The Alchemists at Home: On Pregnancy and Responsibility -The Toast

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Home: The Toast

I completely missed the August date for soil testing. Master Gardeners from the University of Rhode Island let you bring soil samples, prepared to their specifications, to the city botanical garden and six other sites to test for pH, heavy metals, and other contaminants and characteristics. What is a contaminant and what is a characteristic is sometimes clear, and sometimes not.

James is scraping down the porch and steps that we unwisely painted with oil-based paint. It’s been shaling off throughout the year, but as he prepares the surface for latex paint, the shreds gather on the ground to the point where I can’t ignore them. I don’t want them to end up in the ocean, so I go outside in the cool late-August morning and gather them one at a time from the concrete.

These little shreds of naptha, toluene, xylene, titanium dioxide, other pigments, and a number of possible extenders including diatomaceous silica, are a drop in the slop bucket of tars and oils and plastics that wash down daily as dust, as grease, as snack wrappers, as scum, in cigarette butts and chewed gum. I can’t even get every scrap off my own pavement, and when the diatoms’ skeletons go back to the sea, they won’t do any good to the other creatures who live there, as they might have before their incorporation in paint.  When the titanium dioxide particles uncouple and sink down, they may have a different power than they did when it was locked in the earth’s crust. Where does this stuff come from, and where does it go?

Two days prior, I sat under our arbor, across from the herbalist with her computer. Grapes fattened incrementally above our heads, drawing up and filtering nutrients from the scraps of our spring meals, traces of lead and other heavy metals from years of paint and manufacturing, broken-down earthworm and insect corpses. Taking notes, she asked about my diet, my bowels, my sources of stress; she asked, very gently, but more than once, if I had a timeline in mind for getting pregnant. I said no, but in saying so realized that I did feel rushed. I wondered out loud if I was making myself a bad home. “I’m actually a very angry person,” I said, laughing.

“Stress does have physical manifestations in the body,” the herbalist said, “but it’s a slippery slope, because it’s easy to fall into the rhetoric of ‘I’m doing something wrong, I’m bad and my body is bad.'” 

Where does this stuff come from, and where does it go? Why do I feel teeth-grinding stabs of anger and call myself names when I move the stove and see how much grime has collected back there, or when I read another article about the rising rate of extinctions? The same response, the same anger! From whom did I receive it, and where can I put it? This feeling of failing, of responsibility, of haste, is not rational, nor is it personal. It’s in the air. It’s in the water.

I want to get pregnant because I want to have a baby, and I want to have a baby because I want to have a child, to be a parent, to share the world. But given what I know about the world I have to share, this may be a bad reason. Why make another hostage to fortune? Why create another drain, another weight, on ecosystems strained by creatures like me? The answer I give first is that I hope it won’t do that. I want to learn and abide by ways of living that won’t be such a strain, that won’t take so much out, that will put back, ways that by the time my child is grown will be easier to use. But that isn’t the full answer; no answer is. There are people I want to make happy, and I don’t even know who all of them are, though I’m pretty sure that one of them is me.  I move from thinking about defending my child against the world’s horrors to showing them its wonders, the way I gave my friend’s son, then three, a tour of the compost pile: “They’re turning food scraps into dirt,” I explained.

“How are they turning it into dirt?”

“The bugs and bacteria that live in there eat it, and then they poop it out, and what they poop is dirt. And then I can give this dirt to my plants and it helps them grow better.” This is a gross oversimplification of what happens in a compost pile, but he seemed pleased, and so was I. So satisfying, the transmutation of matter, the transmigration of lives.

I’ve bought rosewater face spray, honey, peppermint at the Farmacy Herbs stand on market day, but I’ve never been to their premises on Cemetery Street. Today is hot in the sun and cool in the shade. Two women–white, around my age and loosely dressed–sit under an awning, separating stems from leaves. I can go in and measure out what I want, they say. So I do, using a cup measure and a digital scale to fill baggies with raspberry leaf, nettles, oatstraw and lemon balm in the proportions the herbalist prescribed, except that I can’t fit two ounces of nettles into one baggie and I’m too twitchy to start over with a larger one or use another one and I knock over the measuring cup and it falls into a bowl, making a loud sound. On the way out I notice the tangle of mint and milkweed, and hear crickets in the cemetery–the kinds of things I’d point out to a child, if I had one with me.

