It’s been years—nearly a decade, really—since any rational thought to have another child has seemed worthy of consideration. At first (in my late 20s, early 30s, the years it might have been practical) the reasons tumbled like a snowball gaining both mass and momentum: I didn’t want two under three or four or five; I didn’t a third child with a third man; I was busy getting an academic career off the ground; my body was tired and needed a break; having a third to try for a girl seemed selfish; I already didn’t know how to love the ones I had.
That last one, an accusation spat into my heart on a regular basis like the most poisonous of arrows, brought me into therapy—real therapy, extended psychodynamic therapy—for the first time in my life. I entered, age 30, wanting an answer to a singular question: Why can’t I love anyone? I left two years later knowing it was a trick question asked by people who didn’t see that the love I had to give was quiet and gentle, soft and honest, the kind that sleeps in bunny warrens and bluebird nests.
No one had ever seen it (Jack was years in the future), and I’d never known it was there, because everyone around me was so loud I’d never had a chance to listen for its tiny whispers, the warm feel of its breath of my cheek as it spoke to me of the pleasures of being in the moment: falling asleep on the couch while nursing a newborn, rubbing your hands across your lover’s scratchy bearded face with eyes closed so as to memorize it after he breaks your heart, gently kissing the length of your fiancé’s mangled leg as you stare into his eyes as they well up with tears and his fear of being fully known melts away, and (most of all) the warmth of falling asleep alone knowing you are wholly loved by a compassionate universe.
Fuck that man who said I couldn’t love. He was too busy bruising me to see past my protective shell, the human M&M he loved so much: hold me tight in your hand and I won’t melt. That shell comes with compromises, though, and at some point I wanted to be the kind of person who melted. It didn’t go over so well. My kind of love is gentle and soft, yes, but honesty is messy and unpredictable no matter how quietly announced and doesn’t sit well with a man who prefers holding a woman hostage in the palm of his hand.
During that first therapy I wondered whether I should go to graduate school. For thirty minutes I talked about how it would impact the woman-palmer, our children, our finances. My therapist listened quietly then asked a simple, soft question: What do you want to do?
No one had ever asked me that before. I didn’t have an answer. Worse, I didn’t know how to come up with one.
I cried for the last 20 minutes of our session; it was the beginning of something greater (albeit more painful) than I ever could have imagined for myself.
Clear your mind for a moment. Picture a woman. She grew up a child of divorce. Her father was at least a heavy drinker if not an alcoholic. She was subjected to physical, emotional, and sexual (at the hands of a close female relative) abuse at various key points in her development. She didn’t form appropriate (or any) attachment to her mother, who is suspected to be a narcissist with borderline tendencies if not full-out borderline personality disorder. In her first 10 years, she attended 7 elementary schools (3 in 5th grade alone) and moved 6 times between 4 cities in 2 states. She had a genius IQ but was frequently belittled and abused because of it.
By age 13 she was a cutter and was hospitalized the following year by her own choice for depression and suicidal ideations. Her mother kidnapped her at age 14 and brainwashed her against her father, which she wouldn’t find out until almost 30 years later, causing considerable trauma. She lived in a ratty trailer without heat, then a ratty apartment. She was forced to get a full-time job at age 14 and buy her own food, causing a situation in which she’d work until midnight and study until 3am to keep her class ranking in the Top 10. She stopped taking the Vivarin when the hallucinations got too bad.
She lost her virginity at 15 to a 25-year-old truck driver, flattered an older guy liked her, unaware of anything called pedophilia. She skipped her senior year of high school to go to college after a mentor thought she showed promise, and she thought things would be different there. When they weren’t, she dropped out and moved in with the boy who’d become her first husband four months after she turned 18. They’d figured out they could get the over-25 car insurance rate for the car they’d just bought if only they’d get married.
