Fourth and last in a series of essays about female identity. Previous posts explored this theme in the contexts of air, water, and earth.
It was snowing when I drove to the hospital, and it wouldn’t be daylight for another hour at least. The only person in the lobby was the woman at the information desk. She directed me to the laboratory down the hall, where I handed over my paperwork and sat down in the empty waiting room. On the wall-mounted TV, a news reporter announced that an escaped convict had been captured. He’d broken out of federal prison to visit his terminally ill mother.
The tech called my name and motioned me to the blood-draw chair. She asked what procedure would be having that morning. I looked over my shoulder; the waiting room was still empty. “Tubal ligation,” I said.
The end of an era. My entire post-pubescent life thus far had revolved around my reproductive ability, and could be separated into stages based on my maternal status. When I was single, I was desperately wanted and needed to not be pregnant. After my wedding, I desperately (and shockingly) wanted and needed to be pregnant—and I was for the better part of a decade thanks to six effortless conceptions. And when a miscarriage at age 33 triggered a year of mysterious infertility, I desperately wanted and needed to be pregnant again. Never did I know panic until I realized I might not bear the seventh child I sensed was mine. Never did I guess that within seconds of the birth of that seventh child, I would come full circle in my vow to evade future pregnancy at any cost.
I’d asked one thing of God throughout the long years of creating and producing and nourishing many babies: Please let me know when I’m done. I took the Mormon charge to multiply very seriously. The ferocious hunger to bear fruit, which suddenly surfaced just months after my wedding, was more potent and real than anything I’d felt. I was ravenous, and each baby that came was desired completely. But as I produced a passel of infants one by one, I began to wonder if the hunger would ever be sated. And as the demands of caring for these children exponentially increased, I began to worry that it wouldn’t. I couldn’t decide which was more terrifying: having more children than I could care for, or not having more children despite continuing hunger. Please, I prayed. Let me know.
And I did. I’d heard other women describe the phenomenon and, truth be told, I’d doubted its veracity. Truth be told, I’d figured it was just an excuse employed when a woman didn’t want any more children: “I feel my family is complete.” But when it happened to me, I understood. Before we knew the baby had Down syndrome, before we knew if he’d survive his 10-week premature birth, before we knew if he could even draw a breath, I knew it was over. The message to stop having babies was as overwhelmingly real and potent as the message to start.
But far more complicated.
I didn’t know what to do with this intuitive knowledge that my body could not and would not create any additional bodies. What action did that indicate on my part: a strict regimen of birth control? A strict regimen of faith that God would render me barren? I’d heard the folk doctrine more times than I could count: fertility was a function of God’s will. To the reckoning of some, it followed that birth control signaled a damning lack of faith. But the prospect of pregnancy had become so horrifying—so strangely horrifying, given how I’d long treasured that very capacity—that for the first time in my life, I didn’t care about anyone’s reckoning but God’s and my husband’s and my own.
It seemed simple enough: figure out what you want, seek confirmation from God, and if it comes, proceed. But I wanted something ludicrous. I didn’t just want to go on the pill or get an IUD or begin some other mostly-reliable method of birth control—I wanted to utterly obliterate my ability to reproduce. I wanted a permanent sterilization procedure: partial hysterectomy or tubal ligation. Maybe both, just to be safe.
At the same time, I was wary of my willingness—my eagerness—to gain that safety by surgically altering my reproductive organs, even if God approved. Especially if God approved. His permission to do something so drastic and controversial in Mormon practice felt suspect. So I waited, and prayed, and counseled with my husband. And I resolved to avoid any irreversible moves until I received an unimpeachable sign from God that I had his blessing.
It came months later on an ordinary evening, during the ordeal of getting a large quantity of small children ready for bed. Thomas, the youngest, was about nine months old. I was carrying him from my bedroom to the changing table in his bedroom, feeling exhausted by the demands of the day and defeated by the prospect of days upon days upon days of similar demands yet to come. I was utterly spent. In terms of my singularly female abilities, I’d given everything I had to give. Even if God commanded me to give more, I could not.
As I laid Thomas on the changing table, I laid out this truth for God to see, silent and wordless and humble. I have nothing left, I told him, nothing remaining inside to sacrifice or consecrate on the altar of maternity. And I needed to know if my offering was accepted. I needed to know the way the priests of Aaron knew that the slaughtered animal on the altar stones made a fitting sacrifice, the way the first apostles knew that their faith was not in vain: I needed to see my offering ignited by divine fire. I needed a body—my body—to burn.
And it did. With Thomas squirming half-naked on the table before me, I received an ineffable and indisputable witness: the fiery furnace of the presence of God. The heat of every nucleus of every cell bursting into flame.