If I had one, it would gradually fill with petrochemicals, even if everything else went just right, even if none of my nightmares carried it off. My old friend, who I don’t see much anymore, is the kind of parent who fires off diatribes about the dangers of pretzels. I don’t know if I’ll ever be any kind of parent, but I don’t want to be that one. I do understand the desire to stop harm at the very gates of the baby. The baby is closest to you, easiest to reach, to shield; your body’s bigger than its body, you can protect it. The further you go toward the source of the damage, the more you shrink in proportion to it, and the more viciously it fights to protect itself. Will you blow up the paint factory? What about the people whose livelihoods depend on their paint-factory wages, the ecosystems burned or poisoned when the explosion sends paint components into the air and water all at once? Your employer won’t divest from fossil fuel companies: if you bother them about it till you lose your job, who will feed the baby?

This feeling of responsibility is not personal: it is a tactic, designed to protect the doers of harm, the spillers of poison, the devourers. If everything is my fault, nothing is theirs. If I have a baby and she drowns in a flood from an overwarmed ocean, suffers brain damage from lead in the drinking water, ends up malnourished from drought-induced food shortages, you better believe I’ll blame myself. Any parent would. Other parents have.

Researchers at Brown University, where I work, recently released data on common pollutants in the bloodstreams of women of childbearing age. The paper’s title refers to this as a “body burden.” Lead, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can harm fetal and infant brain development; the study investigated the factors that might cause women’s bodies to accumulate more than one, as a prelude to studying interactions between them. 55.8% of childbearing-age women “exceeded the median for two or more of the three pollutants,” also known as xenobiotics–chemicals the body doesn’t make itself. And those are just the ones they tested for.

“Although the study did not measure whether women with higher levels of co-exposure or their children suffered ill health effects,” the study’s author said in an interview, “the data still suggest that women should learn about their risks of co-exposure to these chemicals well before they become pregnant.” A woman who plans to become pregnant in her 30s or 40s, she added, is likelier to have lead, PCBs and mercury in her blood, ready to give away. I am thirty-six. The day I read that article, I walked home through downtown Providence, under three crabapple trees planted in a row near the bus station. They were all blooming. I resented having to exhale, wanting to just breathe in their dusty-sweet smell forever. That’s what’s wrong with humans, I think: we want only to consume, never to relinquish. Or I could point out that my exhaling is part of the problem, that it may be the straw that breaks the cambium layer. My body keeps track of its poisons; I take them in, I serve as their vessel. While they’re in me, they’re not anywhere else, but when I am buried or burned, where will they go—the long synthetic molecules, the isotopes, the comet tails? Nobody wants them.

My body burden came with me and James into the Women and Infants Hospital Center for Reproduction and Infertility; they walked through the bewildering arrangement of offices and interstitial zones paneled in fake wood, and sat down with us as we filled out forms and answered questions and learned about different tests–HIV, syphilis, hepatitis tests for James, and all of those plus hormone levels (estradiol, FSH, thyroid, ovarian reserve–ovarian reserve!–and prolactin) plus a special Ashkenazi panel for me because my dad has the Tay-Sachs recessive. “If you’re trying to get pregnant at home,” the doctor said seriously, “we don’t need to pay attention to all this, but if you come to us, we want to make sure you do it right.”

Back at the house, we giggled about that and groaned about various comments on weight loss and fitness and me being a “good girl” for taking multivitamins, but then I asked, “How much is this something you want because you want it, and how much is it something you want because I want it?”

James said, “It isn’t something I saw as part of my life, because there were things about my family that weren’t the best. But I love you and I trust you, and that’s made certain transformations in me.” Even as I was moved to the core, I wanted to ask, Is it too late to transform some of them back, because this may not work. We may not “get” pregnant, we may not win a child. I’m supposed to call on the first day of my cycle to schedule tests on the third day and a hysterosalpingogram between the fifth and 12th days: “We don’t want to waste time,” they said. “We want to create a healthy baby for you.” Half the time when they thought I was writing down their information, I was writing down their diction.

I catch hold of words and phrases while the big feelings tumble and grind in the ground below me. Mineral spirits: sentient voices of graphite, calcite, granite, basalt, limestone. Ovarian reserve: a protected meadow.

