2014년 8월 12일 화요일

Negotiating (Non-) Mothering

My friend Cheryl who has been trying very hard to adopt a baby is going through a really tough spell.  Trying to form and maintain a relationship with one potential birthmom after another must be like a series of impossible exams--how do we prove our ability to love and provide for an as-yet-unfixed object, especially when the judge is the person who will never think anyone good enough for the job that she herself is (for whatever reason) to give up?  Even when one understands why it should never be easy for anyone to adopt a child, it just seems plain stupid to me that any birthmom does not see that my friend would be the most loving and wonderful mother to the child.  

While writing Cheryl how sorry I was to hear about yet another heartbreak with a birthmom, I thought about how difficult it is for so many women to negotiate that strange built-in potential to mother a child (biologically and/or otherwise)--no matter how different situations may be, how different individual aspirations and frustrations may be.  In my case it was the pain of realizing that I would not be able to realize the said mothering potential, my own heartbreak over a child that I never had and will never have. 

In the summer of 2010, another long-term relationship possibility that I had been invested in for quite a while was fast proving itself dead.  On its heel I had a mindless fling with a much younger man, which ended up in sheer humiliation.  The two incidents were like my last straw.  I did not consciously think of them that way then, but they must have been, for I remember, despite the apparently impracticable circumstances, wanting and hoping to make it work with each man with a kind of desperation and urgency that surprised even myself.  When the two men successively turned out to be no good for even a lasting friendship let alone a committed relationship, a blinking red light came on in my head, as if to direct me toward something that I had not thought of very clearly up to that point.  I was repulsed by discourses that had anything to do with the proverbial "biological clock" but there it was.  I was 41, had moved into a new place by myself, but instead of joy and pride at my first home that I bought with my own savings, medium-degree depression set in.  That was the only time in my life when I really did suffer from something that could be called clinical depression.  Every day after work I would trudge home and wallow in misery.  In the evening I would sit alone facing what I then called my daily 7-o'clock crisis. Whenever I turned my computer on, I logged in on Facebook and did nothing but look at the photos of my friend Andrea's then newborn baby Oliver.  Andrea has no idea to this day, but Oliver's unrealistically beautiful baby face and Andrea's characteristically understated expressions of happiness would make me cry for hours on end.  I was long used to the reality of being one of the very few left who had not parented a child or two, but Andrea's pregnancy and birthing had a very particular impact.  She had given birth with a donor dad, and Andrea having a child kind of meant that everybody but me in the entire world had a child.  It wasn't merely because she is gay--it was because she really was the last person you would ever imagine to use her own body to mother a child.  I was genuinely happy for her and her partner, but I was genuinely sad for myself and my ever shrinking possibility of having a child of my own.  The more I admired Andrea for braving it and beating all the odds against her, the more I despaired at my own misfortune and lack of courage and determination.

I had never consciously decided upon not having a child, I always had been patient, nursing the vague idea that it would happen to me when my turn came.  In all of my relationships, though, the only time a child seemed a real possibility was when M would sweet-talk to me about what to name the child we would have.  I was getting into my late thirties then.  Partly because I was feeling the escalating pressure of time on my body and partly because I was foolish, I let him fool me with that shit when in reality he was manipulating me not to leave him in his pathetic state of obsessive disorder with all his imaginary symptoms.  After 2 years of empty promises and pathological whining he ended up leaving me for another woman (or for a man--who knows?), and in the following years my luck with men did not improve.  A traditional marriage and family life was never something I wanted.  But not wanting it had its toll.  Without it, I realized, it was difficult to have, or even to want, a child--especially in the culture where I belonged.  With no feasible alternative in sight I intuitively felt that I was being deprived of something very significant.  Thinking that it perhaps was my own fault, not having had more aggressively sought to mother a child up to that point, I began to contemplate adoption and even donors.  This contemplation, however, would always morph into a struggle with the sense of guilt at not honestly feeling quite equal to the formidable prospect of becoming a single mother in a morally hostile society.  Then the guilt would become even more compounded, for I could not help but think that perhaps my desire to become a mother was (is) just not strong enough.

