What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting
Days before my wedding, my grandmother pulled me aside. “Listen,” she said. “Kids aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.”
We stood in the hallway of my childhood home, halfway between my bedroom and hers. I was taller than her and could see pink spots of scalp through her thinning white hair.
She gripped my hand. “You don’t have to have them.” Her voice was strong, firm. Her earnestness told me that this was an important message.
“I’m not planning on kids anytime soon,” I said. I was twenty-two. The idea of kids horrified me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. How could I have a kid?
She said it again and I felt a bit insulted for my mother and myself. I didn’t need this reminder. I knew that having kids before I had a career would be hard work. Neither my fiancé nor I was ready for them. We were rational people. We did not make decisions lightly.
Wait, wait, wait, my family told me. Society, too. Figure out your own life first and then let the reproducing begin. I listened. I waited, planning on making that decision when life felt settled, when I had things figured out and under control. I was twenty-two when I married; my husband was twenty-eight. We had time.
My husband’s family breeds. While I grew up with four cousins total, my husband has over twenty. His extended family could field a football team—second-string players and all. But his immediate family abstained from children. My husband’s siblings—an older brother and sister—will not have kids, but my in-laws wanted grandbabies. Desperately. My womb was their last hope.
A few years after we married, my husband and I went with his parents to one of his cousin’s birthdays. It was summer. It was the desert. It was hot.
We rang the doorbell and were greeted by a woman holding a baby. My mother-in-law cooed. Baby! She took the child, holding it to her chest, and rocked it back and forth. She held the baby up to me, and I was face to face with a six-month-old. The baby didn’t look too pleased, either.
“Look, Rebecca,” my mother-in-law said. “Isn’t he cute?” She held the baby closer, dangling the child in my face like a strip of bacon for a dog.
“I sure would like to have one,” she said.
I had just accepted a graduate teaching position. In a few months’ time, I’d be moving across the country. “I have to give birth to a master’s degree first,” I said, edging away to find the snacks table.
My in-laws understood the education. They agreed that having an infant while trying to get a graduate degree would be less than ideal. But they were running out of patience. “I’m going to have one foot in the grave by the time you give me a grandbaby,” my mother-in-law said.
Six years after my wedding I asked for water at a Christmas party.
“Are you pregnant?” a friend responded. “You’re pregnant!”
I wasn’t. But for the first time in eleven years, I was off birth control. The only other person who knew was my husband. Even so, I fielded questions about my womb the entire night. I was not yet thirty; I was in my last year of graduate school, and I was about to start a teaching career. But all of that was overshadowed once I reached “baby season.” At all times, babies and procreation were in the air. Suddenly ads about childcare and BPA-free bottles littered my Facebook page instead of cute dresses or deals on yoga.
A few weeks after the Christmas party, a friend gave me What to Expect When You’re Expecting. “I know you’re not pregnant yet,” she said. “I just figured I’d give it to you now. I don’t need it anymore, and I’ve been trying to unload it, but I’m always too late. This is the first book a woman buys when she’s pregnant.” She handed the book to me, the weight of six hundred pages sitting in my purse like a brick.
The book sat on the bookshelf in my bedroom, a multi-colored sign of things that might come. Emphasis on the word might. Like many women of my generation, I put off having children. I waited, hoping I’d feel secure in life, trying to figure myself out and get my life in order before deciding if I wanted to bring more of my DNA into this world. The problem was that all of this waiting never resulted in any major revelations. I knew who I was, and I knew what I wanted to do professionally, but I didn’t know how that would happen. I felt the urge to settle and nest in my bones, and then I felt guilty for not knowing all the answers.
A month before that Christmas party, I made cookies in my kitchen in West Virginia. As I dropped the chocolate chip dough onto the sheet, I listened to a podcast featuring Dr. Drew Pinsky and the comedian Adam Carolla. It was a call-in show, a digital version of their old radio show Loveline.
In my kitchen, as the butter and sugar creamed, John from Houston called in. “I’m thirty-three and my wife and I have been trying to make the babies for about a year or so. We’re just at the beginning of talking to the doctors, doing the tests, but it seems like a lot of people in my peer group are having the same problems, so I was curious if this was some kind of trend.”
