Photo: Mitchell
Photo: Mitchell

The Motherhood Mask

By the time I was in my late twenties, taking a pregnancy test when my period was late had become reflexive. I can remember standing by the toilet, my hands trembling as I held the little stick, mouth breathing, as though my undivided attention were necessary in order for the correct chemical processes to take place and allow the results to show up. But I was never pregnant. I had actually started to wonder if perhaps I wasn’t able to get pregnant, so reliably was I not pregnant. Still, anytime I was a few days late, I would buy a test, thinking: you’re just being paranoid. But also: Better safe than sorry. Paranoia was, by the time I reached my late twenties, my buddy, my long-time pal.

So when I took a pregnancy test that day in late November, I didn’t even bother letting my heart race. I left it on the bathroom sink for an overly long time while I checked my email. I had been seeing a man for only three months. His name was Sam. I hadn’t even dared to begin calling him my boyfriend yet, though I knew we were exclusive. I wanted him to be my boyfriend so badly that I was simply afraid to presume. It seemed like we should have a conversation about it or something. I would have liked to get a certificate made: Sam is Officially Your Boyfriend.

A few weeks ago, we’d had a condom break. Still, we had taken Plan B right away, and everything was going to be fine. Except that when I finally went in to check the test, I dropped it immediately on the tiled floor and it skittered away from me, and I couldn’t pick it up for some time because both my hands were clapped over my mouth: I was pregnant.

I laughed out loud. Then I said, “Holy fucking shit.” Then I laughed out loud again. Then I picked up the test, confirmed that I was pregnant, threw it at the wall and howled. I felt simultaneously that everything was ruined and also that a miracle had occurred. “This is so so bad!” I said, but I couldn’t stop smiling.

In a way, it is misleading to begin this story with a pregnancy test. There are so many other things you need to know, so many other places to start. I could start by explaining that I never actually knew my own father, that I was the result of a one night stand. That my mother, who’d had abortions before me, had suddenly been unable to schedule one, unable to just “take care of it,” and had instead decided to keep me. I could start with how much I loved her, with making French toast on the weekends, with the weird dance she used to do while pushing a cart at the supermarket, with the way she would pretend to have died in the aisles of Barnes and Noble until I could find a way to resuscitate her. I could start there.

Or I could start with explaining about Sam. I could tell you about the moment I saw him, his face a little sore-looking from being shaved too close, his black dress shirt obviously new and still starchy with fabric sizing, his jaw jutting with a massive chin and terrific under-bite. The very moment I saw him, I wanted to marry him. I didn’t just want to marry him, I was positive that I would. I thought: Oh! There he is. It’s your husband. Like recognizing someone.

I could tell you about our first date. How he took me out for dinner, and then afterward suggested a walk on the beach. “But first,” he said, “I have to get something out of my truck.” And in his truck was a picnic basket stuffed with two bottles of wine (he didn’t know if I would want red or white), a full cheese course, a bar of fine dark chocolate, a blanket. He had also brought a cord of firewood for a bonfire and a bouquet of lilies, which he explained he had wanted to give to me right away, but had worried would be too forward. “And then when I saw you,” he said, “I thought, well, you’re just so beautiful. I was like, okay, we don’t have to go on this date. This is obviously a travesty. You can just send me home with a handshake, I get it.”

Perhaps for context, it would be better to start with the growing up fat, the dumpling, pudgy teenage years at my boarding high school. The way I was a little bit unreliable about washing my hair. How I had a Pink Floyd t-shirt I really liked, and I was certain it looked good even under sundresses. How I wrote poetry. How my first kiss was a disaster and I worried it meant I was a lesbian and how I told the boy I thought maybe I should become a nun or else work on a wolf preserve and that I was afraid there was no God but that no matter what I definitely could not keep kissing him anymore.

Dating in high school was, for me, like a nightmare where you discover you have been cast in a musical and it is opening night. As you walk out on stage, you realize you don’t know the choreography or any of your lines. You search the faces of your fellow cast members, but they are all wearing masks. It is possible their eyes are just black marbles and if you lifted their masks there would be nothing underneath. The panic was liquid and pure, pungent enough to keep most guys from getting interested in me to begin with.