My problem kind of solved itself in the most unexpected and unwelcome manner, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after I turned 42.  Everything changed in a slow yet radical whirlwind.  2 and a half years later, I now feel too old and unfit for adoption, with messed-up ovaries.  The fear of recurrence is ever so handy in justifying my cowardice in face of adopted single motherhood.  It's all but impossible to picture my life at this point with a man who will adopt with me.  Things have been settled for me, without my consent.  In a sense it's kind of convenient that I can now stop wringing my hands over what to do, how to do.  That, however, neither erases my wanting altogether nor mitigates my irrational sense of guilt at not having capitalized my built-in capacity for mothering.  My sense of guilt has nothing to do with the perpetuation of the species or some other moral value.  It has everything to do with my own self--not having explored the life as mother, I will never be able to stop asking and wondering what kind of mother I could have become, what kind of child I could have had, what kind of relationship we would have had, what different meaning I would have been able to attribute to my own life. 

Idly I entertain this notion that perhaps I could get involved with a divorced guy with a child or two who will let me play out the nice stepmom scenario.  But in reality most divorced guys my age do not have small children.  Their kids are far more likely to be sullen teenagers who will resent dad's new middle-aged girlfriend to death.  My imagination stops at the scene where I'm murdered by miscreant grownup stepchildren, who spit on my gouged out eye sockets.  Maybe it is good for my non-existent baby, adopted or not, to not grow up exposed to my grotesque imagination and macabre sense of humor, which are not getting any lighter with my persistent cancer worries. 

Though I deeply feel for Cheryl in this difficult time, I almost envy her too.  All the more reason for me to share her sadness and to root for her in her unwavering effort to adopt.  And I sincerely hope she will meet her baby--sooner than later. 

2014년 1월 29일 수요일

Call It Intuition or Denial

The semi-annual followup scans that I have to go through since my surgery is a veritable ordeal in my otherwise painless life.  I am duly aware of the fact that my usually eventless and relatively comfortable life leaves me not much to complain about.  I humbly accept the fact, and I am mostly content too.  I also know that the successful treatment and surgery outcome is something to be grateful for.  I am profoundly grateful, indeed. Yet there is no denying that the regularly scheduled scans are no small bumps.

A whole-day affair it is.  After drawing blood for all kinds of tests, it is a succession of mammogram, breast ultrasound, CT-scan, and bone scan.  The bone scan requires three to four hours of waiting, as the injection needs to diffuse throughout all the bones in the body, so on top of all the small waits here and there between this and that at the hospital, there is also this interminable wait before the whole thing is over.  One could go home or out somewhere but I object to leaving the hospital because I know how much I would dislike coming back.  It's fortunate that whiling away hours in one spot with a book in hand is no problem for me.  So this interval is spent for lunch, reading, and some scrabble on my iPad.  It is a long day at the hospital: today I left home at 8:20 am and came home after 3:30 pm.

The fear of recurrence has become a constant companion in my life by now.  Good days are ordinarily the days when this companion makes itself scarce.  This, however, is the day when this fear takes the center stage; and it will claim my attention full on for a week.  The week between this day and the day when I go see the oncologist for the results is a strange borderland where this fear magnifies the fact that my life straddles the fantastic yet so very threatening dividing line between possibility and reality.

Le supplice du jour: the ultrasound is the biggest of all the ordeals.  As the radiologist slowly and steadily moves the cold, lubricated handle over the skin, you can feel every inch of your breast being seen through.  Any little pause and click that the radiologist makes with her machine seems to indicate something wrong.  Any typing that is being done into the machine might mean some noteworthy abnormality.  During the ten to fifteen minutes of this ultrasound scanning, you simply tighten up into a ridiculous mass of sheer vulnerability.  It is a maddening quarter of an hour where you experience your body not as a house of your life but as a dangerous host of antagonistic possibilities. This is the overwhelming moment you comprehend the simple yet elusive fact that the body is a heap of stuff over which you have no control.

