I’m not the most maternal of women, however matronly my body appears.
And my body appeared ready at eleven, twelve, thirteen.
It wasn’t just boys who came with their hands and their mouths and their need. But almost-men. Who tried to put babies in me.
I’ve wanted to have a baby with every boy/man I’ve slept with—even if we’ve spent most of our relationship screaming or tangled on the floor, even if we’ve spent it in his dad’s garage while I watched him taking apart and putting back together his dirt bike to ride in Glamis, white sand dunes in the desert where we lived, high on crystal meth, or we’ve been sleeping in a cupboard in a wall on the San Diego beach. If I haven’t loved him. If he’s annoyed the shit out of me. If he’s been cold or unkind or exploitative. If I’ve believed all of these things were love anyway.
I wanted to be pregnant when I was thirteen and rode across my Mexicali border town on a pink bicycle with streamers on the handles to tell the boy I loved that the pregnancy test was negative. He’d already broken up with me backstage during a community production of Kiss Me Kate that we were both cast in; on a roll of paper towels, he’d scrawled a letter apologizing to me, because he loved me, I was his first true love, but he was gay and he couldn’t fight who he was any longer. Even so. I’d still wished the test had shown its two blue lines and that the news I was delivering to my gay ex-boyfriend when I was still young enough that I didn’t know how to drive a car or who Gloria Anzaldúa or Betty Friedan or bell hooks were, let alone who I was, was that I was pregnant.
And when I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen—
I lied to the boy I loved, told him I was taking my birth control when I wasn’t. Considered cutting condoms.
I wanted a baby that bad.
I read recently that teens are having less sex.
A 2018 study by economists at the University of Maryland and Wellesley College found that one-third of the drop in teen birth rates between 2011 and 2014 could be attributed to teens watching shows like MTV’s 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom. Experts speculate cautionary tales act as peer pressure, reinforcing the growing social norm of not getting pregnant young.
Even so, they say, the statistics uncover a stark reality: Girls of color are still much more likely to become pregnant young.
Two major factors in high teen birth rates: poverty and geography.
Rural teens have higher pregnancy rates than urban and suburban teens. According to these university psychologists and teen advocates, more important than cultural or religious differences? Education and access to contraceptives. They say it’s about lack of opportunity.
I wanted to be pregnant when I was nineteen in community college after dropping out of university and sleeping with a man in his thirties whom I’d met in Mexican Art History and who’d been released from prison two months earlier.
He called me his Heina, which made me feel like an animal, like he was calling me hyena. But I never asked him to stop. I knew the term from the Sublime song “Santeria” —If I could find that Heina, and that Sancho that she’s found. / Well, I’d pop a cap in Sancho and I’d slap her down.
He was fourteen years my senior, but in many ways we were equals—he’d spent the last fourteen years locked in a room no larger than his mother’s hallway—he reached his muscular, tattooed arms from wall to wall, showing me how small his life had been, until just months before.
A couple years later, on a street called Bolsa Chica—Little Bag—a few miles from the beach in Orange County, I sat in a fertility clinic. Little Bag. I thought of the empty purse I’d been carrying inside of me, its small and strangled black pearls. A sac of fish eggs was called a mermaid’s pouch, I’d learned, so I sat in the room with fertility magazines because babyhood magazines would be too cruel, and repeated to myself a mantra I’d made, likening myself to the mythical creature I’d become if I could break out of my own broken body: If only I could peel them off, these sticky pearls / Aborted before they’d grown protective shells, / I’d rise, I’d rise in sprays.
My new husband and I were the youngest people there. Twenty-two. My best friend Lisa had been watching me try and have a baby since I was thirteen. She’d watched me meet and marry Andrew in six months when I was twenty. She prayed for my miracle.
The medical assistant called me back, weighed me. 272 pounds.
Andrew took pictures as I laid back on the table. “Why are you taking them now? Nothing’s happened yet. I’m not pregnant,” I snapped.
He answered, “To mark the beginning of our journey.”
