Motherhood in the Balance excerpt

Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Morehouse Publishing; (February 2001)

Excerpt from the Preface

God is crazy. If I had known that from the beginning, none of this would have happened as it did. I would have been on guard against the sly and deviously underhanded Holy One. But no: sixteen years of Catholic education both convinced me that God was supposed to make sense and equipped me to deconstruct--easily, without guilt--the quaintly medieval metaphysics encoded within conventional belief. One Saturday night, over dinner in my college dorm, I realized that all of it had always been both pointless and highly improbable. So I stopped going to church. The sky didn't fall, and that was that: no problem. How was I to know? How?

Sister Mary Robert, for instance. She was two hundred years old, nine feet tall, and the principal of my high school. She glided around the school as if on metaphysical roller skates, materializing out of thin air when we least expected her, holding up one long bony white finger and making cryptic pronouncements. If you don't know nuns of this sort, imagine the Oracle at Delphi in her later years, except with large, slightly buck teeth. But Robert had had a lot of speech therapy somewhere along the line, and so she did not lisp. She spoke with a clear, distinct not-lisp that gave a hollow, vowel-like quality to certain consonants, like "s" or "th". I was a headstrong kid, no expiring Ophelia by any measure; but Sister Mary Robert could startle the socks off of me (uniform cable-knit knee-highs, navy blue or grey but not black). I especially remember her catching me all alone three or four times and intoning, "Make your mistakes with confidence, Miss Miles! With confidence!" God knows what she meant by that. Which is my point. I bet God did. I certainly didn't. But I remembered. That's how it works.

And then of course there was the day Sister Mary Robert appeared in the doorway of Senior Honors English, on a "seminar" day when we had only some of our classes but each one for ninety minutes. She nodded curtly to the nun who was teaching, her thin lips closed firmly over those teeth. I couldn't figure out whether our teacher was startled or not. Nuns could be an exceedingly inscrutable group. Robert crooked one long finger at the first girl in the first row by the door, who got up and left the room, panic blanching her features. A few minutes later, she returned, eyes downcast, face composed, and demurely took her seat. Proper comportment, in short. No way to read that! She had obviously been sternly warned not to distract the rest of us.

And Robert crooked that finger at the next girl, and the scene replayed itself exactly. And the next girl. And the next girl. One by one, in alphabetical order, all forty girls in Honors Senior English were called out. All but me. When my turn came, Robert looked me in the eye, turned deliberately to the girl behind me, and crooked a finger at her instead. I settled back into my chair. By the end of ninety minutes, everyone but me knew what was going on, and no one would meet my pleading eyes as she came back into the room.

Each girl had been invited to join the convent. When she refused, each girl had been offered a fairly generous scholarship to attend the college run by this order of nuns. All but me. They didn't want me, not in their convent and not in their college. Years later, I told this story to a Protestant friend, who was not amused but transparently horrified. I couldn't figure out why: it was one of those baffling moments when a familiar funny tale falls short. Protestants can be inscrutable too, for the Catholic bred.

"Didn't you feel rejected?" she explained. "I think that's awful. Singling you out like that! No matter what you had done, that was cruel. And . . . what did you do? What had you done?"

Cruel? My "stock" had skyrocketed. I was famous. Everybody laughed and cheered, as if I had won some convent school equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize. It had been glorious, so glorious in fact that I secretly suspected that Mary Robert had done it deliberately, as something like a very complicated favor, one final cryptic comment before sending me off to college: "The church has no need of you, God doesn't want you, go in peace to love and serve The World." And I did. I felt not rejected but liberated, liberated beyond question: once and for all I was free of that great and terrible threat, "God's call." God himself would never dare to disagree with Sister Mary Robert. I shed religion as quickly, as easily, as I shed that wretched navy-blue blazer and plaid, pleated uniform skirt, the whole nine yards of coarsely-woven twill.

Which suggests, I suppose, that God is not only crazy but also exceedingly patient and monumentally nonlinear. I graduated from college in 1972, fully equipped and raring to go, an eighty-year plan in hand. Like most of us at that age, I was omnipotent, omniscient, immortal, invulnerable, and skinny. I outgrew it. We all do. And then what? As omnipotent omniscience starts fading to gray, the multiple demands of our kids and our careers start scrambling our lives into chaos, into a weariness that haunts us. Once we had all the right answers. Now we'd be happy to have even a couple of the right questions.