The only other boy who asked me out in high school was addicted to Nyquil because he was so anxious over his grades that it was the only way he could get to sleep. He ran cross-country, and he was very skinny and tall. One night I walked with him to Rite Aid so he could buy more Nyquil, and we walked back home through the woods. He had bought me a bouquet of red carnations at the Rite Aid, and he kissed me in the woods, and I thought I had never been happier. Later that night he called me, and I had butterflies in my stomach. But he was calling to tell me he couldn’t be my boyfriend after all. “Eventually, you’re going to realize you’re smarter than me,” he said.

“I already know that!” I said, exasperated. The silence that followed was filled with my treason and our mutual embarrassment. After he hung up, I shoved the bouquet of flowers out the window and then peered down at it for some time where it landed in the grass in the dark. Even I could tell that the role I was supposed to be playing was simple, the lines easy. But for some reason, I couldn’t play it.

I could start there. Or I could detail the existential flailing of my early twenties, wherein I pursued wildly inappropriate men out of a misplaced sense of adventure. I began an affair with one of my professors in undergraduate, not because I truly wanted to, but because it seemed like it might be an interesting thing to do. What kind of girl would I be if I dated a married man? A heroin addict? A man who had been to prison? What sorts of things would happen to that sort of girl? I was bored. Men were interesting. It didn’t seem like any of it mattered very much.

I had given up on anyone loving me, really loving me, or maybe I had never expected anyone to in the first place. Certainly, I had given up on any of the men I dated seeing me in any kind of authentic way. No matter how earnestly I attempted to tell them what was in my heart, the words were magically transmogrified by the very air, or else by their ears, and almost nothing of what I meant ever seemed to get across. It was magic, almost. I could have let them read my diary and still no intimacy would be thereby generated. Our masks were strapped on tight; my privacy was complete. I began to find it rather reassuring.

By the time I met Sam, I didn’t believe in soul mates. I didn’t believe in love at first sight. I wasn’t even positive I believed in the institution of marriage, though I was willing to give it a whirl. But I was pretty sure that any marriage I entered would end in divorce. Certainly I did not expect to meet my soulmate online! And Sam and I did meet online, and not at a respectable dating site, either. No match.com or eharmony for us. I met him on OKCupid. Because I wasn’t willing to pay the fee to join a better dating site.

But I am starting with the pregnancy test because that is where this story really does start: where the actions and the choices that I made begin to matter in a sharper, stranger way. It is rare that daily life matters. So much of it is phone calls and driving, emails and worrying over the calories in a scone. But for almost a week after I found out I was pregnant, I found myself in a kind of vibratory silence, unsure if I had merely misplaced the script or if perhaps there had stopped being any script at all, waiting to see what I would say. Whatever I did would matter. Whatever I chose would make me who I would become, would alter irrevocably the relationship with Sam, would forge the shape of the future. And of course, hardest to fathom: it would determine whether a new person would be born.

The importance of all this was so terrifying that at first I folded inward like a telescope. I didn’t even phrase the abortion as a question when I first told Sam. I wrote him an email asking him to come by, told him I was pregnant, showed him the test. He said, “Holy shit.” And then he hugged me and said “Holy shit” again, and I couldn’t see his face, but I could hear in his voice that he was smiling. And then I told him I would schedule an abortion.

To do anything other than schedule the abortion seemed insane. I was teaching as an adjunct and living in a studio apartment attached to my mother’s house. My income was $18,000 a year. Sam was just finishing a PhD in Neuroscience. To have a baby was not only impractical, it was irresponsible. And yet: there was that smile in his voice. That night we kept hugging each other so that our faces could not be read because those smiles kept sneaking in. The situation we were in was very serious and very sad, and we felt committed to those roles, and yet the actual emotion we were both feeling was elation. I wanted to make love to him again, right there, possibly on the floor. My body wanted to have babies with his body, and his body wanted to have babies with mine. We did not feel conflicted about it on a biological level. As animals, we were delighted. As animals, we were in our glory.

It was only as pseudo-adults that we felt conflict.

The next day, I called Planned Parenthood. I was caught off guard by how rude the woman was to me on the phone. She was so annoyed by me, by my need for an abortion, by my lack of familiarity with the protocol. It was more like dealing with the DMV than scheduling a doctor’s appointment. This was the hardest I had ever had to try to fake it: to keep my voice level on the phone, to keep my hand steady as I wrote down the appointment on a hot pink post-it. To resist the urge to smile when I told Sam I was pregnant. To tell myself that the smile in his voice was an accident, or that I hadn’t heard it at all. I spent the afternoon crying, not so much because I was pregnant, or because the woman had been rude, but because crying, in its wordlessness, was the only way I was able to be honest with myself.

