Mother Chimera

In my ninth summer, I became obsessed with cryptids: tall and furtive Sasquatch, a monster that lurked in Loch Ness, the Chimera of Greek mythology composed of a lion, a goat, and a serpent. It was two years after my father died and two years since we left my half-sister behind with her own father in Kansas City. My mother was a nursing student but worked a data entry job during those humid, in-between months, and I stayed inside, digging into the depths of the internet to learn more about creatures that may or may not exist.

When I’m twenty-eight and working through graduate school, I learn that I might be my own sort of chimera. The process is called fetal microchimerism: the migration of fetal cells from the uterus into the mother’s body. Pathologists in the Netherlands found fetal cells present in every organ they studied: brains, kidneys, hearts. In female mice, fetal cells that traveled to the heart evolved into cardiac tissue. One team of researchers found that fetal cells might influence the mother’s biology by helping wounds heal, increasing her production of breast milk, tricking her thyroid gland into producing more heat—evolutionary slights of hand serving the infant’s best interests. Experts believe this phenomenon to be incredibly common, if not universal. Fetal cells might disappear in the years after pregnancy, or they might stay throughout the mother’s life.

When I learn of fetal microchimerism, I assume that I must be excluded from this legion of women walking around with their children still inside their bodies. My pregnancy ended of its own accord at eleven weeks, surely too soon for fetal cells to leave my uterus for my brain, or kidneys, or heart. But then I read that wandering fetal cells have been detected as early as seven weeks into a pregnancy and I think yes, of course. This is something I have always known: the lingering, the lack of total absence.

I wonder where those cells live inside me now, ten years after I slipped into anesthesia dreams and a surgeon scraped the remains from my uterus. I think finally, proof of existence.


I knew nothing of the “twelve-week rule” when I became pregnant at eighteen, that cautionary vow of silence women often keep until they reach their second trimester. I didn’t hang around many pregnant women, though I knew plenty of girls with babies at my high school and the surrounding ones. My mother worked nights in the neonatal intensive care unit, and I dropped by regularly with dinner when I didn’t want to eat alone. She sometimes led me back to her rooms and I would peer inside the isolettes at the premature infants, eyelids sealed, tiny tubes threaded into tiny mouths, translucent skin stretched across impossibly small bodies. They were beautiful in their inconceivability, and they were beautiful in their conceivability, too—I understood that babies often arrived with no explanation. I did not understand that they might disappear before ever arriving.

It could be true that I also didn’t know enough about birth control. When I started having sex with my boyfriend, twenty-one to my eighteen, I didn’t insist on condoms, though I had talked to neither my mother nor my doctor about getting on the pill. I trusted that S. could be “careful enough” to avoid pregnancy, and the short stint of abstinence-first sex education I received in my southern Missouri public school focused on graphic images of STDs, which I didn’t worry about as S. had been with only one other girlfriend and tested clear since.

The truth, though, was that I didn’t really think about it. I had planned on abstinence until marriage, due both to growing up in church and my mother’s warning that if I had sex with someone, I would want to marry him. I assumed I would get married at twenty-two and have my first child around twenty-four—this being the dominant narrative presented to me. But first, liberal arts college, where I’d been offered a full ride.

The start of my sex life was bound up with grief and rebellion: to save our family farm—where we had lived for several months after my father died, and where I still retreated for solace—I graduated early so my mother and I could move in with my grandmother, then a year into her Alzheimer’s diagnosis and still living alone. But it was too late. Sleeping at the farm one night, my grandmother woke me, clawing at my shoulders and begging me to cut her throat; I returned home and told my mother I couldn’t do it anymore.

Bereft of routine, identity, and the place I’d long thought of as home, I tried all those things I’d abstained from before, a hazy montage of forbidden activities that culminated in taking my first pregnancy test in a gas station bathroom. The test came back negative though it should have been positive; I was pregnant but would be unpregnant soon.

This—the story of the how—is one I’ve grown used to telling. The story I usually sidestep is the one that says I wanted the baby. It’s also the one that admits I like my life as it is now, ten years down a different road, that I may intentionally stay childless, that I still feel a tug, every so often, when I see a friend glowing in maternal hormones. It’s the one that hopes my cardiac tissue is built of fetal cells.


Given her origins, I suppose one could think of the Chimera as a beast. Her serpentine father, Typhon, was the deadliest creature in Greek mythology; her mother, Echidna, half-woman, half-snake. Together, they created numerous monsters. Spotting the Chimera, it was said, foretold disaster: storms, shipwrecks, erupting volcanoes. I never believed those stories as a child: I was convinced most monsters were fundamentally good. The real monsters were clearly death, separation.

And what of my origin as a chimera? It was a simple transformation. S. and I crawled into my bed and arranged our bodies into one, and for the first time I thought I might get pregnant and then at least I wouldn’t be alone.

I imagine it happened in that exact moment: sperm wriggled into egg and the two of us, young but not quite young, pretending to be in love, created the hope of a new person, born out of my loneliness.