This book recounts my battles with two questions that are, if not the right questions, at least good classic ones: Is God real? And, So what if God is real? What difference would that make? If God matters, if there is a God who matters, then any of us ought to find God at work within the ordinary perplexities of our own lives. For me, or for the sake of the story given me to tell here, there are two such problems: the work/family conflict and the directions of my own career. The discernment of "call," as Christians say, and with it some complementary vision of my own moral obligations. Alas, I don't have easy answers to give away, no magic wands or patent medicine in brown glass bottles. It is our questions and not our answers that matter the most, our persistent doubts and our skeptical incredulity that keep our lives lively and susceptible to grace. In sort, nothing of the Holy that makes much difference will ever be trammeled in the nets of intellect, no matter how fine the mesh we cast. I know. I tried. Let me tell you how hard I tried!

But that's getting ahead of myself. First I have to offer thanks. Around here at least, women tell stories to women all of the time. Sitting on park benches, standing at the sides of soccer games, waiting for trains, meeting for lunch: we swap stories. To get to know someone is above all to hear her stories, in an oral tradition as rich, as long, and as wise as any to be found. So first and foremost, I need to acknowledge the blessing of that tradition and the grace bestowed by women who nodded and laughed and so often demanded that I should write a book, so often insisted that my stories are their stories too with simple substitution of inconsequent details. So here it is, ladies, my version of the ordinary story that all of you said that one of us should take time to write down. I could not, would not, have written without your voices holding me like hands. In all our different circumstances, amidst the unruly details and quirky demands of our particular lives, all of us struggle endlessly to turn the chaos into dancing.

from Chapter One: Fiat Lux: April, 1979

It was a leap all right: around the perimeter of that enormous bed, down the hall, past the footed tub with its patched-in shower head. Surely I had not touched down once. I sat shaking on the cold hexagon-tile floor, leaning back against the small radiator. I had, I had . . . what? What had I done? I had rolled over. My breasts hurt so keenly I had sat up, recoiling. And then this nausea.

Oh damn. A pattern. Gastritis again. It must be back. A couple of days before, we had gone out to eat, to a familiar campus place; and after dinner I had felt the same sudden wave of nausea. Panicked, I ran to the street rather than try to wend my way back to the bathroom. But in the cold late-winter air, I was suddenly fine. Cigarette smoke, we had decided. But as the radiator softly clanged to life, I admitted that this nausea was getting chronic. Nothing tasted right. Everything left me slightly queasy.

Slowly, dimly, the pain in my breasts repeated its wordless question. I could hardly climb stairs without holding both my breath and my breasts. Who was I fooling? Pigheaded denial had always aroused that gastritis. I tried to feel for lumps, but it hurt too much. I closed my eyes against the nausea, thinking pH-corrected thoughts.

And I remembered our packing for a spring-break vacation, just ten days before. I complained of mittelschmertz. Warren said nothing. But later he tossed aside the contraceptives I had set out.

"You're pregnant already," he laughed. I didn't. Yes, we were planning a child--but at some time in the far uncertain future. Me, pregnant now? Nonsense. I knew a metaphysical impossibility when I saw one. I packed the contraceptives, which we dutifully used.

The radiator clanged loudly: surely soon there would be heat. Me? Pregnant? Who? No. I'm a hotshot young professor with a heavy schedule: I don't have time for this. Furthermore, English professors are balding men in their fifties, with pipes and herringbone tweed jackets--and not, for God's sake, PREGNANT WOMEN. Oh, but in some dark, beleaguered corner of my soul, a hitherto-silent voice cheered wildly, a warm, inarticulate delight making a primitive, potent, sexual claim. A brilliant flower opened slowly and with exquisite grace, a time-lapse Georgia O'Keefe. I sat flat on the cold floor, bewildered. Ah yes, I thought, Motherhood 101: queasy and conflicted at five a.m.

The radiator was warming at last, but now I was shaking too hard to lean back against it. I dragged myself and this growing panic into the living room. Warren covered me with a bathrobe and brought tea.

