My sore 36Cs are trying to bust out of my bra; my nose has become bionic, smelling toast burn from two blocks away. I am nauseated but starving for oranges. I re-read the section on pregnancy from Our Bodies, Ourselves over and over again, and finally buy a pregnancy test, which confirms that yes, there is a tiny speck of a person growing inside me.
I try to figure out how to tell Ray, my boyfriend. Ray and I have broken up twice before. His raging anger and jealousy keep me away; his talent, smarts, and what feels like genuine love keeps me coming back.
According to pretty much anybody, you shouldn’t tell people about a pregnancy until the third month, but I am not a secret-keeper. I want everyone in on my joy from the beginning. I have a poster-sized piece of paper up on my office wall, on which my co-workers at the magazine nominate baby names from the noble “Samuel” to the ridiculous “Herkermer.”
My cousin Sean and his wife, Ingebjorg, give me a soft blue blanket for the child, affirming it. After several years of vegetarianism, I eat like a monster and consume steak like it is the only substance that will keep me alive. I feel like I have achieved a higher ranking in the female experience: pregnant woman. I’m excited to need new clothes, even to be sick.
Around the 12-week mark, I notice a little blood on my underwear. I am worried enough to go to the doctor. She does an ultrasound. There is no heartbeat. There is no baby. Only an empty egg sac. A hoax that made my body believe it was pregnant, that had people thinking of names, that had me realize how much I wanted to be a mother. I sob in the doctor’s office. There is an offer of a D & C to scrape the inside of my uterus clean—basically, an abortion—which I refuse, thinking that if whatever it is, or was, got up there just fine, it can come down on its own.
There’s nothing anyone can do except make sad eyes. The doctor tells me this has happened to her, which offers a tiny bit of comfort; look, she’s at work. She’s moved on, she’s getting through the day. But at this point, all of that seems impossible for me, forever. In such a short time, I’d fallen impossibly in love with the idea of becoming a mom. I’d become invested in that microscopic clump of cells, and what it meant. We’d made life, and I’d failed it.
I go to Ray’s for the weekend and lie in his big bed, cramping. I pad my way across the floor and sit on the toilet. Suddenly, chunks of blood and biological waste the texture of slippery liver emerge from my body. I scream. The supply, after such a short time, seems endless. I remember a vague instruction from the doctor to try and capture the sac if I can, and I fish around with a slotted spoon to see something, anything, that resembles my baby. It is a macabre stew. I find absolutely nothing.
I’m bleeding heavily, towels under me. I turn translucent white. Ray lays me down on the back seat of the car and drives me to the hospital, where they deliberate giving me a blood transfusion. My mother, who lives across the street, arrives and holds my hand and hits the perfect motherly note, for the first time I can remember.
I return to work after a week or so and tear down the sheet of baby names. I give Ingebjorg back the soft blue blanket. Giving it back hurts, but to keep it would be unbearable.
Ray and I break up, again, a couple years later. There’s an aggregate of small things: I can’t shake the indelible image of him beating the shit out of his Weimaraner, a sweet dog with the brain of a gnat, who had attacked the goat at his drafty farmhouse. I could never have lived my days out there. I am insensitive to his art, anyway: he’s a mime and calls his body his “instrument,” and cannot tolerate one iota of mime-bashing. One day, we are eating dinner on my tiny Seattle patio that has a peek-a-boo view of a mountain. The sun is going down and I’m clearing plates and I get a whiff of somebody unfamiliar to me; a smell of somebody tired, like the smell of an old brittle book. Soon after, we will be lying in bed and I will tell him I don’t feel pretty to him anymore, and he will tell me I’ve gained weight and that physical fitness has always been more important to him than to it is me. And that’s that.
Five years later, my dad has died, and I am wrecked because of it. My actor boyfriend has cheated on me with some married young mother from a play they were in together. He has moved next door; we can see into each other’s kitchens. Seattle seems to close in on me. I recall vowing during my first visit to Southern California, bathed in a gleaming golden sunset on Venice Beach, that I will return to embrace the kitschy palm trees, the relentless sunshine, the wide-open universe of possibility. So in the spring, I go.
I love my sunny new life, the friends I make, the job I get in communications for an electric utility that pays me more than I’d ever dream of asking. The only major thing missing in California is my family—my mother, the assorted cousins, aunts and uncles in Washington. So, for Christmas, I decide to go home.