Embarrassed to say the baby in public, I used Pickle instead.

As in, Pickle will be here around my nineteenth birthday.

As in, we can’t afford this ring—we need the money for Pickle.

As in the morning I woke and went straight to my mother: I don’t feel Pickle anymore.


My dilation and curettage procedure was scheduled for a Monday morning, after I learned there was no heartbeat on Friday afternoon. I would be placed under anesthesia, and my doctor would dilate my cervix and clear the uterine lining. She warned that my body might start the miscarriage process on its own over the weekend, and this was the last thing I wanted: to feel my womb clench into a fist, expel clumps of blood and tissue, a bright-red fig. Mostly I wanted answers, and they would be lost if my body washed away what was left.

I started to feel cramps Saturday afternoon, and by evening they had grown painful enough that my mother drove me to the emergency room. A nurse tucked me away in a private room and planted a morphine drip in the crook of my arm. For several hours I hovered somewhere between consciousness and ignored the voices at my bedside. S. was away, as he was most of that summer, but just then he was buying a plane ticket home.

Eventually they eased the morphine down to nothing. My doctor wanted to keep the D&C scheduled for Monday, so my mother drove me home and I tried to hold still, willing my body to hang on for a little while longer.

I lasted until Monday. It was a sad sort of victory.


To kill the Chimera, Bellerophon attached a block of lead to his spear and shoved it into the creature’s mouth. The Chimera’s fire-breath melted the lead, and she suffocated to death.


When I woke in the recovery room after surgery, a nurse’s head hovered over mine. “It’s okay,” she said. “I had one too, and now I have three healthy kids.”

And just like that, I gained access to a world of miscarriages.

The woman whose children I watched. My aunt. My friend’s mother, my friend’s sister, my friend’s hairdresser. All of a sudden, they were everywhere, these women I hadn’t known existed. One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, and the percentage would be higher if we could count pregnancies that end before they’re detected. Eighty percent of miscarriages happen in the first trimester, like mine.

And then there are the women who endure years of infertility and multiple miscarriages—read, for starters, Belle Boggs’ The Art of Waiting. There are pregnancies that end in stillbirth, which is where Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water, begins. There are women who must choose between a late-term abortion or giving birth to a stillborn or dying infant, which Mira Ptacin writes of in Poor Your Soul.

I looked for these women and their stories everywhere. Before long, I came to realize each one ended the same: with a baby. The nurse in the recovery room, the woman whose children I watched, my aunt, my friend’s mother, Boggs, Yuknavitch, Ptacin. If the book didn’t end with a successful pregnancy, I would find the writer on the internet and confirm that yes, she had children now, and I would feel both happy for her and betrayed. I was eighteen when I got pregnant, too young to allow myself the solution that appears to so easily follow.

Let’s have a baby, my body seemed to whisper.

In an act of denial, I refused.


I rested on my mother’s couch after surgery, staring, I suppose, at the television. The landline was a few feet away in the kitchen, and I could hear her updating relatives, turning away and mumbling when they asked what I planned to do now. In that moment, I turned to the coping strategy I knew best: creating a story. Pickle’s six short weeks of existence would mean something, if only I insisted on it. I would marry S., as planned, and graduate from the state college. I would have children who never would have existed if it weren’t for all this.

The thing about miscarrying at eighteen is that everyone expects you to feel relieved. You have dodged the ultimate bullet of motherhood—you can go on with your life now. But my life was no longer there, waiting for me. I had dismantled it piece by piece until it resembled something unrecognizable, something I never planned on. When a friend arrived to check on me, I said nothing of the pain or blood, just led her into my bedroom and unzipped the garment bag over my wedding dress, smiling until it began to feel like something I could live with.


The second meaning of chimera: an unattainable dream.


Months after the miscarriage, I developed a case of pleurisy, the tissue that lined my left lung inflamed for no discernible reason. I would wake in the bed I shared with my new husband, crying out and clutching at my ribs. It felt like the left side of my chest cavity was on fire; it was like no pain I’d ever felt. The only way to stop the pain was to stop breathing. And so I would hold my breath until it felt safe again, or until I could trick myself into feeling it was safe.


After the divorce, after I transferred to a new university, I let myself act like a normal nineteen-year-old. This was both confusing and liberating: I was still grieving, but silently. No one could tell I’d been an aspirational mother, a wife.

I did share, occasionally, with others. At first it emerged only when I was drunk, launching out of my mouth like a bad joke I was getting all wrong. I told the story mostly to men, when they wanted to get closer than I wanted to. I never mentioned it otherwise, and that period of time began to feel increasingly detached from my life. Other times, I overhead my peers complaining about their problems and thought only I’m not one of you.

Most women never know why they miscarry. My doctor ordered the D&C so she could send the fetal tissue for genetic testing. I was young, and it had been a suspicious pregnancy from the start. She wanted to know if I would have problems carrying children in the future, if there was something in me that caused this.