"Could I be pregnant?" I asked. His serious medical-professor look dissolved. He beamed. He laughed--loudly. He reminded me of his earlier prediction, and he laughed again. I wondered whether I could heave my teacup at him without splashing myself, and if so whether there was more tea in the kitchen. Then I noticed that in fact I held a real tea cup with a saucer--should I fling the saucer, frisbee style?--from Warren, who so emphatically preferred mugs to cups and saucers. An old argument between us, long settled: server's choice. What? Just in time, he sobered; and we sat there staring at me. Slowly, I warmed up.

I'm Not Pregnant: I'm Crazy

I wasn't even late yet. Surely this was all a mistake. On the way in to campus, I bought a jug of antacid, the brand recently taste-tested in the New England Journal of Medicine. Gastritis, no doubt about it. What about the full professor of gynecology who had so solemnly, so gently told me that my test results were "incompatible with fertility." What about that, huh? Huh? Treatable, he had said--but don't wait until you are thirty-five before you start. I zipped the jug into my briefcase and strode on, resolving to buy myself a herringbone tweed jacket.

I walked into my first spring-quarter class and thought, "These were each someone's baby." My eyes filled with tears. Shock and outrage brimmed in me as well: tears withered, blood drained from my face. But then I blushed and fumbled and couldn't find my voice or my notes. I should have been able to do that introductory presentation in my sleep. But I was, heaven help me, not asleep. This was not just a first-day nightmare. No, this was certainly real. Twenty-five ex-babies were sitting in a circle staring at me.

I handed out the syllabus, read their names off a list, and let them go. I crept queasily back to my office, determined more than ever to get control of myself. I drank some Mylanta (regular mint). I drank some tea (Keemun). If thinking I might be pregnant did this to me, what would the real thing be like? Or is this the real thing, and if so what does that portend? And I drank some more tea, and I realized that if I were not pregnant then I would mourn this phantom child who had driven me crazy for days. I sat in a huddle, terrified of being pregnant and equally terrified that I might not be. I drank some more Mylanta, straight from the jug.

My abdomen soon felt leaden, and I was sure I would menstruate momentarily. And a week passed, and another week passed, and this insanity continued. Warren began calling every few hours to know if anything had "happened." I stared unabashedly at every pregnant woman I saw, and the world was suddenly full of them. What about childbirth? I remembered each of the awful stories I had heard at cousins' wedding showers, then fought the urge to run screaming down the street--and then panicked all the more profoundly. I don't have urges like that. I'm a rational, scholarly sort, an intelligent woman who makes well-planned decisions and copes adeptly with contingencies and complications. I know how to lead my life. Furthermore, for eighteen months we have been planning a family--or at least planning to start trying, prior to the expected infertility work-up. What then is going on here?

If this is not pregnancy, I worried, it is probably a nervous breakdown. Every sad story brought tears. I could not open the newspaper without finding some morbid account of maimed, abused, or dying children. Strangers on the train unnerved me with gruesome tales. One description of the lability of pregnancy neatly matched everything I knew about schizophrenia: women, kids, and crazies, beyond a doubt. Sudden, "inappropriate" responses were nearly unstoppable, as if my professional demeanor had evaporated. Obsessive thinking--"Am I pregnant? Am I? Am I?"--interfered with concentration. No line of thought could be pursued: they all got away, sometimes mid-sentence; colleagues stared.

"But of course it is not really this bad," I told myself. "It just feels this bad because mature judgment and a broad perspective are impossible."

"Or maybe it is this bad," I countered, "and I just don't see it." Having been professionally trained in the philosophic pursuit of my tail, I could keep this up for days. And I did.

In comparison with all this, the classic nausea was far less disconcerting--although as the days inched past my stomach problems rapidly developed from chronic to acute. Or maybe, I worried, worrying about being pregnant was in fact giving me the ulcer I had flirted with all these years. My mother had always teased me that with a stomach like mine, I'd never know when I was pregnant. One morning that spring I lay in bed, tears running down my face as I listened to Warren get the crackers I needed to eat before I dare lift my head. Our eyes met as he handed them to me; he startled lightly.

"Your crackers," he said, his inflection proposing an apostrophe if I were willing to admit the possibility of a verb on the semantic horizon. I laughed so hard I choked on the silly things, spewing crumbs all over the bed sheets. He looked down at me in mild-mannered professorial surprise at my misreading of his wholly innocent comment.

"Well, that's what you get," he said, "sleeping with crumbs . . ."

