All life is suffering.
This is what Rob, a Jewish-Buddhist friend, wrote to me in an email.
Julie and I continue to have no luck getting pregnant.
Then: It’s the first noble truth in Buddhism; to live is to suffer.
According to my calculations, when he wrote this, Rob and his wife had been trying to have a baby for close to three years.
“I’m so sorry,” I wrote.
OK. So I should have just hit the “SEND” button there and called it a day.
But I had my own problems.
Only a week before, over a rare Sunday brunch complete with Bloody Marys, I was complaining about motherhood to my husband Ben. I was moaning about my fatigue, about how hard the last few months had been while he traveled and I juggled a part-time job with managing the bulk of responsibilities for our ten-month-old son.
“I need more time to think,” I said. “To write. To simply breathe.”
I told him that I was losing my mind, citing two recent events — arriving at an important work meeting with my son’s poop still on my jacket, and leaving the daycare with my blouse unbuttoned after nursing — as evidence.
Ben didn’t argue. Instead, he took a sip of his drink and, very much out of character, replied calmly, “I understand. I’ll try to help more.”
I walked away from my plate of eggs and bacon feeling not just full, but hopeful.
An hour later, however, I was ready to throw up.
My husband and I had eaten the same thing, yet he felt fine.
When that queasy feeling didn’t go away the next day, or the day after that, or even the day after that, I panicked. On the morning of my 38th birthday, in the fall of 2006, I purchased a home pregnancy kit from Walgreens. Peace of mind, I told myself as I debated whether it was worth the $13.99.
An hour later, I was sitting on the toilet, hunched over, sobbing.
“Are you OK?” Ben asked.
“Do I look OK?”
He removed the urine stick from my hand. “Holy shit.”
“Happy fucking birthday!” I said, flashing him a smile that resembled something akin to Jack Nicholson in the Shining.
Then a car honked in the driveway.
“Holy shit,” he said again. “I’m sorry, babe.” He looked at his watch. “I gotta catch this plane. I’ll call my mother to come help.”
I turned around and vomited into the bowl. “You do that,” I whispered, but he was already gone.
When my mother-in-law arrived later that afternoon, I told her I had a stomach bug. Sharing news of this baby with anyone who was likely to become emotionally attached to it in the womb was risky. This early in the game, I had to keep all my options on the table. Abortion included.
Unfortunately, this was exactly when I received Rob’s email about the first noble truth. Maybe that could explain why I responded rather callously writing: Suffering is subjective I suppose.
I proceeded to tell him about my unwanted pregnancy, about how the whole affair had thrown, not just a wrench, but a giant wrecking ball into my already failing plan to juggle writing, motherhood and my day job. ‘How would I ever be able to do anything again with not just one, but two babies?’ I wrote, adding a trite unhappy face at the end.
Was I trying to commiserate with Rob? Or was I just so caught up in my own misery that I couldn’t help but dump it on my friend, a man who desperately wanted to have a baby of his own?
Although I checked my inbox frequently, Rob never responded.
Days after my home pregnancy diagnosis, I went to see my OB. “Women are very fertile after they have their first baby,” she remarked. “This happens a lot.”
Great, I thought. Maybe someone could have told me this sooner?
My period had returned just two months before and for some reason, I believed I knew when I was ovulating. I believed that having sex twice in two months, timed appropriately, could not result in a pregnancy. Armed with the same adolescent-like ignorance that convinced me my freckles protected me from skin cancer (a misconception corrected by the dermatologist who removed the basil cell carcinoma from my nose), I had fooled myself again, and the consequences, again, were huge.
As my belly grew (and it grew much faster the second time), my despair grew, too. Although I was not a religious person, I was certain someone, something (God? The “Universe”?) was pissed at me. ‘Ask for more free time; receive baby.’
My husband on the other hand, was not upset. One might attribute such nonchalance to being male, and thus, being biologically exempt from both the physical and mental hardships of pregnancy and labor. But I also understood Ben’s attitude to be because as an only child himself, he’d always wanted more than one kid. Before we were even married, in our early discussions about children, it was obvious that we were far from being on the same page.
“I want a big family,” Ben had said at dinner one evening.
“Like four kids.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“There’s no way. Two, maybe… at the most.” But even that sounded unfathomable to me.
“Well I want four,” he said.
“Then have them with someone else,” I said.
In the way that all couples have their recurring themes, it was an argument we revisited several times.
Still, despite the fact that we never came to a compromise, I went off the pill in January, 2005. The idea: See what would happen. I was 35, still undecided and apprehensive about becoming a mom. So I figured I’d leave the decision to biology and fate. If it doesn’t happen easily, I was fond of saying to people, then it wasn’t meant to be.
But within three months of going off the pill, I was pregnant.