But when I saw Sam that night, I was as controlled as ever. He was as solemn and tender and earnest as he had been before, but suddenly, it seemed to me that he was on the side of the woman at Planned Parenthood, that he expected me to have the abortion. Wasn’t that his role? The gentle suggestion maker? The soothing enforcer of rationality? Didn’t he breathe a sigh of relief when I so obediently suggested an abortion without prompting? It was inconceivable to me that he did not. The world, I felt, was made up of scrapers and people who needed to be scraped out. Just as there were fences for horses, and rules to contain lawlessness, I now understood that there were scrapers to contain—what? Irrational life. Cells furiously multiplying. Wordless flowers stupidly growing. My womb and my smile and my helpless blooming. I was one of the people who needed to be scraped out, and everyone else was a scraper.

Earlier that day, as I had walked the dogs at the beach, I’d tried to imagine the baby. But I could only imagine it as an insistent knock at the door, a stranger appearing. And in the stories, isn’t the stranger always a god in disguise? I felt the baby wanted to be let in, wanted me to open the door to being alive for him. Maybe he wanted to be born. I walked and walked along the coast, the ocean loud in my ear, but the knocking followed me and would not stop. All right, fine, I thought, I will try to advocate on your behalf. But I had no idea how I would do so. Such thoughts were obviously insane and could not be reported to the world of Planned Parenthood, to rational, kind Sam. I couldn’t write “insistent knocking and vague spiritual presentiment” on a list of pros and cons, nor could I even bring myself to make a list of pros and cons regarding a decision as momentous and sacred as whether or not to have a baby.

But I realized that if I had the abortion, I might not be able to love Sam. It had seemed for a time that everything was going to work out. That my life was going to open, that my privacy could be broken forever. But now, I could see no road forward that would allow me to safely fall in love. I was angry at the baby for that. And I wanted to love Sam so badly because, of course, I already loved him.

In undergraduate, Sam had put himself through school by working as a children’s entertainer at birthday parties. Sometimes he was a clown, sometimes he was Spiderman, sometimes he was Barney. But his weekends were spent driving the labyrinthine freeways of southern California, showing up at the houses of strangers, trying to surreptitiously change into costumes behind his truck, painting faces, making balloon animals. He didn’t like making balloon animals when he was Barney because he had to take off his gloves and show his human hands. The costumes were infernally hot, the pay was bad, and the children were often terrified of him. Sometimes the parents were anxious and disappointed by the low quality of the clown they had hired. Sometimes the parents were drunk, or were assholes, or were both. One time, a lady tried to barge in on him while he was changing and kiss him. He kept the job for three years. Not everyone has the talent, the raw goodness of heart, required to be a low-end clown. But Sam did.

His goodness was what appealed to me most about him. He had never done anything bad or deeply wrong. He didn’t want to hurt me, either consciously or subconsciously. He wasn’t turned on by anything weird or creepy. He loved both his parents. He loved his sister. He had a huge group of friends whom he adored, and who adored him. He was not only good; he was normal and healthy, at ease with the world and able to fit inside its structures. He had been class president every year of high school except his senior year. He had played football and wrestled and been popular and dated pretty girls. He was getting a PhD in Neuroscience. It was all, frankly, a little unreal.

I thought I might start to hate him for being so perfect if he became one of the scrapers and I was one of the ones being scraped out. I didn’t know if I would ever forgive him for that. But I was too terrified to say anything. If I didn’t want to be scraped out, what did I want? Did I want to get married? What an absurd thing to want! Pregnant girls did not get to have white dresses and get married to the men of their dreams. Pregnant girls should be grateful for whatever they got.

I spent the next afternoon walking. Walking was the only way I could handle my increasing level of anxiety. Corona del Mar was cool and overcast, the clouds and sidewalks the same pearl gray. No one was at the beach in late November. I walked until it got dark, thinking obsessively, yet trying not to think anything at all. That night, Sam got very, very drunk. And he sent me a string of text messages that were silly and loving and incredibly romantic. He was honest about being very drunk, so I tried not to take it too seriously, but I was still enjoying the sappy and sentimental things he was saying. But he said, towards the end, some rather opaque things.

He texted: I wish I could know for sure that we were doing the right thing.

He texted: I love you so much.

He texted: This thing is killing me inside.

I was terrified to ask what he meant. I also felt that I was in a precarious moral position. I did not want to take advantage of his drunkenness to extract confidences he would not have made in the light of day. I let the matter lie. But that night, I couldn’t sleep.