He still has those pictures somewhere. I look pale, unkempt, tired. My face always swollen. He took pictures of the empty screen where a sonogram should go.
When I think now about myself lying there, empty and depressed, the doctor pressing the sonogram wand against my stomach and saying how difficult it was to get a clear shot through the layers of skin and fat, so much fat, the memory of my Miracle Girl, my daughter, superimposes itself, how she hung on to my uterus, tenacious and clingy as she is now, present in my past, so that I almost believe her when she tells me she was in heaven watching me before.
But I wasn’t empty because I wasn’t pregnant. I realize that now.
After each failed treatment, my husband scrubbed my bloody underwear with a hard-bristled brush, the kind made of boar’s hair and meant to remove oil stains from concrete, and bleach, while I sobbed, sometimes lying on the bathroom floor. I don’t know why he went along with any of it, not when we could have been young people, traveling, backpacking somewhere and staying in hostels. I’ve never stayed in a hostel. They scare me. Sharing a bathroom with strangers. Though I have lived in a cupboard for weeks in a San Diego drug house with a boy/man who claimed I was so damn sexy. I’m always braver than I realize. Or stupider.
At my wedding, my dad stood to make a toast. He ended it with, “Now get started making my grandchildren.” Everyone laughed.
I suppose my dad had no idea I’d been trying for many years. That I’d ridden Lisa’s pink bicycle across town to tell my gay ex-boyfriend I wanted to be pregnant. I’d stolen a pregnancy test from Thrifty’s—tucked it into my sweater’s hand cuff, as I’d done earlier in Ace’s Hardware with my parents, cuffing a box-cutting razor blade, retractable and bright orange.
I’ve wanted a baby since I internalized the subtext enshrouding me as a fat woman in America perpetually asked when I was due.
Pregnancy destigmatizes fatness—Western society lets a woman be fat if it thinks she’s growing life. Lets her eat. Celebrates her fatness, even, her belly, her need to fill herself, to nourish herself. If it thinks she’s carrying someone else.
In junior high and even high school, Lisa and I used to stand in our bras and underwear in front of the bathroom mirror to mark what we could look like if we were thin-–drawing down our bodies with magic marker, sometimes permanent marker, in thick jagged lines. We marked the places we would cut the fat away, unfold ourselves from ourselves, if the markers had been truly magic and permanent. We used to grab our mounds of thigh fat between our legs, pulling apart, and walk like strange circus performers or crabs down the block, imagining what it would feel like for our thighs not to rub together. We used to wear deodorant between our thighs so that we wouldn’t chafe, the prickly, red heat rash that would develop whenever we wore skirts or shorts in the summertime.
The razorblade wasn’t for that, exactly. But maybe the dawning realization that I might never become who I wanted to be. That I might never be anything but alone in my own body. In my own mind. That no one could ever make me feel whole.
I couldn’t have articulated that when I was thirteen, or any of the times I’ve contemplated committing suicide, whether the cuts have been deep or shallow, the knot tight or loose.
A year after giving birth to my daughter, I threw myself naked onto a pile of laundry in our New Mexico closet and sobbed for hours when Andrew said he didn’t want more children. He was done with my baby fever.
There are always women pregnant around me when I most want children and can’t have them—but they’re not usually women I relate with. Like my neighbor, a decade older, at last half a foot taller and a hundred pounds lighter, with straight blonde hair and blue eyes. Our yards shared a brick wall, low enough for the kids to climb over and where we could chat, like moms on TV. She’d ask if I had any almond milk or cans of tuna. One time it was coconut shreds in a plastic baggie I handed over the brick. She’s always cooking and never has the right ingredients. We could speak about our children and day-to-day trials—my children have been smearing their diapers across the walls, I had a hard time getting out of bed this morning—but I’ve had to pretend about the deeper issues.