Port Townsend is a micro city of 7,000 on the windy side of the Olympic Peninsula, brimming with artists and retirees, drunken poets and land-lubbing sailors, and the ones who “ruined everything,” Californians. It is a place where serving bad coffee is a sin, where sometimes a cow wanders into the middle of the road and blocks traffic, where it’s normal to live in a bus and where people have been eating quinoa since the 1970s. I’d spent most of my twenties and a good chunk of my thirties living in a cabin off the grid in the woods, trying to be a writer/waitress/dating-service owner. It is also where my mother, a prolific artist, lives.
When I’m home in Port Townsend, one way I take space for myself is to offer to go on endless errands for my mother, who does not drive. And on this particular one, as I cruise through the local food co-op, I run into Vito, an ex-boyfriend whom I’d never quite gotten over. We’d spent the past 10 years as friends, then lovers, then people who think fondly of each other but don’t get in touch. It turns out that dormant chemistry is still chemistry when you add a little oxygen to it. In that parking lot, there in the clear crisp Northwest cold, my heart stops as I look into Vito’s light-green eyes, set behind dark long lashes. Game on.
I invite him to join my family in Lilliwaup for Christmas, and he accepts. He is the perfect date. Everyone already knows him, and I don’t have to apologize for any bad behavior on the part of any of my relatives. Plus, he helps the kids put together their toys, which nobody else in our family is good at. It feels like a kind of audition.
That Christmas night, I drop my mom at her house and stay with Vito. He tells me I’m beautiful, and I feel it, for the first time in many months. We rock the antique iron bed in the house where he lives, and I cling to him like I’m dissolving.
When I get up in the morning, the toilet seat is freezing, as it always is in Port Townsend. I count this as another reason why I’d never move back to the Olympic Peninsula. Vito, I think, would have to come to Los Angeles.
That spring we are still in love, albeit long distance. On a long weekend together, spent mostly in my bed, one of many condoms breaks. Vito bolts upright, struck with anxiety. My thinking is more along the lines of, “If that little soul wants to come through this way, then so be it.”
“It isn’t fair to bring a child into this situation,” Vito says, and he is right. We are old and new, simple and complicated. What are we, exactly?
So I go the pharmacy and get Plan B, which is basically like mainlining a bunch of birth-control pills. Even though I am solidly pro-choice for everyone else, every cell in my body resents this, and fights me with nausea and headaches and an allover cloak of sadness.
I feel as if I’ve done the wrong thing. I vow to never, ever change the course of nature again. For many months after, I suffer from a mental Möbius strip, wondering if that was my last chance, what the baby would have looked like.
Then, without much discussion, Vito moves to LA. He doesn’t like cold toilet seats either. And he loves me. Our life becomes a series of dinner parties where he rocks his “Italian in the kitchen” card, fueling my desire for Us, the unit. The family. We come to an understanding that I want a child, and that is a non-negotiable part of the equation.
My mother and younger brother come to stay for a few days, and my two-bedroom place suddenly feels very small. Vito and I drag an air mattress into the vacant apartment next door. A light from the courtyard, our own personal moon, streams through the bay windows into the otherwise dark space. It’s quiet like the country, an emptiness filled with the promise of possibility. On the floor of that living room, we make a baby on the first try.
Vito takes pride in his virility, and tells everyone at his work that we are having a baby. I am not as certain, even though several positive home pregnancy tests and one trip to the doctor confirm it. I don’t feel sick and my breasts feel disappointingly normal. It seems a little too easy, a little too perfect.
I am obsessive about testing, just to get a confirmation from somewhere outside my body that it’s happening. And about seven weeks in, there is no second line. Negative. The pregnancy is so early and small and nothing that its end doesn’t even register physically; sitting on warmer toilets, I notice nothing new. The OB-GYN suggests progesterone and that it is perhaps time to see someone who specializes in risky pregnancies. I am furious at the gods and mad at the doctor for not somehow knowing it wasn’t going to stick. Nobody has any words to repair me. Just keep trying, they say.
Two months later, Vito and I go around again to create a life, and again, there is a faint second pink line—a little bit pregnant. We are quietly hopeful this time.
Vito’s company is celebrating a good year. At the big dinner with his coworkers, I’m excited to not be drinking, like I’m harboring a secret. When we get back to the hotel, I test again. No second pink line. We ride back the next day on the train, silent.