Ask, and ye shall receive. I had the confirmation I wanted—not that God was directing me to have sterilization surgery, but that if I chose to do so he wouldn’t object. Even so, I waited several years to make that choice. At one point I let my doctor talk me out of a tubal ligation and into a vasectomy for my husband (less pain, less risk, less cost); I drove Reed home from the urologist with an ice pack between his legs, and tried to dismiss the nightmares that persisted even after he was certified sterile—nightmares of my womb swelling and splitting, of children I couldn’t love emerging from my body, red-faced and squalling. I stalled for years, afraid to make a mistake.
Then came the month that my period was late. Very late. I was irrationally and implacably terrified that Reed was one of the scant handful of men who reverted to fertility post-vasectomy. He was worried too, but far more calm. It’s obviously not what we planned, he said, but a baby is a good thing, right?
No. Not for me, not anymore. I took a pregnancy test: negative. I took another. I didn’t stop agonizing until the overdue bleeding finally began.
Not long afterward, I consulted another doctor. A woman, this time. She gave me my options, including a non-surgical in-office procedure. As she described it in detail, I saw myself on the exam table, feet in stirrups, groggy from valium as she forced my cervix open and pushed small metallic coils into my fallopian tubes. The scene made me shake. For its entire adult life, my body had turned itself inside out in the service of humankind—it would no longer tolerate such invasion, not even in a semi-conscious state.
Laparoscopy, then, the doctor said. A small incision through the abdomen. General anaesthesia.
Relief steadied my hand on the steering wheel when I drove home that afternoon, and again on my surgery date a few weeks later, when I drove to the hospital through the pre-dawn snow. It was a week after the death of my Yia Yia Christine, and a week before her name day on Christmas—a celebration of the birth of the Christ child as well as the births of all Greeks named for him. When I’d scheduled the procedure, I didn’t know that a phone call would soon summon me to the funeral of my last living grandparent. There, I heard the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom as I sat at the feet of the Theokotos, the Virgin Mother who carried Christmas in her womb.
Through you, pure and blessed Theotokos, may we find paradise.
After the results of my labwork were recorded on my chart, I donned a surgical gown, laid on a gurney, and closed my eyes as the nurse started an IV line. Once the drip started, she handed me a metal clipboard of release forms to sign. I paused, pen in hand. My first pregnancy had begun nearly two decades before, soon after I turned 21; my adult self was born in a birthing room nine months later. So, too, was my Mormon identity. Motherhood was the essence of Godhood. In the aftermath of my first miscarriage, I stood in the baby care aisle at Target and prayed. I want to be a mother again, I begged over and over and over. I want to be a mother forever. As I prayed I clutched a fleece baby blanket from one of the displays, divinely soft and cotton-candy pink, which I later bought as a token of hope.
The top release form was the same color as that blanket. Permanent sterilization, the heading warned. I signed my full name in consent. Then I waited for the nurse to leave so I could weep in private. I’d wanted to cry ever since that TV news clip about the escaped convict who needed to see his mother before she died. After his last goodbye, he surrendered to the authorities.
I was thoroughly damp when the nurse returned twenty minutes later to lift the brakes on the gurney wheels and guide me feet-first toward the operating room. She parked me in an alcove outside the OR and summoned the anesthesiologist. He asked me some questions and I nodded my head in response, unable to speak. At first he made a futile attempt to pretend I wasn’t crying. Finally he paused and asked if I was okay, and I nodded some more. I was definitely okay. And definitely not okay. But there was nothing to say about it—not to him, at least. I tried the prayer I’d offered from the beginning: Tell me if I’m done. Tell me it’s enough. I didn’t need the full fiery furnace in response, just a single lick of flame. One last confirmation. Please.
The nurse returned. “Ready?” she asked. I nodded, still weeping. She wheeled me into the operating room, parallel to the cold steely surface of its table. After locking the brakes, she turned to look me straight in the eye. You don’t have to do this, she said.
But I did. I knew what was at stake, and it was more than the emotional or mental or physical health I’d likely lose if I got pregnant again. It was something even weightier: my faith. Not my faith in God, which would remain in any case. Rather, faith in a stewardship fulfilled. Faith in the ability to choose wisely and well. Faith in myself.
I woke in the recovery room to the beeping of a heart monitor. My pierced navel was stitched shut and seeping blood—a maternal stigmas. No angels sang with cloven tongues; no devils laughed. The only still, small voice was my own. In the silence it spoke itself into being. It spoke of hearts redeemed, of bodies consumed and then glorified. It spoke of paradise, where the souls of mothers multiply and replenish themselves forever in the white flames of eternal burnings.