I knew then that I wasn’t going to have the abortion. Really, I had known for a while. I had known because I stopped drinking alcohol. I had known when I heard the knocking and imagined the baby as a stranger at the door. But it wasn’t until I sensed Sam’s doubt, raw and lacerated, that I allowed myself to feel my own doubt, which revealed itself to be more than just doubt the very moment I was brave enough to examine it. I wanted to keep the baby. Unequivocally. And I wanted to stay with Sam. I wanted, eventually, whenever he would have me, to marry him.

Fuck what pregnant girls were allowed to want. This was my life, and I wasn’t going to just let myself be scraped out.

We saw each other the next night. We went to a Mexican restaurant where we huddled over Diet Cokes. I mentioned the text messages.

“Yeah,” he said, so rationally, so coolly, “I’m sorry if that was confusing.”

I froze like an animal that has scented danger. “So you aren’t having second thoughts?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I’m really sorry—I was just drunk and emotional and I should never have been so confusing.”

I couldn’t swallow or breathe. It was horrible that we were in a Mexican restaurant. Food was terrifying, restaurants were terrifying, Late Capitalism was terrifying, there was a sombrero on the wall. I poked the ice in my Diet Coke with my straw. What to say? What were the lines supposed to even be?

What I didn’t know, what I couldn’t know, was the way our son Booker’s skin would smell—oat-ish and sweet. The way it would feel to bathe him in the tub with me, his slippery little body held up on the tops of my thighs. I could not yet imagine what it would be to nurse him in the middle of the night and to hold his gaze in the darkness, saying wordless love-things to each other with our eyes. I couldn’t picture his hammy thighs, his impossibly fine blond hair, the fat red cupid’s bow of his upper lip. I didn’t know about his favorite color or his predilection for runny egg yolks or that he would tell me jokes all the time that made no sense: “Mommy, mommy, I have a funny joke. Penis ON car! Hahahahaha!” But somehow, even though I didn’t yet know these things, they were what was in my throat, keeping me from being able to swallow or breathe.

“Are you alright?” Sam asked me.

“No,” I said. “I’m not alright.”

Years later, Sam said to me, “That night was the first night I had any kind of proof or evidence that you felt anything other than one way about it.” My poor detective. Looking for clues. Trying to guess what I wanted. He took up my hand in that Mexican restaurant, and he asked me to tell him every way I felt about it, all the conflicting ways. And I did.

I didn’t have any other choice but to trust him. I had never trusted anyone in that way before. I had never allowed anyone access to my thoughts when they were still so raw and tangled. I had certainly never allowed anyone to help me sort through them. It was scary to let Sam. It was scary because he was so in control. He was so kind. He was so rational. He was not about to start crying or shaking or otherwise losing physical control in the Mexican restaurant. He was strong, and I desperately needed that, but on the other hand, I found it disconcerting. If I was going to speak without knowing what my lines were, I would have been reassured by some answering chaos in his own demeanor. But he showed nothing.

Slowly and kindly, he extracted from me the following things.

That I wanted to keep the baby.

That I wanted to get married.

That I was in love with him.

He would consider keeping the baby, he said; in fact, he deferred to me in that regard and would do absolutely anything I wished and be as involved in the baby’s life as I wanted. But he wasn’t so sure that we should get married.

Instantly, I wanted nothing to do with him. I wanted to get up from the table and walk out of the restaurant and then run as far and as fast as I could. But I wasn’t about to actually get up and walk out. For one thing, it would have been overly dramatic. The restaurant itself, with its mariachi music and hanging lanterns, seemed to discourage it. For another, I didn’t want him to know how much this had hurt me, not out of pride exactly, but because I did not want my emotions to act as ballast pushing him one way or another. I did not want him to feel pressured to marry me or be a father to our child. If he was going to do either of those things, I needed him to do them of his own volition.

I wouldn’t find out until we had been married for three years that by then Sam had already had a terrible nightmare about the baby. That the nightmare had been at the root of those opaque text messages. In the dream, he and I had been living in a house. A ramshackle, older kind of house, with odd broken parts and messed up plumping. And there was a pipe that we kept putting food into. Little scraps of food. And in the dream, he realized that the baby was down there. That we were keeping the baby down in some kind of basement garret and pretending it wasn’t there. But it was there, alive, covered in ants, surviving.

