When it rains, it fucking pours, don’t it? This was the first coherent thought I remember having immediately after learning that, due to the presence of three (three?! SHIT!) overlapping reproductive health conditions, I would probably never be able to conceive a child in any normal or natural way. In fact, according to what I knew of statistics, my odds of having a baby naturally were only slightly better than my chances of winning the lottery, or being struck by lightning. Sad-but-truism: soul-crushing news rarely arrives at a time when you’re strong enough to bear it. And so it followed that this news was delivered with inappropriate and disconcerting cheer by my nurse practitioner, an otherwise sensitive and handsome gay White man with a face like an angel. When it rains, it pours.
It’s not so strange, really, that less than two full weeks into the breakup of the relationship that had brought me to Philadelphia in the first place, this Awful Thing would be next in line. Still, there was no foreshadowing to be had from the weather that day. It was beautiful. Clear and cloudless, but crisp, with almost zero humidity[1. On the bus on the way to the clinic, I do remember musing to myself that this particular day reminded me a LOT of another: the one I’d spent in my South Bronx neighborhood on the morning of September 11, 2001. Okay, so that MIGHT have been a bit of foreshadowing. In retrospect I should have been nervous, considering the history.]. In spite of a series of global-warming-bred false starts, it seemed that somehow, miraculously, spring had arrived. Every tree in Philly was in full, majestic bloom. Just outside the quietly noncommittal sterility of the free clinic’s examination room where I sat trembling in shock, an ornithological chorus serenaded the weekday blend of humanity strolling through.
Outside the clinic, life carried happily on. The scent of pear blossoms danced wantonly in the breeze, even in the traffic-choked part of Center City where I was. Office workers and corporate drones, stepping outside for a smoke or heading to lunch, perked magically up as they went. Teenagers who reminded me of a young me, cutting class, cussing and cackling as loudly as humanly possible, high on their temporary freedom from adult censure, and the heady, wicked rush of power that the fear on the faces of the White adults who jumped from their paths sparked. A small family of French tourists, no doubt looking for zee TAREmeenuhl Mahhrket, and zee RRRRROHKkey statue, pinkening delicately in the flirtatiously bright sunshine.
The news of my “potential” (let’s just call it that) barrenness was cruelly incongruent with the teeming, bursting extravagance of life all around me. Maybe that was what threw me. All that ridiculous fecundity, my newly announced inability to make people, and my deeply held belief in the existence of a loving and compassionate God…no, no. This shit just did not add up. However it happened, the diagnoses (delivered buoyantly by an NP who I liked very, VERY much, but suddenly wanted VERY much to punch in the fucking face) pierced my heart like the sharpest and coldest shard of winter ice.
“Oh, God,” I’d whispered, my hands clammy and shaking, clutching the thick plastic edge of the examination table. “Oh. Oh, my God.” I heard the rest of what my NP said (“…the iron supplement is the most important thing…anemia severe enough to hospitalize…watch your cholesterol…easier when you’re insured, so maybe…talk about your family planning options if you…”) like I was underwater, the sound of the blood pounding in my ears muffling all of it.
Dazed, I’d gathered my blood work report and prescription sheets, and made my follow-up appointment through a shimmering haze of tears that stayed mercifully in my eyes until I got home hours later. Holding back sobs, I’d called my sister and left her a fake cheery message about how everything was okay, but I just wanted to talk to her. I was less than a year into my life in Philadelphia, and from what I could see there was no one else I could call. My friends were all still in New York, and any friends I’d had here were on loan to me from my ex. Of the ones who had stuck around, none were close enough to confide in. My bed, bigger and colder without the warmth of another body on the other side of it, felt to me like the outermost reaches of the cosmos. Freezing. Barren. Empty. I had never felt so incredibly alone. That night, I cried so hard that I woke up the following morning both hoarse and dehydrated. I made it through my work the next day in a functional stupor that no one appeared to notice. I was 33 years old, and I had always thought that I’d be a mom. In spite of my considerable efforts, a little over halfway through, my “Jesus year” was already proving to be one of the worst ones of my adult life. In the immediate aftermath of these events, I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to live through anything else, ever. I didn’t want to die exactly; I just wanted to curl up, and go to sleep. Forever.
Well. In spite of popular opinion/your fondest wishes to the contrary, heartbreak really doesn’t kill you. And, I survived. The throbbing ache of love’s sudden departure was eased in relatively short order by the entrance of a blessed distraction in the form of a kind, sexy and generous new paramour. I made the concept and possible reality of Unmotherhood manageable by using a coping method that I’ve used for as long as I can remember: Big Picturing. Radical emotional detachment via pure, rational, unemotional and objective facts and knowledge. Not being a mom wasn’t really the end of the world, was it? No. How could it be? The world had survived countless ends before humans even showed up, had it not? Yes, indeed. It was all about perspective. Genetic lines ended alllllllll the time. After millions of years of dominating the Earth, the dinosaurs along with like 9/10ths of life on the planet were obliterated in one fell swoop by what most scientists speculate was a massive meteor. The destruction was SO complete that we don’t even have full skeletons for most dinosaur species. Can you imagine, millions of years from now, having only a few complete sets of human skeletons, from varying countries, and from humans who had lived thousands of years apart from one another? It’s a tough thing to grasp, but it’s extremely likely.