A predictable sort of dysfunction follows: working as an “exotic dancer,” drugs, alcohol, abortion, becoming a human punching bag, divorce, another marriage, a kid, a couple miscarriages, more drinking, another divorce, more abortions, more drinking, more drugs, another relationship, some more being knocked around, another kid, even more drinking, even more drugs, a smattering of rapes and blackouts and close calls with death woven throughout her late teens and into her early thirties. A lot of it was fun, or she said so at the time; most of it she just tried to convince herself was exciting enough to be tolerable, to make a good story one day.
By the time she’s 34, she looks in the mirror one day and does two things: realizes she’s outlived Jesus, and breaks down because she knows that the teenage girl who left Texas would’ve killed herself rather than letting herself end up such a piece of shit.
Clear your mind again. See a woman with a smile walking down 14th Street wearing a pretty dress. You think she’s younger than she is, and she walks with confidence in 4″ heels (she believes no one should wear them if they cannot run in them). If you spoke to her at a party you’d find someone educated (two MAs) and hugely fascinated with the dying art of word tennis. She wears tattoos as if they’ve been there forever and not a conscious decision made in her late 30s, one of many answers to the question, What do you want to do?
She has clear green eyes where there were once cloudy orbs of nothingness and has recently taken up a love of bright lipsticks. Instead of an old woman wearing purple she is a regular-aged person being herself, someone not allowed when you can’t stretch out, when you’re confined to the insides of the clenched fist of a man who insists you don’t know how to love.
This woman: she can converse about many subjects, argue stringently about some of them (but prefers strongly not to). She has studied with leading minds who knew nothing of her other than the person sitting in front of them in their classes or, if she were lucky (and she often was) during working lunches in the faculty dining halls.
Of course by now you know these two women are the same; they are me, and I, them. Every day it is a miracle I am alive, a statistical anomaly, a day I pass as a person who never knew what poverty feels like.
I don’t know if it’s shame (probably) or not wanting to admit to the things poor people do to get by, but it’s easier to pretend my life was the same as average middle-class America’s. What offends me is what I began with: the assumption that my experience makes me less able to give or receive love, just because I might do it a little differently on the surface.
I ended up leaving the man who held me hostage (and I, him, in different ways) because he couldn’t see that truth: there’s more than one way to love, and differences don’t mean one way is right and the other is wrong. Interestingly, by not feeling pressured to fit into his ideas about how I should be (more physically expressive), I’ve evolved into someone who actually is a naturally physically expressive person. Maybe what I really needed was to feel safe, not forced.
Which brings me to today. It’s been months since I’ve had a hysterectomy but I’m having phantom abdominal pains, the same sort I had that led me to have the operation. (Yes, I’m going to see the doctor about it.) But it makes me wonder whether, just as phantom limb pain is real, so might other forms of phantom pain.
If so, I don’t think this is about wanting a baby. (I do not. I’m long past that stage of my life. Give my grandbabies please, but not a moment too soon.) Instead, I think it’s about my younger son growing up (at 13 he’s already taller than I am, a feat his older brother didn’t accomplish until he was almost 15) and starting to pull away just a bit. We’ve always had such a remarkably close relationship and the gradual loss is difficult, though I know it’s natural. But I also think that after all the turmoil of the past week it may well be my body reminding me of my strength:
This is where the awareness of your capacity for love began. Some things may be missing but the locus remains. Be true to yourself. Think of the distance, the impossible journey between the two disparate lives you lived. It is a miracle you made it out of the life of your early 20s alive; you know those other women did not; you’ve seen their obituaries and even IDd one of their bodies at the morgue, a body that might as well have been yours on an unluckier night.
It was not an easy trek but you are still upright. You are still walking; you have not lost the capacity for joy when it would have been so easy to do. Think of the love you have for your children, even the one who has closed the door. Think of how you have already written him a note of forgiveness and slipped it under his door, knowing your job now is to simply wait for the moment he is ready and you will welcome his criticism without complaint. Because perhaps the pain is not a phantom after all, but a reminder of all that remains after even unnecessary things are taken away.
Not all pain is a sign of danger. Some is an announcement to wake up, stay alert, pay attention: important things are about to begin.