by Jennifer Berney
Sourcebooks, 2021; 336 pp.; $15.63Buy Book
Jennifer Berney says that she writes to explore the “human state of longing.” Which is precisely what she does—and gorgeously so—in her recent memoir, The Other Mothers: Two Women’s Journey to Find the Family That Was Always Theirs. Observed with a scientific eye for detail and delivered in a melodic yet splendidly restrained voice, Berney’s narrative starts on a singular afternoon in her fifth-grade health class and ends in the near-present moment during which she resides with her partner and two children in Olympia, Washington. At its center, Berney’s book chronicles her lifelong desire to become a mother and the circuitous journey of intensity and intention it took to get there.
Like Berney, I imagined myself with babes in arms starting when I was still barely more than a babe in arms myself. I, too, found profound healing and alignment through the transformational forces of mothering. Finally, I, too, am endlessly fascinated by the human states of longing and desire and the ways in which those states intermingle with nostalgia, loss, and aloneness, all of which Berney examines and captures with tremendous acuity. Her narrative and the voice in which she so intimately delivers it reminds me of a word in the Portuguese language—saudade—which is untranslatable in English. It refers to a longing so deep it can consume you, eat you up. You can die of saudade. The word also contains that peculiar, unknowable longing you sometimes feel for the person beside you, or the place where already you are. Paradoxically, you can also feel saudade for a person you’ve never met, or a place you’ve never been. Saudade is complex, comprising both pain and beauty at once. Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo defines saudade as “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.” Berney’s memoir of her extended, arduous, and deeply thoughtful path to motherhood swells with the oceanic saudade of a woman who came of age already missing the baby she’d not yet had, and missing herself as the mother she’d not yet become.
Indeed, for Berney, motherhood felt so necessary, so non-negotiable, that—during the early years of marriage, when her partner, Kellie, didn’t feel as much certainty as Berney did about the idea of kids—Berney sometimes entertained a fantasy:
…one where Kellie and I have broken up and I’ve gone on to have a child with someone else. In this dream I’m in Kellie’s front yard—I’ve stopped by because I’m in the neighborhood. I have a two-year-old with big eyes and wild hair on my hip. The kid plays with the collar of my shirt while Kellie and I talk. It’s sunny out. Kellie and I stand ten feet apart. The distance between us crackles. We can’t quite meet each other’s eyes. In my fantasy, Kellie is looking at my child and thinking, I could have done that after all. But it is too late.
Of course, we know from the subtitle of Berney’s book—Two Women’s Journey to Find the Family That Was Always Theirs—Kellie ultimately comes around, and the couple enters into a multi-year path toward parenthood, during which the idea is for Berney to conceive via a sperm donor. But who will that donor be? And how, exactly, will Berney and her partner find him? Even once the couple decide on ten vials of cryogenically frozen sperm from donor 396, their favorite “donor match” from a San Francisco sperm bank (an agonizing decision for them, after having hoped and failed to hand-select a known donor), the process of becoming pregnant proves far more complicated than Berney had imagined:
I assumed I had a fertile body, that the desire I felt to bear a child was a chemical that traveled through my bloodstream, that it informed my eggs, my ovaries, my uterus. I assumed that in those dark places, everything was ripening, opening, preparing. I assumed that the moment semen entered my body, I would be instantly, irrevocably pregnant. I assumed that negotiations with Kellie would be the only obstacle between me and my future child.
Berney undergoes ten rounds of unsuccessful intrauterine insemination under the care of doctors who, judging by their dismissive, awkward, and at times outright derisive behavior, seem never to have served a queer couple before. Among other jarring moments, her provider diagnoses Berney with “male factor infertility” and, when she expresses concern after several failed inseminations, tells her to go to Baskin Robbins because she needs more “chub.” During the months of unsuccessful inseminations, Berney also visits a fertility specialist who becomes outraged to learn that Berney has not “tried for a full year,” even though she is not “trying” in the conventional heteronormative way, but, rather, undergoing intrauterine insemination at the precise moment of ovulation month after month. For a time, Berney considers adoption, but discovers that, too, is far more difficult and fraught a process than she had imagined. In an effort to improve her chances of conception, Berney tries acupuncture, practices superstition (if she wears black underwear, the blood won’t show, and if the blood doesn’t show, maybe it won’t be real), and creates diversions to distract herself when menstruation is imminent. None of these strategies work. She considers giving up. “I no longer believed in the inevitability of happy endings,” she writes. But the longing—the fathomless well of saudade she feels when she pictures her future child—never dissipates. Finally, she and Kellie—through a stroke of synergy that feels nearly magical—find a known sperm donor, and an entirely new chapter of their quest ensues. In some ways, this moment marks the start of a whole new story—dependent on the chapters that preceded it, yes, but also an entity unto itself, with a palpable uptick in urgency and energy: not unlike pregnancy and birth in their physical forms.
Berney’s approach to her memoir’s structure is traditional, with a chronological narrative that begins with a brief recounting of her first introduction to alternative baby-making:
I was twelve years old when I first heard the term test-tube baby—when my brain, for the first time, reckoned with the idea that doctors and outsiders could have a hand in conception, that one man and one woman sharing a bed was not the only way to make a child.
She then fast-forwards to her adult, married self, narrating her path to conception, birth, and early motherhood, the latter of which comprises the final third of the book. Within her breathtakingly detailed and tonally precise personal narrative, Berney intersperses fascinating and at times jarring—alarming, even—research on the history of fertility and the LGBTQ+ community, as well as some lesser-known chapters in the evolution of gynecology and obstetrics, such as the true story behind the 1845 invention of the speculum by J. Marion Sims, who is widely considered the “father of modern gynecology,” (hint: it’s disturbing). These researched strands create an almost braided narrative, not dissimilar to, though not as experimental as, Maggie Nelson’s heavily annotated and triumphant memoir, The Argonauts, which investigates questions of desire, identity, and the limitations and possibilities of love and language while unfurling the personal story of Nelson’s relationship and family-making with the artist Harry Dodge. The Other Mothers also brings to mind Carmen Maria Machado’s fierce and brilliant (and also more experimental in structure) memoir, In the Dream House, which fastidiously examines a concept Machado calls “archival silence,” or the idea that certain histories—in this case, queer domestic abuse—escape the cultural record.
On its surface, Berney’s book might seem not to break as much new ground, topically, as the aforementioned memoirs. At least, I didn’t expect it to. But I was wrong. Even as the mother of two queer daughters, one of whom is also nonbinary, I found myself continually surprised and outraged by the machinations of patriarchy expressed through our medical-industrial complex, especially in the context of Berney’s queerness, but, also, in the simple context of her womanhood—and, in the end, her basic humanity. And that, her humanity—and the finely carved sentences she embroiders to portray it to us in its most exposed and openly longing state—kept me rapt throughout.