I checked on my butter. It wasn’t smooth. I kept the mixer on. Poor guy, I thought.
Adam chimed in saying that we were all waiting too long.
And then Dr. Drew spoke, “Thirty-two is when it starts to drop fast. Thirty-five, it’s a cliff.”
I froze. My face grew hot. My husband was thirty-five. Apparently his sperm were on the precipice of disaster.
I added the eggs, trying to push aside the information, trying not to fully believe Adam and Dr. Drew’s discussion about their own decisions to wait, that both men had to use fertility treatments. The price of putting families on hold for careers. I added the flour, the chocolate chips. I dished out cookie dough as they went on and on about the risks of waiting, as Adam and Dr. Drew joked about the dehumanizing treatment of males at a fertility clinic.
I put the cookies in the oven.
As my cookies baked, I Googled. Always a bad idea. The oven clicked behind me as I typed in search terms: “Sperm 35,” “Pregnancy 30s,” and “Sperm Cliff.” On WebMD, I read about my ovaries’ lifespan. The news was disheartening. Article after article, all recent, cited studies about the problems of waiting to have kids. The odds of autism and Down Syndrome skyrocketed. The general consensus: while society has evolved to encourage people to wait to have children, our bodies are still caught in the Neolithic Age.
“Bad news,” I said, pointing to my husband’s crotch when he returned home. “There’s a time limit. You’ve reached it. We’ve got to get this started if we’re going to do it.”
“We have time,” he said.
“We don’t,” I said. “It could be too late. What if it’s too late?”
“Then we won’t have kids. We’ll have money.” He grinned.
“Seriously though, this needs to happen soon.” And then we let the conversation drop. This was how we discussed the issue: circling around like wrestlers. We didn’t want to wade into tricky territory. I wanted kids, but when my husband pressed me for a reason why, I couldn’t provide an answer beyond “I just do,” like a child with an unusually demanding Christmas list. That was the root of our debate: there is no logical reason for a child; it’s biological and emotional. Even if you can see the biology swaying your decisions, it doesn’t make the desire go away. And when pressed, my husband felt the same way as I did. He, too, felt the urge for a child, but like me, he couldn’t list a “good” reason. We were just too practical, so we waited, hoping the issue would work itself out, and then Dr. Drew made his fated announcement about the sperm cliff.
At the time, my husband and I had two cats. Both of them were strays. They found their way to our porch and stuck around because we gave them food. We wanted a dog, too. We’d been talking about one for years. Some nights, I sat on the couch and browsed shelters nearby, holding up pictures of puppies that needed our love. If it was a bulldog we’d name him Winston. But we didn’t get a dog. We put it off because dogs were major life decisions and it wasn’t a good time. We traveled back to California a few times a year. We worked long hours. A dog would be impractical. So we didn’t get one. We reasoned ourselves out of it.
I saw this and wondered, how the hell could we manage a baby? My husband had just started a new career and I was about to enter the job market. While my husband loved his job, it was tied to the energy industry. It would not last forever. While I knew that I wanted to teach, I also knew my dream of a tenure-track job might not be possible. Besides, academia isn’t exactly mother-friendly. Many jobs aren’t. I knew that the decision to have a child would complicate my professional life and it was fragile enough already. On top of it all, my husband and I didn’t know where we’d be living in five years. We paid out of pocket for health insurance. Shouldn’t we have our lives figured out by now, we wondered. Wasn’t that the promise: wait, be responsible, work hard, and things will fall into place?
“The time is never right for a baby,” friends told me. While most of my friends didn’t have children, a few were starting to get their genetic ducks in a row, preparing for the baby-making phase of their lives.
“Yes, but,” I said.
“No, it’s never right. You’ll never have enough saved. You’ll never be prepared.”
You’ll never. You’ll never. You’ll never. You just have to do it.
I could picture myself pregnant. I could picture myself with a child, but I couldn’t picture myself sitting down and saying, “Okay, now. Now is the right moment.”