Let the incense burn in every room
See the fullness of time in the empty tomb
Feel the future kicking in your womb.
Thanks for doing these. They were beautiful.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.
Love you, KLS.
Thank you. It was such a strange and surprising thing when I prayed and felt the answer was, No more. And yet I had to reconcile it myself before going through the surgery–and I couldn’t do the coils. It had to be the surgery.
I knew the final installment was going to be impressive, but this was breathtaking. Remarkable. I can’t wait to see thes published as one piece.
Thanks. I tried to comment earlier and lacked the words.
Lovely, but terribly personal.
You don’t need my praise, Kathy. I want to say something to answer this that is more than I’m proud to be your friend. But I’ve got no answer to this, and I am proud to be your friend.
I’ve been thinking some on identity because of something you said. Who am I now? I am the being who experiences these things: son of God.
KLS, I’ve loved this series – incredibly poignant. I’m very grateful for your willingness to be vulnerable and share your experiences.
I’ll admit, I couldn’t relate to this particular post as I could to the others – which had nothing to do with the focus on bearing children, something I experience together with my wife in intimate, if not identical, ways (in fact, the exploration of whether and when to have our final child(ren) is a pressing matter for us now). But my revelatory, existential, and Mormon-normative experiences feel significantly different from what you describe. (Please note that this remark is emphatically not meant as a critique.)
Overall, I can’t help but think of your series – in a contrasting sort of way – as related to Klimt’s The Ages of Woman. Rather than a wholly naturalistic cycle – albeit one that might manifest the heavenly in that wholly immanent frame – you here portray not merely a theotokos but also a maternal apotheothis. Once again, thank you for sharing.
I appreciate the comments, everyone. I understand there’s not much to say in response to posts like this, and that’s okay. Your acknowledgment means a lot to me.
mmiles: Thank you. Glad to know I’m not the only one.
James: I’m a huge Klimt fan. Love your thoughtful remarks. I’m only beginning to realize just how wide the variation is when it comes to philosophical and spiritual experiences. I hope I get to read about some of yours. Point me in the right direction, or get writing!
Jack: Terribly personal, yes. There’s no other authentic way for me to write about these seminal experiences. I know you’re not the only reader who feels uncomfortable. Thanks for reading anyway.
Reed: Now we have a his-and-hers set!
Can we even imagine the feelings of a woman with no access to birth control who realizes her body and her life can support no more pregnancies?
This is beautiful. I’m wrestling with something along the same lines. Wanting more, but being sure that I simply and absolutely cannot handle more. It’s hard when it is yourself who makes those dreams impossible. I need that burning fire as well. Maybe it’s time to ask for it. Thank you so very much for the inspiration.
Thanks for this, Kathy. For me, moving away from the stage of mothering infants has been painful and depressing. (Not unlike the actual stage of mothering of infants, as it happens.) My ravenous baby hunger actually comforts me, since it identifies me with the (young, fertile, attractive, existentially mattering) young mother I was. Life seems to stretch ahead directionless and pointless without babies to look forward to. On the other hand, my mental health suuuuuucked for almost a year after my last baby, and it’s terrifying to think about putting the family through that again. (Terrifying, but not horrifying as it is for you. Terrifying but wildly desirable, for me.) I actually kind of hope for an unintended pregnancy, since I don’t think I’ll ever have the courage for another planned pregnancy. If it were unplanned, I wouldn’t have to take responsibility for the price it will exact from my other kids, but I’ll still get what I want. Irresponsible *and* selfish — sounds like I’m a great candidate for motherhood!
I have devoured your posts here. Also your published work. Thank you for all of it. I have especially loved this series, and on my sporadic visits to T&S I have skipped impatiently over other posts looking for yours, always finding myself hooked by the first few lyrical words.
This post made me think, as it did for Course Correction, of the luxury of having real options.
Mostly, though, it made me feel grateful that I believe, as you do, that God honors our roles as vessels, each with a different mission, including, for some, to remain physical empty. This message, I think, is as important to advocate as is access to birth control.
Kirsten, well said. Readers like you are a writer’s ultimate reward.
Robyn, may you find what you seek. Asking is scary, I know–and no possible answer is easy.
Course Correction: Your comment reminded me of a stunning/wrenching essay I read a while back in Signature’s mothering anthology, With Child. IIRC the essay title is “Pennywort, Cohosh, Rue.” Read it.
Rosalynde, given your gene pool and parenting legacy, I think you should have at least a dozen babies. I’m so not kidding.
Lovely. Thanks, friend.