I nailed him with a pillow. And then I got up and got sick.

Reading Lists

At one point during the endless days of wondering if I were pregnant, Warren looked up an exotic, early, expensive pregnancy test. If we really had to know, we could. But we decided that we would be embarrassed to ask one of his colleagues to run it for us. It would look anxious. And if we were not pregnant, then someone would know about our anxiety. But as The Date moved further and further into the past, the truth became plain enough. All the signs and symptoms checked out. It became important to be certain on our own, to be certain as people had been certain for centuries before us. Lab results are convenient affirmation. But one also has a body, which is in its own way quite articulate. I felt passionately, stubbornly committed to believing my body, to making up my own mind that I was pregnant before submitting to some test.

But finally came the day when I could submit a morning urine sample and thereby get myself established with an obstetrician. Unfortunately, we had had asparagus with dinner the night before. The urine smelled awful. I almost spilled the precious stuff when I leapt off the toilet to vomit. Warren, who was showering at the time, struggled but failed to contain his amusement. I clutched the rim of the toilet and imagined headlines about the police finding him naked in a pool of his own blood. Crimes of passion. Dementia of pregnancy. I flushed and made some tea and accepted his humble and guilty apology with no grace whatsoever. If I were truly pregnant, I thought, it will be a long nine months.

I delivered the holy stuff to the HMO clinic, then headed--still fasting--across the street to the local public library. Since I was certain I was pregnant, since this lab test was just a formality, I should of course begin where one always begins: a bibliography. But there were no stools by the card catalogue, no chairs in sight anywhere: I muttered to myself about community libraries and exerted all my scholarly self-discipline to fight off the dizzy nausea. I climbed the stairs to the appropriate ranges, then sat on the floor trying to force the wrought-iron railings to stand still. I was not about to faint in the public library! But the only way to combat such lightheadedness is to lie flat--and I was not about to do that either.

Once the railings stopped shimmering, I went to look for the books. But they were all gone. Other people wanted them. What a thought! I could not imagine who. Emboldened by this news, I walked over to the local franchise bookstore, where the manager offered me a chair and a glass of water. I really should have stopped for breakfast, but eating felt out of the question. What I needed most was a reading list.

But here I might be seen. What if-- I selected a few likely titles, then edged quickly down the aisle to stand by some safer category than "Pregnancy and Child Care". I kept the yet-unexamined selections spine-down, face-in under my arm. How I would get through the check out? Oh, no! I hadn't thought of that! I scanned the racks and grabbed the first safe title I saw, a safe title beneath which to hide my choices for the exposed moment when they would sit on the countertop. It was the Dover edition of Blake's Songs of Innocence, shelved under "The Occult." What would Professor Wright say! I laughed, and in one bright labile flash Wright's whole seminar appeared in consciousness.

Fortified by the memory, I stood for a moment in the aisle remembering a seminar paper I had abandoned. In Blake's The Book of Thel, a young virgin laments the transience of her life. Various naturally transient elements--a cloud, a clump of clay in the road, a flower--respond to her lament. They urge that her life will achieve meaning only if she gives of herself to others. In the end, she flees. Critical consensus condemned her for fleeing, for refusing the self-sacrifice inherent in mature feminine sexuality.

But one of the supposed models of mature womanhood is a lily of the valley, who willingly allows the innocent lamb to crop its fragrant flowers. Except, of course, that lily of the valley contains potent amounts of digitalis. Such an altruistic, self-sacrificing flower would poison the heart of any lamb who accepted its gift. I wanted to write a paper arguing that Thel rejects not mature feminine sexuality but rather various images of self-destruction and self-denial. Unfortunately, Blake was as ideologically misogynist as most men of his day. But there was no question that he denounced self-destruction parading as "morality" and "maturity." Furthermore, Blake elsewhere describes the effects of such behavior as "poisonous."

I spent weeks on the phone and in the library, seeking good evidence that Blake believed that lily of the valley are poisonous to sheep. The relatively easy first step in such an inquiry is to verify that they are poisonous to sheep. Is the digitalis bio-available? Or is it broken down by sheep digestion? Sheep have been domesticated for millennia: somebody, somewhere, would know if you could kill your whole flock by letting them graze on convallaria majalis. And facts that somebody knows and others need to know eventually show up in print. But where? There would be no point in tracking down the details of Blake's knowledge of sheep, after all, if in fact the critters can eat all the lilies they want without harm.