I wanted a baby to show up like a cat on the porch.
So my husband and I sat down and talked about birth control. My university gave its students a year’s supply of birth control and my appointment was coming up. I had been taking the pill for eleven years and had begun to feel like a barn animal all shot up with hormones. Plus, the sperm cliff loomed in my mind. While we might not actively try for a baby, my husband and I were okay if one just happened to land in my uterus.
On Christmas Day, my husband and I stood in front of his parents. “We have one last gift,” we said to them. “We’ve decided to go off birth control.” We joked about writing it in a card. It felt appropriate. His parents wanted our offspring more than they wanted a new knife block.
As to be expected, they were excited. Later, my mother-in-law said, “Try to make it happen by my birthday.” Her birthday was in January. She smiled. “I’m just joking. I know that’s soon…but let’s make it happen quick, okay?”
My best friend was also on the road to procreating. She’d been meeting with her doctor to discuss her strategy for getting knocked up. She told me this over lunch. “We aren’t going to actively start trying for another year,” she said. “We’re getting my body ready first.”
“Ready?” I asked.
“Yeah, you know. Vitamins, figuring out my ovulation.”
I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t even thought of prenatal vitamins. I ate a fry.
She reminded me that we were already older than we should be for peak fertility. Our bodies needed to prepare.
I ate a lot more fries. Her whole pregnancy plan overwhelmed me. It felt as if getting pregnant was just another thing a woman should do perfectly. I started doing research: Don’t drink during the second half of your cycle. Take the vitamins months before conception. Cut down on stress. But, of course, keep working, and don’t tell anyone at your place of employment about your plans. You know how those things can affect your career.
Months went by and my womb was still childfree. While we hadn’t officially started actively trying, we were definitely being less careful about timing. I couldn’t stop thinking about the sperm-cliff. I Googled “trying to conceive” and read about all the things that might reduce fertility. Everything, it seemed—cell phone towers, shower curtain liners, canned beans—could cause something to go amiss. And each month, the questions edged farther in my mind: What if I can’t? What if something’s wrong? How far were we willing to go? What if it wasn’t meant to be?
In April that year, three of my best friends—Carrie, Jessica, and Sarah—and I video chatted. We all had jobs and busy schedules, and after trying for a month, we found a time when we could meet. Our voices threaded across the country as we raced to fill each other in on our lives. I complained about being exhausted from graduate school. Sarah complained about working sixteen-hour shifts while getting her masters in aeronautical engineering.
“We should say something good,” Sarah said.
“I’m pregnant,” Carrie said.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said, and we screamed, waving our hands in the air, a cyber Bob Fosse Broadway routine.
“Why didn’t you interrupt me?” I asked. “Your news is way more interesting than my thesis.”
And then we peppered her with questions and coordinated baby shower dates. And while I couldn’t stop grinning for my friend, I felt my stomach shift, too, as my question crept nearer and nearer—What if that will never be me?
We moved on to baby names, and soon, it was time to say goodbye. I had to catch up on grading. After we hung up, uncertainty hung on me like a bathrobe. I felt it on my heels as I walked down the stairs. It stuck on my soles like a piece of gum.
My husband washed dishes.
“Carrie’s pregnant,” I said.
He stopped. “What?”
“She’s pregnant. I knew it.” I smiled, but I turned away and leaned against the counter, looking out at our backyard. Spring was just beginning to arrive. Robins rooted in our compost. “What if that’s never us?” I asked. The question hung in the air. “What if it’s too late?”
“It’ll be fine,” my husband said. But he didn’t answer the question.
I filled a glass with water and drank by the window. Outside, the birds stole bits of insulation from our garage. They flew back and forth, their beaks full of pink fluff as they got ready for spring.
Rebecca Thomas‘s work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, ZYZZYVA, The Massachusetts Review, among other places, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is the senior editor for Ms. Aligned 3 and is a fiction reader for Guernica. She received her MFA from West Virginia University. She lives with her family in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she teaches writing. You can learn more about her work and current projects at rebeccathomaswrites.com