The first baby I didn’t have was the one I wasn’t even pregnant with. Or maybe I was. Maybe it was one of those very early miscarriages I learned about later, the kind that happens even before the cells get their marching orders–you, go build a brain; you, start a kidney–and ends with a red flag in the underwear. Bright gush of defeat or answered prayer, depending.
It was January of my senior year in college, and I’d spent winter break having friendly, nightly sex with Jerry Halperin in the guest room of his parents’ house in Detroit. Six months earlier, on our third date, Jerry asked if I had any objections to premarital sex. It was the word “pre-marital” that scared me. I didn’t want Jerry to think that our congenial tumbles — in my dorm room five stories above Elm Street, on the mattress of his disheveled Cambridge house — were prelude to any long-term promise. My future scrolled out like fresh parchment, thrillingly and terrifyingly empty. I was pretty sure that Jerry would be no more than a footnote.
Then my period was late. I’d bled, without cramps or trauma, every 28 days since the age of 14. I checked and rechecked the calendar, reviewed our sex for any moments of recklessness. Jerry liked sheepskin condoms that carried an oily, farmyard smell, but he never objected to using one. We’d been careful.
Still, I knew my biology. Sperm were single-minded, competitive creatures; maybe one spunky overachiever had succeeded, and a clump of Jerry and me was already twitching down my Fallopian tube, setting up house in my uterus. The idea made me want to scream.
I memorized the number of University Health Services. I imagined the metal instruments that would scrape me, like pulling barnacles from a seabed. I waited. I prayed. I prayed for an empty womb, I prayed for the little bundle of cells, if there was one, to self-destruct, I prayed for the tide of blood that would give me back my life.
I was in the bathroom of Cross Campus Library, taking a break from Chaucer, when the first pink spot appeared. I rummaged for a tampon and danced back to my study carrel. I never told Jerry. A month later, I broke up with him, by phone. But for some reason, I couldn’t throw away the last of the sheepskin condoms. I thought of their earthy smell, and the luck of the draw, and the baby Jerry and I would never make.
Thirteen years later, I asked my high school ex-boyfriend if he would give us sperm to make a baby. There is really no delicate way to phrase such a request; we did it by letter, paragraphs that Elissa and I fine-tuned as if we were crafting an international treaty. Elissa wanted to be pregnant–a yearning I didn’t share and didn’t entirely comprehend–but she’d managed, over the course of two years, to talk me over the hump of resistance and doubt.
She was 36. We knew our biology, knew that her eggs had a limited shelf life, that our chances would be better with fresh sperm. And Paul was a mensch, had been a mensch even in high school, when he spent a summer helping poor people build houses and once gave me, as a Chanukah gift, a large, bespectacled, stuffed ape.
Besides, Paul looked like me–dark curly hair, big eyes–so maybe his DNA and Elissa’s would twine into a kid who resembled both of us. I imagined the weight of that baby: her moist breath, his pomegranate mouth, how I would recognize that child instantly as family. I pictured a nearsighted, skeptical toddler in faded OshKosh jeans, with a predilection for Scrabble and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Elissa and I whispered a prayer as we dropped the letter into a Portland mailbox. Two months later, on a visit to Philadelphia, I took a walk with Paul, circles and circles around a park where we used to make out as teenagers.
“I’m flattered, I’m intrigued, and part of me wants to say yes. The idea of alternative family–it would be kind of cool. But I’m sorry, I just can’t.” His life was already complicated: an ex-wife, a son, a grown stepson, aging parents. He couldn’t add another wrinkle of relationship. Did I understand? His eyes were tender, like they were on the day we broke up, outside Lower Merion High School, the spring we were sixteen.
I came home to Portland empty-handed. That night, Elissa and I held each other and cried, our bodies pressed together in the place where a baby wouldn’t be.
I tried to adopt Kashani, otherwise known as Baby Star, aka “Alpha Doe,” according to the Oregon State Office for Services to Children and Families, known colloquially as SCF.
For months after Paul declined our request for sperm, I’d been dreaming of an abandoned baby. An anonymous stranger would vault us into parenthood by depositing an infant on our porch. We would buy some bottles at the supermarket and be mothers, just like that.
But my fantasies also had a professional component: Redbook magazine wanted me to write the chronicle of an abandoned baby, tracking the infant’s slow circuit through the child-welfare system. There had been a couple of such cases around the country–babies left in public bathrooms or on fire-station stoops–and my editor thought it would be interesting to examine one close-up.
In April, Elissa burst into my office with a copy of The Oregonian. An infant, her umbilical still moist and her body bundled in a gray sweatshirt, had been left on a chair outside the maternity ward of Legacy Emanuel Hospital. Police were trying to locate the mother. There was a picture: The nurses had pasted a pink bow in the infant’s coffee-colored hair and christened her “Baby Star.”
For the next five months, I visited Baby Star in her foster home once a week. The foster mother, Sherri, renamed her Kashani because it sounded more Indian. For a while, that’s all the police knew–that the baby was healthy, probably Indian and had been abandoned when she was just a few hours old.
On my visits to Sherri’s, I sometimes put down my notebook to stroke Kashani’s creamy brown skin or play peek-a-boo behind a couch pillow.
“See how she’s grown,” Sherri said. “Do you want to hold her?”
I found that I did. I desperately did. I didn’t want to give her back.
“I think we should adopt Kashani,” I told Elissa. “I think she’s meant to be our baby.”
I knew I was breaking rules. Journalists weren’t supposed to drop their pens and hold the baby. They weren’t supposed to become part of the story. Redbook was going to pay me $4,000 for my article on Baby Star; if we adopted her, could I still write the piece and collect the check?
I didn’t really care. Already I was envisioning Kashani’s crib, the OshKosh overalls I’d buy her, the curries and samosas we’d make to remind her of her roots.
“Are you sure?” Elissa said.
The police eventually found Kashani’s mother–not a scared teenager, but a woman in her thirties, married to a man who beat her and their two young sons. She’d wanted to spare her daughter. The hospital waiting room must have seemed a better option than her husband’s raging fist.
In the end, both mother and father relinquished their parental rights, and Kashani was adopted by a white, Christian, heterosexual couple who lived on the Oregon coast. The social worker told me that everyone–foster mom, adoptive parents, even he–cried on the day they took her.
The baby we finally had, on January 14, 2001, blurped out of Elissa’s body with a head of whorled dark hair, Aegean eyes and small, wiry limbs. We’d tried seven times to conceive, with sperm that arrived FedEx from California in a Styrofoam crate of dry ice. We thawed the tiny vial of semen in the same stainless-steel bowl we used to whisk up salad dressing. It was weirder than sea-monkeys: This is how you create a human being?
We knew our biology and had armed ourselves with ovulation predictor kits and temperature charts; still, our expensive, jet-setting sperm kept missing the mark. Each month, Elissa emerged from the bathroom, eyes wet, underwear stained crimson. And then, during a vacation, in the bathroom of a Savannah bed-and-breakfast, we watched our luck change. A bright blue line on the drugstore pee stick, pointing definitively toward parenthood.
How does anyone decide whether and when to have a child? And is “decide” even the right word? Biology and fortune, close calls, missed chances, long waits, thwarted attempts. Sometimes I think of the babies I didn’t have–not with regret, exactly, but with curiosity, the way I imagine what my life would have been if I’d gone to medical school or become an anthropologist. And then there is this baby, the one we made, the one who didn’t live in my womb but staked out real estate further north, my heart’s unfenced corner lot–a property, maybe, primed by the ones who almost lived there, before. There is this baby, the one who has come to feel inevitable, the center of my story: the one who didn’t get away.