have touched me, they didn’t prompt me to reconsider my assumptions about fertility. As a child, this aunt had loved me as well as any grown-up in my life. She invited me for long weekend visits in her home where her cooking steamed up the windows, where houseplants thrived, and where her golden retriever lay happily on the sofa. If fertility were truly correlated to maternal instinct, she would have conceived instantly. But of course these two things aren’t related. We know this—I knew it—but we carry on believing anyways. I had convinced myself that I was exceptionally fertile. I didn’t let reality get in the way of my optimism.
This attitude would harm me in the months that followed. Each time I tried and failed to conceive, I felt not just disappointment, but personal failure. With each successive period I experienced myself as (in spite of all logic) less desirable, less vibrant. I felt barren.
One morning I sat with a friend over tea that had grown cold as I explained the sense of worthlessness I carried. “You’re still one of the most fertile people I know,” she said. Her voice was calm, unwavering. Of all the words friends spoke to me, those ones were the kindest. I carried them close to my heart.
Excerpted from The Other Mothers by Jennifer Berney (Sourcebooks)
“Jennifer Berney’s The Other Mothers is a heartfelt journey into the rough and rewarding world of queer family-making. Personal, political and beautifully written, this book is both a moving memoir and an important document of the needless struggles too many queer families experience in their efforts to have children.”
–Michelle Tea, author of Modern Tarot