The radiologist who ran the ultrasound on me today was a young male doctor who didn't say much.  There were some pauses and clicks, and of course all kinds of foreboding crowded my mind.  After he muttered "all done" and disappeared, I made a terrible mistake of looking at the monitor he left on.  In the complicated layout of data and pictures and what not on the screen, I saw my name, the date, and a few words that I well recognized.  Oh shit, is that another finding in my right breast?  It's like a lightening inside my head.  But it's hard to say what those words were for, as I could not clearly make out the rest of the screen.  Did he find something new today, or does it refer to the originary pathology for my regular scanning?

As I get out of the ultrasound room and get dressed, I am unable to focus.  It takes a few minutes to regroup.  Mechanically moving on to the CT-scan room, it occurs to me that the radiologist would hardly be able to specify whatever findings that he might have seen today as "malignant."  It is likely that those words I saw refer to my original diagnosis, since I was there for those scans as the patient with that diagnosis.  I reluctantly but cautiously feel my right breast and there is no distinct mass that I can discern.  Once again I tell myself that the radiologist could not have typed those words in.  There is no lump that I can feel.  Even if there was, he could not have determined the nature of whatever lump so precisely right then and there without a biopsy.  I carefully retrace the entire course of the examination.  He did not type much while examining the right breast.  I keep telling myself these things over and over like a mantra.  The more I think of it, the more I am convinced that it was my original diagnosis that probably has become my label.  Call it intuition or denial, it is good for now.  I should go with it, at least until I see my oncologist next week, although I am also carefully harboring that other possibility in one corner of my mind.  Yes, it is possible that he found something new today and wrote it down; I cannot rule that out.  I also know that something entirely different and unexpected may catch me by surprise, while I pore over what I saw on his computer screen.  As I sat in the waiting area in the CT-scan room, however, the fear gradually subsided even in my entangled mind.  Whatever it might be, if anything, there is nothing I can do but accept and deal with it.  For the rest of the day, I was able to put the fear aside.  For the rest of the day, I reminded myself of the resolution I had made to myself some time ago: I'll keep doing what I do for all the days I live, be they short or long.  In the hospital coffee shop, Martha Nussbaum's Poetic Justice keeps me good company.

As I live in constant fear, I realize over and over that fear is not sustainable, long term.  Our mind is clever enough to manipulate itself out of this dreadful state of fear.  It will desperately come up with some way to wriggle out out of it.  It will think of something, some reason that would nullify it or counterbalance it, even though the fear never disappears completely.  Coloring my life as a constant flirtation with the sublime is one way of doing it.  Braving the naked fact that my death would ultimately cause only very little disturbance to the world is another.  Honestly, though, it is not necessarily death itself that I fear most.  It is beyond fearful for sure, the absolute finality of it; but I mainly understand it to be the return to the state before my birth, and seen that way extinction doesn't seem so horrible.  It is the slow yet certain, incapacitating and painful, course of dying occasioned by difficult illnesses that I fear most.  Any one and every one will share this fear.  The difference is that my first-hand experience of cancer treatment lets this fear have a stronger and more real grip on me.  Picking things apart like this and becoming more aware of the nature of my own fear, however, doesn't help much.  Who could control her fate and choose the mode of her death?  Living with this shadow of death, this helplessness, this ultimate lack of choice, must be the essence of life; facing mortality is the burden of living itself that any conscious person should bear.  It is just that this burden is so very vividly felt in my daily life.  Perhaps I should be proud that I am living the essence of life, right in the very thick of it.  So there.  I repeat to myself: I'll keep doing what I do for all the days I live, be they short or long.  It is simple self-hypnosis, yet a surprisingly soothing therapy.  To keep doing what I do for all the days I live may not amount to much, but it certainly would be the best I could do and not the easiest, either.  Being able to go through with it would be something, at least to me, and finding out that I could would be a priceless solace.