What this means, of course, is that I had to ask, over and over again, whether lily of the valley are poisonous to sheep. Such questions are hard on one's professional self-image at such a tender age. Even my friends among the reference librarians laughed at me: the Rackham Graduate Library at The University of Michigan is not noted for its holdings in animal husbandry. That sort of stuff belongs over in East Lansing, at Michigan State. When they were done laughing, they wanted to know why I wanted to know. The more I tried summarizing Blake's symbolism, the more I tried repeating my argument, the less comfortable I felt. I bogged down altogether one dreadful afternoon, trying to summarize the poem to the switchboard operator the University of Illinois School of Veterinary Medicine.

"Is there a veterinary-medical library?" I asked; "Or a reference desk where collections include animal husbandry?" She connected me to a phone line into the sheep barns, where a gruff annoyed voice insisted that any fool knew that the flowers were poisonous. I asked for the title of a reference book to which I could refer--or the name of a library?--one cannot footnote to a voice on the phone, after all--and the man hung up on me.

All I had were crumbs. A headnote in a pharmacology book explained that lily of the valley contain enough digitalis to rank among effective herbalist remedies for congestive heart failure, and to have been recognized as a potentially poisonous heart tonic since antiquity. A reference text in the history of gardening lamented that wild lilies of the valley have been eradicated from cultivated areas of Europe for centuries--but never said why. Various Blake scholars noted that Blake knew herbalist lore well, but without documenting their claim: how was I to find Blake's sources and check them for lilies of the valley? And even if he knew about lilies of the valley and digitalis, did he know about sheep? I could not find the gold-standard proof I wanted before facing the hostile scorn and ritual combat of seminar presentations--especially since I was taking on a well-established critical consensus, and from a feminist viewpoint no less. And I was running out of time. After the guy in the sheep barn hung up on me, I found myself unwilling to pursue the matter further. This whole business of poisonous self-sacrifice was too complicated.

Rousing myself from memories of Thel, I got through the check-out line without incident. I was only mildly embarrassed by the fact that I already had two illuminated versions of Blake's Songs of Innocence, and three more copies that were text-only. I didn't need this book. Maybe it could be a Christmas present for someone? I stashed the pregnancy books deep in my briefcase, and treated myself to a ride home on the train--flipping idly through this new copy of Blake.

It was as if I had never read these poems before. His Songs of Experience played their extraordinary counterpoint in my head as the trained swayed along. Never had I felt so keenly the truth of Blake's impassioned arguments about childhood, about psychological development, about denied passions, about a warped society transmitting the lethal disorders that arise from its own repressions. I wondered, with a heart-sickening thud, if now every literary work would be different, if now I would have to reread everything.

In comparison to Blake, the prosaic pregnancy books I had so furtively selected were unredeemable trash. I had learned as much biology and physiology in fifth-grade sex-ed. "The pregnant woman" was portrayed throughout as fat, whiney, self-indulgent, and irrationally, stupidly anxious. She was a needy, insecure "other" whose petty needs the authors condescended to meet only so that she would be better motivated to obey them.

Poor Thel. She had a point. So where was I to go for the books I needed? What bibliography was going to guide me through this next project? And in my head, lines appeared:

I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within!
O Lady! we receive but what we give . . .
And would we aught behold, of higher worth
Than that inanimate cold world allowed
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,
Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud
Enveloping the Earth--
And from the soul itself must there be sent
A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth,
Of all sweet sounds the life and element!

It was hard to inhale: a repeat of that heart-sickening thud had closed my airways altogether. And Coleridge's voice continued, this time in prose: "It could not be intellectually more evident without becoming morally less effective; without counteracting its own end by sacrificing the life of faith to the cold mechanism of a worthless because compulsory assent."

And from that small dark corner, the hitherto-silent voice cheered wildly again, the flower preened her feathers and sang.

"Do you set upon a golden bough?" I asked of her, not understanding why. There was no reply. Enough and more than enough, I decided--settling on the couch for a nap. It was late afternoon, I had eaten almost nothing all day, and I was obviously incapable of serious work.

Just as oblivion settled over me, the phone rang.

I was pregnant.

Copyright © 2024, Catherine Wallace. All Rights Reserved.