In the summer before my senior year, three years after the miscarriage, I finally thought to google the chromosome count the doctor repeated when she called with the pathology results. Then, she’d said only the fetus wasn’t developing normally and it won’t happen again. That night, I learned that Pickle’s chromosome count meant she was, indeed, a she. It also meant she had a genetic condition known as triploidy, an entire extra set of chromosomes. Most triploid pregnancies end in early miscarriage. For the ones carried to birth, the infants typically live minutes or hours.

It was the first time in three long years that I felt relief: neither Pickle nor I suffered as much as we might have suffered. That my doctor did not elaborate— presumably because of my age—was a cruelty I registered much later.


In 1953, a woman known as Mrs. McK reported to a clinic in northern England to donate blood. Her donation, when screened, puzzled the local doctor: it appeared to contain two different blood types. After much deliberation, it came to light that the blood of Mrs. McK’s fraternal twin had infused into her body during gestation, where it still lived. Her brother had died when they were three years old.

In a letter, one of the specialists who discovered the first human chimera on record wrote, “There is no telling how long Mrs. McK will remain a chimera, but she has now been so for twenty-eight years; probably, in the long run her twin brother’s red cells will slowly disappear, and so pay back the still outstanding balance of his mortality.”

Perhaps Pickle’s cells are already gone from me, slipped away without my noticing. Perhaps it’s more futile mean-making to say that I would like to keep her alive, inside of me, for as long as I manage to live.

Is that any different than the ways we honor the rest of our dead? If I could have absorbed my father’s cells—if I could absorb my mother’s, before she goes—I would. I would absorb them into my very being. I would live for them, because I could not have lived without them; I would live for Pickle, who could not have lived without me.


When my sister got pregnant for the first time, during my senior year of college, she was careful not to sound too excited. She told me early in the first trimester, said things like we’ll see and I’m not getting my hopes up yet.

I was driving to spend the weekend with her not much later when she called, distraught. She had started bleeding, lightly, and her doctor recommended a week of bedrest. I didn’t realize this is how you felt, she said. We spent two days hiding in her apartment and talked about the baby like she already existed. In eight months, she did. My sister named her Kerrigan.

I think my mother, sister, and I all wondered, silently, if having a baby in the family would be difficult for me. I was almost twenty-three, five years removed from my own pregnancy, single and working a tedious corporate job. In another life, a version with one less set of chromosomes, I’d be sending my daughter to kindergarten in the fall.

As it turned out, Kerrigan’s arrival had the opposite effect. She was the girl who was meant to be. And she made me her aunt. I knew the party line—being an aunt was better than having a child of your own, because you could lavish them with spoils and send them home when they showed their teeth—but it felt like there was more to it than that. An entirely new relationship: a configuration of love I hadn’t known I wanted.

Two years later, almost finished with my first graduate degree, I picked up the essay collection curated by Meghan Daum, Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. I found myself aligned with these women and men who had chosen to pass on parenthood, particularly those who wrote about their relationships with nieces and nephews. I still thought of Pickle sometimes, especially in terms of how old she would be—walking by now, kindergarten, fourth grade—but I was willing to admit that I might never want to be pregnant again, or experience parenthood. At first, the feeling derived of fear and superstition: I didn’t think I could handle the disappointment of another miscarriage; to have another pregnancy would somehow dilute the significance of the first. But the longer I stayed childless, the more I began to suspect that I simply preferred it that way.

Still, I had moments of feeling cheated. At a wedding reception, I held the babies of high school classmates while their parents took turns on the dance floor. The youngest one, a girl only a few days old, fascinated me: long, stretching fingers and shining blue eyes. The mothers complimented my way with their children and I drained my glass of wine rather then saying yes, remember how I was the first? Back in my hotel room, I scrolled through S.’s social media, looking, as I do occasionally, to see if he’s had a baby yet. It’s less a marker of accomplishment than a curiosity: I want to see our would-be child’s half-sibling, to know what our daughter might have looked like.


And what of Echidna, when her daughter suffocated? Could she feel the loss before she received word of it?

Hesiod wrote that the mother of beasts “dies not nor grows old all her days.” Forever is a long time to thrash around in one’s grief. It might also be an adequate amount of time to forget.


When Kerrigan’s sister was born, I asked if I could be in the delivery room. I resented that birth seemed like a secret ritual a woman only got to experience if she managed to become, and stay, pregnant. I peeked over the doctor’s shoulder when the baby was starting to crown, a head of coiled, black hair emerging from my sister’s body. Annie spilled out facedown, the umbilical cord thick and pulsing, an iridescent shade of lavender, so much longer than I would have believed. I couldn’t look away from it, even as everyone else was watching the baby, writhing under the glare of the heat lamp.

I hoped that when I witnessed this moment—the birth act, a woman watching her daughter born out of her body—I would finally know if I wanted to experience it for myself. I had no such revelation. I just kept staring at the cord.


She feels the tidal pull of a future without him. She has almost forgotten what life was like, all those years ago, when they’d talked over books and equations, she his little witch.