I didn’t know until several years into our friendship that she studied botany in college. I had always thought she just enjoyed planting strawberry and raspberry vines along the brick wall, creeping up and onto our side—though I never allowed the kids to pick and eat them for unreasonable, nonsensical fear. She’d list the plants that enjoy being near each other, the bugs that help and hinder, the soil conditions. I’d nod along, only mildly interested, but listening for a plant name I might later insert in a poem.
We both seemed like stay-at-home moms and I know I’ve unfairly judged her before I spent time listening to her, before she opened up to me, for I hadn’t chosen staying home to mother, not really—I left a few hours a week to teach college English and was working on my poetry collections or novels and earning another graduate degree. I’ve rebelled against the idea that I am a mom in yoga pants although I live in yoga pants, the only comfortable clothing that don’t cinch into the muffin top of my waist or cut into my lungs and leave me with heartburn. I’ve had this idea of myself in two separate lives—and though I’ve found a way to twine them together like balls of colorful yarn that formed a nebulous shape, a potholder, a baby blanket, a shaggy dog bed—I’ve judged myself from both perspectives. I’m not a respected professional or an efficient mother. I’m sloppy and jumbled. My kids’ hair goes mostly unbrushed all summer and they wear pajamas as clothes, as I wear mine to write poems about them playing, teetering the brick wall between us like acrobats or ants.
Eventually I learned she taught piano from home. Her hair often matted. Her clothes wrinkled. I’ve learned to love her completely. She’s a taller, thinner, lighter-skinned mirror.
Once, when I’d lost forty pounds, we were standing on the cold, morning-wet October field at our kids’ school for the balloon ascension to kick off the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. My neighbor looked at me as if truly seeing me for the first time and said, “You’re so beautiful.” Maybe it was that I always started wearing makeup and jeans again whenever I lost some weight—that I sometimes actually brushed my hair. Maybe it was just easier for people to look at me when I was thinner.
She didn’t mean to hurt me.
When she told me she was pregnant with her fourth, she was crying.
She hadn’t wanted more kids.
Her pregnancies were awful, painful. She’d almost died.
I held my breath, the way I have anytime another woman is pregnant when I’ve wanted desperately to be pregnant, that old need creeping up inside me.
Her husband insisted. Before she’d gotten pregnant, he’d asked her if she could with complete certainty say that God did not have another child waiting in heaven. She couldn’t answer with certainty. She was turning forty in less than a year. She had agreed to throw out her birth control until she turned forty. If God had a child for them, he’d better make that child known before her birthday because once the deadline came, she was getting her tubes tied.
She laughed bitterly over the phone. She’d really thought God had cared what she’d wanted.
I was crying too.
My daughter and I have been listening recently to the new Beauty & the Beast soundtrack—we put Belle’s reprise on repeat: I want adventure in the great wide somewhere, I want it more than I can tell. And for once it might be grand, to have someone understand. I want so much more than they’ve got planned. We love that Emma Watson plays two heroines we relate to, both Hermione and Belle—and that in the remake, instead of crying in the golden room, Belle begins fashioning a rope to climb out. We also love Katniss in The Hunger Games, though we loathe how wishy-washy she is about boys. My daughter wishes Katniss would stop kissing altogether. She has more important things to worry about—like saving her entire country.
At my cruelest and most jaded, I’ve shored up every writer’s residency a woman without children has attended during the making of a book with a fuck. Fuck MacDowell, fuck Hedgebrook, fuck Martha’s Vineyard, fuck Vermont Studio, fuck, fuck, fuck. My anger is misplaced, of course. Mothers go to these residencies. They make childcare plans and adapt.. Women without children still face the sexist, misogynistic landscape that privileges men’s writing over women’s—no matter the subject. I could apply to these places; I have applied and been accepted. It wasn’t the residency’s fault or that of the women who’ve earned their places that I couldn’t attend. I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t find childcare. I couldn’t leave my screaming children. I couldn’t leave myself.