Vito starts to spend more time at his computer or watching TV. We don’t talk about fun things anymore. We stop laughing. We stop making dinners for friends. Every night I go to bed wondering if he wants to have sex, and every night it is apparent that he does not. We become each other’s leftovers. I want him to be more like the Vito from 10 years ago, the one who climbed rocks and sang songs around a fire.
I make an umpteenth-hundredth suggestion he go out do something—climb a mountain! Play an open mic! He tells me, “I am not that guy.” Which I don’t accept, because look, there he is, in all those other pictures. He is that guy, just inside this other guy with the belly pooch who’s lying on my couch.
The fights become more frequent. I develop a charming talent for bad timing, for nagging him about things I don’t really mind. During one spat about something forgettable on a sunny Saturday morning, I ask an unrelated question: “What about having a baby? When are we doing that?”
“I can’t bring myself to put a child in this kind of complication,” he says.
“But you promised.” I feel like a teenager arguing with my father.
“I swear, V,” he says, “if you ask me about that one more time, I am done.”
Twenty minutes go by, which is as long as I can wait.
So I ask again. Vito starts packing.
I am mostly shattered and a tiny bit relieved when he leaves. I repaint the bedroom and purchase all-new underwear on the advice of my mother. And I double down on my desire for a child.
Three years later, my brother, Ilya, in Israel, is engaged to marry a beautiful, creative, warm woman named Gali with whom he has a tiny baby. They want me there for the ceremony, so I go to Israel, which is scrubby with green patches, an endless topaz sea. I feel impossible amounts of love and acceptance from Gali and Ilya and their friends. My hair misbehaves very, very badly and I never quite get the Dead Sea salt off. It feels like complicated magic.
I’m not religious, but I like to say I’m Jew-ish. My parents were brought up Catholic, but my father took Yiddish at Yale because he thought he’d have an easier time meeting smart Jewish girls. I inherited his love and attraction for Jewish culture, having been steeped in it growing up in New York. (Once, when I was about 11, my father, his radio host friend Barry Farber and I called ourselves the Pat McGrady, Jr. Interfaith Yiddish Choristers and sang “Home on the Range” in Yiddish on the air. People called to see if they could join. We wouldn’t let them.)
On paper, I’m baptized Greek Orthodox—the Catholics wouldn’t take me because my father hadn’t annulled his marriage to Ilya’s mother, who is Jewish—but I’ve never felt like I belonged to any religion, or vice versa. Still I have always considered myself connected to God, in some way, through chants or nature or coincidence.
Ilya and Gali need to deliver a suitcase to a friend, who happens to be a nun at the Russian Orthodox Convent of St. Mary Magdalene. I join them, wanting time to stretch. We drive up a road to one of the highest points in the city, beckoned by the church’s gleaming golden domes. I feel sad that I’m not of this denomination, that I don’t have the faith that the religious tourists do. At the church, we learn the reason behind the red Russian Orthodox Easter eggs lovingly depicted on the walls: The color symbolizes the blood of Christ, the shell, the impenetrable tomb from which he emerged. I wander around, admiring the art, but mostly the devotion.
At some point I find myself, alone, outside in the small cemetery for the holy ones on a scrubby patch of grass, looking out over the city below. There are a few saints in the mix. I look down over a city too old and complicated for my little American mind to comprehend. And then there is a voice. Not a voice of anyone I know. It is not male or female, or high or low. But I hear it, clearly, as if someone next to me is speaking.
The voice says: “It’s OK to ask for miracles.”
There is nobody next to me. But I know it happened. It wasn’t just from my mind.
It hadn’t occurred to me to ask for any miracles. In fact, I’m usually afraid to pray. I don’t want to use up too many favors. What if it doesn’t happen? And what would that mean for my ambiguous faith if my prayers failed to manifest?
But it seems now that I have permission, from someone, somewhere, and I’m not going to analyze it too much, for fear that I’ll talk myself out of it. So I ask, quietly: “I would like someone to love me enough to have a child with me. Please.”
The ground doesn’t move. There is no clap of thunder or sudden surge of swallows. What I feel is an inner knowing that my order has been received, stamped, and is on its way to processing.
I go back home, back to Corporate America. I’m wearing my misses career separates, sitting near the same people doing the same work in the same cubicle. No miracles, as far as I can tell.
My first week back at the job, I’m invited to a meeting in a building where I never go, in a room that reminds me of a public school’s storage area with its painted cinderblock walls and a table that takes up nearly the entire space. There are no windows. Going in, I remark, “This is not my beautiful house.” And I catch the ear of someone, who turns around to look at me and smile. He’s tan, a little weather-worn, with bright blue eyes. Tall. Ruddy. The kind of guy who, I imagine, comes home after a day of sailing to a couple gin and tonics.