And that’s just life we can see with the naked eye – what about microlife? In a 24-hour timespan I’d wager that the typical American kills about a bajillion bacteria, just going about their normal day. Just from bathing and hand washing. Once a week, I sterilize my sponges in boiling water, and rinse them with a cool bleach solution. At the microscopic level, that’s got to look exactly like the Gotterdammerung. Natural disasters, species exclusive diseases, excessive predation, ejecta blanket…listen, if old age doesn’t do it, along the way, something’ll get ya.
Humans, being mortals and whatnot, don’t fare much better here than any other earth dwellers. Long, illustrious family lineages with wealth, power and glorious histories are just one fruitless generation away from becoming footnotes and cautionary tales. Our own deaths are inevitable, but this, this ending, this abrupt end to everything is worse than dying. It’s as if all of what had led to our coming to be is suddenly simply over. If Nature is at all a sentient, intelligent force (and I’m not prepared to dismiss the possibility, frankly) the death of genetic lines is surely cause for sorrow.
The most effective way to combat this ending is to sear the biological imperative to reproduce into us. Thousands of years of human evolution have ensured we feel the need to make copies of ourselves all the way down to our cores. Our biological attachment to our mates and offspring is a complex dance of chemistry, with our bodies rewarding the births and subsequent caretaking of our children with the bounty of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone.”
One outgrowth of our reproductive urges – the desire to continue one’s biological legacy – is often just as behaviorally compelling. To see this at work, one need look no further than the marriages of royal families throughout history, arranged at all times with an eye on the consolidation of familial wealth and power through patrilineal inheritance, and frequently guaranteed by intermarriage. You think the infamous “Hapsburg jaw”[2. Do yourself a favor if you don’t already know what this is, go and look this up. It’s FASCINATING.] would’ve happened in world where people subverted their natural human biological ambitions for the sake of decency and common sense?
Nope, not a chance.
Now, as far as I know, I’m not descended from any royal or noble lines, so the pressure to perpetuate one’s family lines has been considerably less intense for me. In fact, for as long as I can remember, my family has been more concerned and insistent about the acquisition of at least one college degree. From the ages of 12 to 19, my mother threatened me away from teenage sex and teenage pregnancy – quietly, but effectively, and often — with the wrath and fury of Almighty God at his most Old Testamentiest. She was wise to do this[3. I’m an adult, and I haven’t been a virgin for a long time. That said, to this day, my mother has a knack for calling me RIGHT after I’ve had sex. I don’t know if this is some kind of internal notification system that never turns itself off or what but… I can’t fully express how thoroughly disturbing that is.]. Kids change everything, and with very few exceptions, the women in my family have been impressively fertile. Babies have never been something that I’ve ever heard of anybody in my family having to “try” at. Kids happened, usually at the worst imaginable time: in the wake of a bad farming season, and outbreak of illness, drought, the sudden death or desertion of an adult provider…hell, you name it, whatever drama was happening, babies arrived just in time to be smack dab in the middle of it all. Generous scholarships to respected institutions of higher learning, on the other hand, were rare. “Priorities!” my mother would shrill, narrowing her eyes and pulling her lips taut into an unflinching maternal warrior’s mask. The only way out of our generational cycle of struggling was an education; if this was to happen, no quarter could be given. I’m sure my mother didn’t mean to terrify me, but the stakes were too high to be gentle. Fuck the bullshit, her baby was going to college.
And it was in college that I discovered something remarkable about my mother, her mother, her mother’s mother, and me: all of us had been born in the Chinese Years of the Snake. This discovery was made during one of many college weekend trips down to New York City. This particular weekend was during Chinese New Year, which was the fulfillment of a longheld childhood dream, implanted since one fateful episode of “Sesame Street” that featured extensive footage of the famous Chinese New Year parade. The spectacular dazzle of fireworks and costumes of every color, combined with the joyous cacophony of drums, gongs, horns, and laughter, both confirmed the fact that a.) in spite of what my teachers said, Sesame Street was quite real, and somewhere in Manhattan and b.) implanted the desire to live in New York when I grew up in my tiny heart. 2000 was the Year of the Dragon, so it was going to be HUGE. And it was in a bookstore near the festivities that I purchased a heavy, colorful, and expensive illustrated book detailing the Chinese zodiac. And it was on the car ride back to campus upstate that I discovered that my all of us had been born in a Snake year. Not so unusual, actually, considering that each “sign” occurs in 12-year intervals, and my mother had me at 36, her mother had her at 24, and my grandmother’s mother had her at 24.