Before I drove three hours south to write with a friend, my three-year-old daughter had cried for hours, throwing herself down the stairs and hitting her head on the banister, screaming. I recorded her on my iPhone at one point and texted it to my friend so she’d be somewhat prepared if I bailed at the eleventh hour, as I do. I’ve been away from my daughter for two months of her ten-year-old life—I’ve counted the days and nights.
At many points in my adjunct life of three published novels, a whole hand of published poetry collections, and still no money, I couldn’t even afford a hundred-dollar online workshop. Surely mothering through poverty wasn’t what I had in mind when I was thirteen and so desperately wanted to love myself I thought it took another body inside mine.
When I was a little girl I would get into a cardboard box, or better yet a wooden box if we could find one. Sometimes the hollow trunk of a tree would do. Someone would come along with a saw. We were imagining, but in my mind the saw was sharp, its jagged spines as real as the splinters in my fingers from rubbing my palms against the plywood. The imaginary had the distinctive ability to inflict physical pain. I knew what came next. We were a magic act—whoever held the saw needed me. Needed me to split in half and stay alive. That was the wonder. It wouldn’t have been magic if I’d bled out. Or screamed. If I gave any indication I was anything but a miracle.
Outside in the backyard I watched my daughter through the screen, burying her friend under a scarf, through the holes in the broken playhouse, placing her friend’s hands across her chest as if she were dead, and I wondered if I was the one in my memory holding the saw. I always remembered myself in the box. But watching my daughter ordering the other girl around, bossing her and pushing her, carrying her if necessary, to the place she insists the other girl should stay, for however long she must stay, I wondered which role I played.
My family tells me I was the sassiest, bossiest girl they’d ever met.
Bisabuela Vera and Prima Lizzie called me La Abogada, the lawyer, because I could argue anyone under the table. I’d convince my dad to take me to preschool in pink ballet tutus and pajamas, my hair uncombed. I wonder how much of that was his incompetence or sheepishness, but Bisabuela insists anyone was putty in my hands when I decided to put on a production: La Abogada throws a tantrum.
Mom says that outside the Whittier condo, under the neighborhood pavilion, I lined my friends up in a row, all facing the bushes, little toy soldiers. Then I stood at the front of the line, facing them. And pushed.
They came down like dominos.
She’s told that story countless times throughout my life. Each time, my cheeks and neck flush with heat at my callousness. I like to imagine instead that I was practicing cause and effect, like my father the science teacher, bringing home experiments like the Lucky Swaying Machine. Or the Newton Cradle Balls, that pendulum demonstrating the laws of conservation of momentum and energy, metal balls strung from nylon, perpetually clinking back and forth.
I made the rules. I held the law in my own hands. Or the magic.
If there was splitting or falling or time traveling, it was by my manipulation of the game.
I’ve wanted babies even as I’ve raised my two children as best I can through sometimes debilitating depression, through a global pandemic, even as they’ve become tweens and teens and I feel like I’m in a new country every other week. Who are you, child? And each time they transform, I must ask myself as a mother, again and again, who am I?
I’ve wanted babies even though I’m not a natural stay-at-home mom. I don’t love to bake. I don’t do baby talk. A baby’s cries of need still call me forth, but whiny crying and toddler tantrums get on my nerves to no end. Once, the neighbors came over to play with my children and their younger siblings tagged along. When one little girl wouldn’t stop crying over a necklace she wasn’t allowed to play with in the magical school game they’d set up in a living room tent too near where I was tapping away at my laptop, I gave an ultimatum—stop crying or go home. She wouldn’t stop crying. The older siblings took her home. I could have intervened and distracted her, but she wasn’t my child.
I babysat all through junior high and high school, and I’ve always loved the newest of babies, when they still need you. Before they start wanting all kinds of things you can’t give them. Or don’t want to.
As I worked my way through community college as a nanny and housekeeper, I sometimes pretended the kids I watched were mine, though they called me mean names for Mexican and fat. They missed their white mother whom I was instructed to lock from the house if she came round with her boyfriend. I was lonely and scrubbing toilets felt like home.
I wanted babies when I was fifteen and the boy I loved asked me to have an abortion.
