Motherhood was a dream of love planted in my heart before I was born, always a “when,” never an “if.” Even after I divorced at 34, childless, I still assumed my future would follow the date-marry-procreate blueprint I’d always imagined. But four years, dozens of dates and not a single serious boyfriend later, it seemed that a husband’s second coming was unlikely in my immediate future.
That’s when I started researching artificial insemination in earnest. But it seemed as if you had to be either a high-powered career woman or lesbian couple to seek a stranger’s sperm. Aren’t there women like me, I wondered — not partnered, yet to achieve their full earnings potential — who have managed to become a mama?
I spent months agonizing over these two strikes against me. But it was the one I’d considered least — my depression — that almost upended my dream of motherhood.
Sitting with my writing group one morning after receiving an “I don’t see this working out” text the night before from the man who I’d been seeing, the second of the summer, I blurted out, “If my life at 47 is the same it was at 27, I’d rather not live it.”
Our literary pack leader, Alison, called a coffee break and led me by the elbow to a hibiscus-shaded corner of the patio. “I’m going to be the nosy auntie here giving unsolicited advice,” she said. “I think you should do it on your own.”
“Have a baby?” I asked.
“You’ll never regret it. There is great power in taking control of what you want,” she said.
I’d always wanted a family, not just a baby, but bad luck in love suddenly struck me as an extraneous reason to forsake my fertility. Still, I lived on the scant salary of an adjunct professor with no budget for night nurses or a nanny. The work of feeding, swaddling, soothing and rearing would rest entirely with me.
Alison linked her arm with mine and asked if my parents might be willing to help out financially.
“Possibly,” I said. Then my spider web of worries began rearranging itself. The longtime hurdle of overcoming my romance problem so I could attend to my desire to have children got knocked down to half its height.
I watched my mind recalibrate elements of the impossible into a plan. I’d need a better paying job with benefits. Not unfeasible. My home office would make a sufficient nursery. My two younger siblings lived five minutes away and my parents an hour; I’d not be alone, only un-partnered.
A week later, I was in the office of my OB-GYN, telling her about my plans for artificial insemination.
“Congratulations,” she said, the first I’d heard. She squeezed cold goop on my belly, pushed the ultrasound wand across it and said, “Good news, your follicles look nice and plump.”
“Really?” I asked.
“I see one right there,” she said.
When she opened the door to go, I thanked her. “You’re welcome. Honey, this is the best thing you’ll ever do for yourself,” she said.
Out of her office, I looked around wildly for someone to tell, “Guess what, I’m still fertile!” Then the partnerless part sunk in. So, I called my sister and shared the good news.
A few days later, I took the next step and went to my psychiatrist’s office, there to develop a titration plan to ease me off the antidepressant cocktail that had kept my major depression manageable since my mid-20s. I was determined to have the safest pregnancy possible, and antidepressants posed possible problems for the baby, I’d heard. My two close girlfriends with depression had stopped their meds before conceiving. My general practitioner had reassured me, “Once you’re pregnant, you’ll be so happy and excited, you won’t even miss your medicine.” I wanted to believe her.
My psychiatrist seemed to weigh the risks versus benefits, saying, without a “negative romantic relationship in my life,” a depression-triggering event was unlikely. “Let’s get you pregnant by the New Year!” she encouraged.
I got off one medication with mild emotional discomfort comparable to PMS. With the other, I dwindled my dose down from 30 milligrams to 10 milligrams, effortlessly. To my inquiring mother, I said, “I’m doing really well!”
Ten milligrams was the last time I could remember feeling human.
It happened so quickly. One morning I was there, the next I felt a little gulf between me and the things I took pleasure in, cooking and hiking, reading poetry and putting on makeup in the morning. Three days into a 7.5 milligram dose, my eyes couldn’t attach to the meaning of printed words, nor the drama of my beloved “Big Little Lies,” nor the crackling pleasure of dark chocolate or coffee.
I looked in the mirror at my face, now a pile of wet clay I couldn’t shape into a smile, then fell to my knees, feet crumpled under me. My heap of a body heaved; I couldn’t recall what it felt like to be the brave, determined woman who had decided — with great faith and optimism — to have a baby on her own. “I don’t deserve to be someone’s mother,” I thought, a flood of worthlessness hitting me in my heart-fortress.
I had known doing it on my own would be hard, require relentless planning and persistence. I’d anticipated the jaw-clenching contractions of childbirth. But I had never imagined the emotional bone-breaking would come before I even became pregnant.
I started bargaining with God. I’ll undergo this complete loss of self, but can you maybe send a lover my way? Or, I will do it alone, but please turn this monster I’ve become back into a woman.
I brought my struggle to my therapist, who looked at me and said, “Are you sure you don’t want to take antidepressants?”
“I don’t want to mess up my baby,” I cried.
“Even if you’re no longer able to work or take care of yourself?” she asked.
I remembered the advice a friend gave me after my divorce as I tried to reimagine a new life for myself. Think of “Gulliver’s Travels,” he’d said. Gulliver is held down by the Lilliputians’ tiny ropes. Problems are just like that. You snap one tie, then another, then another, until you’re free.
I consulted my OB-GYN again, this time to ask about the possibility of restarting an antidepressant. “I don’t take moms off their meds anymore,” she said. “The mother’s well-being is also important.”
“Thank God,” I breathed.
So I returned to a stabilizing dose, and the Sophie I knew rushed back to me with all the magical resurrection of a homecoming.
People say that you can’t wait for everything to be perfect before becoming a parent. As I prepare for another round of artificial insemination, I think about my child not having a father, a circumstance they didn’t agree to. But even if I could offer up two happy, married parents, the world itself is not perfect.
When my child asks why or how I did it, I’ll conjure the calm every parent musters to soothe their child and say, “Darling, you knocked and knocked, and when your knocking drowned out all other sounds, I made a door the best way I knew how and opened it.”