Still, at the time, it looked positively mystical. I remember excitedly sharing my discovery with everyone else in the car, who all agreed that it was really, really cool. I had hastily done the math: I could continue this maybe-nothing-but-maybe-significant pattern if I had a kid before the close of the next Snake year just after my 24th birthday, or – at the latest — before the close of my 36th. The wheels in my head whirred excitedly. I was single, but I was graduating in a few months, hopefully to begin my adult life in New York. Surely, grad school, a worthy partner, a successful career, and kids would follow. I just had to be careful with the planning; I had always been careful with my planning, so as far as I could see, it was definitely happening.
I can laugh at it now. At how easy it seemed. The laughing is a vast improvement over the violent and sudden weeping that overcame me in my therapist’s office years ago, mere days after my 34th birthday. That morning, someone in the produce section of Trader Joe’s had mistakenly assigned a wandering child to me. She was gorgeous, too: all big brown eyes, bright with curiosity, overalls, and the biggest fro I’d ever seen on a toddler. She didn’t look that different from the way I had as a child. It wasn’t the first time someone had thought some random Black baby child was mine. I just look maternal, so it happens a lot, and I had just opened my mouth to explain that no, she wasn’t my daughter, when the words crashed into a lump in my throat that seemed to have materialized out of nowhere. I’d felt my ears burning as both the little girl and the puzzled fellow shopper stared at my reddening face. She’s not mine. I could think it. She’s not mine. I could think it, no problem. Why couldn’t I say it? What the fuck was wrong with me?
“Wha-wha-what th-the fu-u-u-uh…is wr-wrong wwwwwwith meeee?” I’d sobbed to my therapist, who’d remained her cool, dispassionate self, her eyes as void of excessive empathy as they were of judgment. I would come to appreciate this about her in the years to come, but in that moment, I remember being angry: at myself, for breaking down this way in front of someone who didn’t care about me in any way I could recognize or appreciate, and at her, for having children with no visible effort or forethought[4. I actually didn’t know that for sure. I was just mad.]. Never raising her voice over her steady, soothing doctor timbre, she had explained that, beyond the solid and easily named biological pain of not being able to do something that seemed to come so easily to everyone else, I was worried about having a legacy. I was worried about being the point at which something important stopped. Worse than stopped. Ended. I was terrified of being the End. And it was right around that admission that my therapist’s humanity broke through her professional veneer, in the form of irritation and shortened patience.
“The thing is, Shafiqah,” she’d sighed, leaning back and then forward in her chair, like she sometimes did when something heavy was coming, “Life has this tendency to be and do the unexpected. What if you’re not SUPPOSED to carry your line? What if you’re the point of all of it? Think about that.” I’d taken her proffered tissue and wiped my nose, frowning. I didn’t know. And I’d never thought about it that way. What if if I was the point? Sounds a little narcissistic, and a little nutty, I know, but no nuttier than imagining that a purely decorational uterus means that I am the bearer of my ancestors’ failures. And honestly, how different would my life have been with kids? As much as I’d love to be a mom, it’s not a partial commitment. It’s 100 percent, ALL the time. A few days earlier, I had made arrangements for a spring vacation in Puerto Rico. The only thing I had had to do was clear it with my boss. There was no sitter, no contingency planning, nunnavit. I couldn’t be a GOOD parent and go on vacations, not the kind that I like, with beaches, dancing, overproof rum from dawn ‘til dawn, and thrilling bad decisions. What if I wound up resenting my little ones, and missing my freedom? What if the life I had before was better, but there was no way to trade it back now? Did I love speculative children more than I loved my unpredictable, scary, exciting and unfettered actual life? Probably not.
So, that’s where I am. Unlike seemingly every damn one and every damn thing else on the planet, including cockroaches, I can’t make little copies of myself. I won’t lie or “brave face” how I feel about that. There will always be part of me that is sad about it. I see my could-be daughters and sons everywhere, and depending on what else is happening that day, I might just get a li’l bit teary-eyed[5. Mother’s Day is a straight shitfest. A. Straight. Shitfest.]. I’ve stopped calling myself “barren” though, even in the gallow’s humor way I had been. Aside from the fact that the designation is technically medically inaccurate, I’m not barren, empty, or any of it. Far from it. I’m bursting at the seams with talent, snark, and my own alternately elegant and vulgar joie de vivre. I can’t make little snake babies. But don’t you worry about that. Check out how I make this snake magic. Don’t blink, now.
You can pre-order This Mermaid Life here.
Shafiqah Hudson is a non-profit fundraising professional by trade, a writer by design, and a Pottermore addict by accident. When she isn't devouring a book, preparing ridiculously elegant food, you can find her at the beck and call of her temperamental cat. She lives in Philly.