When he told me his family would warm up to me when I had our first baby.
When he got another girl pregnant and became a father.
It’s been over a decade since I had a baby.
My son used to bring his adoption scrapbook onto my bed and ask to read it with me. It depicts the trip to Michigan, meeting his birth mama. He asked us where babies come from.
My daughter was sitting with us, listening.
My son had watched Milo & Otis, the children’s movie about a cat and dog friendship, where each animal meets a partner and mates. He saw the dog’s saggy body squirting puppies and thought she was shitting black eggs that cracked apart once released to the world. He was terrified humans too emerged from the anus. “She’s a mammal,” he said. “And so are we. That means we must be shit.”
My daughter didn’t help when she said, “I still have my birth mama,” though I told her that wasn’t a kind thing to say and anyway doesn’t matter since they both came from my heart.
I showed them an anatomically correct but cartoonish drawing I found online, but they saw at once it wasn’t a heart. Viewing the sagittal plane of the pregnant body, I Kegel-squeezed instinctively the way I did for months to keep that slippery girl from falling out as I explained the rectum and the bladder, then the birth canal.
My son was disappointed the woman’s stomach doesn’t split open, but I didn’t explain C-sections. That wasn’t his story. I wanted him to understand his own first before I gave him other versions.
My daughter thought the belly button bursts like on a tight sweater.
They both thought birth was magic. And of course it is magic.
But it’s not the only magic.
I divorced my husband because he wouldn’t have more babies with me. He said two was enough and we could focus on them. He grew up in the foster care system, fell through the cracks, went unloved and unsupported, and fears that more than two means parents spread too thin. He wants to keep our love thick.
I divorced him and began an affair with a man I’d loved when we were teenagers, though he was all wrong for me, but he told me I was gorgeous and sexy and promised that he would put a baby inside me. I moved myself and my children a thousand miles to Texas for that man.
And a few weeks after I got there, two shaky blue lines on the pregnancy test sitting beside the toilet in the apartment I’d rented for us, he told me that he couldn’t leave his wife for me.
I wanted a baby that bad.
And miscarried a few weeks later.
Back in New Mexico with my husband no longer my husband but something close, for three years, we worked to repair the damage, healing the wounds, tending our love for each other and our family. I made a deal with my therapist I would stick with it for X months, and when we got there, I didn’t even try to run away. Therapy was that good. I wrote a letter to my body thanking it for everything it’s done for me. I realized I’ve never been empty.
I’m still determined to unravel how I began to believe I was too fat to love myself and needed someone else to love me. Why I believed I was only worthwhile if a man wanted me enough to get inside me and put a baby there. Why I still cry sometimes during sex and after. Why I took a pregnancy test on Christmas Eve that could be nothing else but negative for the precautions we took, but I just wanted to believe.
Sometimes I still considered cutting the condoms my partner insists on wearing. Opening the foil packets carefully with steam, puncturing tiny holes with a needle, folding the thin, latex sheath that separates me from the world of babies back inside the foil, replacing it in the drawer beside our bed, where, in the dark of night, he might not have noticed they’d been tampered with.
Of course I didn’t.
Eventually, we got remarried. Like Frida and Diego. For better or worse.
My obsession with babies never went away, but I sat in the car and waited outside the clinic while my husband got the vasectomy. I drove him home. Helped him apply ice.
I grieved the selves we’d never been but maybe, in a few years, when our nests empty—we might become. I’m looking forward to meeting them.
My thirteen-year-old daughter and I are writing another YA novel together, and she tells me when she grows up we’ll go to Europe together, we’ll learn a new language, we’ll study the classics and take the world by storm.
When she sees a baby at the grocery store, she scrunches her face.
“What, mijita?” I ask her.
“I don’t like babies,” she says.
And I marvel not so much at the miracle of birthing just one beautiful shining thing—
But at the miracle of my daughter’s girlhood, one where she can think and dream and live into anything she wants. Where she knows, with certainty, that she is enough.