We become friends. His marriage has been death-rattling for quite some time. We date. He divorces. But he is done having children biologically. We break up and make up several times, and in the middle of it all, I weigh my options. I could go the sperm donor route, but then there’s still no guarantee that I can carry to term. I know plenty of people who have been successful with IVF, but it holds no interest for me. After spending all that money, I’d want a better chance of a baby at the end. One of my worst fears is being bitter, broke and babyless too.
Adoption seems like the natural choice. I know that little baby spirit is out there somewhere.
I sit at the computer and Google the shit out of adoption. I talk to friends, and friends of friends, who tell me their stories. One, in particular, scares the reality of it all into me: My friend’s sister and her husband started the foster-adopt process and they fell in love with the child in their care, who lived with them for a year. The adoption was on track, then the child’s family swooped in and got the kid back, and that was that.
I look for local adoption agencies and make call after call. One is too Christian. Another “private” agency wants $80,000 for—what? Gold-plated children? Another doesn’t want single people. The agencies send me brochures, which feels so analog, so old fashioned. But tri-fold heavy-stock glossy paper is something I can hold in my hand. I’m going purely on instinct here, and I hope I’ll know my people when I see them. One June morning, I open the mail to see a flyer from a nonprofit agency that specializes in moderately priced open adoption, which, coincidentally, has an orientation that night. I take it as a sign.
I drive an hour to Orange County. The agency is in your basic moderate suburban office park—it could be a mortgage brokerage or an accounting firm—but there’s not an inch of wall space that doesn’t remind you it’s an adoption agency. Posters of beautiful children with their new parents cover every wall surface. In the main meeting room, there are giant canvases of colorful baby and toddler footprints, plus a date written below, to mark when families were made. Toys and art, everywhere.
There are many couples, and two other single women. One of them has already found her birth mother, a 31-year-old truck driver who keeps crossing the country and getting pregnant. This is the sixth time she’s given up a baby. The other woman I’ll call May. She plays with her iPhone most of the time, makes to-do lists and asks about the cost of in-vitro, just in case. Most of us will travel on this journey together, some getting off the train with a new baby before the rest of us.
Mike and I make what we call our little life together. We visit his parents. We have epic TV marathons lying on my leather couch, my head in his lap. We watch every single James Bond movie and then start watching each Best Picture since the beginning of the Academy Awards. He eats Ben & Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie ice cream, I have Cherry Garcia frozen yogurt. We go camping at his favorite spot on the Kern River, a double site shielded from the road by trees with the river sidling right up to the site’s “front yard.” He writes a song about me I love, called “My Fucking Angel,” which is sweet and funny and a little sad at the end where he sings, quietly, “Don’t fly away.” We are happy, mostly. We rarely fight. After one last freak-out that he can’t start over again with babies, Mike writes me a beautiful letter about going “all in.” He decides to join me on the adoption journey, even though he’s still in the last stages of his divorce. He will become my baby’s father. Mike proposes on my 42nd birthday, and I accept.
Two years of waiting to get “the call,” I am discouraged. The air has left my lungs and I realize there is no guarantee about any of it. I could be waiting until I’m 65 and then what? It all feels very bleak. And then, exactly 23 days later, in June of 2011, nine months into our marriage, I become a mom.
I’m very lucky in so many ways. I’m lucky that I looked good enough on paper (and, I suppose in person) to qualify to adopt a child through regular agency channels. I’m lucky that, even as a freelance writer with unpredictable income and minimal child support since our split just before Grace’s second birthday, I am able to give my kid everything she needs. (And some stuff she wants.) I am luckiest that, four years later, I am so crazy in love with my daughter that I start crying when I think about my life without her. She is the child I was supposed to get, and I know this whether she’s annoying the shit out of me by lifting up my dress in the middle of Trader Joe’s, or sleeping sweetly, sprawled out over most of the bed. I was destined to be her mother. Call it a miracle, or anything else. Whatever it was, it’s good. So good.
Vanessa McGrady is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She’s madly in love with her life, now as a single mom to Grace, as well as their new puppy. She wants to remind people that women’s bodies are attached to women. Go on and find her on Twitter at @VanessaMcGrady, or on her blog, vanessamcgrady.com/swerve.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby, images via PTMurphus/Flickr and Vanessa