After surviving four months of morning sickness, the first pregnancy was a wondrous, exciting affair during which my husband and I were obsessed with my belly, watching for even the tiniest signs of movement. We talked excitedly about possible names. My husband even rubbed my feet.
But with the second baby, my feet went untouched. The name book gathered dust on the shelf. My husband threatened that termination of this pregnancy would result in termination of our marriage. Still, I quietly held onto the option up until the last minute, the 13th week, when, from a health perspective, the risk of complications increases. I took the question to some friends, to three other women, ages 70, 50 and 38 — all writers, all with children.
“What has brought you more joy? I asked them. “Your writing, or your children?”
Without pause, all three said their children.
Who was I kidding, anyway? When I was 20 and pregnant with a baby from my not-so-fully-committed college boyfriend, there was no question I would have an abortion. But now? I knew I couldn’t go through with it.
Unfortunately, this decision brought little relief. My misery grew, and my son, who could sense my despair, looked at me as though I was the Wicked Witch of the West complete with flying monkeys in my belly. He clung to his father, his rejection of me only fueling the anxiety I experienced when I imagined life with two children. And then there was the pity I saw in many a mom’s eye when I told them my babies would be 17 months apart. That didn’t help my mood, either.
My therapist suggested an antidepressant. Despite the risks, I tried one, but I got the runs and went off it within a week.
At the twenty-week ultrasound, when I found out I was having another boy, I complained to my therapist that this was the final straw. “What do I know about raising boys?” I said. “I grew up with sisters. Why is this happening to me?”
I thought I saw a look of ‘oh shut up already’ cross her face. Still, she gently offered, “You know, the Buddha says that our children are our teachers. Maybe there is something to learn here.”
That friggin’ Buddha again, I thought. But her words stuck.
The last few weeks of the pregnancy were the worst. My irritability was off the charts, most of it aimed at my husband.
Like when Ben told me that my son would point and yell “Mommy!” every time he saw the lion in the children’s book Polar Bear, Polar Bear.
“Isn’t that cute?” Ben said.
I grabbed the book out of his hand and flipped manically to the page with the lion. “You think that’s cute?” I yelled “You think I look like that? Like I have a lion’s mane?!” Ben laughed. I cried, locking myself and my thick, wavy Jew hair in the bathroom.
The night before I was scheduled to be induced, ten days past my due date, I went into labor on my own. Fortunately, things went faster this time. Unlike the first labor when I pushed for an excruciating three hours, this time was a breezy twenty-five minutes. Unlike the first labor when my epidural was so strong I felt nothing, this time the drugs were weak. This time I learned what it felt like to push an 8 ½ pound new life into the world. It hurt. But it was also pretty damn empowering
Although the babies looked similar, my firstborn was a colicky, suspicious little guy who didn’t smile until five months. A chip off the old parental block, my husband joked. When my second guy began smiling routinely at two months, we assumed it was gas. As the weeks went by, however, it became clear that we were wrong. It became clear that somehow, by some miracle, this baby had come out happy. And let me be clear here: not just a little happy, but ecstatically, undilutedly happy.
Still, the baby’s joyous demeanor alone was not enough for me to admit that maybe having this second child wasn’t the horrible event I had assumed it would be. That would take something else — a phone call from an old friend, to be exact, which occurred about four months into my new role as mom of two boys. I had not talked to Lauren in almost a year, since she had moved to Philadelphia. The first thing she asked about when she called was the new baby. I immediately launched into my well-worn narrative of the unexpected pregnancy, the depression, me as the undeserving victim. I didn’t get far — only to the part about the pregnancy being a complete surprise — when Lauren cut me off, saying, “Ah, a gift!”
In his book, Stumbling upon Happiness, author Daniel Gilbert surmises that we humans are pretty lousy at predicting what will make us happy. His main point is this: What we expect will make us happy, often won’t. After my conversation with Lauren, I began wondering about the reverse: How often does it happen that what we expect will make us miserable fails to do so? Or, to take it a step further, how often does what we expect will make us miserable actually make us a little happier than we were before?
Interestingly, about a month ago, I finally heard from my friend Rob again. It was a group email, a birth announcement, complete with photos of his recently born twin boys.
My first impulse was to write him a lengthy email detailing the past year. I would tell him how most of my predictions about having a second child — the exhaustion, the nonexistent free time, the incessant demands — were pretty much on target. Then I’d tell him about all the many things I hadn’t expected.
Like yesterday morning, for instance, when I was sitting quietly with the baby. I thought he was asleep until suddenly, he reached out and patted my chest. It was a grateful sort of pat, a gesture of warmth that seemed to say, “Hey mom, I’m really glad you’re here.” And I thought, “Hey kid, I’m really glad you’re here, too.”
In the end, however, I decided to spare Rob my soliloquy. I kept my response simple, the emphasis where it should be:
“They are beautiful,” I wrote. Then I hit send.