“I just would hate to think,” he said, “that you only married me because you were pregnant. I want you to know that I’m here for you no matter what. And if later you wanted to get married, of course, I would want to. But I don’t want you to marry me because you’re scared. You don’t need to be scared. I will be here no matter what.”

I think that was when I started crying. “Oh,” I said. “I don’t want to marry you because I’m scared. I wanted to marry you from the first moment I saw you. I want to marry you because I’m in love with you and I’ve never wanted to marry anyone so badly in my entire life!”

After that, we ate a lot of chips and salsa and we ordered the chicken soup, which was insanely good at that restaurant. A few months later, when we were getting married, his mother asked me where I would like to have the rehearsal dinner, and I told her that place. I never told her it was because that was where we decided to keep Booker. But Sam knew. And he held my hand all night under the table. He always holds my hand under the table.

Over the next year, he received his PhD, we moved across the country with a Booker who was only four weeks old and we cobbled together a life. A weird, sometimes lonely life, but also an intensely joyful one. Parenting an infant is an isolating activity. We were basically held prisoner in our house by the needs of a tiny, grunting being who needs to eat and poop every two hours. But we loved being held prisoner in our house. We were still in the first flush of our courtship. We didn’t really want to do anything but talk endlessly, late into the night, about everything: music in the ’90s, the sizes of various infinities, the genetic plasticity of dogs, the lives of our mothers. We spent hours just looking at Booker’s face together in our basement apartment, amazed.

I remember when Booker was first born, several people asked me if I felt like a mommy yet. I had no idea what to say to them. To myself, I seemed the same. It was unclear to me why they were missing the main thing that had happened—a baby! a tiny human with unreadable gray eyes!– and were instead curious about this most disgusting word: mommy. It sounded so stupid to me. Motherhood itself seemed like a mask that made women cease to exist. TV and movies were filled with mothers, but not one of them seemed to have a genuine internal life. Motherhood seemed to transform women into nagging, laundry-folding, passive-aggressive robots, all incandescence extinguished.

Now that I am called mommy every day, dozens of times a day, the word seems very different to me. It seems impossibly precious. The kind of word that shouldn’t even be written down, but should exist only in the throats of children, rasped out on milk-sweet breath. Mommy is my most intimate name, a secret and wildly authentic self, known only to myself, my children, and Sam. It is a role without lines, only wordless love things you say with your eyes in the dark. My privacy has been profoundly broken. These days I am lucky if I even get to pee by myself.

This is our story. We tell it to each other over and over. The story of our courtship. Of how we made the decision. Of the wild, improbable way that everything worked out. And of course, considering Booker, imagining even for a moment the possibility of him not being, is one of the most radically painful things it is possible for us to do.

Sometimes people are surprised to find out that though I had an unplanned pregnancy and chose to keep the baby, I am still a firm supporter of women’s right to safe and legal abortion. But having been given a choice of my own, the idea of being without one, of having that choice made for me, is even more terrifying. The mental feel of it is like a muzzle or one of those dreams where your mouth is sewn shut. In my opinion, it is a decision too important, too personal to legislate. It is a choice every woman must make for herself, but also by herself. I had to be alone in the freedom of my own head in order to set down the script and look at my real feelings. And I had to be brave enough to make a decision before I could tell Sam about it. In that way, intimacy or genuine sharing could only take place once I had fully inhabited my solitude.

Masks themselves also occupy a peculiar double position. Participants in a ritual don masks in order to embody those larger cosmic forces: the god, the devil, the lover, the mother. Even as masks obfuscate one’s particular, personal identity, they announce a deeper, more universal identity. In other words, our roles, confining as they can sometimes be, are also what allow us to connect, both with the universal and with each other. Yesterday, Sam and I were having lunch. Our second son, August, was just born a few weeks ago, and I am ravenous in the way that only a breastfeeding mother can be, so I was scalding the baby’s scalp with steak sandwich drippings as I ate over his head. We were talking about school, about how influential seemingly inconsequential moments were, how it was a fifth grade math teacher who had made Sam self-identify as “good at math” so that he pursued it as a career, how the garden of forking paths had led us to our current lives. “Sometimes,” he said, “I think that this is the best possible universe, the one we are living in right now. That this version of reality is the best it can possibly be, the most perfect. It makes me worry about all the other Sams in all the other universes who never find Rufi, who never have Booker and August, who never study math. But I also feel so incredibly fucking lucky.”

And he squeezed my hand under the table.

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