The porch is done, but the steps are still flaking. I suggest we invite people over to help us pick it off: “Lots of people like picking at things,” I say, as if I’m joking, even though I’ve planned it all out in my head: we’d call it a “Picking, Grapes” party, since the grapes will be ready soon and we can’t eat them all ourselves; we’d drink beers and pick at the stoop until it got too dark to see, then move to the backyard, plug in the party lights, stand on chairs and stepladders, spit seeds. “I don’t like the idea of inviting people over to do chores,” James says, and I want to retort, Oh yeah? What about when the baby is born and we haven’t slept in a week and we’re too tired to cook and the house is basically a giant diaper? What if instead of a few years of grease and a layer of wood dust, we had to clean away a layer of toxic mold after a hurricane?

At the moment, there is no baby. At the moment, there is no hurricane.

The herbalist said I should rub oil on my feet before I go to bed, to draw warmth downward and help me sleep. She didn’t say where on my feet, so I put it on the only part of the sole that isn’t dirty. She also says that the first step in becoming a mother is to learn to mother myself. Since today I dug my fingernails into my arms when I couldn’t remember the name of my representative in the General Assembly (it’s John Lombardi, I’ve checked since then) and spent the evening sobbing angrily after James pointed out that I hadn’t closed the window all the way, this instruction may be hard to follow. I’m furious when others are not gentle with me, but feel no obligation to be gentle with myself. Is this how I would treat a child? If it is, I have to face it–like the melting of the permafrost, like the drying of the fertile earth, like the lead under my oiled feet–not in order to despair, but in order to respond.

We try to transform what we receive: this world, stratified in so many beautiful and poisonous ways, and its constant whispers; the things our parents weren’t able or willing to stop at the borders of themselves. We want to know what we should do, but following some of the instructions we hear will sicken us. How many alchemists poisoned themselves with the lead they tried to turn into gold? Research about PCBs in particular introduced me to the term “pseudopersistence”: a substance is pseudopersistent in a given environment if it appears faster than it disappears, if humans keep adding it faster than it can let go of itself, or faster than whoever or whatever else is there can break it into something else. How long for rage? How long for dread? I’ve heard anger referred to as a secondary emotion, a feeling in reaction to another, earlier feeling, like fear. 

Would I stop trying to get pregnant if I found out that my body was, incontrovertibly, a brownfields site? PCBs are associated with low birth weight, which makes children more vulnerable to illness and slower to thrive; we know they cause hearing dysfunction in rats. Lead is a neurotoxin: exposure during pregnancy can cause premature delivery, low birth weight and impaired mental development. Methyl mercury is considered a teratogen, a monster-maker, in the fetal brain.

“The clinical significance of these values is not known,” study authors Marcella Thompson and Kim Boekelheide write. “It is conceivable that the dose threshold for adverse health effects from a combination of these chemicals may be lower and the health effects more severe than those known to be associated with exposure to any individual chemical.” While their study didn’t draw any firm conclusions about race as a factor, we know from other sources that redlining and ghettoization mean poorer people and people of color are more likely to live in environmentally compromised sites, playing on top of former factories and junkyards, drinking poisoned water. Thompson and Boekelheide cite a 2006 article by C.W. Schmidt called “Signs of the Times: Biomarkers in Perspective.” They note, “These findings suggest breastfeeding increases chemical exposures for infants and children while reducing total maternal body burden with a potentially lasting effect.” That’s one reason to have a kid, I guess.

Would I go ahead and have a baby–supposing I can–if I could know for certain that the earth would move beyond human habitability in the kid’s supposed lifetime? What if there was a sixty-percent chance? Forty? 55.8?

If we found out that James and I both have the Tay-Sachs recessive, it would be clear to both of us that we shouldn’t have a baby.

If I can’t stop calling myself a stupid, useless cunt when I get angry, under my breath, through my teeth, should we have a baby?

If we have a baby, I will do so knowing, though maybe not really believing, that a life can be any length.

The lab sheet for my blood tests, unsurprisingly, doesn’t have boxes to check for anger or fear or grief. It also doesn’t have boxes to check for lead, mercury or PCBs: they test only for chemicals that the body makes itself. Before they test my blood, I have to fast; I’m not to “have relations” or take a shower because orgasms or, apparently, drying my breasts can raise the quantities of prolactin that my pituitary gland will release into my bloodstream. I didn’t even know I had this substance in me, more at some times, less at others, delicately charged. Up body, down body, charm body, strange body; body made of parts of everything around it, changing and being changed at all its folded edges, body pressing down on the earth that holds it up.

We can never transform back. We can only transform forward.


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Kate Schapira is the author of six books and eleven chapbooks of poetry. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she writes, teaches, and periodically offers Climate Anxiety Counseling.

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